Personal Branding and Founders: The Restaurant Edition




On my quest to continue convincing everyone that a personal brand is absolutely imperative, I thought this week I would talk about the impact of personal brands when it comes to company founders. And - weaving it in with a personal passion of mine and my husband’s - talk in terms of restaurant founders.


In the last blog featuring my man Shaq, I referenced the downfall of Papa John’s founder, John Schanatter - the literal namesake of the brand. Started in1994 in Schanatter’s dad’s broom closet, after selling his car to fund the equipment, the company became the 4th largest pizza chain in the United States as of 2019 (2019 Top 100 Pizza Companies). And all of that success nearly came crashing down due to missteps in behavior and language by Schanatter after 25 years of growth and success. Now, I am not commenting on or downplaying said behavior and language, but my point here is this: a founder can make or break a brand.


Now, that is a very public, national example of a founder’s reputation affecting the brand, but as I like to do, I am bringing it back to the Queen City and focusing today primarily on a few of our Cincinnati favorites and - unlike in the example of Papa John’s - their success.

In no particular order, these founders and their restaurants include the likes of Jeff Ruby of Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment, Jeremy and Bridget Lieb of Sacred Beast, David Falk of Boca Restaurant Group, and finally, Joanna Kirkendall and Daniel Souder, founders of Pleasantry, who are also featured in the recent FRp podcast found on Success Made to Last (How Do Brands Do That). (Yes, a shameless plug for our podcast - go listen! As soon as you are finished reading here…)


So, what is it about all of these restaurants and their founders’ personal brands that influences the success of each location? Let’s dive in, shall we?

  1. Be strong in your convictions. Let’s start with Jeff Ruby here. A strong personality, he is a man of solid personal beliefs that he is not afraid to share with anyone listening. Say what you want about whether you agree with his beliefs - the one thing that everyone can agree on is that they bring passion, consistency, and a unique experience all its own for guests. (Full disclosure, my husband worked for Jeff Ruby for 10 years, so some of what I know is a peek behind the curtain. And we still visit one of the locations yearly to keep track of “the guys” and the experience.) Jeff Ruby is famous for saying, “People don’t come to a Jeff Ruby restaurant because they are hungry. They can go to their refrigerator if they’re hungry. They come to our restaurants To Celebrate Life.” One of the first local restaurateurs to focus on the “guest experience” (and call customers such), Ruby is very strict on one thing: the guest will have a memorable experience with us, or we will do what we have to to make it right. Each employee is trained in a rigorous approach to ‘The Jeff Ruby Experience’, and is held to a high standard that is constantly monitored with Jeff’s expectations at the forefront. And he does not hesitate to tell you when you have stepped outside of them or under-delivered. You work for him, you follow his ways. Enough said.

  2. Stand for one thing. I have talked about this in previous commentary on personal branding, but it is even more imperative when you are transferring your personal brand to others that you stand for one thing. David Falk, original founder of the Boca Restaurant Group, which includes restaurants such as Nada and Sotto, has one phrase that he instills in every single employee. It is BPA: Blow People Away. And I must say, my family has been experiencing this from the early days of Boca when it was located in Oakley, to today’s visits to Sotto and Nada, even in its expansion to other cities. Just in the past year, we have had two experiences that I can speak to, but there are MANY more. Since my son was born, we have been going to Sotto for his birthday, (at first for us when he couldn’t enjoy the food and now for him - he LOVES the Cacio Pepe.) On his 4th birthday last year, we went - feeling a little bad to bring a 4 and 1-year old into such a nice, quiet space. While the team could have reacted negatively to little kids, they did quite the opposite. They not only covered our desserts, but they gave Sam a gift-wrapped present, perfect for a 4-year old, with a card signed from the entire staff and his name on the front. Um, what?? A $20 gift that was not Sotto swag?? BPA all day. Then our family went to Indianapolis for a weekend, and since Sam is also a big fan of Nada, we thought it would be cool to bring him to the Indianapolis location. We got to talking to the server, and we ended up with a free dessert (Churros, anyone??) and a Nada-branded onesie for Mia, our daughter. Again, BPA. I have shared these stories countless times with others. And you know I am not the only one receiving this treatment. BPA runs strong in the veins of all Boca Group employees.

  3. Be consistently you. Pleasantry founders Joanna Kirkendall and Daniel Souder chose a little nook of OTR to be the location of their restaurant, and from day one have professed to be your neighbor, “#Down the Way”. Humble, approachable and so genuine you can’t help but love them, this restaurant takes the hearts of the founders and exudes it at every touchpoint and every communication from the restaurant. From organic wine and locally-sourced food to handwritten seasonal menus, the restaurant serves its guests with the utmost care and consideration. Upon entering the cozy space you can feel yourself relax and take it in, and after eating there at least a dozen times in recent years, I have never had a bad experience. So much so that at one point, my husband and I and another couple ordered one of everything on the menu, tried it all and loved it all. And our friend? She is a trained chef. Super discerning palette. That’s consistency y’all.

  4. Be adaptable and forward-thinking. And last but not least, perhaps the most important point of this one: be adaptable. I do not want to get into COVID-19 too deeply in this post, but we can’t avoid it - it is a big part of all of our lives, and even more so with the local restaurants trying to ride the wave and survive. I could talk about Pleasantry again here, and their response, but I will again refer you to our podcast for that. (Again, shameless plug: How Do Brands Do That. Seriously, you are almost finished here, go listen!) In any case, I have given them enough praise at this point so this time we will discuss Sacred Beast. My husband has known Jeremy Lieb through the Cincinnati restaurant scene for many years, so when he and Bridget opened Sacred Beast we of course tried it out. The diner-like experience is of course one of a kind, and the menu is a uniquely curated set of options that upon first look feels like a mish-mash but somehow works perfectly. It was Jeremy and Bridget’s dream to open a restaurant together since their days together at the Maisonette, and they made their dream come true with Sacred Beast. It is not uncommon to see both of them and their kids (!!) working in the restaurant - Jeremy on the line and their son filling ice for the bar. But what has been truly amazing about them is their ability to take in the landscape around them and use it to their advantage. Before COVID-19 hit, my husband and I tried to walk into the new restaurant across the street, Pepe and Dolores. Um, big mistake - they had only been open a couple of weeks, and as parents to two toddlers, waiting until 10:00 PM to eat was not an option. So we headed next door to Sacred Beast, and chatted with Jeremy while we sipped his homemade limoncello (YUM!). We told him honestly that we had tried across the street first, and he mentioned the wait was boosting their bar crowd. So he was considering adding a new cocktail to the menu called “Waiting on Dolores”. Clever adaptation, eh? I’m not sure whether the drink made it in time before COVID-19, but I do know that when it hit, they did not close their doors and put their head in the sand - quite the opposite in fact. They transitioned the restaurant into a takeaway machine, complete with a market and rebranded for the time as Beast Mart for all your takeaway needs. It was nothing short of amazing. Not to mention, any time during COVID-19 that we did a takeaway meal, Jeremy was there to thank us and make sure we had what we needed. The brand is all him and his family, fulfilling their dream and putting in the hard work to be what they need to be in ever-changing times while still serving their customers right.

So, what is the point of all of this? Well, hopefully, you have taken away that your personal brand becomes even MORE important when you are tying it to a business. It ensures that everyone that works for you is clear on expectations and allows the company culture to be strong and authentic, drawing in the right employees and aiding in retention. People know what they are signing up for, and they have decided they want to be a part of it before they even enter your doors.


Restaurants are one example where founder brands are of the utmost importance, but you could translate this to just about any business out there. Speaking from personal experience, Anne and I aligned on our foundational values and personal convictions very early on in our partnership - if they hadn’t aligned, there is no chance either of us would have gone into business together. By having a set of strong convictions that you constantly stand for, deliver against authentically and that are flexible enough for you to adapt as needed, your personal brand can be a success. For you, for your business, and for your customers. (Or guests, in the case of restaurants!)


Now, more than ever, it is important to give back to all local businesses, including our local restaurants. So my PSA would be to visit a Jeff Ruby’s Culinary Entertainment location, Sacred Beast, Pleasantry or any of The Boca Restaurant Group restaurants, and don’t be surprised to see the founders right there working alongside the staff. Because they know the value of what their personal brands bring to the guest experience.


And while you are enjoying a fabulous meal, think about your own personal brand. What are your strongest convictions? What is the one thing you stand for if you are forced to choose? Who are you on your very best day, and how could you emulate that more consistently?


And, as always, if you find yourself having a hard time or getting stuck on your personal brand, give us a call. We have been there. Transitioning your personal brand into an actionable foundation for a business is challenging, but it is so fulfilling when it works. And yes, it is scary, but think about it this way: what is the world missing by not experiencing your personal brand? If I had never had a Jeff Ruby steak, a Sacred Beast cheeseburger, a Pleasantry fried chicken sandwich, or like Sam, Sotto’s cacio pepe, my life would be just a little less vibrant. Just sayin’.....


Anne Candido and April Martini are the Co-Founders of Forthright People, an On-Demand Marketing Agency focused on helping start-ups, small and mid-size businesses quickly capture the hearts of their customers without breaking the bank. They believe in “real-time brand-building”, which delivers strategically-informed execution, creating immediate business impact while also developing equity for systemic growth. And since their team consists of an extended network of talented freelancers and boutique agencies, they do not require hefty retainers and contracts to do it. Contact them via email: Anne@Forthright-People.com and April@Forthright-People.com.

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Photo credit - Bob Schwartz @5schw4r7z