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Hi. I'm Rick. I write, advise, and invest.

Venture Partner, Quotidian Ventures / CEO, Secret Clubhouse.

Formerly Co-Founder Barbarian Group & Consultant Tumblr

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Disposable Brands

I was walking through Terminal 2 at SFO this morning, looking all the bright shiny new stores and their tenants. It occurred to me that most of them were companies, “chains,” I had never heard of. There were one or two exceptions - I think Mango was in there - but by and large the stores were unknown to me. I was thinking about how 10-year-old Rick would have despaired mightily at the new terminal 2, because there was no McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Burger King. I’d have had to settle for the quirky looking Burger Joint. Ten-year-old Rick was a slave to big brands, by and large for the reasons laid out in classical economics theory of franchises: I valued consistency. So while I could tell you now that Burger Joint has a manifestly better burger, and I enjoy variety, at the age of ten I did not at all. I wanted McDonald’s. 

Ten years ago, airports would have worked hard to fulfill childhood Rick’s desires, because childhood Rick was by no means alone: people wanted their McDonald’s. Many still do, but looking at Terminal 2, the zeitgeist has clearly changed. What people want now, is uniqueness. Or at least the slightly more well off are willing to pay an extra buck for it, and normal people will suffer through paying an extra buck for it in the absence of their habitual alternatives.  

Now, some of the stores in Terminal 2 were definitely part of chains. Many probably are. I know Burger Joint is an SF-area burger chain. The Mexican joint, Andele, has a location in Boston not far from my old office*. Pinkberry is obviously a chain. But Lark Creek Grill? No idea. Is it a beloved local chain that I’ve just not heard of, much like there’s a Salt Lick in the Austin Airport? If you didn’t know better, Salt Lick looked like a regular contrived airport restaurant, rather than an outpost of a beloved local institution. Is this the case with the Lark Creek Grill? Or is it actually a regular, contrived airport restaurant?

Turns out it’s a little of both. Or, rather, “A partnership between the Bay Area’s Lark Creek Restaurant Group and D-Lew Enterprises, Lark Creek Grill serves up American classics and fresh seafood. Lark Creek Grill’s popular sister restaurants are located throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area, including Yankee Pier, located in SFO’s Terminal 3.” Some are named with Lark Creek in the name, others are not. 

But the exact name, it seems, was more or less made up. it’s a disposable brand. It’s there to look like it has some style and history, but in a few years it’ll probably be named something else, along with a remodel to refocus the terminal’s atmosphere of the zeitgest of 2018 or so. 

Additionally, it’s clear that the terminal was curated for this particular feel. They even say so on their website, touting “A sustainable food focus in all restaurants.” Some brands, luckily, already have a sustainable focus, like Starbucks apparently (one of the few familiar faces in the Terminal). Others needed a little prodding, so we have Lark Creek Restaurant,  Cat Coro (“expanding [the] brand CCQ…with a new bar and lounge style restaurant”), Napa Farms & Vino Volo, The Plant and Wakaba (“Wakaba’s sister restaurant, Sankaku, is in SFO’s Terminal 3.”). Locations seem to be embarrassed they have other locations. Names are made up. Franchise is a dirty word. 

So now along with premium brands, distressed brands, outmoded brands, activist brands, green brands, etc., I think we may be living in the era of the disposable brand. I might develop an affinity for Wakaba (it’s really a decent Asian restaurant), but it won’t do me any good in the future, unless I learn the holding company name, and the name of all the other one-off, yet probably pretty similar “sister restaurants.”

Disposable brands seem different than stealth brands - they give the appearance of a regular band, it seems like it’s operating as a regular band, and you’re supposed to develop an affinity for it. But you’re not. It’s part of a larger scheme to make a larger environment, such as Terminal 2, feel more authentic, pleasant and quirky. In this particular instance, it’s an effort to negate the effect of what Walter Kirn calls “Airworld.” It’s an effort to make the place look less anonymous, less sterile. And it does so, ironically, through brands that are, in many ways, more anonymous and sterile. 

* Or is it even the same chain? The Andele blurb on the SFO website only lists locations “in Los Gatos, San Francisco and Oakland, Andale can be found in all SFO terminals.” Are brands so disposable no one’s worried about two different burrito chains with the exact same name? So weird.