Monday, April 18, 2011

Penn's Taste of Food Branding

Penn Appetit and Penn Gastronomy are no doubt at the helm of the food movement at Penn. However, other groups on campus are jumping on the bandwagon, exploring the magical allure of food. During the month of April, organizations specifically looked at the concept of food branding.

The food branding marathon started off during Penn Fashion Week, during which Penn Gastronomy Club hosted a Food Retail and Branding Panel. The featured panelists were Marc Vetri (James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Vetri, Osteria, and Amis); Ellen Yin (owner of Fork and author of Forklore); Michelle Lehmann (founder of Michelle Lehmann Communications and the former Director of Marketing for Union Square Hospitality Group); Jon Myerow (partner of Tria Cafe and Biba Wine Bar); and Ashley Primis (Director of Special Projects for Starr Restaurants). While the audience snacked on refreshments compliments of Biba, the speakers gave their takes on food branding and public relations in the restaurant industry. All agreed that branding was about “narrowing in on an idea and carrying it through”; aspiring restaurateurs can go far if they “build a place out of passion—not market research—and stick with a vision.” Once the foundation is established, however, it’s important to “constantly reinvent” to intrigue customers and keep them coming back. They also stressed the importance of using social media responsibly and to exercise caution with discount sites like Groupon, which “cheapen a restaurant’s brand.” Instead, Lehmann and Yin emphasized the importance of “adding value” to your restaurant, whether it’s offering the customer a complementary amuse bouche or providing exceptional customer service that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Other online forms of expression, like Twitter and Facebook, are effective ways to “strengthen your brand” and “give customers information instantly in the food industry’s word-of-mouth business.” They also answered a variety of audience questions; for instance, Vetri advised a student with aspirations of becoming a pastry chef to “simply work and learn—don’t worry about the hours or how much you make initially. Take every moment as a learning experience.”

Following Penn Fashion Week’s successful partnership with food, MUSE took the reins and launched Foodie Week. The four-day-long event hosted speakers from different areas of the food industry to explore food and its relation to marketing. It started on Monday with a bang Spring-Fling-Carnival-style, as Pat’s King of Steaks came towing crates of cheesesteaks in Whiz and provolone varieties. Frank Olivieri, Jr., the current owner of Pat’s, derives much of the business’ success from advertising. From personally creating quirky ads (as displayed on Olivieri’s Powerpoint during the talk) to actively advertising throughout the country, Olivieri hopes he has branded his product so well that “every Philly transplant who comes into the city knows about Pat’s.” Indeed, his method is working—Pat’s experienced a 23% increase in the number of cheesesteaks sold this year compared to last year.

Tuesday ushered in Penn’s newest resident: Sweetgreen, a sustainable salad and yogurt bar. Nicolas Jammet and Nathaniel Ru, two of Sweetgreen’s owners, spoke about the restaurant’s rise as “a solution to a problem.” Their goal was to fill a void: they created a place that was not chef-driven, but ingredient- and source-driven, serving meals that were both healthy and supported the local economy. Jammet explored Sweetgreen’s ways of engaging the customer, an “intersection of digital—social media and visual components—and experiential—grass roots and word of mouth—marketing.” Their goal is to plant a “wow message” in their minds. For them, Sweetgreen is about creating a “way you can you live your life: the sweet life.” A pre-opening at their new location near the Radian followed the presentation, giving guests the opportunity to sample Sweetgreen’s tart yogurt and assorted tortilla chip dips (featuring ingredients like quinoa, black beans, and corn).

Adsum’s executive chef, Matt Levin, came on Wednesday to discuss his journey as a chef and restaurateur. During his childhood, experiences as a regular in restaurant kitchens inspired him to enter the food world. After training at the Culinary Institute of America and learning from chefs at various restaurants, he developed his own style of cooking and soon discovered molecular gastronomy. His work with such progressive cooking was a way to take risks and “prove to himself that [he] could do the cooking.” Whether he’s emulsifying duck fat so that it appears as powdery snow on the plate or sous-viding pig tails in ranch dressing before deep-frying for a more succulent product, Levin aims to highlight textures and flavors and create an unforgettable experience for the consumer. As an added bonus, he gave attendees a taste of his unique cuisine with his infamous “Kandy Kake Sliders,” a dish created to raise awareness of the Tastykake’s impending bankruptcy. These burgers of ground brisket are topped with white cheddar cheese and a mixture of Sriracha hot sauce and sour-cherry jam, all sandwiched between two chocolate peanut butter Kandy Kakes. For Levin, the idea was simply Adsum as “a small Philadelphia business helping a brother out.”

Foodie Week ended on a sweet note with John Suh and Franklin Shen from Sugar Philly, who brought Granny Smith apple-topped cheesecake and chocolate Earl Grey tea macaroons to satisfy taste buds. The duo explained how their gourmet dessert food truck evolved as a complement to current Penn food trucks. As a Penn graduate, Shen wanted to pioneer a whole new market that wasn’t in competition with the veteran food trucks he had come to know and love during his college years. After focusing on their menu by pulling chef Dan Tang on board to elevate “the caliber of their desserts extremely high,” they zoned in on the added usage of social media. Having both a physical storefront and online storefront was a way to “establish the identity of their product” and extend their reach outside Philadelphia. Suh described how Sugar Philly’s social media allows for “a intimate, more personal conversation between the business and customer,” a process he dubs as “co-innovation.”

This “constant exchange of feedback and inspiration for new products” is a tactic that all future restaurants seem to be adopting, as evidenced by the various restaurateurs and chefs that visited Penn to share their knowledge about the food industry. Social media is this generation’s newest, most used form of communication and is ultimately rooted in how you represent yourself to the rest of the world.

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