Nadine Stellavato Brown thinks it’s time to stop looking at menus as things that tell what dishes you serve, and as a way to start building your brand. “Menus need to be considered as a first introduction,” she says, “almost like a wedding invitation, something people will see before they see the food. It should have the essence of that.”
Nadine, along with her husband, Jason, own Lost Luggage, which may seem like a strange name for a company that designs menus – and creates strategies – for restaurants. But, as she explains it, “It all begins with the branding, the image, what you want people to feel when they walk by a restaurant, they should get the same impression when they pick up a menu.”
Nadine and Jason combined their experience in branding and product design to create a service initially called Brand Envy that offered everything from customized presentation design to turnkey marketing campaigns. And it is a big part of the Lost Luggage brand, originally started by Jason, who Nadine met (and married) while working together on a marketing campaign.
“My dad was a food writer and he knew a lot of restaurateurs. It was an accident, really. He just knew a lot of people and always complained about the menus,” Stellavato Brown says. “‘Why do we come to a restaurant and the plating is so beautiful and the service is so beautiful and you still get the same old menus?’ So we started pursing restaurant and hotel branding and it followed from that.”
Lost Luggage has been in the presentation materials business for over 20 years but has spent the last 10 making menus.
Both designers, Stellavato Brown says she and her husband were not just some people who decided to start making menus. “We’ll name, brand and collaborate with hotel and restaurant groups. We do much more than the menu so they can come to us strategically, and the menus naturally are a part of the brand. It’s a very different business model than the typical menu company.”
Stellavato Brown says the company’s original goal was three things: “1. Look good; which is a huge failing on the part of menus today. 2. Create a product that lasts as most menus fall apart really quickly, usually within 6-12 months. That’s a business strategy for some people, but for us, it was the opposite. We wanted a menu to last a long time. We don’t use glue, we rivet everything. We even have design patents on some of our menus. And 3; incorporate the interior into the menu design. For example, sometimes we take wallpaper and screen print the same pattern on the menu,” she says. “We really want stuff to look like it’s intended to be part of the space, rather than an afterthought, which most menus are right now.”
On top of all this, Lost Luggage is green, she notes. “We’re trying to find 100% post-consumer waste materials and incorporate them into long lasting menus. Yes, it is more expensive,” she says. “What ends up happening is sometimes the product is meant for something else, like a counter top. So we have to figure out, how to incorporate that material into a menu that will last more than months. From the start we always made long lasting products and now our goal is to incorporate less waste. That’s our message now.”
She points out that manufacturers want things to fall apart, to a certain extent. “That’s so people keep reordering,” she says. “That’s why you buy a washing machine today and they only give you a five-year warranty. It’s going to fall apart in five years! We try to move it away from that, not only have it be beautiful but have it last. I have a 100-year-old house and I have the same boiler that was here when the house was built. Those were the days, when people made stuff not to fall apart. That’s our goal.”
As for the design of a menu, Stellavato Brown says it needs to be easy for people to hold. “Many are heavy, with a lot of thickness. In some cases, they’re huge, oversized. And it makes little sense for many restaurants. Many are small as space is a premium. You have to think about storing them,” she says. “That all adds up to a lot of old-school ideas. We do the opposite; try to make them light, lasting, easy to store but also easy for an owner to change themselves. Our main audience is someone who wants to change their menu frequently, not someone who just wants a page inside a plastic sheet. We want everything we make to be something that can be easily and effortlessly changed by the restaurant. No one has to be trained, just slip in a new page and it’s done.
“When you open up, you have a certain window when you’re going to be hot and popular, and you have to use that window to build your brand. You can’t make any mistakes,” Stellavato Brown says. “That’s where I consider it key to making sure you have all the right pieces. If you fall flat on any one thing, then that in turn can transfer over to food, to service, and there you go.”
She says the company’s menus aren’t going to be the cheapest. “You can use just a piece of paper. But our customers know it’s the cost of doing business and building your brand.”
Stellavato Brown says Lost Luggage’s success lies in the fact that it has really long-term relationships with its clients. “They love that we’re design-oriented, we’re not just people who decided to make menus. We see ourselves building an entire brand for someone and being emotionally invested in that. It’s more a design relationship, than a menu.”
For more information, go to taste-envy.com.