Thursday, March 26, 2015

What's in a Name?: Restaurant Branding and the Closing of Bamboo Izakaya

Sad new, guys. I tried out Bamboo Izakaya last week and I really liked it. This is an accomplishment because some of the other Asian-inspired tapas spots I've been to recently have been a bust (looking at you, Boke Bowl and Smallwares).

But it doesn't really matter because the owners recently announced that Bamboo Izakaya will be transitioning into a Bamboo Sushi the first week of April. According to their press release, the owners say that "each evening since we've opened, we receive countless requests for sushi. We kindly let the guests know that sushi is not something that izakaya offer and that we are sure they will find something to delight their palate at Bamboo Izakaya. Without fail, almost every one of those guests leave to go and find sushi. Overall, the Izakaya, while a fun and delicious concept, does not carry the same appeal that sushi does."

To be truthful, this makes me really annoyed at all those people who left. I mean, come on. Read the sign before you go in! Do your research! Why'd you guys have to ruin it for the rest of us??

I'm going to try to be objective about the Bamboo situation though, because it is interesting when you think about it from a marketing perspective. When the owners decided to open an izakaya (for which they did years of research), they had the option of A) creating a new brand for their new concept or B) building on their successful "Bamboo" brand by opening a restaurant with similar aesthetics and a corresponding name.  

Micah Camden and Katie Poppe, arguably some of Portland's most successful restauranteurs, have gone with option A for most of their ventures. While there's definitely a playful tone across all of their restaurants, each "concept" has its own name and its own distinct brand (think Little Big Burger, Blue Star Donuts, Son of a Biscuit, and the upcoming Hop Dog).

The only place where Micah and Katie veered from this was with Boxer Ramen and Boxer Sushi- and it's worth noting that Boxer Sushi closed last September.

Many other Portland chefs and restauranteurs have also chosen to vary their restaurants' names even when the type of food served is similar. Kathy Whims has Nostrana and Oven and Shaker, Vitaly Paley has Paley's Place and Imperial, and Gabriel Rucker has Le Pigeon and Little Bird (though Gabriel's restaurants' names do at least hint at their association).

It's more difficult to think of examples of option B in Portland. John Gorham owns Tasty N' Sons and Tasty N' Alder which both follow the "Tasty N'" naming convention.

According to the restaurants' websites, Tasty N' Sons features dishes inspired by the East Coast while Tasty N' Alder "is a modern steakhouse". However, both sites do contain the exact same language about how their menus are "inspired by Chef Gorham’s travels and experiences with the vital immigrant community" so the concepts do seem more alike than not. It's also hard to imagine anyone sitting down at Tasty N' Alder only to get up and leave because its menu varies so widely from Tasty N' Sons'.

So when Bamboo's owners chose the option they did, they were trying something that is not at all common in the Portland restaurant scene. They decided to leverage their successful existing brand name to drive customers to a restaurant that did not serve the type of food that their brand had become known for- and that just did not work.

I guess when it's put that way, I can't be that upset that the average Portland restaurant-goer got so confused. You see "Bamboo" on the sign, you know Bamboo does great sushi, you get confused when there's not great sushi to be had. It's really a product of how well Bamboo associated their name with quality sushi. All in all, that association is great if you're sticking with the sushi business. It's only a problem when you're trying to branch out into something new.

Okay, so what have we learned? If you're going to open a restaurant with a new concept, choose a new name, especially if you've already established a brand that's very closely associated with a specific type of food. Also, Kel and I still don't have a good place to get good Asian tapas in this city. Except for maybe Tanuki. Stay tuned...