The Name Game

The acronym inspires much debate, but quite simply, MTO stands for made to order.
The acronym inspires much debate, but quite simply, MTO stands for made to order. MTO Cafe

The thrilling, albeit agonizing, process of naming a restaurant.

Eighteen years ago, Donnie Madia confronted a daunting professional dilemma.

As a founding partner in One Off Hospitality, a Chicago-based enterprise now responsible for some of the Windy City’s foremost dining treasures, including Avec, The Publican, and The Violet Hour, Madia and his colleagues battled—albeit cordially—over the name of the group’s inaugural restaurant in the city’s West Loop neighborhood.

“Naming the restaurant was difficult because everyone wanted a hand in it,” acknowledges Madia, winner of the 2015 James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Restaurateur.

With the restaurant’s opening looming, Madia and his One Off co-founders—Chef Paul Kahan, Rick Diarmit, and Eduard Seitan—bantered about names for weeks before settling on Menue.

Chef Kahan, however, was unconvinced and pushed additional options, including one sparked by a PBS special he watched on the Provence region of France. In the program, a local resident described the Merlot grapes in his vineyard as little blackbirds.

Kahan championed the Blackbird title with friends, vendors, and his One Off colleagues. After persistent lobbying and some informal market testing, Menue was out and Blackbird was in.

“And, truthfully, it’s a fitting name,” Madia says. “Blackbird has white walls and dark floors and the color comes from the people and the food.”

While a name alone will not breed restaurant success, a name does remain the eatery’s unquestionable public identity: an element broadcast in conversations, Internet searches, and exterior signage. In just a few easily relayed syllables, the name must capture, at least to some extent, the menu, hospitality, design, vibe, and sensibilities of the restaurant—a remarkably complex, dynamic, and challenging task.

“A name is one of the most impactful things a restaurant has,” confirms Amy Dennis, creative director of Nice Branding Agency, a Tennessee-based brand building and marketing firm that works with restaurants across the Southeast.

Great restaurant names are distinctive, yet easily recalled, gliding off the tongue and simple to spell, particularly since so many guests first encounter a restaurant online or via word of mouth. Names spark an engaging story and communicate key restaurant attributes, and they help a restaurant vie for the attention of astute consumers by embracing descriptive or memorable words.

“Several restaurants aren’t hurting themselves with their names, but they’re certainly not helping themselves, either,” says Ben Jenkins, founder and design director of OneFastBuffalo, a Dallas-based firm that offers strategic branding guidance and design consultation to restaurant clients.


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