Any marketing professional or student can tell you that recognizable branding is crucial for any business. If you aren’t memorable, you’re forgettable! I understood this going into the restaurant business, and it was a guiding force during the early days of Duke’s Chowder House.
Evolution of Duke’s Brand
Before the door to the first Duke’s ever opened, I was on the hunt for inspiration. I studied iconic restaurants from coast to coast, noting styles, décor and design elements that grabbed me. I worked especially hard on the smaller details. I measured tables for maximum comfort, and taste-tested hundreds of dishes trying to identify techniques, ingredients and presentations I wanted to incorporate into my own restaurant brand.
I had two goals in mind when developing Duke’s branding: a unique atmosphere and a unique ‘look’. I wanted to create a space that was classy, yet casual, with quality service at the heart of it all. I wanted my customers to come in and socialize like they would at home, and to enjoy great food and drinks and to leave with a memorable experience.
Part of that experience lies in Duke’s ‘look’. Blue and white checkered linens were a gamble at first, but they really do help create a casual vibe. And the red walls? One evening, two designers told me I should paint the walls Chinese Red. I was skeptical, but they convinced me that the color would bring about that warm, inviting atmosphere I was after. Despite my misgivings, I followed their advice. Not once have I regretted that decision! Red walls and blue-checked napkins continue to be a part of our trademark look today.
The Sidewalk Stunt
I can’t think of a story that better illustrates the power of effective branding than the summer of 1984 when Seattle was melting. It was insanely hot! I quickly learned that when it’s hot, Seattleites head to the waterfront in search of good patios. Naturally, this inspired me to pursue waterfront properties with great patios for future Duke’s locations! But we didn’t have a waterfront restaurant in those days.
That sizzling summer I knew I had to find a way to bring customer’s back into Duke’s. We had the great food, the awesome service, even air conditioning! So I decided to pull a little marketing stunt on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. I painted it in blue and white checkers to match our tablecloths.
Well, it didn’t take long to get noticed! Unfortunately, a lot of that attention was coming from the City, which demanded that we sandblast the paint off the sidewalk immediately. However, guests were starting to walk through the doors, curious about the sidewalk and its new look. One of those guests was Seattle Mayor at the time, Charlie Royer, a dedicated regular at Duke’s. I mentioned that the City was not impressed with my artistic talents, and could he possibly help us out? What a guy, he said he would see what he could do.
In the meantime, the press had gotten wind of what was happening and they loved it. The story ran under headlines that basically said: “Big Bad Government Bullies Small Business Owner Having Fun.” Petitions started circulating with cries of “SOS-Save Our Sidewalk!” and gathered hundreds of signatures from guests. My little sidewalk trick had really gotten Duke’s some attention! Customers flooded into the restaurant, and the whole thing was a big funny joke that distracted everyone from how damn hot it was.
Except for the City. They were relentless.
Good old Charlie held them off for a while, but in the end, we had to have a ‘blast off’ party to remove the paint job. However, this story shows the power of effective branding and its ability to build relationships between businesses and their patrons. Everybody walked away with something: the press got a good story, customers got a good laugh and Duke’s got some new customers. And perhaps most importantly, everybody had fun!
Atmosphere & Ambience: Keys to Success
Since the early 80’s, Duke’s has been committed to serving sustainable foods, particularly seafood like Wild Alaskan Salmon. We started introducing local, organic ingredients to our menus long before it was a ‘trend’ in the food world. Our brand now includes the stamp of ‘Dukeworthy’, which means the ingredients we use live up to our exceptionally high standards.
Wild salmon, cage free chicken, hormone-free dairy and grass-fed beef are just a few of the choices Duke’s has made to ensure our customers receive the best food possible. And we complement those delicious ingredients with individually crafted flavor profiles. We are constantly experimenting and improving our menu to give you not only the best quality ingredients but the best tasting food.
It’s important to remember, however, that no matter how good a menu is, no one will order off it if they don’t like sitting in your restaurant. This is where atmosphere becomes integral to our success. Our red walls are covered with an amusing mixture of football memorabilia, food reviews, photos of salmon and of others who share my namesake. The familiar blue and white checks grace every table, and my staff knows that taking care of you is our number one priority. We strive to be unique and to distinguish ourselves from other restaurants by focusing on minute, yet significant, details. After all, success is in the details.
I could not be more proud of the evolution that Duke’s Chowder House has gone through since we opened our doors in 1977. The brand has grown into a recognizable and beloved staple of the Seattle food scene, and customers continue to appreciate our sustainable food choices. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life, and I look forward to whatever the future brings for Duke’s Chowder House.
Book a reservation at one of our six locations today and create your own unique Duke’s experience!