Whether you're opening a new restaurant or growing an existing one, building a strong restaurant culture and brand is key to your long-term success. Your restaurant culture and brand will guide strategic business decisions, impacting everything from your menu, pricing, and decor to your target customer and hiring strategy. But as your business grows, maintaining your restaurant brand can become more of a challenge for operators.
In this article, Stephanie Izard, Executive Chef and Owner of Girl & the Goat in Chicago and Los Angeles, shares how she created a restaurant culture and brand that resonates with customers and empowers employees amidst her ever-expanding operation.
What is restaurant culture?
Restaurant culture is a set of values that defines what it means to be in your restaurant environment. This includes elements like your company vision and mission, brand identity, beliefs and norms, systems and processes, and even the language used in your menu, signage, and by your staff. Together, these elements combine to create the restaurant culture experienced by your employees and guests.
This hospitality industry has historically been known for its toxic restaurant culture, but many operators are working to change that by prioritizing employee mental health. Keep reading to learn why strengthening your restaurant culture and brand will improve loyalty and engagement among your customers and staff.
Girl & the Goat: The restaurant brand origin story
When opening a restaurant, focus on creating a brand that is meaningful to you. Stephanie's restaurant brand comes from her own last name, which translates from Spanish to "goat" — specifically, a goat breed in the Pyrenees mountain range. She opened Girl & the Goat in Chicago in 2010, and today operates five additional restaurants: Little Goat, Duck Duck Goat, Cabra (which means "goat" in Spanish), and Sugargoat in Chicago, as well as a Girl & the Goat location in Los Angeles. She also launched This Little Goat, a retail product line that offers sauces and spice mixes.
From a visual perspective, Stephanie's friend drew their iconic, cartoon-style goat logo, which is still seen throughout her restaurants, retail products, and online channels today. Your restaurant's logo helps customers, staff, and investors understand what to expect at your restaurant.
"When we put a goat t-shirt on a mannequin at our restaurant entrance, it tells people that we're a little wacky and don't take ourselves too seriously."
When building a restaurant brand, consistency is key. Make sure your logo and brand appear on all external marketing assets — including your in-store signage, merchandise, menu, website, and social media channels — as well as internal resources such as employee handbooks.
Launching and maintaining a restaurant brand
To launch her restaurant, Stephanie first did a pop-up dinner series she called "The Wandering Goat" to generate excitement and give people a first glimpse of the brand. Since then, she and her team leverage all of their marketing channels and products as an extension of the Girl & the Goat brand. Learn how you can apply their branding strategies to your own restaurant:
Connect with guests on social media
When juggling the day-to-day responsibilities of running a restaurant, social media management can become an afterthought. But Stephanie urges operators to prioritize this powerful channel. "Let's be real — social media is an added job, and is one of the hardest things to keep up," she noted. "But it's one of the best channels for restaurants and is a great way to connect with guests, so have fun with it!"
The Girl & the Goat team uses social media to give guests behind-the-scenes videos from the kitchen, share new menu specials, and promote upcoming events. Stephanie advised operators to designate a staff member to focus on social media management, including reading and responding to every comment. And don't be afraid to experiment with new channels such as TikTok, as social media is the perfect medium for testing new ideas.
Expand your brand reach with merchandise
When building a community around your brand, merchandise is key. In fact, part of what Stephanie likes about her logo is that it looks good on T-shirts. All staff members wear Girl & the Goat gear during their shifts, and branded Girl & the Goat apparel is available for customers to purchase. This helps staff members feel like part of the team and promotes the brand outside of the restaurant.
"It's really fun to see our T-shirts around town," Stephanie said, noting that she's even met people with Girl & the Goat tattoos. Now that's brand loyalty!
Create at-home brand experiences with retail
Launching a restaurant retail strategy by packaging and selling sauces, spice rubs, and pantry items brings in incremental revenue while expanding your brand's reach. Stephanie's This Little Goat product line gives people the chance to taste her globally-inspired flavors from the comfort of home. The retail website is filled with goat puns (e.g., their newsletter subscription form says "Join the herd!") and each bottle label prominently features their goat logo.
Having a consistent brand strategy can also inform your menu and product offerings — as it does for Stephanie's retail line. "The goat goes on everything," noted Stephanie. "So as we develop our sauce and spice recipes, we ask ourselves, 'Does this taste good on just about everything?'"
Highlight your brand in delivery orders
Off-premise meals are another opportunity for restaurants to showcase their brand. In addition to branded packaging (Stephanie recommends stickers, which are more cost-effective than printed bags), try including a fun surprise in your to-go orders. "You can still connect with guests through delivery," advises Stephanie. "When someone opens up their bag, give them something special like a coupon, a chance to win free delivery for next time, or a QR code for a video about your restaurant."
Staff culture ideas for your restaurant brand
In addition to the guest experience, your brand should also inform what it means to be an employee at your restaurant. Here are a few core brand principles that shape the Girl & the Goat workplace culture:
1. Create a sense of support and community
"When team members start at Girl & the Goat, they're joining a family of hundreds of people who have the same passion for hospitality, cooking, and helping guests," Stephanie said. "Whatever their role, they're excited to be there."
Stephanie and the Girl & the Goat managers make an effort to connect with all team members — whether it's checking on how they're doing, asking about their pets, and taking notice if someone is having a hard time. Family meals are also an important part of the Girl & Goat staff culture. "Family meals are not just about leftovers," explained Stephanie. "We put effort into creating a delicious dish for the team."
During the COVID-19 pandemic, this sense of community and focus on employee wellness became even more important. During the six weeks that their restaurants were closed, Stephanie provided groceries (or, as she called them, "goat-ceries") for her team to cook meals and share recipes from home. They also created a Facebook group to help staff stay connected even when they couldn't be together.
2. Take things seriously — but not too seriously
The Girl & the Goat staff knows the importance of providing excellent service and not overlooking any detail. That's why Stephanie tries to taste each menu item every day to ensure a consistent quality and taste. But she knows it's just as important to create a fun workplace environment — because if your employees are happy, your customers will be, too.
The Girl & the Goat team play music during prep, and host staff appreciation events such as bowling nights, workout classes, and "Iron Goat" cooking competitions that allow team members to showcase their creativity.
"It's so important to make sure the team is happy, having a good time, and feeling appreciated, because that will trickle down to our guests."
3. Provide opportunities for career growth
A number of employees have been with Girl & the Goat for years, including some who have been there since it first opened — known fondly as "the OGs" or "Original Goats." Having a high employee retention rate is a testament to a restaurant's strong culture and brand, and giving staff opportunities to stretch professionally gives them more reason to stay. For example, got a line cook who's eager to learn more? Train her to be a sous chef.
Opening new locations is another great way to provide professional development for restaurant employees. Stephanie always puts a few OGs in place at new restaurants so they enjoy growth opportunities, serve as mentors, and spread the Girl & the Goat culture to the new team.
Lastly, restaurant owners must learn to delegate. This not only helps staff members learn new skills, but is necessary for your restaurant's long-term success — and your own work/life balance. "Find out what you excel at and enjoy doing and keep those in your day-to-day, but rely on others for everything else," recommends Stephanie. "You'll be much more successful if you don’t try to do everything yourself."
Embrace your restaurant culture and brand
During the challenges of COVID-19, it's even more important to find ways to celebrate your restaurant culture and brand. By prioritizing the experience of both her guests and staff, Stephanie Izard has built and maintained a strong restaurant brand that continues to drive loyalty and growth across all of her locations.