ClubTalks: Ivy Knight on Restaurant Branding

Ivy Knight knows every square inch of your favorite Toronto restaurant. She spent ten years cooking in restaurants before she left to work full-time as a food writer. A Prince
Edward Island native, Ivy is a fixture on the Toronto dining scene. She
has interviewed people as diverse as Martin Short, Anthony Bourdain, Perez
Hilton and René Redzepi. She once got lost with Sean Brock on a
crocodile-infested plantation in South Carolina and on that same trip peeled
baby turnips for April Bloomfield. Her writing can be found on Vice’s food
channel, Munchies; The Globe & Mail; and in the Best Food Writing 2007 compilation. She has published two cookbooks and is currently at work on a few more.

Ben Siegel, content strategist at Block Club, caught up with Ivy to talk about her opinions on restaurant branding. Read what Ivy has to say in this month’s ClubTalks.

BEN: Besides the food, what else is important to you when
visiting a restaurant?

IVY: I really can’t stand waiting in lines, so not waiting in a line is very important. Also pork chops; if a restaurant has a pork chop on the menu I will choose it over one that

BEN: Do you think about the finer details, like glasses, plates,
utensils, chairs, lighting, host greeting, bill folder, etc?

IVY: I only think about these things if I’m forced to think about them, like when I encounter lipstick on a glass or a chip in a plate, dirty utensils, uncomfortable chairs, lighting that is way too dark, a surly host or a greasy bill folder.

BEN: Fill in the blank: “I cringe when I walk into
a restaurant and see _________.”

IVY: A plethora of items presented that have nothing to do with the restaurant. A red flag goes up. This often occurs in restaurants that have been around for a while and are seeing a slump in business. What I mean by this is posters for events happening outside of the
restaurant or collection jars from various charities, flyers for fun runs, a
stack of chocolate bars for sale from a junior high. This can bleed onto the
menu too, where you’ll see a place the was always focused on charcuterie and a
great burger and a Reuben suddenly adding a bunch of healthy salad options and
shit that they mocked in their earlier days when cash flow wasn’t a problem.

Stick with what you know; you are a restaurant and while you do foster a community in a way, you are not a community center. Clean up the dining room and keep the focus on the food that is true to your heart. And if your heart isn’t in that charcuterie and burger-focused
menu anymore then shut down and re-open with a new menu that better reflects
your midlife crisis with mung bean collard wraps and seaweed smoothies.

BEN: Can a restaurant’s brand ruin a meal?

IVY: I guess if a place is too branded one might only want to go there ironically. Do real people go to Applebee’s? I don’t think so. Only a demographic goes there and who wants to be lumped into a demographic?


BEN: Tell me about a restaurant brand that you’re currently in love

IVY: I used to be in love with Shake
Shack (the Madison Square Park location in Manhattan), but I realized that it
really is just a Wendy’s burger in hipper packaging. Although I am definitely
crazy for crinkle cut fries. I love Mandarin from afar, the reality of it turns
me into a coconut shrimp whore. Same with Mary Brown’s Fried Chicken and
Taters; I used to love it when I only could have it on visits to Newfoundland,
but now that I’ve found it in Toronto and Belleville the bloom is off the rose.
Branded chains are best when you let the lust for them build up for a while and
only indulge very rarely.

BEN: If you believe in guilty pleasures, what’s yours?

IVY: I loved the idea of dipping
McDonald’s fries into a Wendy’s Frosty until I did it and realized it’s not
that great. It definitely gets a lot of likes on Instagram though. I love the
ribs at Swiss Chalet. Do they marinate them in that chemical that melts human
flesh? I forget the name but it usually comes in giant drums and murderers dump
dead bodies into it in movies. I think they give the ribs a quick dip in that
substance before they cover them in sugar and roast them.

Photo credit: Rick O’Brien

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