“The customer is always right." That was the mantra often repeated in the food service industry. Whatever the menu substitution, whatever the dish preparation, restaurants felt obligated to meet a customer's every request. By extension, menus were long and varied, in the hopes of accommodating all types of diners' palates and preferences. And in many cases, save for a few renowned names, customers didn't even know who the chef was. Restaurant decisions were primarily driven by cuisine, location and ambiance.
But this was before chefs came out from behind the kitchens to reach television celebrity status and restaurants became sought-after cultural destinations. Today, we don't just know the name of chefs, we revere them. We follow them on Instagram. We watch them on Netflix. We trust them and the well-curated dining experiences they present. And over time, the philosophy of “the customer is always right" shifted to “I'll have whatever the chef recommends."
This new-found influence has, in part, contributed to developing a new relationship between customer, chef and restaurant. Now “knowing" the chef has allowed customers to build a greater sense of connection, not only to the food, but to a distinct aesthetic and mindset. Today, we look to chefs as an authority on food, as well as a trusted resource on all things culture, travel, design, fashion and beyond. Restaurants, in turn, have become an expression of a chef or restaurant owner's lifestyle—one that customers either want to align with or aspire to. And it is here, at this intersection of restaurant and lifestyle, that chefs and restaurant owners have begun to see the opportunity in leveraging the brands and communities they've built to extend into new—and even non-food related—business ventures.
—Elisa Marshall, owner, Maman
One such entrepreneur is Shelley Kleyn Armistead, COO of Gjelina Group, which includes four restaurants in Venice Beach, California. “I've always been very inspired by the manufacturing process of items that we use in our restaurant spaces," says Armistead, “from glassware to teapots, from napkins to bowls." This passion and impeccable design-eye is hard to miss if you dine at any one of the Gjelina Group restaurants. From the vintage barstools at Gjelina to the handcrafted mugs at Gjusta, the restaurants' custom decor and plateware is just as inspiring as the farm-to-table dishes—so much so that it may be difficult to distinguish the customers' love for the food from the experience of eating the food.
“Once we started producing our own ceramics for Gjusta, and seeing the customers' response to using it in the space," says Armistead, “coupled with a wait list should we ever decide to sell our ceramics, the desire to open a retail store sped up." At the beginning of 2017, Armistead and her business partners opened Gjusta Goods, their first retail concept, selling a collection of ceramics, homeware and apparel found in Gjelina Group restaurants, along with other design items and vintage fashion Armistead has discovered during her travels.
At Gjusta Goods, devoted customers have a chance to bring a bit of that Gjelina magic home with them. “To be able to serve a dish inspired from the Gjelina cookbook, on an actual plate used in the restaurant," Armistead says, “evokes a memory from your experience." As for those who have never dined at one of the Gjelina Group restaurants, a piece from Gjusta Goods offers a small taste of the restaurant's design-forward aesthetic and spirit, inevitably brokering a relationship with new customers who will hopefully visit one of their restaurants in the future and grow with their brand.
Items available for sale at Gjusta Goods
Similarly, Maman owner Elisa Marshall sees her new retail offshoot, Marche Maman, as a creative outlet to further bring her brand to life beyond the food and the cafe experience. Opening Marche Maman in 2017, adjacent to her flagship French-inspired cafe in Soho, New York City, was a way for Marshall to build on the brand's loyal following and grow her community. According to Marshall, it was “a space where I could put all the things I love together under one roof. From food to events to retail."
Marche Maman is set up as a micro market, a collection of small environments where independent fashion, flower and beauty businesses have been invited to set up and collaborate to create one holistic shopping and dining experience. In selecting which vendors to partner with, Marshall says, “I like to stay true to our customer and really think of her when I select vendors. I try to select those who share a similar aesthetic and vibe with Maman so visually, the space flows well."
This mindful approach to collaboration and brand planning has been a part of Maman's strategy since opening its first cafe in late 2014. “When we first launched the brand," says Marshall, “we were conscious to build it with the ability for growth and not to be too prescribed into just one food and beverage segment. This allows us to stay creative and evolve with our customers."
This attitude and business acumen among chefs and restaurant owners is becoming more prevalent across the country. From bi-coastal vegan-cafe The Butcher's Daughter expanding into hospitality with its homestay Bungalow & Breakfast, to Portland's Beast chef and owner Naomi Pomeroy opening a flower shop, Colibri, food entrepreneurs are finding ways to build on their restaurants' brand equity and personal following and grow their business portfolio.
With the relationship between chef, restaurant and customer stronger than ever, the opportunity to expand culinary brands beyond food is offering an exciting new license to innovate and creating new conversations with new audiences. For the customer, these creative non-food ventures are serving up new ways to connect with chefs and gain more from their dining experience. Chefs are no longer just the authorities on taste, but tastemakers onto themselves. So the next time you're shopping for a duvet, looking for the perfect housewarming gift or deciding on a floral arrangement, look no further than your favorite chef or restaurant to find “Whatever chef recommends."