peep the shop
We started this project making t-shirts.
We're still in that game.
Kevin Layshock
Jun 2, 2020

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Kevin Layshock
Jun 2, 2020

Let us, in the lifespan of this project, consider the grey area where design and food overlap, specifically from our observations of these things in Phoenix. With a vegetarian spouse, a general concern whether the dietary needs of our friends and family being adequately met, and as we all change our dining habits during a pandemic, I wanted to take some time to take a dive into restaurant menus and menu design as a whole. This dietary theme will be the first part of what I'm hoping will be a short series on menu design in 2020.

It’s safe to assume vegetarians don’t want to be fussy guests, just as most conventional eaters just want to enjoy dishes without any particular need for revision, prepared just as their creators see fit. Gluten intolerance is a thing, and yes, a single oversight of that — even a small one — can handily ruin a couple of weeks for those afflicted. Are there peanuts or tree nuts in the sauce, or shellfish prepared in the kitchen? Is this halal? Is it kosher? Oftentimes: who’s to say? Maybe the one guy who's possibly in the back and could say, doesn’t work the line anymore, and actually, we're not sure if he's working today after all; he might just be on his lunch break. And I think we can all agree there’s a special uncomfortable afterlife for diners who assert dominance over the specifics of a menu as if you're cooking in their kitchen. And bad tippers. (There are other blogs for that.)

Most menu design is inconsequentially straight-forward. A product, a description (maybe), and a price. Good menus can anticipate a diner’s questions and provide answers in the form of short-form, descriptive text that accompanies the product. Great menus leave very little to question and everything else to imagine and anticipate — they know which details to shroud in mystery, and which to leave unobscured. There are ample truly great menus living in the world, a few of which have been documented in the now-defunct Art of the Menu, alongside many more that fill long lists of menu design inspiration blogs.

https://www.underconsideration.com/artofthemenu/project_images/locanda_vittoria_PHOTO_01.jpg
A look at Locanda Vittoria's menu, via Art of the Menu

The very best menus already know their diners, and reflect those insights by acknowledging a diversity of palates, preferences, and appetites. These menus are tucked away in hardcover leather-bound tri-folds with gold threaded stitching and embossed covers, available only upon request… or, surprise-surprise, they can have been typed up two hours ago, printed on somehow-already-grease-blotted Staples copy paper, photographed, and uploaded to Instagram. There’s no single shape or form they’ll consider, and that’s the beauty of top shelf menu design.

Into the weeds we go for a moment: there's the widely known industrial design and architectural principle from the early 19th century: "form follows function," which suggests that the shape or form of a given thing should directly relate to its functional purpose. My own interpretation of this, at least when echoed in this narrow scope of modern menu design, demands inclusivity. Serving a restaurant guest is a practice that's changed within the scope of a single lifetime. There's no point I could make about the logistics of food, or how modern technology has made almost any food accessible to anywhere else in the world, or about bananas or strawberries from India —specifically grown for Americans — that David Chang didn't already cover in Ugly Delicious or The Dave Chang Show. It's been discussed. The point I actually want to make, following the form-follows-function thread, is that restaurants can and should make minimum efforts, via visual design or content strategy, to address the diverse dietary landscape of guests they serve. If you're solution-oriented, there are many: small icons with a key tidily tucked into a passive corner; item descriptions that reflect a flexibility or inclination to vegan or vegetarian alternative preparations. If you're a James Beard award-winning joint, and having a price tag on the windshield is garish, perhaps it's a small disclaimer that gives some folks a written nod that you see them, and they're welcome.

At Better Better Studio, we redrafted some menus for our friends at Gadzooks, the local enchilada and soup shops around Phoenix, and with context and customer experience in the forefront, we split up the bulk of the content, made some heavy-duty design tweaks, but most importantly: labeled everything. This isn't a new practice; big chains and healthy dining spots have been pointing out vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options for a long time, but it shouldn't take design budgets that can afford focus groups and ad agency marketing teams to come back with the same guidance I'm suggesting now.

Sneezeguard "maps" at Gadzooks, in Phoenix

When vegetarians have to ask granular questions about broths, ambiguously-listed ingredients, the dreaded unfamiliar, and most generically, if something “is vegetarian,” simply stated: it’s effort, and I imagine most restaurants want to lift that burden as best they can, and this one is deceptively easy because it’s so avoidable. When conversation between a server and their guest is free from questions around dietary compatibility, it allows space for the real hospitality to shine, and this is where restaurants like FnB, The Gladly, or Glai Baan — to name a few — can really dazzle.

If a restaurant’s BOH is conscious of and prepared for dietary touch points, guests can have the confidence to eat, drink, be merry, knowing they’re in safe hands. And that effort for dietary inclusivity has to extend to the FOH, and particularly the menu, otherwise it’s effort (possibly produce) wasted. Many vegetarians, for example, simply want options (notice that ’s’ indicating plurality) and for items to be painless to order — some feel awkward or uncomfortable requesting substitutions or exclusions, especially if the establishment is somewhat upscale (or if the menu expressly prohibits substitutions or exclusions), and oftentimes, it’s not clear if that’s a welcomed behavior.

Inclusive design as a broader theory is a concept that's always seemed, to this particular experience designer, like a no-brainer: it should exist in the DNA of everything we interact with, considering the shades and flavors and temperaments and personality differences between all of us. It's incredibly satisfying when achieved, often overlooked, and only in the past handful of years become an important way to design — as political and social issues stemming from diversity and equity arise, we learn new ways to adapt and show hospitality to people who don't look or sound or eat or live like we do. Critically, you don't know what you don't know, but listening to your audiences and to the people who want to support you are the easiest ways to begin to figure out how to accommodate and adapt to a much larger group of people who might just want to eat your food.

Chris Hall
Jun 2, 2020

Not so long ago, the far East Valley coffee scene was pretty rough. I had recently moved out to Gilbert, and to get a really good cup of coffee, I had to drive ~30 minutes to get to Cartel in Tempe. But one day I saw that a new coffee shop was opening. The branding and the copy made it seem like it was going to be something good, but it was mysteriously opening up in a salon space within a JCPenney's anchored shopping center. If you had to rate the vibe of the area pre-Provision, I'd say it was a grim 1/10.

So we walked in, and the Palette Collective space was strikingly modern. Crisp white everything, pops of mint green, particleboard tables with white shell chairs, and then Dan and Lawrence over on the right, running a bar that felt like it had accidentally teleported to Chandler/Gilbert from LA. There was no menu on the wall—just a tri-fold book of coffee standards, coffee cocktails, and toasts.

I remember getting my first Southwest Sunrise and thinking, "oh, ok... I guess I'm going to be fine living out here."

A year or so later, Kevin and I rented the salon space in the far back left—a space that Palette was struggling to rent because it was reeeealy small. But whatever. We crammed two small desks and a bookshelf in, and instantly had the best office situation in the valley. We were less than 20 steps away from fantastic coffee and the crazy cast of characters floating in Provision's orbit.

The thing about Provision that always cracks me up is that their baristas are never just baristas, and their customers are never the standard people you see floating around. In those early days they had this barista from Boston who may have been an electrician if I'm remembering correctly. Like the shop itself, he seemed like he accidentally teleported in from the set of Good Will Hunting. He had the thickest Boston accent ever, and would tell me all sorts of stories about his mom, his friends from back home, and crazy stuff I'm assuming only happens in the NE.

Then they had a photographer who looked like he walked off a movie set. He had this strange look of melancholy at all times, and it really felt like when he poured a drink, it was a pivotal moment in his life. Every time. I can't explain it. He was also professionally going by just his last name (all caps, with a space between each letter), and somehow it didn't seem like a bad branding move. (I certainly couldn't pull something like that off.)

And Joel, who's still at Provision, would preach passionately about sweet cars and whatever new thing he was carrying around in his pocket. I'd look at him talking and think, "How is his hair even possible? I feel like it's its own emotional being."

And there would be Jonathan—not an employee yet—hanging out at the bar talking about tasting notes and the coffee scene. I'd see people in fashionable outfits that didn't normally exist in that part of town. Big hats, fancy shoes, pressed collars. It was this weird other world, and then you'd walk out into the JCPenney parking lot.

Provision has moved to far fancier digs since, but those early Gilbert days were good ones. If you're lucky enough to be in the Arcadia area, don't take it for granted.

(Oh, and Lawrence/Dan, there's a corn field for sale about a mile from my house...you should take a look.)