Altro Paradiso "Take Me Home Box." Image credit: Sarah Duffy.

Restaurant branding as we think of it today, with its cookbooks, T-shirts, and Bic Clic pens, can be traced back to 2010. That year, two things happened: Instagram launched, and GQ style editor Adam Rapoport took over as editor-in-chief at Bon Appétit. With the new hire, Condé Nast’s flagship food publication reworked completely refreshed its visual strategy to become a lifestyle magazine. Instagram made every meal into a photo op. What connects these twin shifts (one of which has notably outlasted the other) is an emphasis on the setting in which food is served as opposed to just the taste of it.

Amy Morris, founder and creative director at The Morris Project and co-recipient of the James Beard restaurant design award, tells me that the start of the decade was an inflection point that made brand identity a priority for restaurants, and says that its importance has only continued to grow. While the experience of eating out has always had a material bend, the idea that a restaurant’s merits could be conveyed by sharing an image rather than booking a reservation, is relatively new.

Restaurants today are not merely a place to eat food. Like many things these days, they’re lifestyle brands onto themselves. In recent years, that’s meant that meals are accompanied by a number of carefully chosen details, from elaborate floral displays to Aesop soap to matchbooks. Yet now that COVID-19 has made dining-in more difficult in most states and zapped the narrow margins of the food and drink industry (a recent survey from the National Restaurant Association estimates a loss of $120 billion in sales during the first three months of the crisis) restaurants have been playing up the off-menu aspects of their business. Some have leaned on sales of merch to offset the loss of full service, while others have broadened their offerings into prepared foods, pantry items, and virtual cooking classes. Restaurants that have been able to remain open for delivery and takeaway orders (and increasingly, reopen for outdoor dining) have relied on disposable design collateral to evoke their brand and stay top-of-mind through word-of-mouth and user generated content online. Translating a restaurant’s brand—a unique combination of hospitality, food, décor, and general, for lack of a better term “vibe”—for remote dining is a challenge, and some interesting solutions are introducing an expanded vocabulary for visual identities in the restaurant world.  

Restaurants have been playing up the off-menu aspects of their business.

In the absence of a dining room, custom accessories (like clever to-go cups and minimalist grocery labels) have served as touch-points that distinguish one batch cocktail or meal kit from the other. Nick O’Brien, founder of Templi, an online print shop specializing in brand identity for bars and restaurants, says he’s seen an uptick in demand for things like branded tape, stickers, and bags as restaurants start to rely on sophisticated design to bring that tony Michelin star feeling home. For fine dining establishments whose meals seldom break the tight circuit from kitchen to hand-crafted plate, adapting to takeout and delivery is especially important. These restaurants know their food is delivered via the same third-party platforms everyone else uses, but they don’t want it to look like takeout from just anywhere. Instead, something inherently inexpensive (a box, a paper bag) needs to emit the “elevated aesthetic” carefully engineered in the physical spaces through the use of lighting, color, upholstery, furniture, and tableware. 

Missy Robbins grocery bag, courtesy Misi.

When you see eye-catching designs, full-color, printing all over — those tend to come from large production runs. Manufacturers often require a high minimum order to offset the setup costs for complex products. But right now, O’Brien says, owners are moving nimbly, buying plain, in-stock items, and then finding ways to customize and “dress them up.” Half-stock hamburger sacks, which clients can brand themselves with rubber stamps, have been particularly popular, along with takeaway bags and cold cups. One of O’Brien’s favorite projects he’s printed in the past few months are grocery bags, designed by Becky MacGregor Clark for chef Missy Robbins. (Robbins transformed her Brooklyn restaurant, Misi, which is currently closed to diners, into an online grocery store with weekly pickups.) The bags are standard issue Kraft paper, but what distinguishes them from those of say, Whole Foods, is the white hot stamp logo. It’s a high/low combination that makes the items corralled inside feel like a collection. Across the country in Seattle, chef-owner Edouardo Jordan’s Junebaby has been offering a similar “weekly CSA” program since March, which combines branded in-house products like salad dressing and homemade bacon, with produce from their suppliers and pantry items like local flour. Recently the restaurant has also branched out into packages that include cookware, like a sourdough kit that comes with starter and a Le Creuset Dutch oven.

Jamie Skrocki, director of partnerships and events at Matter House, the New York restaurant group that includes Altro Paradiso and estela, tells me that the team had never offered takeaway before the lockdown came to New York. The group’s first experience with meal delivery was preparing large-scale (about 300 a week) orders for frontline workers. Getting into the rhythm of packing those meals with a skeleton team led chef and owner, Ignacio Mattos, to start thinking about how to connect with their community of regulars. The result was the “Take Us Home” box: corrugated cardboard, lined with a sheet of blue and white checkered sandwich paper, filled with a weekly selection of twelve to fifteen items ranging from entrees (swordfish with preserved lemon), to desserts (panna cotta) to pantry items (glass jars of homemade marmalade labeled with Manila shipping tags). 

Eating out and ordering in are often some of the first things people cut out when money gets tight.

Branding like this goes beyond the logo to consider what other personal elements restaurants can use that “create a moment” (to use Morris’ terminology) for patrons at home. Chef-owner Mailea Weger of lou, an all-day café in Nashville located in a converted Craftsman bungalow, had that feeling in mind when she was developing her “picnic sacs.” Weger sourced French net market bags online and used them to house a bottle of natural wine and rotating menu of small bites in labeled containers. Customers could take them to-go, set up on the lawn, or eat at a reserved, socially-distanced seat on the patio. This takeaway operation, sub-branded as “lou sur place,” kept her community engaged until she was able to partially open her dining room this month. Similarly, Morris’ client Colonia Verde in Brooklyn (whose takeaway offerings are branded as “Colonia Go” and include frozen foods) recently launched a wine club that pairs with a playlist featuring music and a story about the vintners that approximates the tableside chat one would get while surveying a wine list.

Many of the designs produced in response to COVID-19 were made quickly, before local printers were shuttered along with other non-essential businesses. While overseas manufacturers have been able to fill in the gaps for some large scale orders, printers who make one-off items like sidewalk signs have been limited in their operations. As printers in the U.S. start to open back up, Morris expects an influx of new branding materials. Some of the resourcefulness will likely remain—like the trend she’s seen of converting check presenters (the postcards often paperclipped to bills) into recipe cards included in take-home orders. But it will be interesting to see what new materials restaurants invest in once more of them are able to produce original designs, to do more than slap on a sticker. And as some restaurants are beginning to consider taking over their own delivery operations, there’s a whole new element of collateral to think about, from apparel to vehicles.

When dining rooms start to resemble their former selves, it’s hard to predict what changes there will be in the details. Will paper menus remain? What about $39 hand soap? Bic Clics? (The CDC currently advises restaurants and bars to “encourage patrons to use their own pens.”) There will be new things to consider and design, too: Code of ethics forms, paper bags to tuck away masks during meals, tabletop hand sanitizers. If the past few months are any indication, expectations around restaurant branding haven’t slumped. If anything, they’ve gotten higher. Eating out and ordering in are often some of the first things people cut out when money gets tight. In order to justify the cost and, for some, the risk, restaurants need to keep up appearances, even as they struggle. They need to be a source of frivolity, sustenance, and nice things. And for those eating with their eyes, they need to make it all look like a page out of a magazine.