Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Selling Sushi in a Meat-and-Potatoes Town

The Brand Insight Blog, published by BN Branding, a Bend marketing consulting firm, offers some unconventional wisdom about why Jody Denton's once-red-hot Bend restaurants, Merenda

Posted By on Tue, Jan 27, 2009 at 10:00 AM

The Brand Insight Blog, published by BN Branding, a Bend marketing consulting firm, offers some unconventional wisdom about why Jody Denton's once-red-hot Bend restaurants, Merenda and Deep, cooled off and went under.


"The obituaries sounded all too familiar for this town, at this time: 'Merenda's demise was hastened by prevailing economic conditions.' 'The bottom dropped out of the restaurant business. Everyone's feeling the pinch.' 'The seasonal nature of business in this town makes it very difficult ... '" the blogger writes.

But the real problems were (in the case of Merenda) failure to establish a distinctive brand and a loyal customer base and (in the case of Deep) a failure to read the Bend market correctly.

Although the food was good, the blogger explains, the Merenda brand "wasn't about the cuisine. It was about partying. The brand promise seemed to boil down to 'good friends, good times.' It was a loud, raucous place where groups would gather and drink generously from an outstanding wine list. The vibe was more urban, the energy level more electric, than anything previously. Many nights you couldn't hear yourself think."

(The Eye can personally attest to the truth of that last statement. The noise level was one of the big reasons we didn't care too much for Merenda. A cheerfully noisy restaurant is fun, but that place was crazy. We didn't enjoy having to scream to make ourselves audible to the person sitting across the table from us.)

"Many of Merenda's customers were only there because it was THE place to be," the blogger continues. "It was a superficial relationship, not a genuine bond. Success by association. When new restaurants opened the crowds thinned out."

The Eye has seen that pattern in Bend more times than we can count: New restaurant opens, there are lines out the door for a couple of weeks or months, then the novelty wears off and "the beautiful people" (or what passes for such in Bend) move on to the next "great new place."

With Deep, the blogger argues, the problem was offering something too exotic for the local market:

"Being different from the competition is certainly important, but it's not as crucial as being appealing. Tiny morsels of Kobe beef served on a hot rock for eight dollars a bite ... that's different! 'Angry Lobster,' Monkfish paté, grilled yuzu and marinated, chopped maguro tataki were all impressively different. But not appealing enough to inspire repeat business by a large group of people in a relatively small market.

"Bottom line: Deep was a high-end sushi place in a meat and potato town."

That last line is worth remembering, and not just for restaurateurs but for anybody who wants to sell anything here: Underneath a paper-thin veneer of sophistication, Bend is still basically a working-class, former logging town with down-to-earth tastes.

(TOTH to "I Hate to Burst Your Bubble" on the BendBubble2 blog for spotting this item.)

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