The following is the sixth in the series "Live Your Brand" in which branding expert Melanie Spring takes us along on her three-week road trip across the country to meet innovative entrepreneurs whose experiences offer lessons learned to businesses big and small.
Madison, Wisc., a sizeable city in the Midwest, can seem quiet and unassuming to the average outsider. A peaceful, family-focused city, Madison is the capitol to a state with more than 76,000 farms. Thanks to the number of rolling pastures, it’s also the home of the farm-to-table movement, pioneered by Odessa Piper, the original owner of the city's fine-dining restaurant, L’Etoile, and today, continued by people like chef Tory Miller.
In the state of Wisconsin, Piper is known as the First Lady of Cuisine, a name well deserved. Looking to create an unmatched restaurant experience, Piper opened L'Etoile in 1976, a restaurant with only high-quality, locally sourced foods. In the land of cheese curds, fried food and beer this concept took the traditional in a whole new direction. And for Piper it worked, as L'Etoile has earned accolades throughout the years.
In 2002, Miller, a chef Piper considered one of the most important young chefs in the nation, began working at L’Etoile. In 2005, he, along with his sister Traci, purchased the restaurant from Piper to continue in her high-quality footsteps.
Today, the restaurant remains one of the top fine-dining restaurants in Wisconsin but for Miller, this wasn't enough. He wanted to find a way to share the fresh cuisine with a bigger audience. So in 2010, Graze was opened in Madison offering a more casual dining experience but still keeping with the high standard L'Etoile had set.
Both restaurants continue to gain attention for their sustainable, local branding efforts by receiving recognition in publications like Gourmet magazine’s “America’s Top 50 Restaurants” and Saveur’s “Top 100."
Here is what you can learn from Miller and Piper about how to make your brand stand out:
1. Understand your audience and dare to be different. The Midwest is not known for being foodie heaven. Graze knew it had to be different. Looking out on the capitol building, Graze has the air of a hip city restaurant with the huge hearts of the Midwesterners bustling around to bring delicious food to every table.
The people in the Madison area – some local and others transplants attending University of Madison -- are engaged and interested in what they're eating. With an eclectic menu, you’ll find two different types of people at Graze: Those who love local beer, cheese curds and burgers and those adventurous foodies who enjoy the charcuterie and unusual, traditional Korean dishes, like pork belly.
2. Stick to your mission. With up to 170 different Wisconsin farmers on the menu, Graze is careful to work only with farms practicing sustainability. Though they’re careful about who they work with, they don't limit their farms to certified organic. May seem a little backwards, but for Graze, it makes sense. The farmer’s sustainable practices, for instance, allow them to get goat cheese from a woman who loves her goats and takes excellent care of them but is willing to give antibiotics if they are sick.
Graze showcases all of their farmers on a huge wall inside the restaurant. Each month a new story and picture are on the board -- another draw for customers.
“You might think writing the story would be the hard part, but it's not easy to get pictures of farmers. They’re a proud bunch,” explains assistant manager Courtney Stacy.
Graze's local roots don't stop at the food. The restaurant refuses to work with big name wholesale companies, opting instead to support local companies by purchasing linens and kitchen supplies from them – a practice that is more expensive but fits Graze's mission statement.
They're even working on changing the way younger generations see the world through community outreach, with one initiative having Miller visit schools and teach children how to cook with fresh ingredients.
3. Set your employees up for success. Graze holds its entire staff to a high standard. During their extensive training, employees get quizzed on everything from the mission to the farmers and the expected exceptional customer service. Those who don’t fit well end up weeding themselves out quickly. The result is an impeccable experience for customers.
"Hire people you can trust and then trust them,” says Stacy.
For those that make the cut, every member of their staff knows where every item on the menu comes from and management wants employees to be engaged. For example, "That's John and Dorothy, and we buy our beef from their farm," can be overheard, as employees point to the pictures on the wall.