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MTO Cafe

The acronym inspires much debate, but quite simply, MTO stands for made to order.

The Name Game

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The thrilling, albeit agonizing, process of naming a restaurant.

By Daniel P. Smith October 2015 Marketing & Promotions

Eighteen years ago, Donnie Madia confronted a daunting professional dilemma.

As a founding partner in One Off Hospitality, a Chicago-based enterprise now responsible for some of the Windy City’s foremost dining treasures, including Avec, The Publican, and The Violet Hour, Madia and his colleagues battled—albeit cordially—over the name of the group’s inaugural restaurant in the city’s West Loop neighborhood.

“Naming the restaurant was difficult because everyone wanted a hand in it,” acknowledges Madia, winner of the 2015 James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Restaurateur.

With the restaurant’s opening looming, Madia and his One Off co-founders—Chef Paul Kahan, Rick Diarmit, and Eduard Seitan—bantered about names for weeks before settling on Menue.

Chef Kahan, however, was unconvinced and pushed additional options, including one sparked by a PBS special he watched on the Provence region of France. In the program, a local resident described the Merlot grapes in his vineyard as little blackbirds.

Kahan championed the Blackbird title with friends, vendors, and his One Off colleagues. After persistent lobbying and some informal market testing, Menue was out and Blackbird was in.

“And, truthfully, it’s a fitting name,” Madia says. “Blackbird has white walls and dark floors and the color comes from the people and the food.”

While a name alone will not breed restaurant success, a name does remain the eatery’s unquestionable public identity: an element broadcast in conversations, Internet searches, and exterior signage. In just a few easily relayed syllables, the name must capture, at least to some extent, the menu, hospitality, design, vibe, and sensibilities of the restaurant—a remarkably complex, dynamic, and challenging task.

“A name is one of the most impactful things a restaurant has,” confirms Amy Dennis, creative director of Nice Branding Agency, a Tennessee-based brand building and marketing firm that works with restaurants across the Southeast.

Great restaurant names are distinctive, yet easily recalled, gliding off the tongue and simple to spell, particularly since so many guests first encounter a restaurant online or via word of mouth. Names spark an engaging story and communicate key restaurant attributes, and they help a restaurant vie for the attention of astute consumers by embracing descriptive or memorable words.

“Several restaurants aren’t hurting themselves with their names, but they’re certainly not helping themselves, either,” says Ben Jenkins, founder and design director of OneFastBuffalo, a Dallas-based firm that offers strategic branding guidance and design consultation to restaurant clients.

Naming Rights

Naming a restaurant can be an agonizing endeavor, especially when multiple individuals and deep emotions hover over the process.

Any name requires intense research regarding the restaurant’s points of differentiation, its marketplace positioning, and—perhaps most importantly—its target customers. For entrepreneurial restaurant folks, many of whom only know how to operate in one all-out speed, such methodical, patient research represents a tediously difficult assignment.

Will the restaurant serve breakfast, craft cocktails, organic dishes, or ethnic options? Will it be a casual eatery for weekly dinners or a high-end spot largely reserved for special occasions? Is the restaurant aiming to attract families, hipsters, or discriminating diners?

“You absolutely have to start by pulling back the reins and understanding your concept,” Jenkins’ OneFastBuffalo partner Christine Edgington says. “You have to sit down, reflect, and have careful, diligent conversations about the restaurant’s unique traits, concept, and tone.”

Once ownership understands the restaurant’s feel, position, and target consumer, prospective names that are enlightening and imaginative often materialize.

“When you invent the pieces of the world first, the restaurant name will come to you, or at least the process will become much easier,” Jenkins says.

When brainstorming names for their Las Vegas–based concept in early 2013, restaurant partners Ben Sabouri and Matt Moore of Shift Hospitality first defined the theme and menu: fresh comfort food and classic dishes with unique twists, served in a modern diner setting. The partners shuffled ideas back and forth, sleeping on some and second-guessing others, before arriving at MTO Café.

“Ultimately,” Sabouri says, “we wanted a name people could remember and there’s nothing complex about MTO Café.”

Though MTO officially stands for “made to order,” the acronym has emerged a conversation piece among guests, with many taking stabs at MTO’s enigmatic meaning, which results in a guessing game that captures MTO’s fun, straightforward vibe.

“The MTO name perfectly fits our vision and concept,” Sabouri says.

Too often in the naming process, however, research is ignored, individual preferences dominate, or egos govern. As a result, the naming process grows frustrating and the final results suffer. To avoid these common traps, Dennis urges her clients to disconnect from themselves and focus on titles that will galvanize prospective customers.

“The name shouldn’t be about you; it should be about what resonates with your target audience,” Dennis says.

Popular Semantics

Back in February, in a quest to identify particular restaurant-naming patterns, The Eater investigated the more than 400 restaurant titles tied to 2015 James Beard Award semifinalists.

A name introduced by The emerged the most popular option with 32 entries declaring themselves “The whatever,” as in dining successes like The Bachelor Farmer and The Progress. Chef’s names, such as Carbone and Vetri, or foods, like Quince and Salty Tart, each represented 30 semifinalists, while single-word abstract concepts like Parachute and Gunshow, or feminine names like Blanca and Maude, rounded out the top five.

The Eater study was an intriguing one, spotlighting the rich and varied sources from which restaurant entrepreneurs can pluck inspiration: animals and plants, foreign words and abbreviations, address numbers and street names, past tenants and historical figures.

When naming The Publican, for example, Madia and his One Off colleagues learned that a publican refers to a pub owner or manager in Britain, a term that plays to their Chicago spot’s hearty beverage program. Digging further, they also discovered that Chicago hosted a saloon named the Publican in the 19th century; restoring the name, the group reasoned, deepened the new restaurant’s ties to its Chicago roots.

Mixing pragmatism with creativity and research, Dennis often favors tying a restaurant to its place, seeking ways to link geography, history, or local culture to the restaurant’s distinctive proposition.

“Place can bring unique ideas to the table,” Dennis says, “and it’s important to look in your own backyard since that’s where your primary customer base is.”

Additionally, Dennis touts shorter names, which tend to resonate best in today’s text-messaging, Twitter-happy environment. On a practical level, shorter names also work well on business cards, windows, print menus, and exterior signage, while a longer name might be too crowded to be legible.

For his buck, Jenkins cautions against puns, which can come off as cheesy or amateurish; against literal names, which are rarely intriguing; and against trendiness, which positions the restaurant as a me-too concept.

“Unless that trendiness is something you want to tap into, it can seem too copycat,” Jenkins says, noting that the dictionary and thesaurus can be helpful allies, while alliteration will often help people remember a name.

Though restaurant entrepreneurs want comfort and assurance that the name they select will work, Jenkins adds that owners should not be too cautious.

“No great restaurant ever came about by being super safe,” he reminds.

Once the list of prospective names has been narrowed down, Dennis suggests performing simple market testing. Post names on Facebook, or quiz friends and neighbors to see if they understand perceptions and connotations.

“The market testing doesn’t have to be massive or formal, but it can be helpful to run a name by some people,” Dennis says. “However, be wise about how you use and interpret remarks and feedback.”

More advanced market testing, meanwhile, might include some preliminary elements of a greater visual identity. Jenkins’ team at OneFastBuffalo typically hands its clients one name and a clear visual identity because that’s how the customer will experience it. “Plus,” he adds, “one name can play so many different ways.”

Before getting too far along, owners should visit Google to see if other restaurants carry the name. Also investigate the availability of a dot-com domain and the potential moniker’s availability on social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Dennis recalls one restaurant that built its identity around a name that already existed, a misstep that cost significant time and money.

“That shows the value of Google before even getting to the legal stage,” Dennis says.

Sabouri says a number of the names he and Moore developed during the brainstorming process for MTO Café were already in use. That reality prompted him to take an ambitious step, though one that will undoubtedly streamline the process for Shift Hospitality’s next ventures: He purchased a plethora of domain names for restaurant titles that he and Moore favored.

That’s my learning curve,” Sabouri says. “The beauty is that now we have a backlog of great ideas we have secured, and a potentially easier naming process for future projects.”

What's in a Name?

The stories behind unusual, distinctive, and memorable restaurant titles.

Blue Ginger
Wellesley, Massachusetts

Blue represents water, one of the key elements of feng shui related to success and career, and seafood, an ingredient prevalent in the eatery’s dishes. Ginger, meanwhile, is an inherently healthy flavor that complements both savory and sweet spices. Plus, Chef Ming Tsai adds, “I always preferred Ginger over Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island.”

Canoe
Atlanta

Restaurateur George McKerrow and his team knew they wanted to incorporate their restaurant’s location on the banks of the Chattahoochee River into the name, seeking a title that would characterize life on the river and its scenic setting. When the team stumbled upon an antique canoe, they found both an interesting relic and the perfect name for their restaurant.

Crudo
Phoenix

Meaning “raw” in Italian, Crudo references Chef Cullen Campbell’s Japanese-style sashimi crafted with Italian flair, such as his penchant for favoring basil and olives over ginger.

The Grey Plume
Omaha, Nebraska

“Grey” arrives from the middle name of Chef/owner Clayton Campbell’s son, Hudson Grey, while “Plume,” which is French for feather, pays homage to the eatery’s French techniques and also sparks the notion of a dream—namely, opening a restaurant—that is taking flight.

Hopscotch
Oakland, California

When Chef Kyle Itani and partner Jenny Schwarz found their current space, they envisioned a fun, approachable diner with upscale food, beverage, and service. Hopscotch seemed the perfect playful and cheery moniker. “It seemed fated when we realized there were the perfect number of windows to spell it out along the facade of the restaurant,” Schwarz says.

Le Pigeon
Portland, Oregon

During Gabriel Rucker’s early days as a chef, he tattooed the words le Pigeon on his forearm, a term used in French kitchens for the cook who handles grunt work. Knowing he would continue searing foie gras and shelling peas in his new restaurant’s kitchen, the two-time James Beard honoree thought Le Pigeon a fitting title.

Sotto
Cincinnati

Boca Restaurant Group leaders labored over naming options for their upstart Italian concept that sits in a subterranean space below the firm’s flagship French/New American eatery Boca. They chose “Sotto,” a word that means “under” or “below” in Italian, and a term that can be taken literally or just as easily imbued with meaning.

State & Lemp
Boise, Idaho

Before opening State & Lemp, business partners Remi McManus and Jay Henry ran an underground restaurant called Off the Grid. When deciding to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant “on the grid,” the pair chose to name their restaurant for the Boise intersection that housed their contemporary shop: State & Lemp.