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Signs of distinction: What's in a restaurant name in Western New York?

The question started with SZND.

The restaurant Andrew Gill and his mother, Cheryl Ann, opened off Hertel Avenue last month was originally going to be called Taste.

But the dishes they planned to offer were creative, and they wanted a name that was distinctive. They chose SZND, pronounced “seasoned.” The vowel-ectomy carried through its motto: “EVRY THNGS BTR SZND.”

That’s wild, I thought. Why choose a name you have to explain and spell out every time?

But wait: I’m talking about it, and thinking about it, and wondering if the cuisine is as surprising? Before my first visit, a hint of mystery was growing. Could it be working?

How much difference could a name possibly make?

There are times it never comes up, of course. Sometimes the first thing a restaurant maker knows about the enterprise they will pour their life into is the name on the sign.

Some of the finest restaurants in town simply have the name of the owner (Hutch’s, Sinatra’s, Carmelo’s, Ristorante Lombardo), or even more conveniently for first-timers, the address (800 Maple).

The corner of William and North Odgen yielded Billy Ogden’s, the Andy DiVincenzo restaurant that contributed to the explosion of cheese-stuffed peppers across Buffalo appetizer menus.

[Related: Janice Okun's treatise on Billy Ogden's, from 1998]

Billy Ogden's is a restaurant name many in Western New York fondly recall. (News file photo)

When Ken Scibetta and Ed Webster named their restaurant, now the first of four, they wanted to mark that its journey started in Niagara Falls. So they named the Griffon Pub after the first ship to sail the Great Lakes, Le Griffon, which set out from Niagara Falls in 1679.

If you haven’t got an obvious name in mind, there’s always mining the classics. Steve Calvaneso thought Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, suited his wine bar and fine restaurant outpost on Chippewa Street.

In East Aurora, Laurie Kutas and John Rooney went to the dark side with Tantalus, the fellow who would be tortured in Tartarus for all eternity, unable to slake his thirst and hunger.

That’s why their next place got a dose of “the light side,” Kutas said. The Yelling Goat, in Lancaster, comes from her fascination for a particularly vocal breed of goat.

[Related: At the Yelling Goat, a strong rebound after a fire]

Instead of dark, you can always work blue: Rocco Termini’s Dog e Style later became Casa Azul, owned by Zina Lapi, who introduced herself to Buffalo through an arancini specialist truck called Blue Balls Bus.

Expert opinion

If you’re left searching for a name, though, there are experts who can help. Marketers say a restaurant’s name can be an important part of its success. It’s usually the first thing customers know about your place, after all. The name can help essentially set the table for the meal to come, as much as décor and tableware.

At Block Club, the marketing agency that guided the naming of 100 Acres and Hotel Henry, among others, a restaurant’s name can be fashioned as carefully as a bespoke suit. Tailored to reflect the owner’s values and the experience the restaurant represents, it makes the first impression.

“The restaurants and hospitality organizations we’re working with have a strong vision of where they’re going, how they’re perceived, where they want to be in five years, 10 years from now,” Block Club co-founder Patrick Finan said. “They’re investing in the brand and brand strategy, the identity, the naming processes, as a way to solidify their investment in their restaurant, and help ensure its success, with a strong foundation.”

Block Club co-founder Patrick Finan. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

“Right now, I think there are more choices for food in Western New York than there have been in a long time,” he said. “There’s choices other than restaurants: subscription services, delivery, Wegmans, Instacart, premade meals delivered, home cooking."

If you’re a new restaurant, he said, “How do you stand out?”

First, marketers help principals articulate their vision for the restaurant, including points like “how they are going to stand apart from and be superior to their competition,” Finan said. The branders ask lots of questions to nail down what the restaurant wants to offer.

The next step is the name development process itself, coming up with lists of possibilities. “That this is one of the hardest things that we do as an agency,” he said. “Naming is so personal, and a lot of great names are already taken."

Some of the questions they ask: Is there anything significant about the building the restaurant is going into, the neighborhood that it’s in, is it historic? Is there a weird color, shape, size, location? What makes it stand out?

“What’s the food concept, of course,” he said. Drink concept? Interior concept?

“How do you want people to feel?” Finan said. Is it “something they haven’t seen before, or is it going to be something that they expected?” Do you want a more literal name, or more imagination?

“From there we take all of those ideas, and the brainstorming process, funding root words or base words. Those are really become the jumping-off point for us in coming up with a name,” he said. After several rounds of revisions with clients, it’s time to choose.

The last hurdle is making sure it’s a name that can be legally protected, Finan noted. Blood and Sand was going to open on Franklin Street before another restaurant sent them a cease-and-desist letter, and it became Buffalo Proper instead.

Restaurants will pay thousands of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the scope of the branding project. They’re all different because the deliverables are different. Sometimes they’ve got a name already, or an interior designer; sometimes the entire graphic look down to menu formatting is part of the package.

The more work, the more expensive it is, of course.

“I would avoid using words that are superlatives – like ‘ultra’ or ‘fine,’ ” Finan said. “Just my personal taste.”

When Elite Fine Dining replaced Friar’s Table in Cheektowaga, its staff was challenged to meet a tough target. There’s a downside to setting the bar high before the restaurant opens its door.

When Epic opened, the menu included finesse moves like a mozzarella balloon on the salad. It was hard for wings to hold up after that.

A crepes business selling from a truck and an Allen Street counter went the other way, with understatement: Totally Edible.

Does it matter?

Career restaurateur Mark Supples. (News file photo)

Skeptics, including some restaurant operators, say a restaurant’s name is largely irrelevant. Only the experience – food, service, ambiance – matters in the end, they say.

Mark Supples, a career restaurateur who ran Mothers, named the Pink Flamingo, and opened Casino el Camino and Casino South Side Lounge in Austin, Texas, said “I never thought names were very important.”

If Hucklebuckets, the former Amherst restaurant whose motto was “Everything’s better in a bucket,” scored with its food and drink selections, it might still be open today.

For family restaurants, differentiation might be less crucial.

There are four restaurants in the area with “La Hacienda” in their name. None of them – not Bob & John’s La Hacienda on Hertel Avenue or in Amherst, La Hacienda Brighton in Tonawanda, and just La Hacienda, in Niagara Falls – sells Spanish or Mexican food.

Bob & John’s La Hacienda on Hertel Avenue is one of four Western New York restaurants with "La Hacienda" in their name, but none sell Spanish or Mexican food. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

China Star, on Hertel Avenue, has coexisted peacefully with China Star, on Sheridan Drive in Amherst. No one seems to object, except for the stray culinary adventure seekers who heard about China Star’s additional expanded menu choices including Sichuan specialties and hotpot, and turned up at the Hertel Avenue site by mistake.

Or then there’s altering the name as little as possible, like one letter. Thus did Bailey Avenue Chinese takeout King’s Wok when it changed hands, and become Xing Wok.

Some ambiguities are easy to clear up. The first time I saw the Miss Hot Café sign, I decided Amherst had its first geisha bar or a new restaurant. Fortunately, it was the latter, whew.

Michael Andrzejewski’s Seabar has a name that hides half its menu and squicks out raw-fish-phobics. The name – “isn’t that a sushi bar?” – has kept many away from its loco moco, cheeseburger and beef on weck roll. Then again, if it was named Seabeefbar, some critic would probably gripe about that, too.

[Related - Galarneau: The reasons I'm rooting for Seabar]


Quick hits

  • Hucklebuckets: Not enough diners agreed that “Everything’s better in a bucket,” but the name is still fun to say.
  • La Hacienda: Four restaurants have the Spanish term in their names. None serves Spanish or Mexican food.
  • Seabar: The fishy name has kept many away from its loco moco, cheeseburger and beef on weck roll.
  • Griffon Pub: Named after the first ship to sail the Great Lakes, it too started from Niagara Falls.
  • Elite Fine Dining: There’s a downside to setting the bar high before the restaurant opens its door.
  • Epic: Opened as a gastronomic adventure park, the name remained at it pointed downmarket.
  • China Star: The Buffalo version and its Amherst namesake have coexisted without conflict.
  • Miss Hot Café: Was it a restaurant or geisha bar? Restaurant, whew.
  • Dog e Style: Risque business didn’t necessarily mean risky business.

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