Not all of those neatly bundled boxes and bags that people tote around town these days are full of Christmas gifts. Plenty are from restaurants, where lunch outings and holiday get-togethers are in full swing.
But while you might see the durable handle bags from Domenica or Compere Lapin or Desi Vega Steakhouse and think leftovers, for Matt Oertling they say something different.
“They’re walking billboards,” said Oertling, who supplies many New Orleans restaurants with these seemingly simple staples through the local firm Hamco. “Restaurateurs see them as ways to get their brands out there. The consumer, they’re getting ideas about where to eat.”
As the dining scene grows more competitive, and as restaurant systems increasingly go digital and high-tech, a decidedly low-tech, sometimes vintage aspect of the branding and marketing game has been gaining more prominence: paper.
It’s those logo-emblazoned carry-out bags, or the drink coasters on the bars at Ernst Café and Juan’s Flying Burrito. It’s the branded butcher paper that wraps po-boys at Parkway Bakery & Tavern or Cochon Butcher and the paper bread bags that adorn tables at the Desire Oyster Bar or Café Adelaide. It’s the paper table coverings printed with Parisian street scenes at Bayona, the bowl of matchbooks in the lounge at Brennan’s and the paper tray precisely sized to snuggly hold the burgers at the Company Burger.
Restaurants have many vendors to supply this sort of material. But Oertling has been a driving force for the trend locally, carving out his own particular niche with the physical items restaurants use for branding.
While the basic premise and tools of the trade are not new, this paper-based push is growing more prevalent, more sophisticated and, to hear Oertling explain it, more often tied to a restaurant’s design and even the narrative it hopes will resonate with customers.
“The standard for dining and food here is so high, you have to find other ways to stand out,” said Oertling. “It’s not like a town where you have just a handful of good restaurants and that’s where everyone goes. With so many restaurants with really great food, you have to find other was to stick in people’s minds.”
A niche with new appeal
Hamco was originally formed as Hamilton Company in the 1960s and was once part of a national franchise of paper distributors. Local businessman Joe Lagarde bought the company in 2006. It’s a small company, with seven employees working from a nondescript office slotted among the metal buildings of Elmwood.
Hamco’s main line of business is supplying rolls of paper for point-of-sale systems, the thermal paper used broadly across industries from banks to casinos.
Though the company supplies some seven million linear feet of this stuff per month, there has been a drop-off as more business is done in paperless, electronic formats.
“That portion of the business is commodity,” Lagarde said. “Where Matt comes in is the custom business, and at restaurants that’s really been growing.”
Paper supply might sound dull, and comparisons to Dunder Mifflin, the fictional paper company from the sitcom “The Office,” are inevitable. But as Oertling describes his one-on-one work with chefs and restaurateurs, he can make it sound downright sexy, like a subtle, almost subliminal part the city’s love affair with dining and restaurant culture.
“The goal is to make your brand part of the experience,” said Oertling. “If you’re at Pascal’s Manale and you tear a hunk of French bread out of the bag and dip it in the BBQ shrimp sauce and you get that association of the restaurant’s name on the bag with how much you like that sauce, that bag just did its job.”
Some chefs and restaurateurs share that perspective.
“These aren’t small details, they’re part of the way we share the character of this place,” said Kelly Fields, co-chef and partner at Willa Jean, the Besh Restaurant Group’s new bakery and cafe.
Specialty paper and print elements were part of the Willa Jean plan from early in its conceptual stage, she said.
Some were practical, like unique triangular boxes for single pie slices to go; and the Willa Jean logo is printed on pastry and bread bags to help market the bakery as customers nibble their croissants or baguettes while walking out the door.
There was also a more personal angle for Fields. Willa Jean is named for her grandmother, and working with the Besh group’s graphic designer Madie Robison, she was able to use her family’s old recipe cards on the butcher paper that accompanies many of the orders at her restaurant.
“These recipe cards were something intimate that I shared with my grandmother, but that’s also kind of a universal thing, especially in the South. People share that connection,” Fields said. “The whole point of this restaurant is to ground you, and that’s part of it.”
If all the paper and printed matter seems like a throwback with the growing thrust of online marketing, some restaurateurs see it all working together. The branded items often turn up in social media feeds as customers post photos of their meals, and they’re often the backdrop for food media photo shoots, too.
But there’s also the appeal of the physical in an increasingly digital world.
Oertling points to the growing demand from his restaurant clients for matchbooks bearing their brands, even as smoking indoors is widely prohibited and smoking rates decline.
“Matches are a vital record,” he said. “They’re obviously becoming obsolete, but they stand out for that reason. People gravitate toward them.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.