Restaurants BrainstormingSession2 copy

Can you make your French fries an extension of your brand personality?

By Charlie Hopper

Ever since one Mr. R. Kroc of Des Plaines, Ill., perfected the reliability and consistency of the so-called “French” fry as an easy-to-port, easy-to-finger-eat vehicle for delivering oily fat and salt, we the people can’t quit the things. There’s not even a close second side dish, unless it’s the very responsible choice of a “side salad.” (Slather that salad with a packet of creamy ranch and a dozen croutons, though, and you might as well have gone with the little oily fat-sticks.)

So here’s my question: Can you make your restaurant’s fries a brand statement?

Something that helps people understand your core mission, your underlying promise – something that seems right, and natural, not just the latest trend or an indifferent gotta-have? I’m not proposing we review all the different ways to fry and serve a potato – must be a thousand ways to chop it ’n’ top it – but I am going to propose a little brainstorm on how you might make yours both delicious and a marketing ploy. A fry ploy, as it were.

Let’s brainstorm.

Are you about indulgence? Is your brand a promise to let diners forget their diet and the awful day they just had? Then bring on the fat. These are the fries that come to the table with a discreet little napkin underneath to absorb the grease. They often come with a wide selection of dipping sauces and there’s probably some intriguing seasoning – rosemary on the Smashburger fries, for example.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS: This is for the restaurant that deliberately loads too much on the plate, or makes no pretense of healthy eating, or wants you to show up and have a drink and forget your responsibilities (until the check arrives). You’re there to sin.

JUST A THOUGHT: Maybe think of a way to deliver the sauce besides those little stainless ramekins? They work great, but they’re not ownable anymore. Everybody has them. What would be your place’s take on the sauce container? What else is at your restaurant supply warehouse?

BRAINSTORM: Consider making it your mission to appear at the top of the “city guide eater’s choice award?” Or maybe aim at inclusion in a travel article online someplace for people coming to your city? Think about the one really easy-to-tell-your-friend thing you might do to your fries nobody saw coming – craft beer batter, maybe? A pairings menu with whichever alcohol you want to push? Chat up a local brewmaster or spirits distributor some sunny afternoon and see where it leads.

Restaurants Brainstorming SessionAre you about variety? Something new, something different – is that your promise? Do people come to you slightly curious? If so, well, it’s okay to offer the sinful fry, but twist it. Is there a new cut besides the waffle, the shoestring, the ol’ skin-still-on-it approach or the ironic tot? Or turn up the sauce selections. Make it about variety, not mere carefree gluttony.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS: Anyone with a menu that’s more than two pages.

JUST A THOUGHT: Five Guys sure scored big when they wrote the sourcing for their current inventory of potatoes on a white board. It added a hint of farm-to-table to an otherwise expected burger and fry routine. It makes them seem proud of their fries and lets you in on a secret to their success that’s probably not really a secret. Is there a next level of that?

BRAINSTORM: Go click around on the Penzey’s spices site. What’s an uncommon spice that might be interesting? Or think about the success of the Lay’s potato chip “Do Us A Flavor” campaign that invites creativity from consumers – it’s been going on so long, the flavor chemistry is getting really interesting, and unexpected. What might you suggest for next year? Try that on your fries this year.

Are you about speed? Are you shoving your fries out a window? Then you have a whole different set of issues.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS: Anyone whose diners don’t dine in.

JUST A THOUGHT: Heat loss is the enemy, not the QSR drive-thru next door. Those Chick-fil-A waffle fries have a lot of surfaces for the air to cool them, yet somehow retain their heat a lot better than the typical sticks from the average fast food joint. Must be the packaging. How are you addressing heat loss? What grade did you get in physics class?

JUST A FOLLOW-UP THOUGHT: Messiness is your next enemy. You have a lot of enemies selling fries through a drive-thru, don’t you?

BRAINSTORM: Get creative with the to-go containers. Easy-to-eat versus easy-to-heat-conserve – make a choice on your priority. For example, McDonald’s classic cardboard-fold-out is a commitment to eating as a fry’s primary purpose, not travelling: their sleeve doesn’t help the heat so much as invite sneaking fries in the car on the way home. And those big Heinz dipping-containers that peel open like the classic Smuckers table-jelly-pack are a lifesaver for the minivan driver trying to keep squirty ketchup off the plush toys and car seats.

Are you about being of-the-moment? Hm. You may be addicted to promotions. It happens. A while ago it was a sauce made with ghost pepper or sriracha, wasn’t it? Quarterly promos come and go, and you’re always chasing the newest thing, aren’t you?

WHO SHOULD DO THIS: Nobody. It’s my opinion that focus on your concept and your promise and what you’re “about” pays off more than the unending march of the quarterly promotion squadron – with an occasional new product that’s really great instead of just filling the Q3 slot because we always have something new for the Q3 slot. But too late, you’re committed to “new news,” I assume, and you might as well make it great.

JUST A THOUGHT: Odds are good it won’t be long before you’re training your servers to upsell poutine.

BRAINSTORM QUESTION: What would be newsworthy without making you look like “just another” restaurant jumping on whatever wagon rolls by with a band on it? Try some of the brainstorms in the other categories – you might end up with something that goes on the menu permanently.

Charlie Hopper, principal/writer of ad agency Young & Laramore, shares views on restaurant marketing at, as well as in recently published books “Nuggets, Nibbles, Morsels, Crumbs: Selected Restaurant Marketing Columns from Food & Drink International,” and “Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word Delicious.” Hopper is known for his unique and witty perspective on food and restaurant brands and is a regular contributor to Food & Drink International.


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