Since its inception in 2010, Might & Main Design & Branding has compiled an impressive portfolio of high-profile clients, from L.L. Bean to Idexx Laboratories to Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers.
For Sean Wilkinson, who with Arielle Walrath, co-founded the business in 2010, restaurant branding was never in the original blueprint. But after “stumbling into it” with Eventide Oyster Company and the steady flow of referrals that followed, Might & Main has become one of the most recognizable names in this niche genre.
“I particularly enjoy working with restaurant branding because there are so many tangible elements, from the space itself to the menus to the drink coasters,” Wilkinson tells me. “With larger businesses, we spend a lot of time developing logos and designing websites, but with restaurants there is a unique hands-on experience that we don’t find anywhere else.”
Might & Main’s list of restaurant clients has since grown to almost 30, and Walrath and Wilkinson have branched outside of Portland to work with notable Boston staples like Alden & Harlow and Eastern Standard, as well as Brooklyn hot spots Extra Fancy and Battery Harris.
In the past, great restaurant branding has always been seamless — you don’t think of it as “branding” as much as design that’s aesthetically pleasing and instantly recognizable. Only recently has this concept become a seemingly fundamental element in a restaurant’s opening budget, often perceived as important as the menu itself. At the forefront of this movement are companies like Pentagram design, whose branding work with Shake Shack — not only logos, but uniforms, bags, and signage — helped propel the burger chain into a publicly traded, $1.6 billion multinational success.
“I think that’s a great example of a brand speaking for the food, and making the experience greater than the sum of its parts,” Wilkinson says.
However, I was curious as to whether every restaurant would be considered “brandable” by a firm like Might & Main. Surely there are those for whom this expense may be unnecessary?
“First off, it needs to be a place that will benefit from providing the customer with a sense of what to expect before they have experienced a single bite,” Wilkinson says. A good example of this is Piccolo, a small Italian eatery in downtown Portland. While the awning outside would suggest the “tavern” feel that the owners are going for, it’s evident from the bright, coordinated colors and clean lines that the meal will be stylistically more contemporary than a classic “red sauce” joint.
“I don’t think that everybody needs us,” Wilkinson admits. “If a place doesn’t need it, it feels disingenuous.”
Of equal importance is a restaurant that needs to impart a feeling of cohesion — because if diners perceive that design is merely an afterthought, they may be inclined to predict the same thing about the food. “It is all part of the desired aesthetic,” Wilkinson tells me. “If you have a gorgeous menu and a bathroom sign from Office Max, that’s going to feel piecemeal and totally disjointed.”
When I inquire of other restaurants that get branding right (outside of his own client book), Wilkinson is quick to cite Jay Villani and Pat Corrigan at Local 188, Sonny’s, and Salvage BBQ. “I love everything they do. All three of their joints are perfectly unique, cool, and beautiful — plus they effortlessly flow together as sibling restaurants.” He also mentions Mami Japanese food truck, complimenting their clean, bold design and typography that is evocative of what they’re doing inside but also maintains an air of mystique.
Branding elements that make him angry? Think laminated menus in upscale restaurants, cut-and-pasted fonts, and use of innuendo to sell the food. And a lack of clear vision. Before you go emptying your coffers on gold leaf-lined beverage coasters, menus printed daily on Egyptian papyrus, and the world’s most stunning website, make sure your house is in order.
“It’s important to point out that all the greatest branding in the world cannot fix bad food and bad service,” Wilkinson points out. “We are not restaurant consultants, but what we will do is help translate your vision into the perfect aesthetic.”
Sean Wilkinson explains design choices behind some Might & Main clients that have become signature Portland restaurants.
In contrast to Eventide, Hugo’s is meant to evoke an elegant, dimly lit social club that one may have found in Portland around the turn of the century. Lush, custom-dyed leather, gold leaf signage, and dark wood lent themselves to subtle typography and artful menu folders made from book cloth.
Eventide Oyster Co.
Given that the owners wanted a “revival of the great American oyster bar,” we decided to keep it simple, airy, and casual. We incorporated bright colors and a considerable amount of natural light to highlight the maritime theme.
Housed in the former locale of legendary mid-century Valle’s steakhouse, we wanted to hold on to some of that vibe while complementing the warm tones, white formica booths, and zinc bar. We chose an easygoing, utilitarian style with large scale–style menus that convey a vintage feel while keeping the look fresh.
Central Provisions is housed in one of the oldest buildings in Portland, a former cooperage, among other things. Hence we all felt that the brand identity should be inspired by 19th century apothecary labels, railroad tickets, and other historical aesthetic.