Rebranding signals a shift in priorities or persona and can be the ideal antidote for a restaurant struggling to stay relevant.
When the time rolled around to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Benjy’s, a beloved Houstonian establishment serving innovative New American fare, owner and founder Benjy Levit found himself facing an interesting question from his collaborator, chef Seth Siegel-Gardner.
“We were discussing what I was doing to celebrate the 25th anniversary,” Levit says. “I said ‘not much, maybe a few throwback dishes.’ He asked if that was what I really wanted to do, and I realized I wanted to move forward rather than celebrate the past.”
This began the process of a major reinvention. In October 2019, Benjy’s closed for a few days to implement a new, bright, modern interior, plus a fresh menu featuring creative, shareable plates. The only thing that remained untouched was the concept’s classic chocolate cake.
The new version of Benjy’s has been met with rave reviews, and, Levit says, has allowed him to achieve a goal of creating a fun, convivial meeting place.
Traditionally, restaurants have rebranded with new decór and signage every 10 years or so. But things are different now, says Renae Scott, president of Strategic Marketing Solutions, which works with companies across the restaurant industry.
“It’s almost as if as soon as you finish one refresh, you start thinking about improvements for the next one—now in terms of three to five years,” she says.
Scott sees required changes happening in three major areas during a rebrand: food attributes, such as quality ingredients, authenticity, and transparency; off-premises dining through delivery, takeout, and catering; and the dining experience.
Brands should tackle these areas by emphasizing their positive attributes, Scott says. For example, if a restaurant wants to appeal to younger consumers’ demand for authenticity and transparent ingredients, it might open up the kitchen so the make-line is viewable. Adding a simple nook for third-party delivery workers or customers waiting for take-out orders is an easy way to keep up with the ever-growing off-premises dining trend. Changing it up with an Instagrammable wall arrangement or new set of décor elements can easily boost digital engagement.
These solutions are easier than overhauling an entire menu or service concept. “Often the most impactful changes can be the least expensive,” Scott says.
Still, sometimes brands are committed to making large-scale changes. After 40 years of operation, Mimi’s Bistro & Bakery, formerly Mimi’s Cafe, decided it was time for a bold move. In 2019, following two years of deliberation and careful work, the Dallas-based brand unveiled not only a new name and tagline, but also an updated restaurant design, a special Bites + Beverages menu, fresh house wines from France, and a new focus on baked goods and other French connections.
“It’s a full rebrand,” says Tiffany McClain, head of marketing at Mimi’s. “It’s very exciting, but it takes a lot of confidence and belief in what you’re doing.”
To that point, Scott emphasizes that restaurants looking to do a full rebrand, especially one on the scale of the Mimi’s reinvention, need to proceed carefully in order to draw in new guests without alienating core audiences. She recommends extensive consumer testing, which Mimi’s did throughout the rebranding process.
The Mimi’s team considered changing the name entirely, but focus groups revealed that wasn’t what was needed in order to meet the restaurant’s goals, McClain says. “We needed to change the tagline because ‘café’ wasn’t conveying that we’re a place you can come and relax, have a nice glass of wine, great coffee, great bakery items, [and] hear the wonderful French music,” she says.
Scott recommends operators work with outside design firms while rebranding in order to keep the project on track and aligned with consumer needs. McClain, who used a third-party team when leading the overhaul, says it helped balance various parties’ perspectives. The Mimi’s creative, corporate, and legacy teams were all brought in during the rebranding process, and the third-party presence helped all departments feel that their viewpoints were considered, McClain says
Both Benjy’s and Mimi’s kept culinary redevelopment in-house. “The chef and I take notes and pictures of food and menus when we travel,” Levit says. “We started with those notes and then took a group trip to Los Angeles to help solidify our vision.” The three-month development process resulted in an inventive menu of small, medium, and large shareables, ranging from hamachi with cucumber water to sea urchin carbonara with leek.
For the Mimi’s menu revamp, marketing and branding personnel worked closely with the culinary team—a joint effort that made the process smoother. By the end of the final collaborative taste test, new dishes were ready to roll out. “The biggest pillar of the Mimi’s brand is fantastic, fresh food,” McClain says. “You have to know what your pillars are when you’re rebranding. It has taken acts of bravery to go out on the limbs that we have.”