Branding chops

BY Megan Power

A case study of how a bold concept and provocative branding have made a splash in a saturated category.

Forty years ago, after a nasty bout of food poisoning landed him in the hospital, Michael Abramson swore off fish and meat forever. He embarked on what would become a lifelong quest: creating plant-based recipes that delighted him, his wife, Toni, their two daughters and everyone in their social circle.

Michael remembers being pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm his dishes elicited. He and Toni staged a friendly cooking competition, inviting the same group of people, two weeks apart, to taste-test their respective specialties. Michael’s Asian-fusion veggie fare ended up trouncing Toni’s Italian comfort food.

“That was the beginning,” Toni remembers.

Encouraged, the couple made the leap. They sold off the ad agency they’d run for 27 years and rolled all the knowledge they’d gained from working with restaurants across Canada into conceiving a food purveyor of their own. YamChops, the country’s first vegetarian butcher, celebrated its two-year anniversary this past spring.

Decades of agency experience taught the Abramsons that the best way to stand out in the ultra-competitive and crowded Toronto restaurant scene was gutsy branding: a high-impact name, visual identity, store design and service mandate all working in concert.

“We spent so many years telling our franchise clients what they should do, and they never wanted to do it,” Toni explains. “A lot of clients tend to love the outrageous, but then they pull it back to that comfortable zone. So, we poured all our own advice into the business.”

Following their own advice hasn’t always been easy, they admit, but they know too much to do otherwise.

“We had to practice what we preached. I mean, even our tagline, ‘bite off more than you can chew.’ Yeah, you can say that again!” Toni laughs.

The Abramsons sat down with Sway to share some of their advice on putting branding theory into practice.

Lesson 1: Attract attention—even if it’s polarizing. Especially if it’s polarizing.

Michael notes, “the thing we struggled with most was the name. How do we articulate this concept? Should we call ourselves the Green Gourmet? Should we use the word ‘butcher’? Putting ‘vegetarian butcher’ in our name—that was a huge, huge discussion.”

Using the term “butcher,” which for their purposes alludes to the retail presentation of prepared food in a cold case, attracted media attention, a savvy move the advertising veterans anticipated.

“We wanted to pique curiosity. We wanted to have people say, ‘What the heck is that?’ And they do,” Toni says.

But not everyone was pleasantly piqued.

“We had pushback from meat eaters and vegans as well,” Michael admits. “The adamant vegans were the ones who gave us the hardest time, telling us we shouldn’t use the word ‘bacon,’ we shouldn’t use the word ‘butcher.’”

But they felt this was important dialogue to open, even if it risked alienating the more hardline members of the vegan community. The Abramsons feel that by using familiar signifiers, like the word “bacon,” they can draw skeptics to the new and unknown. It’s about a relatedness, they explain, that can be immediately recognized and understood, particularly given their understanding of their target market.

Lesson 2: Find a new market segment, and find the opportunity.

Like most entrepreneurs, the Abramsons studied the competitive landscape assiduously and agonized over the best positioning.

And as Toni explains, they focused on a specific market segment. “We made a concerted effort to appeal to flexitarians, the veg-curious, meat-reducers—people looking to cut back. We figured there’s a place to provide plant-based proteins for people who don’t know what to do with plant-based proteins. Our objective was to be mainstream.”

Among the valuable market insights gleaned in their agency careers was the fact that while people watch cooking shows in droves, they don’t actually cook very much themselves. And the younger the demographic, the less time spent in the kitchen. This led the Abramsons to make the “deli counter” concept a central part of the business: customers needed to be able to sit down and eat quickly, or take prepared foods home.

“When we looked at what was out there [in the deli sections of local grocery stores], nobody was really taking on plant-based proteins. A lot of these places have great salads, but not centre-of-the-plate proteins,” Michael says.

“There was a hole in the market. And we knew that if we created something that had flavourful plant-based proteins, it would attract people. It would be something that people would seek out,” he says.

Among YamChops’ offerings: beet burgers, carrot lox, tuna salad made with chickpeas, bacon made from coconut and cashew-based “cheese”. The restaurant’s (crab-free) crab cakes are Toni’s personal favourite, and she says the Szechuan “beef” (made with high-quality grated soy) is a bestseller.

And the menu is backed by some serious credentials—Michael trained in the veggie-centric “Cordon Vert” program just outside Manchester, England (Linda McCartney was also an alum).

Lesson 3: Make service a priority.

One often-overlooked aspect of branding—particularly in smaller restaurants—is customer service. The Abramsons observed that many of their clients were reluctant to invest time and money in staff training, preferring to allot budgets to advertising or publicity. A rock-solid service practice should be a serious part of a business’s marketing strategy, they believe.

The YamChops staff operates under a code red/code green system for responding to customer complaints, a practice they adopted from US-based Zingerman’s Deli (a store the Abramsons say does customer service exquisitely, and where they took many of their own franchise clients to observe the habits of a successful business, back in their agency days).

“If a client is displeased about anything, whoever is on the floor has the authority to make a call and deal with that issue in whatever way is seen as reasonable. After that, they write up the complaint and then we sit and look at everything as a team. What else could we have done? What can we do so we never have that complaint again?” says Toni.

“No one gets put down for how they handled a complaint; no one’s knuckles get rapped.”

The system works, Toni says, because it provides a structure that empowers staff, giving them a sense of pride in their work and increased job satisfaction.

Add it all up, and it sounds like a simple formula: good food + a bold concept + empowered staff = happy customers. Not to mention a happy, healthy brand.