Lynette Chiu | Writer + Strategist
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ShopHouse Kitchen: Voice Definition and Website

Roles: Brand Strategist, Copywriter
Agency: Sequence

Chipotle’s sister restaurant ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen opened in 2011 and steadily gained a foothold in the DC area. Before it could confidently move into markets such as Los Angeles, the brand needed refinement and its website needed a full responsive makeover. I established the voice, tone, and messaging strategy, while writing copy for key touchpoints.

ShopHouse shared Chipotle’s service format and food philosophy, but the similarities ended there. Chipotle is deeply established and beloved, its menu items are known and understood, and so it can use its copy rations to display its cleverness and self-assuredness. Few people know what steak laab is or what countries constitute Southeast Asia. We needed to dedicate our verbal energy to enticing people to try unfamiliar flavors, educating them about the inspiration for the food, explaining what a shophouse is—all in a voice that didn’t bore, or worse, exoticize.

So we set about exploring. I began by fiddling with how the brand could speak as well as how it might explain all that it is. There was a lot to cover, and I began to see how some of the key challenges could be converted into opportunities. I could introduce unfamiliar flavors and ingredients by appealing to a customer’s curiosity and the thrill of discovery. I could provide mouth-watering descriptions of Southeast Asian cuisine and present ShopHouse as a chance to experience it without getting on a plane.

Below are some early stabs at establishing tone through what we called “inspiration statements”. The following direction, which I titled “Traveling Locally”, goes like this:

Appealing to a desire for adventure and travel, this voice is aspirational and enticing, positioning ShopHouse as a dining experience that’s an entry to another culture.


INSPIRATION STATEMENT

Some people go on cruises. Some travel for months with only a backpack. Others get a taste of something special without venturing far at all.

At ShopHouse, the best of Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand is closer than a plane ride away. We expertly combine dozens of ingredients to create the tangy, tart, fiery, and sweet dishes of the region, while paying tribute to the lively, family-run shophouses that line the streets of cities such as Penang and Hanoi.

Satisfy your hunger for adventure by traveling through your taste buds. Culinary thrills abound just around the corner.

Here’s another, which I called “First Bite”:

This direction hinges on the initial moment of discovery, using an energized, more daring voice to build curiosity and anticipation for food that will surprise and delight.


INSPIRATION STATEMENT

The first bite is a kick in the face. Not because of the spice (though there is some spice). It’s more like, “Where has this food been all my life?”

A burst of lemongrass, a dash of lime, a punch of chilies — these are powerful flavors that rule the kitchens of mom-and-pop restaurants across Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore. In modest buildings called shophouses, where families both live and serve food, ingredients are wrangled into unexpected combinations of sweet and savory, hot and cold, tangy and tart. One mouthful is enough to shake up the senses.

ShopHouse is Southeast Asian cuisine that challenges everything you know about food — and welcomes you to life after that first bite.

Ultimately, I composed an inspiration statement that hit the marks of aspirational, evocative, and welcoming. It uses sensory imagery (I was able to call on my own memories of traveling in Southeast Asia) as an entry into the restaurant’s offerings, format, and passion for food.

In the older quarters of cities like Bangkok, Penang, and Hanoi sit beautiful time-worn buildings called shophouses. Welcoming to locals and tourists alike, shophouses are where you’ll find the best food in Southeast Asia. Families live upstairs and run bustling restaurants downstairs, where tables, stools and conversation spill into the street. Central to everyday life, shophouses serve local specialties made from scratch that become many travelers’ fondest memories. Vegetables sizzle in the wok and the regulars chat amidst the scent of chili, garlic and lemongrass.

ShopHouse pays tribute to its namesake by offering the eye-opening cuisine of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore in a vibrant environment. Expertly balancing dozens of fresh, sustainably-sourced ingredients, we combine traditional elements such as tamarind, galangal, coconut milk, and lime into customizable, flavor-forward meals. Ranging from bold, fiery, and fragrant to tangy, cool, and crisp, our food takes hours to prepare and just seconds to come together in any combination you like.

This inspiration statement skewed romantic, and wasn’t suitable for an About page, but served as a sort of guide as we moved forward. In promotional materials, there was room for a punchier, more playful style that would still be very distinct from Chipotle’s casual irreverence. We tried extending that voice to various materials. The following quick mock-ups of a free bowl card and magazine ad hit on some of the brand's key themes: fresh ingredients, striking flavors, customization, and traveling through the senses.

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We were ready to move on to making a site as enticing as the food, and decided to provide an immediate impression of the richness of the culture the food originated from. Upon landing on the site, users saw a gif containing multiple colorful images from across Southeast Asia before landing on the following:

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The inspiration statement got its little place in the sun, as we scattered excerpts around a page called Inspiration that’s filled with images that complement the romance of the language.

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The rest of the site copy gets down to the business of educating on the food and menu format, while continuing to push the remarkable flavors and possibilities in store for every customer.

The Food page guides the user through all the choices they’ll encounter in the restaurant, and includes short and sweet descriptions of each item in order to further whet the appetite.

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ShopHouse is, in a nutshell, “the Southeast Asian version of Chipotle”, but our goal was to let it stand on its own, and we spent a while considering the degree to which we should message the Chipotle connection. Chipotle is known for its commitment to sourcing and consistent quality, so its name lends credibility, but as we were quickly establishing, the restaurants have necessarily very different voices and vibes. We decided that ShopHouse could capitalize on Chipotle’s very effective social media machine, which could cross-promote and illuminate the connection, but in its own brand communications, it didn’t need to constantly namedrop Chipotle. If customers want to know more about the company, the About page (pictured below) mentions Chipotle and positions ShopHouse as a natural progression in Chipotle’s mission to make fast-casual more responsible and tasty.

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My time working on ShopHouse didn’t end there, but I think this case study is quite long enough already. I’ll leave you with the following additional guidelines I wrote for our final brand strategy document, intended for the ShopHouse team to keep in mind as they expanded and created new content.

AUTHENTICITY
While the flavors and ingredients at ShopHouse are authentic, they don’t come together to create classic Southeast Asian dishes. Take care to not promise dishes straight from a shophouse, but rather the opportunity to create a meal from a palette of authentic flavors.

INSIDE / OUTSIDE
ShopHouse is inspired by Southeast Asian street food but named after a type of building. The food served at shophouses is not markedly different from that of street stalls, but be aware of the disconnect when defining a shophouse and claiming street street food as an inspiration in one place. Show that shophouses are part of the same culture as street food and hawker stalls, with open air, outdoor seating and freshly cooked specialties.

CHIPOTLE CONNECTION
Mentioning Chipotle is most valuable in describing ShopHouse’s format. Customers also associate Chipotle with quality. Marketing shouldn’t lead with the Chipotle connection and it doesn’t have to be present at all on printed materials. The relationship with Chipotle is more powerful when brought into person-to-person interactions.

TRAVEL / THE UNFAMILIAR
Eating at ShopHouse is not similar to eating at a real shophouse, neither in menu nor decor. It is, however, a chance to experience the flavors of the region without actually going there. Avoid using language about being whisked away to Asia. And while the region and its food is likely unfamiliar to customers, be sure not to exoticize the people or culture in copy or design.