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How to name a restaurant

John Currence had his financing in place, menu tweaked to his liking and tables and chairs slated for delivery. Opening day for his first restaurant—a 100-seat contemporary Southern concept in Oxford, Mississippi—was inching closer. The only thing left on his “punch list” was choosing a name. “Picking the right name was the most difficult part for me,” says Currence, recalling the angst he suffered back in 1992. “I wasn’t arrogant enough to use my own name, and I wanted something snappier and more meaningful anyway.” 

The only thing left on his “punch list” was choosing a name.

“Picking the right name was the most difficult part for me,” says Currence, recalling the angst he suffered back in 1992. “I wasn’t arrogant enough to use my own name, and I wanted something snappier and more meaningful anyway.”

It was down to the wire, everyone sitting in the lawyer’s office for the closing, when the building’s owner—an Oxford old-timer—began rambling on about the history of the space. In its former incarnation as City Grocery, the business sold food and assorted sundries, often delivering the items right to customers’ doors and keeping a running house account. “Bells went off in my head,” Currence remembers. He liked the honesty and good will associated with “City Grocery.” Plus, it was catchy, unique and easy to remember—everything Currence wanted in a name.

When a restaurant gets started, menu, staff and location decisions are usually top of mind. But a name can be just as important. After all, it’s often the first thing anyone knows about a new place.

“It’s important to choose something that creates an emotional bond between the customer, the food and the restaurant,” says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a consulting company that tracks branding and customer loyalty. “Plus, the name should contribute to and be consistent with the image of the restaurant—its menu, design, venue, etc. The public identifies with imagery.”

Brand Keys has conducted research on the contribution a name makes to the diner’s choice of restaurant. The findings reveal that the higher the expectations, the greater the impact of the name. At a white-tablecloth specialty concept, like a high-end steakhouse or seafood restaurant, the name contributes 8 percent to the decision; in casual dining, it’s 7 percent; fast-casual, 4 percent; and at a pizza place, 2 percent. While those numbers aren’t staggering enough to cause acute anxiety over choosing a name, they are relevant—especially at the upscale end.

Relevance was key for Ben and Rachel Lewis deVries, partners in a 50-seat restaurant in San Francisco. When the couple was awaiting the birth of their daughter, they pored over baby name books and did extensive research on the Internet, finally narrowing down the choice to two names—Gemma and Luella.

“When our baby was born, she glowed like a little jewel, so we named her Gemma,” says Ben, the chef in the family. About a year later, the duo was ready to open their first restaurant. “As soon as we saw the space, my wife said, ‘There’s our Luella.’ And the restaurant has turned out to be like a second child.”

Luella, now a cozy, Mediterranean-inspired spot in the Russian Hill neighborhood, has a name that gels seamlessly with its concept. Ben describes his cuisine as “hybrid,” a blend of Spanish, French and Italian influences with a San Francisco vibe. The deVrieses discovered that the name Luella is also a hybrid, stemming from two classics—Louise and Isabella.

“It’s good to have a story to tell about your restaurant’s name and even print that story on the menu,” says Bill Marvin, who runs a consulting business called the Restaurant Doctor. “The story behind a name is an excellent hook for marketing and publicity and generates valuable word of mouth.”

Speaking of word of mouth, that’s exactly how New York City chef Andrew Carmellini came up with the name for his new 100-seat Italian restaurant, A Voce. When he took over the lease for the space, he changed the phone number. But before the February launch, fans of Carmellini’s cooking tried to track him down to find out where and when his restaurant was opening. Many had discovered the new phone number through “word of mouth”—an expression that loosely translates to “A Voce” in Italian. “There are about 100,000 names already taken for Italian restaurants, many of which are clichés,” says Carmellini. “I wanted to come up with something different but didn’t have the time to obsess over the name.”

While choosing a unique moniker will differentiate a restaurant and avoid confusion with similar-sounding places, experts agree that above all the name must be easy to remember—and easy to spell.

“These days, it’s essential that a restaurant can be easily found through an Internet search,” says Passikoff. Marvin seconds that thought, adding that a restaurateur should reserve the Web address as soon as a name is picked. And what if the domain name is already taken?

“Go back and start over.”

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