Can chain restaurants serve small town charm?

May 29, 2024
Emmy Liederman
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Looking to expand brand awareness, North Italia found a common thread between transportation, Italian culture and Formula 1's Racing Fan Fest.

North Italia, a multi-location restaurant owned by the Cheesecake Factory, is balancing local fandom and national fame. Despite its nearly 40 locations, it has yet to establish the name recognition of some of its counterparts. While a creator would playfully post at an Olive Garden in Times Square and call it “New York’s Best Kept Secret,” posts about North Italia read like a genuine recommendation from a local. 

“When I’m traveling to open a new restaurant, the number one thing I hear from people is ‘Are you opening a second location?'” said senior marketing specialist Na'Lasia Hinson, stressing that consumers are surprised to find that there are nearly 40. “Our goal was to be your local trattoria with a modern vibe, and now we’re in 14 states.” 

Hinson, who knows good food and loyal customers alone don’t foster growth, said brand awareness is a major play for North Italia. Through longterm relationships with local creators, as well as multi-day activations at events like Formula 1 and South by Southwest, the brand is working to expand while maintaining the atmosphere of a local trattoria. 

“We asked creators for an idea and how they would bring it to life, and nine times out of 10 it is completely in line with our brand,” said Hinson, emphasizing the weight of partnerships with existing fans over those with the largest followings.  

Reaching beyond the restaurant 

In partnership with DoorDash, North Italia brought a branded race track to Racing Fast Fest, a free event built around the fandom of Formula 1. Attendees drove remote-controlled “delivery cars” on a mini track that featured each South Florida location. 

Through these activations, the brand wants to foster more than just a passive restaurant consumer: the event also featured cooking demos from North Italia’s top chef, and the brand gave out real Italian food-inspired tattoos at last year’s South by Southwest activation.

“Beyond just sampling food and beverages, we’re creating an experience and a show,” said Rosanne Ramons, vice president of brand accounts at creative agency MOCEAN, who set out to create multi-day experiences that are more tailored a tasting or product giveaway.

For the agency, event ideas stemmed from the culture that already exists inside the restaurant.

“Every location has some sort of mural or art piece that is meaningful to that community,” said Ramos. “We look for any new opportunity to help bring the brand to life in a localized way.” 

Pursuing creative partners over endorsements

As it looks to grow community and pride around its brand, North Italia  looks for spaces where that community already exists—this was the approach for Racing Fan Fest, and it has also been its strategy when approaching creators. 

The brand has regularly worked with Stephanie Camille, a creator who is enamored with  “All things Dallas,” as well as Eddie Sanchez, who transitioned from collaborating with North Italia for one-off campaigns to working with its agencies on more consistent photography and videography work. Beyond an isolated brief, North Italia is finding ways to expand its creator relationships. 

North Italia typically finds its creators through organic social media mentions and then hands over creative freedom, according to Hinson. Instead of giving their partners a script, she said the brand centers the creator's ideas and suggests certain information that could enhance the content—which could be  a look into how their pizza dough is made or how often their menu changes.

“We want creators to really understand the brand so they’re not just saying ‘Hey, North Italia is going to be activating at Racing Fan Fest. Come check it out,'" she said. 

While it is focused on creator partnerships and activations outside the restaurant, the brand said that should never be at the expense of hospitality or community. 

“The best part of my job is walking into a restaurant and seeing a bartender or a manager interacting with the guests,” said Hinson. “They ask about your kids and remember where this regular sits at the bar or that regular likes a high top table. People still get that local feel, and I’m so proud we’ve been able to maintain that.” 

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