Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the
competition, in which an esteemed jury
identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear,
compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design
thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on
The following is excerpted from the client’s brief. In it, the client also
included photos of existing restaurants and identities which she felt
were relevant, as well as images of Vietnam, where this is the native
Décor Concept: “hip Asian diner/gourmet sandwich shop”
Name: Bun Mee
Overview: We are a gourmet Vietnamese-inspired sandwich shop that seeks
to move this popular street food item out of the alleyways of Chinatown
and onto Main Street. Although bánh mì is the only sandwich to come out of
Asia, it is still relatively unknown by mainstream Americans. We see our
role as educators and innovators of this food item. We want to make our
food accessible, fun and—most of all—delicious. Everything we serve is
fresh and prepared in-house, using recipes that belong to my Vietnamese
mother in collaboration with distinguished San Francisco chefs from the Culinary
Edge. We pay careful attention to sourcing high-quality ingredients
locally, whenever possible. We want to serve good food with heart. We
hope to build a brand that is synonymous with gourmet bánh mì
Similar concepts: Num Pang Sandwich Shop (New York City), Baoguette
(New York City), Nom Nom Truck (Los Angeles), Spice Kit (San Francisco), Baguette Box (Seattle), Xie Xie
(New York City), Out the Door (ferry building, San Francisco) and Lee’s Sandwiches (San Francisco)
Branding: Our brand should express hip, urban energy that is
charming and witty, with an artisanal feel.
Target Market: Young San Francisco urbanites, college grads and professionals in their twenties, thirties and forties who are ethnically diverse, well-traveled and educated. Many would label themselves foodies.
Menu: The star of our menu consists of nine specialty bánh mì sandwiches.
Some of our sandwiches are a higher quality version of current
traditional bánh mì offerings; most others are creative new options
that are unique to our brand while staying consistent with Southeast
Asian flavors. We will also serve meal salads, rice bowls, desserts and
appetizers, including sweet potato fries, grilled corn, imperial
rolls and salad rolls. For beverages, we are serving house-made sodas,
imported Asian beers, wine, Vietnamese coffee and teas. Bánh mì
sandwiches are a street food item in Vietnam. They are a staple of
Vietnamese cuisine but are considered simple food for workers. They are always
served by outdoor street food vendors. We want to capture a bit of this
experience for our customers.
Overall customer impression: The customer should feel as though they are
in a bustling urban Asian diner/sandwich shop. Key elements include an
open kitchen and a shelf display of baguettes, tea, coffee, spices,
etc. I prefer clean lines for the counter, tables, chairs and stools
but want an element of thoughtful whimsy that adds character and charm
in the smaller details—in the lighting fixtures, hanging paper
lanterns, art work, bench pillows, table setting, condiment
setting and table, food displays, etc. The space should emote a feeling of
casualness, comfort and warmth—a homegrown neighborhood spot that
provides credibility and context for the food.
We did no market research. We have no data.
This was our client’s first restaurant and she had no previous
restaurant experience. Her product, a Vietnamese sandwich known as bánh mì, was not widely known, and those who were familiar with it knew it as
a very low-cost street food.
The client’s goal—to open an upscale sandwich shop in one of San
Francisco’s most expensive retail neighborhoods—presented a unique
branding challenge. How does one break into the the food scene in a hyper–food-savvy city by effectively merging Vietnamese street culture with
the chic sophistication of an upscale retail experience (on a budget)?
Beauty and craftsmanship were our strategies.
Why does your client consider the project a success? In a recent feature interview for a San Francisco newspaper about the
role that design plays in restaurant branding, our client offered this
concluding thought: “Small business owners are always concerned with
cost and are always looking for ways to save. The one piece of advice I
would give them is not to skip on design, but to invest in it. It’s made
a huge difference to our success.”
Why do you consider it successful?
We consider the project successful for many reasons. Not only is our
client still in business, but the business is thriving. (According to a joint study by Cornell
University and Michigan State University, 50 percent of restaurants fail within their
first year.) We are
currently preparing to work with our client on a second location and
expand her catering business. We think design has played a role in this
success, as has the client’s business and marketing savvy, her
management style, the quality of her product and service, the quality of
her staff, her pricing strategy and her personality. Unfortunately, none of these factors are measurable, nor can they be
parsed out to determine the relative impact of each with regard to
The restaurant has received a lot of media attention—newspapers
articles, television interviews and blog posts from local, national and
international sources. This is almost unheard-of for a first-time
restauranteur with no previous following. We believe that the quality of
design and the clarity with which we have helped our client express her
brand have been influential in these results.
Basically, though, we just think it’s really good-looking, well-crafted
design, and we think people respond to that.
For a comprehensive look at our approach to this project, including information about our design process and a Q&A with the client, watch this video from the 2011 Brand New Conference.
Learn more about the jury’s perspective on the competition and their
rationale behind the selections.
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Video: AIGA Medalist Ralph Caplan