It’s hard to say what makes a restaurant the kind of place that makes a person want to linger for hours, that’s perfectly comfortable and aspirational all at once. It’s a warm, inviting atmosphere that feels stylish and relaxed — and it’s impossible to put a finger on. That’s because it’s really a thousand little things combined that define a restaurant’s brand.
“We think of the brand as being the personality of the restaurant,” says MK Paynter, Brand Manager at McGuire Moorman Hospitality.
MMH is a management group that operates some of Austin’s most beloved concepts, including Perla’s, Lambert’s, Elizabeth Street Cafe, Clark’s, Josephine House, and Jeffreys. Each restaurant is distinctive in their food and aesthetics, but they are united by clear vision and an exceptional taste level.
We talked to MK to learn more about MMH’s approach to branding and how they’ve created sophisticated, successful restaurants that feel uniquely Austin.
Start with the menu.
Every new concept from MMH begins with the menu. Founders and partners Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman talk about the food and write out sample menus, which they rework again and again before settling on a final version.
From there, they begin to think about the influences that go into the food and how they can be portrayed visually and, ultimately, create the ideal atmosphere. Then the concept gets rolling, and it’s all about the details. Larry worked with a design agency called FÖDA to create the original concepts and brand identities for the MMH restaurants, which went on to inform the interior design.
Look for inspiration everywhere.
The MMH team travels constantly to New York, Los Angeles and beyond. Inspiration for colors, design and font treatments for the restaurants comes from those experiences. The team brings cool items that strike them into the office to share, and they’re always talking about their latest inspirations. “Those details usually end up finding their way into the restaurants at one point or another,” says MK.
For example, Tom came up with the concept for Elizabeth Street Cafe — a marriage of French pastries and fresh, inventive Vietnamese plates in a charming Austin bungalow — after he got home from a cruise. The food was terrible on the cruise, but he discovered a separate menu for the line’s Asian cruises that had a Singapore noodle dish he ended up eating every day. He began thinking about the menu for a hybrid French-Asian restaurant, and Elizabeth Street was born.
Consider every detail.
After deciding on the food and atmosphere they want to create, the MMH team hones in on the details. Larry and Tom turn to the Beverage Director to build out the wine list; the Creative Director to think about uniforms and music; and to MK to explore branding. The Creative Director, Ryan Smith, curates unique, ever-evolving playlists for each restaurant and also designs custom uniforms for each concept that are tailored to each server. MMH works with FÖDA on the graphic design for the restaurants.
“We believe that the environment happens by 1,000 details coming together in the right way,” says MK. “We’re hyper-focused on those little details; that’s a hallmark of our restaurants.”
Dedicate a team to branding.
MMH is a management group, so the company doesn’t actually own any of the restaurants. That helps them streamline processes around branding and adopt a birds-eye view of the restaurants, instead of getting bogged down in the day-to-day operations. They can stay focused on the concept itself.
The MMH team meets weekly with the managers of each restaurant to review numbers, and also to talk about what’s working and not working in terms of operations. They also use that time to brainstorm creatively with the individual teams about areas for improvement or new fun projects to try.
MK says, “A lot of restaurants can get kind of stale, and having that regular check-in and constantly trying to come up with ideas and ways to keep the restaurants feeling fresh and new — it keeps it dynamic.”
Let it evolve.
Just as the brand comes together organically, from many different influences and owners, it continues to live organically and take on a life of its own. While the identity must be maintained, MK says they also allow it to grow and change dynamically and authentically. “That’s what keeps people coming back.”
Staying relevant and competitive is key, and the restaurants evolve in order to stay on-point. At Perla’s, for example, the team was inspired by a New England-style vibe. In the beginning servers wore Vineyard Vines uniforms, but the direction has since shifted to feel less preppy and more nautical, with striped boat shirts and denim – more cool and casual overall.
MK explains: “We always want our servers to look like the best-dressed people walking around in Austin.”
Engage guests across brands.
In August, MMH held a “Burger Challenge” in which guests were challenged to eat the burgers at all six restaurants. The incentive? A $50 gift card for hitting all of them in a month, and a $250 gift card for doing it in a week. The person who ate the most burgers of anyone received a friends-and-family discount for a year.
The response was huge: 1,600 people completed the seven-day challenge, and the restaurants were churning out 150 burgers a day. With the #MMHburgerchallenge hashtag, they received real-time feedback from guests. The announcement post on Instagram alone got more than 300 comments.
“People in Austin went totally nuts for it, and our restaurants were packed,” says MK. “August is traditionally a fairly slow month, so the traffic was just through the roof.”
Be an authority on your city.
Having distinctive concepts in different neighborhoods allows MMH to reach new customers across all of their brands. Lambert’s is a favorite for the downtown crowd; tourists love Perla’s on South Congress. Jeffreys is in a quiet neighborhood, catering to locals. Until recently, many people didn’t know they were managed by the same company.
MK worked with a local illustrator to create a map of Austin, highlighting all of the MMH brands as well as some of the team’s other favorite spots in town. It was printed in heavy cardstock, like a collectible – something people would want to put in their back pockets and take home. That’s in keeping with the theme of all the MMH brands, which MK describes as “laidback sophistication.”
“We wanted to show people hey, if you’re going to do Austin, here’s the experience that we think you should have,” she says. “The way that comes to life in a lot of our collateral is keeping things feeling very relaxed, never being too sales-y, never being too pushy about anything. We try to make it sort of cool and editorial and maybe a little bit aspirational.”
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Street Cafe images by Casey Dunn; other photos courtesy of MMH Hospitality.