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The Making of a New Restaurant Brand (and a Design Career)

I’ve known Eric Banh for a very long time.

After spending a few years teaching English at a University in central Thailand, I returned to Seattle well-tanned, penniless and in desperate need of a job. This was late in 1998. After a brief stint working for Wolfgang Puck(!), I ended up waiting tables for a Vietnamese restaurant that had just opened the previous month. It was called Monsoon. I ended up working there for almost four years as I tried to get my design career back on track, waiting tables a few nights week while teaching myself web design between shifts. I had been working in the industry since I was old enough to drink, but as it turned out, Monsoon would be my last restaurant job—well, relatively speaking.

First Monsoon website, circa 2000.

But, before I was lured away to work in a big, fancy graphic design agency, I had the pleasure of really getting to know Vietnamese cuisine (and wine) working for Eric and his sister Sophie. And, I got to moonlight as a web designer all the while. Monsoon’s website was the first restaurant website I ever designed—and probably one of the first chef-owned restaurant websites in Seattle. I did the entire project in trade for two bottles of Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris.

After I left Monsoon to get that “real job”, I continued to build websites and do graphic design work for Eric. I probably designed and built around five different versions of Monsoon’s web site over the years (and yet another in the works currently). Several years later I finally decided to quit the agency world to run my own design business. Right around that time Eric told me he was finally going to start building the noodle house we had been talking about for years. I was excited. A new place! A new name! A new logo! It was all going to be created from scratch. Perfect timing.

Eric decided to name his new place Ba Bar. Ba means “father” in Vietnamese and Eric’s dad had just passed away. This restaurant was going to be dedicated to the elder Banh himself. Eric told me stories of being a kid in Saigon, eating street food with Sophie and their father, sitting on tiny stools and slurping noodles in the crowded marketplace. He wanted to bring that very feeling to this new restaurant. He wanted to keep it casual and keep it fun. This wasn’t going to be a down-market version of Monsoon, it was going to be something completely different. Simple food inspired by the streets of Saigon—with cocktails. My kind of place.

Tagline: Street Food & Cold Drink

So I spent some time with Eric’s ideas and I came back a week later with some logo roughs and a tagline concept: Street Food & Cold Drink. Eric and I have understood each other pretty well over the years, and I could see his eyes light up. Street Food & Cold Drink! That was exactly what he was after. The concept was born.

The rest of the Banh family needed some convincing, however. Nobody quite understood the missing “s” on Drink and they were worried that Americans would think we spelled it wrong. It took some work, but I convinced them in the end (I think). It helped that Eric understood it from the beginning. The other hurdle was the idea of Street Food itself. People in the west tend to think Street Food means food served out of a truck. While in Southeast Asia, street food is food served roadside or in busy markets by some of the best cooks you can find. It’s more like fast food—but really good fast food. (Side note: One of the first critics to review the restaurant made this very observation—that Ba Bar wasn’t really street food because the food wasn’t “portable”. Which goes to show what little food critics actually know about South East Asian cuisine.)

Logomark illustrations.

For the logo itself I brought in illustrator and good pal David Cole to help come up with some drawings of the mark. I really liked the idea of using a simple, graphic illustration of Eric’s father’s face, but not everyone could agree on the appropriateness of using the elder Banh’s likeness as a logo. Next, we tried a guy bent over a bowl of noodles sitting on a tiny stool. (If you have ever spent time in South East Asia you will understand this visual.) That got a bit more traction, but in the end, we decided to keep the mark simple and opted for a straight typographic solution. The biggest challenge was to make sure the logo read as Ba Bar not Babar, as we didn’t want to be confused with a certain French Elephant. So stacking the type seemed crucial. There’s only three different letters in the name, so that was challenging, but I think it worked out really well in the end. It’s not too repetitive visually and it reads Ba Bar as much as it can. I still ended up using the illustrations that Dave created in some of the collateral, but the main logo became the name and tagline in a circle.

Logos in the wild. Neon sign and menu clipboards.

From there we rolled out laser-etched menus boards, rubber-stamped napkins, a giant neon sign, window graphics, jam jar labels, a website and much more. I’m especially happy with how the website turned out. We really wanted to make it fun and semi-educational by highlighting certain dishes and and explaining them in detail. We are planning to expand this kind of content moving forward.

Website pages.

If you live in the Seattle area you should stop by Ba Bar for a bowl of soup or a cocktail—and a grab a macaroon on the way out. It truly is a fun place, the vision paid off. And Ba Bar makes the best phở in town without question. You might even find me at the bar hanging out with Eric, talking about the good old days when he could still boss me around.

Check out the website at www.babarseattle.com and view more of the design and photography in the portfolio.

Comments

  1. Mike Summerfield says:

    Interesting and a good read, all in all.

  2. Broderick says:

    Enjoyed hearing about your background & your process – great post!

  3. Holly says:

    Great story! You are so talented!! Now I need to give it a try.

  4. p auL says:

    Love it. Would love to actually make it to the restaurant again with Kara in tow though. They ever start up kung fu night?

  5. Geoffrey says:

    Thanks pals!
    Paul: Kung Fu movies show every Friday. Also, Kung Fu Karaoke on Tuesdays & Wednesdays. It’s like regular Karaoke, but Kung Fu Karaoke sounded better.

    http://babarseattle.com/kung-fu-karaoke/

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