Food writers often joke that we’d never open a restaurant, mainly because we know too much: the ceaseless hours, the slim margins, and even slimmer chance of success. But more intrepid multi-platform media companies are taking the plunge into restaurant ownership to build touchpoints with ravenous followers, unearth new fans, and, yes, capture some of that elusive revenue. The key to success? Airtight, curated experiences rewarding fans’ loyalty.
Charleston, South Carolina–based Southern food, culture, and travel magazine Garden & Gun— one of a shrinking number of media brands whose biggest revenue source is still print advertising—had already broached retail via 2-year-old physical storefront Fieldshop and online shop Mercantile & Co.
“Because we do just six issues a year, our readers are very hungry for more touchpoints with us,” says Garden & Gun CEO and president Rebecca Wesson Darwin. “The concept of physical spaces that manifest the brand is something we are intrigued by.”
The executive team had been informally discussing plans to open a restaurant for some time when opportunity came knocking in the form of the Atlanta Braves. Often nicknamed the South’s baseball team, the Braves organization was starting development of the Battery at SunTrust Park, a retail/residential center with the team’s brand-new baseball stadium providing the focal point. Darwin had her doubts until she visited the Battery, which houses a theater, a slew of restaurants from the likes of chef Hugh Acheson (Achie’s) and Marc Taft (Feed), a hotel, and Comcast’s new regional headquarters. “It’s a thriving, functioning community,” she says.
The all-day restaurant, appropriately named Garden & Gun Club, sits just outside the main gates to the park. The indoor/outdoor space mixes sleek finishes with retro elements, like taxidermy birds and a china cabinet. It’s an aesthetic oft-reflected in the pages of the magazine, whose core readership leans affluent and travel hungry.
Mike Lata and Adam Nemirow of FIG and The Ordinary created the menu, which traffics in a laundry list of Southern classics, from pimento cheese to tomato sandwiches with Duke’s Mayo. Executive chef and California native Ann Kim helms the day-to-day operations (and lives onsite). A small retail showcase sells curated items like aprons worn by staff, who were themselves painstakingly hired and trained.
Only a few months in, the restaurant is often booked up with reservations, even on non-game days. The company is entertaining future one-off eateries in other Southern cities, though in this first year the main goal is to build a meaningful following.
Darwin says she’d consider it a success if it becomes the kind of place people return to. “Obviously, we want it to succeed financially, but our No. 1 goal is to further engage with our existing base of readers, our Garden & Gun nation,” she says.
Six-year-old multi-platform media company Tastemade has always intended to expand into commerce and cafes because it has viewed itself as a different kind of media brand.
“We wanted to build a modern, high-quality consumer brand with taste at the center, for millennials, a generation that was really not being served by traditional media,” says Steven Kydd, cofounder of the California-based digital video network. “If we were successful in connecting to that audience through storytelling on social platforms, that would give us license to then extend into a wide variety of categories, like commerce, experiences, and retail.”
Reaching 250 million monthly active viewers worldwide seemed like a sufficient following to test a café. The brand tapped Mark Alston, the chef behind Bondi Harvest in Sydney, Australia, to open an outpost of his laidback eatery with trendy health dishes like açai bowls just outside its Santa Monica studio. To stoke enthusiasm, Alston’s move and the renovation were leveraged into a docu-series called “Grand Opening.”
A year in, lines stretch out the door daily, “filled with the Tastemade audience of people in their teens, 20s, and 30s eating healthy food, Instagramming it, and giving us feedback on their social platforms,” Kydd says. Building on this momentum, Tastemade licensed its name to a café operator in Brazil, its second-biggest market. The surf shack–inspired Tastemade restaurant in São Paulo is dizzyingly millennial; flat-screen TVs loop videos of Tastemade’s creators preparing the very food customers are waiting to order and display the most viewed recipes or shows.
Tastemade still makes money largely through advertising, though Kydd sees an equilateral approach combining entertainment, commerce, and experiences as very much the future.
“The reason we think it is going to work is because someone did this before and really well—a company called Walt Disney,” Kydd says. “You see the movie, go live the experience in the theme park, and buy the merchandise. The way they use all three in perfect harmony is something we have great respect for and think we could do something similar.”