Scott Taylor is the president & COO of Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar.
Growing a restaurant brand to its full potential is a milestone most businesses hope to achieve. It's a journey that requires constant innovation and evolution, and something to continuously strive toward. And while the benefits of rapid growth are immense, it is important to first evaluate if your brand’s identity is strong enough to take the leap.
Amid growth, brand values and standards should remain consistent throughout every location in order to create a more cohesive culture. Sometimes, this requires taking a hard look in the mirror and identifying your brand’s strengths and weaknesses to pinpoint opportunities for improvement before you set fire to rapid expansion. Research shows clear links between strong brand identity and increased success. Below are several tips on how to strengthen your restaurant’s identity to maximize potential and profits.
Find a focus and let it guide you
The first step in building a strong brand identity is to take stock of what your business is known for — what keeps guests coming back time and time again. Make it a point to welcome feedback from guests on what they think about their experience while also taking note of popular food and drink items that grow sales. After pinpointing the menu items that are driving your restaurant’s profitability, it may be necessary to shift your focus. A food driven restaurant should focus on filling their menu with innovative staples, while a bar and lounge should prioritize building out their drink list.
For example, nearly 70% of Walk-On’s sales are from food orders vs. drink orders; a rarity in the industry, but it wasn’t always this way. After making the decision to prioritize food, our team buried the old menu — this is actually a running joke within the team, because we literally dug a graveyard for our food to symbolize the change. We then filled it with items like voodoo shrimp, blackened mahi-mahi and bayou pasta, offerings that go beyond what would be expected at a typical sports bar.
Whatever the case, keeping the lines of communication open between your leadership team and guests will help shape your restaurant’s focus, and be a key indicator on how you want to move forward in strengthening certain aspects of your brand.
Rely on authenticity to drive your identity
There are several characteristics that are essential for brands to develop a loyal following — authenticity is one of them — but building a genuine brand takes time. Whether you’re looking to strengthen your ambience or menu, a brand’s identity must be felt throughout all aspects of the overall guest experience. For businesses looking to hone their menu, it’s imperative to build the menu alongside experienced chefs to collaboratively create a concept that gives a brand a unique and authentic identity.
When building the Walk-On’s concept to what it is today, the team wanted to craft a menu highlighting the brand’s roots: a love for the game while honoring its Louisiana heritage. But, even if the focus of your brand is food, brand authenticity shouldn’t stop there. With an authentic menu in place, it’s time to make sure brand identity is also present in customer service, ambience and design. We allowed the theme of the menu to permeate throughout the entire restaurant atmosphere by infusing southern hospitality into our service standards. No matter the Walk-On’s location, the moment a guest enters the restaurant, they should feel as though they’ve been transported to Baton Rouge, complete with comfort food and welcoming service.
Build out your team
Shaking up a brand’s identity can leave existing team members reeling if they don’t feel supported or equipped to handle the change. To get ahead of this, recruit additional leadership to help with rolling out the adjusted brand identity and strategy. Building out your leadership team will add fresh perspectives and new experience to your team’s overall skillset. These are the exact steps Walk-On’s took when changing course from the sports bar environment to an unparalleled dining experience. It started with onboarding Mike Turner — known as Chef Mike to the team — to overhaul the menu. Chef Mike joined the Walk-On’s team five years ago and reworked the menu into what guests see today. He helped expand The Cheesecake Factory internationally before working as Director of Culinary at Copeland’s of New Orleans. His experience has driven our food-focused brand forward and has helped us continually win over guests.
It’s important to be selective in your recruiting process as you need a qualified individual that both understands the task at hand and feels comfortable when given creative freedom. Likewise, it’s important the rest of your existing leadership team is on board with brand changes as any pushback may negatively impact team moral and culture, two components that help create a strong brand. It’s also worth noting that if elevating the quality of food is a goal, identifying food suppliers that can routinely provide quality ingredients is a must. The idea is to find a supplier that both understands your brand and is excited to grow as business expands — a long term partnership that will help with quality control, consistency and reliable service.
Develop and execute a realistic plan
Formulating an actionable plan with a strict timeline will hold team members accountable and help to roll out brand changes smoothly. And, communication via regularly scheduled meetings and check-ins is critical throughout execution. The plan should include revamping marketing materials and messaging, serving up complimentary new menu items to guests for feedback, making sure the ambience continues to fit with brand identity and finally adjusting training processes for all team members accordingly.
Revisiting the plan in depth every few months is another great way to keep your leadership team on track. The Walk-On’s leadership team meets twice a year at an off-site location so that we’re able to focus all of our energy on future planning with minimal distractions. We refer to these as our “Blackhawk” meetings and they’ve continued to prove helpful as we expand.
While the prospect of business growth is exciting, owners should be strategic in building the proper foundation and infrastructure for development. Even more, it takes a dedicated and focused team as part of a strong culture to expand with integrity. By finding a focus, sticking to your roots, recruiting experienced talent and following a strict roll-out strategy, restaurant owners can feel confident in their decision to grow knowing they have a strong brand behind them, one that will endure years of operation and expansion.