Interview: A Restaurant Brand Creator on How to Keep People Coming Back

On Monday, September 24, Skift Table hosted its first ever Skift Restaurants Forum.

The day-long event featured interviews with restaurateurs, technology leaders, operators, and chefs, as well as an audience of over 300 people from across the restaurant industry.

Sue Chan is the founder and chief executive officer of Care of Chan, a two-year-old brand management agency that has worked with a hit list of restaurants including Alta, Cosme, Una Pizza Napoletana, and Wildair to create that all-important but so-hard-to-capture great restaurant experience. Chan was previously the brand director at Momofuku for seven years.

At her own company, Chan focuses in on everything that makes a memorable restaurant experience the type of place that customers want to keep returning to again and again. While there’s no set formula for creating that unforgettable experience, once it’s in place it can drive sales and longterm customer loyalty like no quick-hitting press coverage can. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on Bon Appetit’s top ten, you could close in a year or two,” Chan explained. “That is a real thing that happens a lot. It’s more about just caring about the actual customers who come in every single day, and focusing on that community and building that community.”

Chan was interviewed by Jason Clampet, Skift Table General Manager and Skift co-founder.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

Skift Table: Talk a little bit about where Care of Chan came from, and what experiences led up to that, and what you’re involved in now.

Chan: So Care of Chan is a brand management agency. We represent chefs, restaurants, and food brands. We specialize in communications, event production, and talent management in the food space. And prior to that, I was at Momofuku for almost seven years as the brand director.

Skift Table: And how old is Care of Chan now?

Chan: Officially founded in 2016, so just a couple of years now.

Skift Table: Okay. So the restaurant and idea of food-related events have taken on kind of a new importance as kind of a gathering space in our very digital world, where you experience as much at home as you do out in a public space. What is it about restaurants in general and food in particular that make it such an experience-driving thing?

Chan: Right, well, as we all know in this digital age, it becomes harder and harder to connect. And I think people definitely look to the restaurant experience as a place to connect with friends and family, and I think a big part of that, too, is millennials especially are spending their money differently these days. Three out of four millennials, for example, are spending money on experiences, and I think a lot of things kind of lead to that. One, you know, social media has created this desire and need to get content, to collect content, and to share your experiences. Eating in a restaurant is a way to connect with your friends and family in person, in real life.

Also, millennials are spending their money differently. So, whereas before, past generations would spend their money by saving up for a car or home, millennials now are okay with spending fifteen dollars on an avocado toast, but they might not necessarily spend that money on saving up for a car.

Skift Table: So that economist was right in blaming avocado toast on the lack of home ownership in America?

Chan: Yeah, exactly, those are definitely related. Avocado toast going up, home ownership going down, yeah.

Skift Table: So we’re here in New York, and a lot of big restaurants are in major cities. Is this something that is tied to major cities, or is this more of a movement you’re as likely to see in Nashville and Philadelphia as in a major city?

Chan: Yeah, I mean, I think that, generally speaking, bigger cultural shifts tend to happen in bigger markets and urban settings, but there will always be a trickle-down effect and it will influence other parts of the country.

You know, this experience economy we’re in wasn’t invented recently. I think the first article about it was in 1998, and it’s been around for a while. Disney is a really good example of someone who created this experience economy and continues to deliver on it year in, year out. Even chain restaurants like TGI Fridays are part of the experience economy because the whole idea is that the standard of food and the standard of service has just gone up across the board, so even Starbucks is serving cold brew, whereas a couple years ago you would’ve only seen cold brew at a third wave coffee shop.

Now it’s everywhere. And so if the quality of food and service has gone up, the only thing to really stand out from the pack is to offer an experience. We’ve been seeing people do it for a while now, and I don’t necessarily think it’s a trend, nor is it something that is only happening in urban cities. Of course we will see more of a trickle-down effect across the board, but people have been doing it since, like, 1998.

Skift Table: I had what I thought was a really smart follow up, but you already completed it. It was: can you do experience at scale? And I think that, forgetting Disney exists, of course you can. But as we strive for more exclusive experience, like, there’s in travel, the idea is that luxury is actually experiences. It’s not necessarily things decked out in gold, but there is an exclusivity element to experiences. How important do you think that exclusivity is for people in making decisions of what to attend, and things like that?

Chan: You know what’s interesting, I feel like that there doesn’t need to be an exclusivity tied to an experience in order to make it defined as an experience, because an experience is so personal, right, like, you and I can both go to Barbone and can have a completely different experience, and that’s personal to us. And there doesn’t have to be any exclusivity tied to that, whereas I do think it is an exclusive experience, that’s just part of the story. I think one of the reasons why we love experience is the stories we get to tell from them, right. Studies show that you find more happiness spending money on experience than on material goods.

And why is that? It’s because there’s a story to tell about it. Even waiting in line for a crouton, that’s the part of the story. “Ugh! I waited thirty minutes in line for this crouton.” That’s part of the narrative. So much more exciting than just saying “I just walked in and grabbed a crouton.”

So while exclusivity definitely adds to the story and adds to the experience, I don’t think you necessarily have to offer an exclusive experience in order to have it be memorable or have it be a good or successful marketing tool.

Skift Table: In terms of who actually goes to events and goes out, I’ve reached the age where I just want to stay home. That’s something that I know I can get into. So I assume that now it’s really hard to get people to engage, because we do like things being brought to us and having your device. How easy it or how hard is it to get people to come out?

Chan: I mean, of course, just like with everything, I feel like the Internet’s ruining everything. Everything becomes so saturated, and one person has a great idea, and then everyone starts doing it. So, of course, now because they read that experiences are the thing, everyone’s doing experiences.

Of course, at a certain point, there’s a saturation point, and so how do you stand out from the noise? And I think that it’s important for restaurants or any brand to create experiences that are unique to them and unique to their value system that have a theme and everything about the event kind of ties back to theme, has purpose and meaning, and adds value to the lives of the people in attendance.

And then also, what’s the most important thing about building experiences is building towards a community. So, that’s something that we definitely tell our clients. “What kind of community are you trying to build with everything that you do?” As we all know, and this is something we struggle with in the communications department, press hits don’t necessarily equal more customers in the door. Instead, what we tell our clients to do is it’s really important to focus on building a network, a circle, friends and family, a community around their brands. I think experiences, when done right, can really do that.

Sue Chan, the Chief Executive Officer of Care of Chan, speaking at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City on September 24, 2018. Skift Table

Skift Table: You talked, with brands, about the story that they want people to tell when they leave.

Chan: Definitely. I think when we help brands come up with events and experiential activations and marketing tools, we definitely think of that. Does it make sense for what message they’re trying to get across? Does it make sense in this market? An event that you do in LA is very different than an event you do in New York, different than Austin, Texas. So yeah, we definitely do encourage our clients to think about it from a holistic perspective. Not just like, “Okay, we’re gonna throw a DJ, have a good DJ and good food and good drinks!” It’s about more than that. It’s about creating memorable touch points within that as well.

Skift Table: How do you communicate with clients about your curatorial responsibilities to, “Hey, trust me with this DJ!” and things like that?

Chan: Well, we like to work with clients who trust us and understand that it’s a partnership and that we’re bringing just as much to the table as they are. We don’t work well with people who insist on telling us, acting like- well, because, this is our area of expertise. And so hopefully you’re hiring us for that expertise, and trust us to deliver that to the conversation. So we work the best with clients who kind of meet us in the middle, and it’s a collaboration, a partnership.

Skift Table: So, when you’re creating experiences and activations and things like that, working with chefs in restaurants, how much is it for the experience of that moment, and how much of it is for sharing such labor?

Chan: I mean, that’s definitely something that we’re seeing lots of fast casual restaurants, for example, in a pop up, you want that Instagram look, so the quirky mirror that someone can take a selfie on, or the crazy colorful plateware that someone can take an overhead food shot on-

Skift Table: Do people do that?

Chan: Yeah! I know, it’s kind of annoying. I hope it dies soon. But I think that if you focus on creating on meaning and purpose in the event that those Instagram moments will just naturally happen.

Skift Table: I was waiting in line at a restaurant with a neon sign a few months ago, and I was like this is-

Chan: Whoever’s making neon has made a lot of money in the last couple years.

Skift Table: Neon and lines and Instagram just live for each other.

Chan: And avocados.

Skift Table: We actually have a neon sign at Skift headquarters and you have to wait in line, because it’s a popular place.

Chan: Now it’s just a standard. Like, the word ‘curation’ is just something that we all use.

Skift Table: And, you know, as somebody who actually curates, how do you cut through the noise in curation? Especially with clients, to be like, “No, this is what that means for you, as a brand.”

Chan: Well, I mean, I don’t want to make it sound so clinical, but it is all about understanding who the target market is, and who speaks to that target market. It’s that simple. I mean, it’s like marketing 101. So I think curating has to do with just understanding the landscape and the demographics that you’re trying to target, and then creating programming around that.

Skift Table: You know, food is aspirational in many ways, even though it’s something that-

Chan: You have to eat three times a day, and everyone has to eat. It doesn’t have to be aspirational.

Skift Table: That’s a great point, and I think that, though, brands that aren’t related to food want to use food to get across messages. What is it about food and restaurant culture that is, you know, everybody wants that?

Chan: Well, I think in this digital age, food is the last thing that can’t be downloaded. Art, music, film, everything can be downloaded, it can be pirated, it can be enjoyed online. Food and eating food is still the last thing that can’t be downloaded, and so that’s really the last thing that people can genuinely connect over. I think that that’s a big part in why brands are trying to enter into the food space, and also there are more foodies now. People care more about food, they care more about their lifestyle, they care about where they go out and eat. And so new brands need to be able to speak to that demographic.

Skift Table: Have you seen instances of brands really wanting to do some kind of food thing and just failing spectacularly? Not naming any brands, but…somebody said name them! Name them if you want, but events and activations that just didn’t go wrong, and why.

Chan: Right, wow, I mean, I don’t think I can do that. I’d love to talk about some brands that do it well, maybe.

Skift Table: And if you want to trash somebody afterwards, yeah, go ahead-

Chan: Trying to be positive, not negative, right, we wanna emulate good things.

Well, to start, the Standard Hotels, Angela Dimayuga. We work with the Standard Hotels and Angela Dimayuga, who’s the Creative Director of Food and Beverage, is speaking later today. The Standard does a really amazing job of not only creating community, but also creating experiences that help define what that community is, but also help with fails. So for example, at the Standard East Village, in the wintertime, they put up these yurts and they serve fondue in them. They could’ve just served fondue in the restaurant but instead, they chose to erect these yurts, create an experience. It’s perfect for gathering with friends. They have fur coats available for you to wear, and there’s music playing-

Skift Table: And you can use their patio in the winter, right?

Chan: Yeah, exactly, and so that’s a full experience, that people can mark their calendars every single winter, ‘I’m going to go and have a yurt experience with my friends.’

Skift Table: Interesting. We talked a bit about breaking through the noise of everything else out there. What are some effective ways you’ve seen restaurants or chefs break through the noise?

Chan: Yeah, I mean, I would say David Chang, as we all know, has done a really good job of breaking through the noise. It’s funny, now that I’m post Momofuku, a lot of people probably come to us because of my background there. I think people want me to turn them into Dave Chang and just as famous as him. But little do they know that it takes a lot more than just one person-

Skift Table: It’s not all you?

Chan: It’s not all me, no. But, you know, if we were to use him as a case study in breaking through the noise, is, one, being as prolific as possible, and then two, also just understanding how food relates to other parts of culture. That’s something that we do work with our clients on, is: how do we connect you to the film industry? How do we connect you to the music industry? To fashion? In this day and age, there’s more celebrities, but they’re all less famous. So everything is super fragmented. The only way to really stay above that is to understand how you penetrate all different parts of culture. And not only just be big in food, but also be big in other industries. So we have to work twice as hard, pretty much.

Skift Table: That touches on not all chefs are rockstars, and not all restaurants are of the moment places. But they still have the desire to do these things and connect with guests. You mentioned TGI Friday’s, so on the thing between TGI Friday’s and Momofuku, what’s the learning curve for those restaurants that aren’t in the papers every day, rockstar style?

Chan: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s really about…so, I’ll reference my favorite restaurant. My favorite restaurant is Odeon, which, I think, your average foodie person or high-end fine dining person would balk at that and be like, “Gross, the food is disgusting there. Why would you love it?”

But it’s consistent, the service is incredible, the maître d’ is a character, and the room is really special. The lighting is perfect, and what I love about it is, because it’s an experience every time I go there, it’s become kind of like a cultural hub for the downtown crowd. You’ll bump into friends, and going to Odeon is in and of itself an experience. I don’t need to go to a bar necessarily, because I can just go to Odeon and have that same kind of social experience. And Odeon isn’t written about in the press, but they’ve just done a really good job of-

Skift Table: At least not in the last decade.

Chan: Yeah, exactly. I guess recently it has been covered more so because it has kind of seemed like a renaissance, but I think what they do really well is creating that experience. The food and the service is consistent across the board, but it’s the experience of going there that makes them stand out. And they understand their customer, and they understand their community. And they make it easy for you, and I think for an average restaurateur, who cares about the press? We’ve had people that we’ve worked with, or case studies that we’ve seen, of people who get a ton of press, but they have horrible sales and they have to close. It doesn’t matter if you’re on Bon Appetit’s top ten, you could close in a year or two. That is a real thing that happens a lot. And it’s more about just caring about the actual customers who come in every single day, and focusing on that community and building that community.

Skift Table: Speaking of community, we have a couple questions from the crowd.

Chan: Okay, cool.

Skift Table: What did you learn while working on the Momofuku brand-

Chan: Oh, gosh.

Skift Table: -that helped you launch your own business?

Chan: That hard work is a real thing, and it does pay off in the end.

Skift Table: That’s like a bumper sticker, right? What are some new examples of experiences in dining and hospitality that excite you?

Chan: I always look to other industries for inspiration of how we can grow as a company and how the brands we work with can grow, and like music for example, is a really fascinating industry, mostly because I think it’s the closest to food, as in there are musicians just like there are chefs, musicians make albums, just like chefs make cookbooks. Musicians can perform at a theater or concert venue just like chefs can do pop-ups. So, if looking towards music, there are all of these ways that they’ve made money, merchandise is one of them, touring is another one, so how do we use those business models and apply them to the food industry? I think there’s a lot more room for merchandise to be made in the food industry.

Actually, I was just talking to Niki from Russ and Daughters about this. A lot of restaurants make merch, but I don’t think anyone has understood how to really build into a legitimate stream of revenue. And same thing with touring. Why can’t chefs tour around the world to different venues like musicians do?

Skift Table: Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Chan: Cool. Thank you.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

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