Recognizing dining out as a sensory experience, restaurants are increasingly presenting their menu items on custom-made dishware. For those in favor of appealing to tastes both gustatory and visual, the eyes have it.
— Ally Spier
When you finish eating something at a restaurant, do you flip over your plate to see who made it? Maybe that seems like a strange thing to do, especially if you assume it’s labeled with the name of a mass producer.
But increasing numbers of restaurants are outfitting their kitchens with custom-designed, handmade dishware; chances are you’ll see an independent designer’s name marking the underside of the plate your entree’s served on sooner rather than later…unless you’ve already been picking up for as long as the trend has.
For many restaurateurs, going the custom route seems to be grounded in the desire to do something special for their diners. At Harlem, New York’s Clay, a New American restaurant that opened last year in a former jazz club, it was important to chef Gustavo Lopez to have custom dishware. Believing that plateware is a design element that can be tied into the identity of a restaurant as much as its lights and wall colors, and that the sense of touch is often under-appreciated in restaurants, he and his team sought to consider a diner’s full sensory experience and address a tactile need that may have otherwise gone unsatisfied.
They view their plates as more than vehicles for the delivery of food meant to present the work of the kitchen. Instead of blank canvasses, they’re parts of composed dishes that showcase the talent of the artist who made them. The decision to work with an independent maker also tied into Clay’s practices when it comes to how they run the rest of their business. They source certified humane proteins from small farmers, and constantly think about their social and ecological accountability.
Clay’s team visited several local studios while choosing a supplier, but none felt right until they entered that of Brooklyn-based ceramicist Wynne Noble. They felt an instant personal connection with her, the handmade quality of her work immediately resonated on an emotional level, and they were inspired to find a way to work together. Unsure of what they could afford as a new restaurant, the initial plan was to place a small order.
But Noble was flexible in accommodating their needs, and instead offered a personalized payment structure. In that sense, working with a small producer with whom they’d established a meaningful relationship actually helped the team at Clay achieve their goals without having to compromise or otherwise worry about the associated costs. As Clay’s bar director, Andrea Needell Matteliano, explained, this “magical partnership has persisted ever since,” affording them opportunities to continue working together.
Spreading the Word
On a national level, going custom can be influenced by other restaurants’ decisions to do so. Owner Danny Nusbaum of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn’s Golda explains that, in today’s world, the bar is set so high for restaurants that “all the little details count to differentiate yourself.” He sought custom-made cups and saucers to give his customers a premium product and help create a “full experience.”
He chose a local artist that a food writer friend met in a ceramics class because her wares were the most affordable option. Working one-on-one with local operation Calyer Ceramics has given him the chance for maximum customization, where the ceramicist was able to design something for him that can’t be found anywhere else. Customers can even buy the cups and saucers at Golda before they leave, should they want to take home a piece of their experience that may last longer than a pastry to go.
Working with design-minded restaurants is a great way for ceramicists to advertise their wares and get new clients. The signatures on the bottoms of cups and plates are unique to the studios that make them, functioning as heavier business cards. And the items can be talking points between restaurant and customer.
Needell Matteliano explains that Noble and her mugs are a frequent conversation topic with guests at Clay, and Noble admits that this word of mouth advertising has worked well for her, since she doesn’t advertise in a traditional sense. Noble, who first sold her plates to Manhattan’s Contra in 2013, has been recommended via word of mouth to a long list of would-be clients ever since, including local ones like Sunday in Brooklyn, Empellon, Boqueria, and Gramercy Tavern, and those further away, like Banff Hotel in Canada, or Path in Tokyo.
Noble’s clients also come to her through Instagram, she admits. There’s no doubt that social media allows unique aesthetic choices to serve as marketing tactics for restaurants and ceramicists alike looking to gain a following. But new or lesser-known restaurants and artists aren’t the only places who use this platform to advertise.
With the unveling of Noma 2.0, Rene Redzepi used his Instagram account (with over 663,000 followers) as a platform to promote the five independent potters he works with to design plates to accompany his restaurant’s seafood season menu.
Pay to Plate
While plenty of places are taking a similar approach by seeking out custom dishware, the precise nature of that customization varies. Sizes, shapes, and colors can be carefully chosen and, like a seasonally changing menu, items can be easily updated because of close relationships facilitated by working with a small studio.
And, though custom dishware can’t be traced directly to a restaurant’s increased revenue, it does provide undeniable value. Instead of linking to something tangible, special plateware can lend itself to a feeling a diner has while he’s at a restaurant—something that can’t be captured through social media, but needs to be experienced in person.
This feeling need not be limited to the front of house experience. Says Needell Matteliano, “restaurant people often drink coffee out of pint containers, but at Clay, a lot of the staff will choose one of Noble’s mugs to start their day because it feels so good, like a hug in their hands.”
Skift Table contributor Ally Spier is a Brooklyn-based writer and designer who studied ergonomics at Cornell, and architecture at Pratt. Her background in design informs her love of food and travel… and vice versa.
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