What We Can Learn From Fictional Restaurants
Fictional restaurants serve as more than set dressing in film or television — they’re a peek into the greater world beyond. The relationship between marketing and cinema is increasingly common is especially prevalent in the age of streaming platforms; with less advertising real-estate, product placement increases. Studies indicate that audience dietary choices are relative to the media that they consume, meaning that the restaurants that you see in films, whether a real or fictional restaurant, can impact what someone craves.
Beyond that, fictional restaurants tell you plenty about the world in which they exist. These establishments hint at the sociopolitics outside those doors or the economic standing of the characters within them. They illustrate how the pressures of the outside world inform the decisions of the restaurant. They can influence potential customers, which then inspires restaurateurs who are looking for a fun way to engage fans and foodies alike. Join us as we examine some of our favorite fictional restaurants. We’ve asked our team to contribute ideas. See what worked with these restaurants, what made them cool, and what we can take from them.
One of the most iconic locations in Star Wars: A New Hope is Chalmun’s Spaceport Cantina, colloquially known as the Mos Eisley Cantina. The cantina is an intergalactic dive bar with a multi-cultural (and species) patronage and an initially strict no-droid policy. While that policy was likely predicated on the droid army (established in the prequel trilogy later) it was eventually revoked after the fall of the Empire. In the series The Mandalorian, the titular character revisits the cantina, where we learn that the establishment has rescinded their droid policy and that robots now work there. In showing this, the cantina lets us into the subtle shifts to the world outside, that post-Empire tolerance is on the rise.
This restaurant’s branding is a well-established, in-universe trope that recurs throughout each Toy Story movie. It’s that branding strategy at the heart of the restaurant, which we never really see, but who’s specter looms large throughout the series. As always, and especially as you reopen, marketing and branding are essential to continuous customer recognition. Everything has shifted in a short amount of time. Take a closer look at your marketing efforts, and see what you can improve.
The Shore Shack appeared in the classic 90s television show, Rocket Power. Located on the beach, Shore Shack offered a fast-casual, grill-based menu like cheeseburgers, hotdogs, and fries. It’s owned and operated by two local friends, one of whom lives directly above the restaurant. The restaurant was a regular hangout spot for locals because of its relaxed open-door atmosphere with a beach view. As a kid-friendly restaurant, the Shore Shack provided a safe place for younger customers and treated them with the same care as adults. Through their customer service efforts, the Shore Shack altered and optimized their atmosphere to foster guest loyalty and return visits.
David Chase’s lauded 6-season masterpiece about a mob boss living in the suburbs features many restaurants. Littered with New Jersey references and allusions to Italian food, The Sopranos‘ persistent references to authentic cuisine introduced many viewers to “gabagool.” I could write about many Sopranos-centric eateries, like North Arlington NJ’s Pizzaland, which appears on the Belleville Turnpike as Tony trundles through the opening credits in a ’99 Chevy Suburban. Artie Bucco’s Nuovo Vesuvio, real-life Manolo’s in Elizabeth, NJ, also serves as a frequent plot point.
Instead, I’ll focus on Holsten’s, an Ice Cream Parlour in Brookdale NJ, from the show’s famous (and controversial) finale. The eatery (an unnamed diner in the episode) houses the final scene, creating its staunch critics, ardent fans, and a “what if?” conversation that still happens today. I won’t reveal any more plot points, but I find the decision to end it in a restaurant rather poetic. The show’s universal draw comes not from fetishizing organized crime, but by contrasting it with slice-of-life moments: part mob movie, part family sitcom.
As we’ve seen in Spongebob, restaurants are places for gathering, events, socializing, and coming together. Not only are they businesses, but local hotspots in communities. Restaurants can also serve as the “town square!” People share important news, celebrate, make decisions, and even grieve in restaurants. As the country reopens, remember that your restaurant serves as a gathering place that’s important to socialization. Make sure that while you’re complying with CDC guidelines, you’re not losing the guest experience. Your guests want to get out and gather together around a good meal.
A cult classic, Twin Peaks is a crime procedural that uses the framework of a murder mystery to explore the banality of evil in small-town America. Following eccentric FBI agent Dale Cooper, the Double R Diner is a refuge for various characters, whether they’re demonstrably heroic or villainous. As such, the Double R Diner is a shared communal space that serves as a neutral ground for individuals to parlay their differences. The ownership and staff are central characters motivated by their own ambitions, but diligent in their in-house service.
The series returned after 25 years in 2017 with virtually no changes to the diner, their POS system, their KDS, or, for the most part, their staff. Recently, that love for the restaurant transcended fiction, as actor Kyle MacLachlan donated to help the real location survive the pandemic. They do make a damn fine cup of coffee, after all.
Not only a great hangout for Kim (AKA Kim Possible) and her friends but a great example of a pet-friendly establishment. Pets are companions, so it’s no surprise that diners want to visit your restaurant with their furry friends. As things reopen and customers venture back out, consider allowing pets if your restaurant has a patio or outside space. You may draw more customers that way!
Whether it’s real or imagined, there’s much to learn from the experiences of others. You can watch the community built by places like the Bueno Nacho or the Shore Shack, and take inspiration on customer service. The restaurant functions as a common and neutral meeting space, like the Double R Diner or the diners in the Sopranos. You can see how restaurants embraced change and new technologies to enhance their operations at the Mos Eisley Cantina. By learning from what works and building on what doesn’t, you can hone your craft in creating a restaurant that’s equally destination and home-base to your guests.
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About the Authors
The QSR Automations content team comprises the writers, editors, designers, and digital strategists (AKA the QSR Superstars) who work to bring you fresh, weekly restaurant content. When not in their creative cocoons, you can find them in spirited (remote!) debates over which Dorito’s flavor is best.