On my winter break, I drove with my family from the Seattle area to Los Angeles. On the way, we found ourselves looking for dinner in Eugene, Ore., and by great luck discovered DickieJo's Burgers. Though it opened in 2009, DickieJo's has such an authentic 1950s diner feel that I thought I had found a 60-year-old survivor. This regional hit has struck a chord with the locals too: A sign in the entryway begs patrons to be patient if they find a long line. The owners Phil and Jim West plan to open a third store in Portland soon.
The reproduction-retro-1950s-diner restaurant theme has been done to death, and isn't exactly the hottest thing around right now generally. So how has DickieJo's thrived? A few observations about what makes DickieJo's a great brand:
- Be for everybody. DickieJo's clearly has a core fan base of loyal diners, but the management makes sure newcomers feel welcome, too. That entryway sign includes simple instructions on how to dine at DickieJo's -- stand in line to order first (no saving tables), pay, then find a table and bus your own dishes. One minute later, you know how to behave and feel like a regular.
- Exceed quality expectations. We all know what 1950s diner menus offer, but, at DickieJo's, that cuisine is transformed. All the sandwich breads and buns are made in-house and are fresh and delicious. They could probably get away with buying buns in bulk from a supplier like lots of fast-food shops do, but the homemade bread elevated those quality burgers and kosher hot dogs from serviceable to craveable.
- Flaunt your style. DickieJo's doesn't just look like a 1950s diner, it looks like the most awesome 1950s diner you can imagine. Every detail is right, from the checkerboard floors to the red leatherette booths to the light fixtures that look like flying saucers. Servers wear shirts adorned with the logo "Lucky '52" -- another nod to the era, and to the year the owners' parents, for whom the chain is named, started dating. Ya gotta love it.
- Be unique. Every diner needs a signature item, and, at DickieJo's, the secret ingredient is Ritz Crackers. They batter their chicken fingers with them and even use them in the decor, displaying them in rows along the walls.
- Don't get sloppy. Some throw-back diners tend to be a little grotty around the edges, but everything at this restaurant was newly remodeled and sparkling clean.
- Stay relevant. While the 1950s style is an evergreen favorite, the food can use some updating to fit modern tastes. So the soft-serve ice cream is the real thing with 10 percent butterfat, and made with hormone-free dairy products from local cows, the way Oregonians like it these days. The French fries and onion rings fry up in trans-fat-free oil, too.
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