Restaurants Put Branding Directly on Their Food to Win Instagram
Everything from ice to ramen has a logo on it now.
Consider this a response to the hyper-artisanal world we live in.
Or perhaps an extension of it, the next step in bespoke products.
Restaurants around the country are taking branding—which, in the past, has appeared on everything from matchbooks to mini-bottles of house hot sauce—and moving it front and center on the plate. While you might previously have seen a personalized burger bun at mini-chains such as Umami Burger or Burgerfi, it’s now increasingly common to see a cocktail, a bowl of pasta, or a tuna steak with the name of a restaurant emblazoned on it.
Take, for instance, the new E.A.K. Ramen in New York, the second U.S. outpost of a popular Japanese chain. The nori is printed—with the logo of a ramen bowl and the restaurant name—using a patented technology from Japan. According to Jimmy Matsushima, managing director of E.A.K., the idea was to gain attention in a market that didn’t know the chain. (In Asia, it owns 40 ramen shops and consults for 400 others.) “We wanted to do something dramatic,” he said. “And the lettering is made with calcium, so we can tell people that eating our name is good for them.” Though E.A.K. doesn’t yet have numbers that indicate the success of the branding effort, its Instagram page has garnered over 3,000 followers in a few months. Most of the pictures and comments are devoted to the logo-ed ramen. Moreover, Matsushima noted, servers constantly get requests for additional nori sheets they can take home.
Meanwhile at Dante, a revitalized bar also located in New York, co-owner Naren Young swears by the power of branding his ice cubes and drinks. A special stamp marks the ice for old fashioneds, and a stencil inscribes "Dante" in Angostura bitters spray on top of each whiskey sour. “We all know we live in an Instagram world, and the competition between bars is hotter than ever,” he noted. “Each place needs a way to captivate people and get them talking about you. It is, after all, free publicity.” The old fashioned and the whiskey sour are easily his two biggest sellers, said Young.
Many establishments are in tune with this logic. Here's a sampling of places where you won’t forget the name of the place at which you’re eating and drinking.
For some people, ingredient branding is a new-ish phenomenon that has everything to do with social media. But Masaharu Morimoto has been thinking about it for years: At Momosan Ramen, his first ramen-focused restaurant, the star chef adds logo-ed nori to the namesake dish. He says his inspiration goes back decades, to a ramen shop in Japan he visited nearly 30 years ago that employed the technique. (As a sushi expert, Morimoto works with a lot of seaweed, and he realized it wouldn’t be hard to create a customized one for his New York restaurant. Not that he's blind to the benefits of Instagram and Facebook; he also noted that almost every other social media post from the restaurant is of a bowl of ramen with the logo prominently displayed.)
In 2015, Washington’s power food couple, Fabio and Maria Trabocchi, were in Alba, Italy, for a wedding. There, they discovered a version of the coin-sized stamped pasta corzetti. Now, at their six-month-old pasta-focused spot, Sfoglina, there’s a dish of corzetti that's stamped with the restaurant’s name and sauced with white pork ragu. According to Trabocchi: “Even in Italy, finding a craftsman to produce the traditional corzetti stamp is already a challenge.” Still, after further research, they found Fillippo Romagnoli in Chianti, who created a custom stamp you can see on Sfoglina’s facebook page.
In the Dream Hotel in New York, the reopened Megu offers seared, sliced tuna katsu. The top slice features the restaurant's name and logo seared into the rare center of the fish with a hot branding iron. The effect is compelling: It resembles a flashy piece of jewelry (appropriate to the Meatpacking District neighborhood). Owner Jon Bakhshi said the name-checking is to make the meal more memorable. "The Megu experience has always been known as over the top, so we needed to go big and came up with the idea to brand the food." Bakhsi continued: "We tried it on many dishes, but the tuna and the steak work best, and the branding creates an extra char for texture. We don't mix fish and meat,- so have two branding irons so the flavor from one doesn't transfer to the other."
At Dante in Greenwich Village, voted 34th among the World's 50 Best Bars, the branding of drinks takes several guises. A couple of years ago, Naren Young started branding ice for his much-heralded old fashioned. Then he decided to stencil the name of the house's whiskey sour. “More and more places are doing this,” said Young. “Many bartenders will act like they've seen it all before. But we don't create these moments for other bartenders. We do them for the 99 percent of our guests who would have never seen details like this—details that create what I call holy s--- moments.”
For cocktail expert Kevin Diedrich, founder of Pacific Cocktail Haven in San Francisco, branded ice represented one more step towards ice perfection. “We’ve been branding our ice since we opened in July,” he related. “Perfectly clear and clear cut ice has always been a staple of mine, but I wanted to step it up and make the ice not so boring.” Last year, Diedrich did a guest bartending stint in Singapore at which the stamping of ice brought him inspiration. “It’s definitely a conversation starter when guests see us brand the ice in front of them. And then another one when they have the drink in front of them—a definite Instagram moment.”
For their first joint project, Voltaggio Brothers Steak House, star chefs and siblings Bryan and Michael Voltaggio collaborated on a steak house at Maryland's MGM National Harbor, right outside Washington. For the first time in their restaurant histories, they decided to shout out their name. It’s not branded onto a hearth-baked rib-eye or t-bone. Rather, it’s stenciled on top of a Clover Club cocktail made with Old Tom gin and raspberry syrup in brick-colored letters. Said beverage director Dane Nakamura: "Growing up in D.C., I got really into the underground punk and hip-hop, and graffiti was always connected to that scene. Now a lot of us are cooking and making drinks; it's a natural progression to graffiti what you're working on."