Learn more about our Member Douglas Riccardi!
Meet the NYCHG Members: Douglas Riccardi of MEMO NY
Before Stanley Tucci searched for Italy, Douglas Riccardi found it after leaving New York in the 1990s to live abroad for several years. But even before arriving in the Bel Paese, food was always a big part of Riccardi’s life. “I’m a second-generation Italian-American, and the stereotype is true: Nothing good ever happened in our family that didn’t involve cooking or food. No conversation of note ever happened that didn’t happen around the dinner table.” Like his love of food, he discovered his passion for design early on and has parlayed that into his work at MEMO, a design agency he founded upon his return to the states. The MEMO team helps restaurants develop a well-articulated brand narrative that touches and informs every aspect of their creative process. His clients include Nancy Silverton and the Mozza Restaurant Group (Mozza LA), national food hall operator Urbanspace, and The Gumbo Bros in Nashville and New York.
Question: I know that you’re an avid home cook, but could you share what your favorite restaurant is?
Douglas Riccardi: Before the pandemic, my very happy place was Mercado Little Spain in Hudson Yards. Everything about it made me happy as a clam. I love Spanish culture and the whole experience was fantastic. I felt like I had left New York City for a quick jaunt to Spain.
Also, more than anything in the world, I love the bar at Keens Steakhouse. It’s always just the right kind of crowded, there’s never an attitude, and the bartenders are amazing.
Q: How did you come to pursue a career in the design world?
DR: As a high schooler, I had this crazy notion that I wanted to get into something creative. When I was in a senior art class, everybody was painting pictures of lilies and frogs and the like, and I was over here designing a car brochure because I liked cut-and-paste collages. I knew I wanted to be a commercial artist or designer, but no one in my high school had any concept about that. And I grew up just outside New York City. It wasn’t like I was in the middle of nowhere! For a minute, I had considered studying languages, but luckily before I went down that path, I decided to go to art school. I went to RISD and it was a great experience. I fell in with people who I still see to this day.
Q: What was the path like to becoming a designer who works almost exclusively in the restaurant world?
DR: After graduation, I moved to New York City and got a job instantly for a massive corporate identity firm, working for major brands on multi-million dollar projects. I was bored to tears. I made a radical career move a few years after that and then I moved to Italy for a while. When I got back to the States, I had no desire to work anywhere, so I started my own business as kind of a generalist, doing general graphic design for a wide range of clients. Over time, while I knew I could make more money working in other sectors, I accepted how special food is to me. It has the ability to smooth over a rough conversation, to bring people together. It’s the great equalizer, so I’ve been very happy working in this space.
Q: It’s interesting that you were going to minor in language because food is kind of the international language. Would you agree?
DR: It’s true. And I love that it’s a sort of window into other people’s cultures.
Q: As a branding expert, what is the ideal stage at which a restaurant client should begin the process of working with a firm like yours?
DR: The ideal stage is to bring us in as early as possible. If I had to say the biggest across-the-board mistake I see companies make, whether they hire Memo or not, is that they engage a branding firm too late in the process. They’ll hire their architect out of the gate and then a month before they’re going to open, they’ll reach out. But if they haven’t done the branding work, it makes me think, “What the heck did you tell your architect to build if you didn’t have a brand?”
Q: Assuming people are more aware of the power of a brand and call you in on a timely basis, where do you begin helping restaurateurs with their identity?
DR: The end goal is having a focused idea about who they are, what they serve, what experience they hope to deliver, and what their ideal audience is. Those are the four key points. We help people answer all these questions while teasing out specifics of their concept. We find it gets better results that asking obvious questions, like, “What’s your value proposition? Who is your competition?”
Once we’ve gone through this positioning exercise, then we begin developing the brand assets. And that can be everything from a logo and color palette to photo styling and typography. We look at how what we’re doing on a two-dimensional level impacts a restaurant’s three-dimensional space. I’m less interested in the most beautiful business card that most people will never see. I’m much more intrigued by the holistic experience. I feel like my best compliment for our project in Nashville with The Gumbo Bros is that new customers constantly say, “I don’t know what this is yet, but I love the vibe of the place!”
Q: Have you seen a shift when it comes to addressing the expectations of Millennials and Gen Z’ers, in terms of branding?
DR: The way these customers perceive things now is that they don’t compartmentalize the way older clients do. They’re absorbing a restaurant more holistically. Restaurants hitting that sweet spot aren’t necessarily branding everything in the traditional sense, but they are creating a very specific worldview. So it’s kind of totally branded even if they’re not going all-in on printed collateral.
Q: During this last year, the survival of the neighborhood restaurant has been at the top of everyone’s minds. A lot of these spots aren’t these branded experiential spots, but more like our local go-to’s. Do you think they’ll survive without some of the bells and whistles younger diners have come to expect?
DR: I think the pandemic forced restaurateurs to ask themselves why they’re doing this. The margins aren’t great and it’s a freaking struggle every week, and I think it made them reassess why they’re in the neighborhoods they are in, who they serve, who are their real constituents. And I think neighborhood restaurants have been a blessing throughout this whole thing.
I have a client friend who has a little restaurant in Harlem, and they had their best summer ever last year. They have such a great connection with their community. The community loves them and the feeling is mutual. Locals saw that these are real people working hard to survive and said, I’m going to support them. I think that will continue and I think that there is always going to be a place for those restaurants, the ones where you feel welcome all the time.
When I moved home from Italy, I became the creative director at Florent. Darinka Chase was the hostess there for many years. You may know her. She had this signature bouffant. If you went there twice, she knew your name. Three times, you were automatically guaranteed to jump the line. That’s Hospitality 101. How many restaurants do that now? No one seems to recognize you unless you’re a celebrity or an Instagram influencer. But it’s different at neighborhood spots. I think the pandemic has helped us regain respect for local places.
Q: A lot of restaurants are still struggling, and sometimes rebranding is a popular path to take to try to recapture some heat. Is that always necessary?
DR: There are times when you need to radically change and I think that’s typically driven by a public relations debacle, such as a founder finding themselves in hot water. Brands can and should evolve, but I think the real issue is stagnancy. People don’t want the same old dusty place. But it doesn’t take much to make things look fresh every so often. You don’t have to abandon your core mission to keep things relevant with subtle tweaks here and there.
Q: What do you notice first about a restaurant and its branding?
DR: It’s usually the signage outside, but I also notice how it’s integrated. What I like to see is that someone thought through everything — the signage, the display for the business cards, how the chairs are different, how they slide under the bar. It makes me happy that someone thought about every detail in the same way. I like to feel like they were enjoying this process and had fun with it.
Q: Final question. Matchbooks: Yea or nay?
DR: Yea! Why wouldn’t you give people something to bring home? Every time they light a candle, they can use your matchbook. I used to have a big collection, so obviously, I love a good matchbook. I still collect them. When I went to Superica in Nashville, I took several. More than a normal person would. So, big, big matchbook person here!
Discover how Douglas and his team at MEMO can help you develop or refresh your hospitality brand, visit https://www.memo-ny.com/.Back to Blog Posts
Established in 2009, The New York City Hospitality Group ("NYCHG") is a New York City-centric organization dedicated to serving the restaurant and hospitality industry. NYCHG is comprised of the best in class professionals that act as a resource to each other and the hospitality community.
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