This article was originally published in the Winter Edition of Heliopolis Magazine.
It’s an unseasonably warm December this year in New York. My friend David, his wife Allyson, and I shuffle into Roberta’s Pizza, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn, before we take the L train to see the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. The restaurant is dimly lit and tightly seated. An entire album of Kid Cudi with guitar work by Ratatat thumps over the speakers. The table setting is simple but much nicer than I’d expected. They are clean and the menus look fresh and new. The condiments don’t look three-months-old, napkins that actually take food off your hands, and the flatware is spot-free. Allyson is rattling off the Fiddler songs she is most excited to hear. I’m listening, but my attention is split with soaking in this place. It’s awesome.
The waiter politely enters the bubble of our table, welcomes us, and offers to help us make a selection. Here my mind notices something too. This guy actually looks like he enjoys working here. I don’t know what else this guy does on the side, but he is at Roberta’s to work and work well. His hands held no pen, his hair was clean but still full of personality, his tone was pleasing, and he was knowledgeable about the menu. Refreshing is the only thing I could come up with. At a pizza joint. We make a selection, he whisks away, and we know we are taken care of.
David, a Shreveport expat and now five-year resident of New York, tells me that businesses have to be good – especially in rising parts of Brooklyn. If you’re not top notch, you’re likely to be gone in a matter of months. It’s a competitive market where businesses sink or swim on first impressions and social visibility. Where top notch doesn’t mean white tablecloths and expensive dishes but a cohesiveness of vision and quality in execution, no matter the level.
This venn of cohesion is equal parts quality of product, design, atmosphere, and customer service. Think about it – what makes a good restaurant better than an average restaurant? It had only ever occurred to me to have an opinion, not to ask myself why. These pillars apply to all businesses, of course. So why do we have so many just plain average establishments – food and otherwise – in Shreveport?
I’ve spent almost half of the last three years in places other than Shreveport, Louisiana for work and pleasure: Spots like Denver, New York, Houston, Austin, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Nashville, among others. I’m a culture hound. When in a place other than home, I never eat at chain restaurants (a quality instilled in me by Louisiana Film Prize executive director Gregory Kallenberg), and I try really hard to find up-and-coming businesses to support.
In my travels, presentation – on all fronts – fascinates me. I look at the world with a designer’s eye, and while I do spend time mentally critiquing logos, graphics, verbiage, and decor, “presentation” is more than that. The pillars of quality of product, design, atmosphere, and customer service are what make up the customer’s impression of a product or service – be it a restaurant, a candle, or even a city itself. If we want Shreveport to be the “next great” destination for both people and business, these pillars need to be important to you, too.
So why is it that there aren’t more well-designed brands in Shreveport? Sure, there are a few notable ones like Rhino Coffee, Great Raft Brewing, Pelican Parish Supply Company, Ki Mexico, Maccentric, Frank’s Pizza, Well+Fed, Bon Temps Coffee Bar, and Sugarwalk Popcorn to name… just about all of them, but it’s not even remotely enough to make our city sing the way it should. The near absence of business with total identity quality is frustrating, but not altogether unsurprising.
When a new business opens up, like the short-lived Jethro’s in downtown (RIP 2013-2013), they often ignore everything except the product they’re selling – if they even pay attention to that. To take Jethro’s as an example, the place had no web presence, no graphic identity, atmosphere bordering on the negative, and wait staff that barely knew what was on the menu. I don’t even remember the food because my mind was occupied with how bad everything else was. You probably don’t remember they were here. I couldn’t even find something of theirs online to illustrate for this article. It was a terrible mess, and they closed down.
But even if the product being sold was just OK the other pillars of atmosphere, design, and customer service can keep a business afloat. There is a local business, which will remain unnamed, that is mentioned to me quite often in this way. The product is OK, but everything else is a notch above, so people go. Moving on.
I’m a designer by trade, so I want to focus on that aspect for a bit. Great Raft Brewing – one of Shreveport’s entrepreneurial darlings – has a great product. To brand their product, they adopted a patinated, but clean, look that translates both to distressed and fresh sensibilities. The color and style standards flow throughout their entire business from web presence to shirts, glasses, product labels, and the design of the tasting room itself. It feels like a national company. Their business has a cohesive brand and identity that make you feel something.
One point of note is that Great Raft chose to take their beer can design to a firm outside of Shreveport. Initially, some cried foul because GRB was claiming to be a local company that supports local (they are and far more than most), but I think the community has to stop concerning itself with who does what, rather focus on the quality of work. Why should a company sacrifice their own brand if a local designer that fits their goals wasn’t available? It’s not a knock on local designers, it’s just a reality of the market.
Speaking of local design firms, Andrew Crawford and his company Crawford Design created the brand identity for Rhino Coffee, the other company Andrew owns. The Rhino logo is a simple, stamp-like icon that tells you exactly what kind of place Rhino is – full of reclaimed furniture, mason jar lights, and freestyle seating. The design gives you a window through which you see the intent of the brand and sets expectations. You can tell the kind of experience you’re going to have in their marketing materials and you buy the product of the experience just as much as you buy a cup of coffee. Some other coffee shops wonder why people fawn over Rhino, but the answer is clear to me. They adhere to the pillars. It also helps that they were practically first to the well-designed local coffee shop market.
Companies like the Gorilla Design, Jim Hayes’s workshop, freelancers like Nathan Treme, Sara Duet, and Luke Lee, among others, have been stepping up the local design game. Luke Lee left his career in a salaried position to open Fusiform Design Workshop which focuses not just on graphics, but on the physical implementation of design through his actual workshop. As in tools and stuff, not just a computer. When you walk in you can literally smell creation. Cut wood, hardware, paint. From concept to completion, there’s a design mentality to what his firm does, much like what Jim Hayes does with his workshop.
Design encompasses so much of an experience. Signage, Facebook graphics, product packaging, menus, interior decorating… every physical object in a business has to exude the personality of the business. That doesn’t mean slapping a logo on everything, but it means having a cohesive vision for how your customers will experience your product or service. Maccentric does this by adopting some of Apple’s sensibilities while also keeping their own flair. A clean, simple storefront with large glass windows. It’s an exercise in branding appropriation that works.
These approaches to respecting the idea of design need to be implemented via atmosphere and customer service – pillars that are often forgotten. Some of Shreveport’s would-be amazing businesses have the worst customer service experience. No matter how good your product is, I don’t want to sit down at a restaurant and have a waiter who doesn’t know how to manage tables or a bartender who forgets I’m there or a customer service agent who doesn’t know pricing, special offers, and where to find things. I don’t want a warm body, I want service. That’s why I got off the couch instead of ordinging from Amazon. Franchise and chain businesses have customer training. How many local businesses implement employee training so that there is a unified voice and an effort to provide a consistent experience? Only a few in my experience.
Sugarwalk Popcorn gets all of this. Their store is what you’d expect and more from the moment you see their brand, and holds you as soon as you walk into the store through leaving with tasty treats. It’s like walking into a high-end Denver bud shop. Pick your flavor, pick your size, want a pop or candy? Simple. In and out with a smile. I’ve never even been to Sugarwalk and I know the experience because it’s conveyed through everything they do. We must demand that kind of attention to brand identity and quality of service if we want Shreveport to be a better place.
We all know these things intrinsically, but we’ve been hoodwinked by some using the “shop local” clarion call as if that’s the only consideration a customer should make. And yet, even though we know what’s good and what’s not, there’s still a vacuum when it comes to intentional design and customer service in the Shreveport marketplace. Why? Because we have undervalued these things in our city for so long that business owners have sunk to meet our low expectations. We’ve just chalked it up to “that’s Shreveport” as if someone’s going to magically come in and make shit better. Why would a business owner spend money when the customer doesn’t appear to care? But we do care. It’s evident in businesses that see success. Look around and take note of which businesses people happily return to, rather than begrudgingly “give it another shot.” We need to demand better, and businesses will be better for it.
When we demand better, businesses will be compelled to become better. When enough businesses become better, our city has something to sell to people wanting to visit or move here, or start a business here. We have to work together as a community to raise the bar for how we are perceived by the outside world. Businesses and citizens alike need to recognize the value that good design and presentation brings to our city. Like it or not, we are competing on a national level for the approval of potential businesses, tourists, and future citizens which could all feed into our tax base and make us more financially stable as a city, meaning we can do things like fix our roads, parks, and schools – assuming the leadership wants that.
Speaking of the city, the pillars run all the way up to the government level too. Our “best” currently includes lackluster outreach videos, cheesy print efforts, crappy slogans, and limp hashtags sourced from the lowest bidder, friends of friends, or cousins with Photoshop. The formulaic and far too cautious proclamations given by some representatives that aim to placate constituents and poke petty arguments instead of actually serving the city. City “efforts” are largely stale and uninspired, pushing more mediocre content and initiatives instead of a few bold statements that actually build the city’s brand, though Rockets over the Red and the Christmas Tree lighting event left me pleasantly surprised. We need more of that thinking.
As a city, we need to learn to connect with people within and without our borders – our current and potential residents – in order to show what we have to offer. Or we can pat ourselves on the back with status quo and small victories here and there, but outsiders will just shrug and move on if we aren’t showing determination (and action) to become better.
We all need to decide we’re going to tell the truth about local business products, design, atmosphere, and customer service. Perhaps we should require things like health code ratings to be posted on doors of restaurants as they must in New York. Wouldn’t it be great if The Times reviewed restaurants and businesses with actual insight and criticism as they once did instead of selling puff pieces? Or would that fit into Gannett’s business model? Public shaming goes a long way. Unless standards are held and put on display, we’ll continue to pass by and accept “good enough.” The age of mediocrity needs to end, and if that means someone can’t take some heat, they should get out of the kitchen.
Our pledge as consumers should be to support what is great, not just what is local. Local should aim to be great rather than relying on the local factor to float their business. Being great means having cohesive and planned product, design, atmosphere, and customer service. You don’t want to make a great product? Fine. Don’t want to create an atmosphere and provide a great experience for customers? Fine. But don’t expect great success, and don’t you dare blame locals for not supporting you. We deserve the best and that’s what we all must start expecting.