Designing America’s Next Great Restaurant

Editor’s note: Sequence was recently asked to design the brand identities for the three finalists of NBC’s reality TV show, America’s Next Great Restaurant. Up until the final episode, we were sworn to secrecy and could not mention even our involvement in the show (nevermind who the winner was). But now that Soul Daddy is officially America’s Next Great Restaurant, we’ve asked the Creative Director behind the work to tell the story of what it was like working on a secret.

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Working on a secret.

Before I start, there has to be some setup for you all to understand what I’m talking about.

Two of my colleagues and I were called in to “consult” with the three finalists of the new TV reality show “America’s Next Great Restaurant.” Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle (one of our clients), was a judge & investor for this exciting new show in which the grand prize is three working restaurants based on their concept. As investors, Steve and his fellow judges wanted to make sure that whichever concept they chose had an overall brand that they could both “live with” and might also ensure success.

Our role as brand consultants and designers was going to take place on the air. We would be introduced as members of Steve’s brand agency that “helped take Chipotle to the next level,” and that this final polishing of their brand would do the same for the eventual winner.

Well, reality TV is a long way from reality for us designers. Very little briefing time, next to no prep/design time, here are the judges…nice to meet you…we like those ideas…a little “here’s how TV works, kid” and….boom, we’re on!

By the way, if you expect someone to follow the celebrity judges on to a Hollywood set, hit some sort of mark, and not be distracted by a dozen camera and sound people…you might want to let them know what is going to happen and where this mysterious “mark” is.

So we get settled in, meet our contestants, do the chit-chat thing and learn about their concepts. Steve and Bobby Flay do their walkaround… “I like where this is going”… “hmmm, do you think this”….you know, your standard client-designer-judge/investor-reality-TV-show-cameras-filming-your-every-move kind of thing.

Yeah…not a normal scenario for us designers, but I will say, I was very proud of the way all three of us handled a somewhat hectic and crazy experience. We had a well-deserved drink that night, and came back to our studio with a great story to tell the rest of the gang.

And now, secrecy.

Some time goes by, we are still excited by our experience and wondering if we’ll be on TV or on the editing room floor, when they call once again. They need us to work on the winner’s brand.  Real reality will come into play as the winner’s three stores are built and opened the day after the finale. Final refinement of the concept, so all involved know what they’re getting into. A final tweak to the identity so that it can be applied to signage, uniforms, co-ordination with architects, etc. All of the stuff that we designers normally spend months on when creating and implementing brands that millions will see and interact with. Sounds fun. Seems easy enough. I’ve worked on major brands before. Hell, we just finished a rebranding of Chipotle, so how could this be any different?

Well, I’ll tell you how. It’s a secret. No really, it’s a secret, and you can’t tell anyone.

We need to do our refinement, plan, design and implement this new brand across three stores all the while keeping it a secret. The show hasn’t even hit the airwaves, and I already know who wins. Crazy.

Our office isn’t huge, but we have a little over 30 people. How am I going to work on this project, be available for other projects, and keep the secret? The first thing I did was to create my own personal philosophy around keeping the secret. I decided that if the secret was leaked, it wasn’t going to be because of me. I decided that I wasn’t going to tell anyone. Not even my wife. I devised all kinds of answers to questions about the show. My favorite was, ”the winner is definitely one of the three finalists.” (What an amazing side-step. Feel free to use it, I didn’t feel I could get a trademark.) The other thing we decided to do was to convert one of our smaller conference rooms into my new (private) office! We papered over the glass walls and in I went.

Now, a private office might sound like a sweet deal, but as a designer, it’s really nice to hear the passing comment about what you’re working on. To be able to grab another designer and talk through something that’s just not quite right, or the spontaneous, “what do you think of this..” kind of thing just isn’t as easy when your in a private office, let alone trying to keep what your working on a secret from the entire country.

The inner circle of secrecy grows.

Refining the identity and developing the extend look-and-feel of the brand wasn’t a huge challenging, but the logistics of everything certainly were.  All of a sudden, simple things like getting exterior signage approved and manufactured was an issue because that would mean someone else would know the secret. Proofing things became an issue — heck, if I just wanted to print something out here in the office I needed to do it on the sly. Or, at the very least, be very fast and run to the printer before other might see my work.

We had the idea of doing a mural in each of the stores, and the biggest discussion point was around how we could get something installed and keep the number of eyes on the work to a minimum. The next problem was the artwork itself. For a variety of reasons, I ended up bringing the muralist in house (another person “in-the-know”), working, in secret, in the back of our studio, all the while keeping prying eyes at bay.

Every discussion about whatever the next component was going to be was partnered with a conversation about who would now need to know the secret, or, how we planned on keeping something out of view. Installation dates were pushed. Some installations would just have to wait until the stores were opened. All the while, I’m working without my fellow designers for critique or advice.

Personally, my big take away on this was really about the side of our business that is often taken for granted. Design is only one part of the equation. Getting it printed, manufactured, installed, coded, or otherwise brought to life is no simple task. It takes a lot of people, and getting them all to keep a secret only adds to the complexity.

And now, everyone knows.

As the final show airs, and the secret is revealed, my work seems a lot like all of the other projects we’ve worked on. The basics are the same. I still needed to understand the client and vision. I still needed to create systems and styles that crossed many different mediums. I also needed to rely on others involved to be both critical and accepting. I got to see the joy on peoples’ faces as all of the hard work came to reality. And, I get to take pride in my work, and be able to say: “I did that.”

It really wasn’t all that different from work we do with our other clients, except this time….it was a secret.

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2 Comments

  1. Elaine

    May 8, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    Jack – As always, this is amazing identity work. Ryan and I watched the whole season with anticipation of the finale showing Sequence’s work, and we were not disappointed. Congratulations. You should be proud.

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