Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the restaurant MET Bethesda as MET Bar & Grill. This version has been updated.
STK. GRK. DGS. GBD. DBGB.
Washington has long been an abbreviation-happy town, from FDR to JFK, HUD to DOJ, BGSEEF to NCPPCC. (If you had studied your United States Government Manual, you’d recognize the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, and National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact Council.) But the practice of referring to things by a series of letters has taken hold among D.C.-area restaurants, too.
The latest example is Ballston’s SER, which in February will join the field of all-caps, three- and four-letter eateries that have turned local food directories into alphabet soup.
A lazy branding strategy? Not necessarily. According to persuasion theory, participation in a slogan, jingle or name — having to work it out — increases visibility, explained Lynda Maddox, a marketing professor at the George Washington University School of Business.
“Your brain has to make certain connections,” she said, a process that could make a potential customer more likely to remember a brand.
“It’s like naming your child,” said SER’s Christiana Campos. “It’s going to stick. It has to stick.” SER stands for Simple Easy Real and, as the team realized after a couple glasses of wine, spells “ser,” or “to be” in Spanish, which fit perfectly with the restaurant’s Iberian cuisine.
Not every name that resembles a Scrabble rack follows the same pattern. Some drop vowels or other letters: BGR, STK, GRK. Some are acronyms: BTS (Burger Tap & Shake), GCDC (the GC stands for grilled cheese), WTF (Woodward Takeout Food, not . . . well, you know).
Tamim Shoja, co-founder of SKWR, a kebab restaurant opening downtown this spring, said removing the Es was “not just removing the vowels for the sake of removing the vowels.” A line drawn through the remaining letters produces a visual representation of a skewer and the kind of food the restaurant will be serving, he said.
What’s more, Shoja and his co-founders are native Farsi speakers, and not all vowels are written in Farsi. “It’s actually kind of a coincidence,” he said. “It’s not something that we planned.”
A restaurant doesn’t want potential customers to have to think too hard about a name. If a name is not particularly memorable, diners may not remember who you are, even when they want to find you.
“The best names are those that are straightforward,” said Valerie Zweig, director of conceptual projects for the food and beverage consulting firm Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group — which, BTW, refers to itself as VSAG.
Challenging pronunciation — “Is it as easy to spell as pronounce?” — is one potential pitfall to creative spelling, Zweig said. Alex Alevras, co-owner of Greek spot GRK, gets that.
“I do have people coming in and saying ‘gurk’” (as in the first syllable of “gherkin”), he said.
Sometimes an acronym is so memorable, it all but erases the “official” restaurant name. Witness KFC, or one of Washington’s own fried chicken establishments, GBD.
“The official name is Golden Brown Delicious, but I don’t think anyone knows that,” said Erik Bergman, director of operations for the beer division of parent company Neighborhood Restaurant Group, with a laugh. The goal was not to get too cute.
“It was the most literal,” he said. “We didn’t want to get too fancy with a chicken and doughnut place.”
For his part, Bergman sees the rise in acronym or abbreviation names as “part of the zeitgeist right now,” especially in a world enamored of texting and tweeting.
Other technology trends are contributing as well, thanks to Web-centered marketing. Creative spelling of a common word might make it easier to not only trademark a company name, but also register a Web site, Zweig said. And shorter names are particularly advantageous in social media, SER’s Campos said, where every character counts.
While the technology and accompanying trend may be of the moment, Maddox said there’s also something timeless about abbreviations or acronyms. “You never want a restaurant to sound old-fashioned,” she said, and a jumble of letters isn’t the kind of thing that will sound outdated. Plus, “It can become whatever you need it to be.”
That’s not the kind of flexibility you’d get with naming a restaurant after a chef or even an owner, because those things can change.
Observers and restaurateurs differ when it comes to the proliferation of these types of names.
“I don’t think there’s an oversaturation,” said Celeste Fierro, senior vice president of the ONE Group, which runs STK steakhouse. (Though one could disagree after looking at the restaurant’s Dupont Circle neighbors: GBD, BGR The Burger Joint, GRK and DGS Delicatessen.)
Maddox believes a point of saturation will come, which will lead to confusion among consumers. “When everyone’s doing the same thing and you don’t have a memorable group of letters in particular,” recognition can be a problem, she said.
GBD’s Bergman said there already is some confusion, as patrons will occasionally amble in to inquire about a reservation when, of course, they mean to be at DGS, two doors down.
“It’s definitely a point of conversation,” Bergman said.
Who else will jump into the fray? TBD.
Some of Washington’s abbreviated restaurant names are pretty easy to decipher. Others generate a little more head-scratching. Here’s a glossary of the more obscure names in our area:
BTS: Burger Tap & Shake.
DBGB Kitchen and Bar: Chef Daniel Boulud’s riff on the East Village’s famed CBGB music club, which was located not far from Boulud’s original DBGB.
DGS Delicatessen: A nod to the former District Grocery Stores chain.
GBD: Golden Brown Delicious.
GCDC: The GC stands for grilled cheese.
KBC: Kangaroo Boxing Club.
MXDC: Todd English’s Mexican-in-D.C. enterprise.
MET Bethesda: Casual chain spinoff of Kathy Sidell’s Metropolitan Club in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
RFD: Regional Food and Drink.
SER: Simple Easy Real.
PX: From the restaurant industry code for Very Important Person, or PPX.
WTF: Woodward Takeout Food.