‘Top Chef’ Restaurateur Cooks Up Mouth-Watering Experience Business

My cooler-than-me daughter and her fiancé recently took me to the hot Atlanta eatery Gunshow, the brainchild of “Top Chef” finalist Kevin Gillespie. The food was amazing, the vibe was casual-hipster-industrial, and the experience was memorable, unique, and engaging from start to finish. It wasn’t until I sat back the next day and pondered the interesting swirl of influences that I was able to really understand what made this experience so special. Some powerful marketing lessons lie within the interesting mix. 

Here’s how the restaurant works: On any given night, a handful of chefs are on staff with the mission of creating, preparing, and “selling” a single dish from start to finish.  Gunshow manages the portfolio of meals so that it covers an appropriate spectrum of meat, fish, veggie, appetizer, and dessert. The chefs prepare their dishes, then roam the tables presenting them to diners, who peer at each offering and its colorful auteur and decide whether they want to buy in. Having declined a dish once, a diner will not see it again that night. The cycle continues as the next chef presents his or her lovingly prepared dish, and on it goes until your wallet or stomach gives out. 

As I thought about what made this eating experience so remarkable, and why it continues to drive such demand, I saw a fascinating interweaving of trends and themes with clear takeaways for fellow marketers.

Hybrid Fusion Format
Gunshow merges two different restaurant cultures: Brazil’s churascarria, where waiters bring meat-bearing spears to the table to carve individual servings, and China’s dim sum, with an ever-changing variety of small dishes trundling by on carts for diners to select. This blend of roving food offerings is then grafted onto a higher cuisine, more elegantly plated offering to create an entirely new dining experience.

• Marketing takeaway—Create hybrids, collisions, creative contradictions: What disparate elements can you throw together to create something new? What analogous industries or categories can you mine to extract and transplant some element that can transform your offering and breathe new life into it?

The Story Economy
The power of storytelling plays a big role in the Gunshow experience. We heard about the ingredients, the process, the inspiration behind every dish.  We met the (generally colorful and interesting) chef behind each offering, providing a three-dimensional surround-sound for every dish. Keep in mind, too, that every dining experience will be a different narrative; you’ll never know which dishes will be on the menu and when—or sometimes whether—they will even appear at your table on that occasion.

• Marketing takeaway—Develop story, depth, color: How can you draw more back story and meaning out of what you already have? What aspects can you make transparent and shed light to draw your customers in more? How can you design more story and depth into your products from the raw materials, the creation process, the presentation of the end product, the consumption by the customer?

Act Now! 
The Gunshow concept also leverages that time-honored tactic of the time-bound offer: “Call now while supplies last!”, the Blue Light Special, or the dreaded “The price of this time share is only good for today!” We got one—and only one—shot at each dish: Once spurned, the chef and her creation never returned. This sense of perishability heightened the underlying drama of the experience.

• Marketing takeaway—Build urgency: In what ways can you create a sense of timeliness and scarcity that add energy and interest? What fleeting “moments of opportunity” can you engineer into the journey that heighten the experience? I’ve always loved eBay’s former tagline “Shop victoriously!” which captured this feeling beautifully.

Top Chef Finals Every Night
The cooking competition show has become an enormously popular staple of networks and cable TV. The culinary battles, the creative energy, and the surrounding drama all contribute to their irresistible appeal. Most of these shows feature the critical moment when the competing chefs nervously present their offerings to the imposing judges, who render their verdicts with effusive praise or pitiless directness. As we diners sat in Gordon Ramsay-esque judgment over the chefs, we felt the weight of our roles in this drama. The wins and failures we repeatedly doled out to the chefs elicited our own swirl of emotions: anxiety at needing to make a speedy decision; guilt at crushing a contestant’s dreams; vicarious joy when we graciously validated a chef’s work.

• Marketing takeaway—Engage customer emotion: What could be the emotional high points as you graph the customer experience? Where you can build in moments of intrigue and tension that draw the customer in more viscerally and engage them emotionally? How can you get the customer to feel more “skin in the game” of your drama?

Next time you’re in Atlanta, check out Gunshow, and be sure to try to the Warm Banana Pudding. But more importantly, keep a curious eye open when you’re there and other interesting places in your travels, and watch for bits of learning you can shamelessly steal and graft onto your brand. 

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