Hey, meatball

BY Carey George

What a small, super-specialized restaurant can teach us about positioning.

For years, we’ve been telling our clients how a strong brand position is the key to business success.

Yet most companies are understandably reluctant to commit to a focused position. Narrowing the focus seems to mean narrowing your market, which, logically, seems to be leaving money on the table.

But it’s just not true, and every day we see examples of how a narrow focus delivers great results.

Apple famously narrowed their brand positioning to avoid pandering to the business market—a move most industry watchers considered foolhardy at best. But, over time, their focus of course paid off even more famously.

I’m not Steve Jobs, you protest. None of us is, but that doesn’t stop a number of terrific companies from committing to a focus that’s just as sharp, if not sharper.

A recent example? Hey Meatball. A restaurant that specializes in—you guessed it—meatballs. The restaurant opened in 2011 as a tiny hole in the wall on Toronto’s popular College Street.

In a city where restaurants are here today and gone tomorrow, what are the chances that a meatball restaurant can hold its own once the novelty has worn off? Pretty good, it would seem: a second location opened in Toronto’s east end in 2013, and more expansion is likely in the works. Says chef and owner Rodney Bowers, “I’d like to open three or four or five or 20 more of these.”

The second location is much the same as the first. A tiny shop on Queen Street East. No expanded rustic-Italian-meets-creative-chef menu, which, from a business perspective, must have seemed tempting. Just meatballs, either on pasta or in a sandwich.

It’s fun, it’s specific, it’s cool, no one needs to guess at the menu (except to wonder, perhaps, if they offer vegetarian meatballs—they do), and there is zero competition (for now).

Explaining his attraction to a limited menu, Bowers says, “It’s like when I go to my favourite Vietnamese restaurant: there’s 93 things on the menu, but you order the 16A every time. And everyone gets it. Everyone gets, like, six items, because those are your winners.”

From a branding perspective, Hey Meatball is definitely on the mark. If you found yourself in Toronto with a craving for meatballs, and you know the options, which would you choose? One of the 889 Italian eateries found on restaurant-listing website Dine.TO—or a place called Hey Meatball?

According to Bowers, “The brand does really well. It gets the point across, and people know exactly what it is.”

Restricting your focus may not be for the faint of heart. But it’s smart, and it pays off.

Bowers admits that he did, in fact, try extending the menu once, based on the idea that the restaurant was missing out on customers who weren’t into meatballs. “We ran a roast brined pork sandwich and we did an eggplant parmesan. I thought they would be a lot more popular, but they weren’t,” he concludes, laughing. “People came in and got meatballs.”