Restaurant Franchises, Restaurant Brands

Daniel Boulud, Legal Sea Foods.

Chef Boulud has restaurants around the globe, from his base in NYC to Vancouver to D.C.  Legal Sea Foods has a couple of dozen restaurants stretching up and down the East Coast, from its upscale room overlooking Boston harbor to airport outposts. Boulud is never called a franchise, Legal Sea Foods often is.  What’s the difference between the two?

Let’s look at what’s similar: Both have an extremely well-defined business model that addresses, in great specificity, service and food.  Both, as a result, deliver consistent products and experiences.  Whether you are at a Boulud restaurant in Florida or NYC or a Legal Sea Foods in Boston or D.C., you can depend on a reliable and familiar relationship.

Both are brands that people can count on.  Even when service or food go off kilter, the parameters of the failures or mistakes are within a branded context.  Think of it this way: When a BMW stalls, the driver sits comfortably in the luxurious interior and waits for BMW road side service.

The difference is that Boulud is driven by the name of the chef, which implies to customers that Boulud is lurking somewhere in the restaurant.  In today’s Boston Globe, for example, a columnist writing about Bar Boulud, which opened today in the Mandarin Oriental, is expected to be in Boston “every six weeks.”  That’s a good one.

In contrast, Legal Sea Foods has the name of the enterprise.  There’s no association to a chef who, in the fantasy of the customer, is standing behind a stove or going from table to table asking, “How is everything?”

It’s a fascinating juxtaposition.  Brand association through product, in the form of fish and seafood, or brand association through the chef.

In the short run, both have equal access to the imaginations of customers.  In the long run, the brand that is associated with a product, rather than the name of a person who will retire, may have the advantage.

It makes me think of other chefs and brands: Silvano Marchetto, whose cookbook I helped write (Bloomsbury), with Da Silvano.  Or Mario Batali: Not one of his restaurants has his name above the door.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

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