14 Mascots 🦞 for Fancy Restaurants
And what generative AI renderings say about the salience of each restaurant's brand
Fast food mascots are having a moment. First there was Grimace, McDonald’s’ all-but-forgotten purple, anthropomorphic eggplant-looking thing (it’s actually supposed to be a tastebud) that the Internet recently declared a Queer icon (or, according to a viral TikTok trend, a serial killer targeting teenagers with poisoned milkshakes). And now there’s news of Quiznos’ infamous, nightmare-inducing Spongmonkeys, which—having been kicked to the curb in 2004—are poised to enjoy a renaissance alongside the relaunched, back-from-bankruptcy sandwich purveyors (blame Gen-Z and their abiding love of absurdist humor and—presumably—hogies for that one).
Food, especially of the fast and CPG variety, has a long history of using mascots as their hype-men. Colonel Sanders. Count Chocula. Mac Tonight. The Jolly Green Giant. Julius Caesar and Julius Pringle. Even the Michelin Guide resorts to its namesake man. Indeed, the list probably exceeds the amount of trans fats in a Wendy’s Big Bacon Classic Triple. All this is for good reason — these brands have done their market research, and they know that mascots can help strengthen brand identity, thus helping them stay top of mind in a saturated and competitive market.
Couldn’t this same logic apply to fine dining establishments? What makes the clientele of a gastronomic temple immune to the whimsical charms of, say, a classed up Tony the Tiger? Aren’t we all kids at heart anyway?
The above questions quickly turned from a joke into something more serious. We didn’t think revered fine dining restaurants would actually adopt some ludicrously plush and amorphous blob of a mascot. However, by employing AI to create one worthy of consideration we thought we might be able to glean some greater truth about these restaurants, especially when we think of restaurants as brands.
Our experiment started simply: give Midjourney enough info to spit out something magic, iterate as necessary. But to what end? We’d simply be feeding the platform prescriptive prompt after prescriptive prompt until we got the subjectively desired result — something that looked cute or cool or both. Doing so would give us no greater insight into how these respective restaurants connected with consumers beyond food served on the plate.
Here’s what would: giving Midjourney the exact same mascot-creating prompt for every restaurant. We settled on the following: create a mascot capturing the essence of the restaurant [NAME] in [CITY]. By tasking the platform with such a simple, straightforward prompt, we were able to see what restaurants had the most recognizable and thus valuable brands. In an industry where 60 percent of ventures fail within their first year, we’re big believers in restaurants as brands; figure out yours—like, are you a club or a diner?—and you’re partially on the path to economic longevity.
We were also inspired by Noah Brier's work at BrXnd.ai, an OpenAI-powered site that allows users to imagine brand collabs. Like a Little Caesars x Hello Kitty skateboard. Or a Cap’n Crunch x Brunello Cucinelli jacket. As Brier told Fast Company last fall: “branding is about pattern building, and AI is about pattern recognition.” However, what started as imagined mashups for Brier, soon yielded more interesting results, as if the brands weren't collaborating but rather competing against one another.
“Some brands clearly overpower others,” Brier says. For example, almost anything involving Hermès tends to come across “more Hermès than the other brand,” unless the collab is with another high-power brand like McDonald’s or the Grateful Dead. Nike is an even more extreme example: “If you ask it to make a sneaker, whatever brand you choose, it’s very hard to keep a swoosh off of it.”
We figured the same could be said of restaurants. We didn’t pit them against one another, but by using generative AI to create mascots for each, we were able to see which had the most brand equity. The closer the mascot captured the essence of its restaurant—from the Rat Pack razzle-dazzle of Carbone to the quiet luxury of The French Laundry—the more recognizable and powerful the restaurant’s brand.
As you’ll see in the results below, some restaurant prompts yielded generic mascots, whereas others really nailed something about the place—from the clientele to how you as a diner want to feel inside—thus suggesting that said places have embedded themselves into our collective cultural consciousness (and, in marketing, there is perhaps no greater result than this). For instance:
Alinea's evokes innovation, theatrics, a scientific feeling.
Momofuku's noodle man (what we are now officially calling the little guy) is playful, approachable, and rule-breaking (ramen shouldn't be hair or mixed with other cuisines but at noodle bar that’s okay).
noma depicts something serious, Nordic, the fantastical concept of becoming one with one's food.
Osteria Francescana's ghostly, minion-like mascot suggests austere discernment and devotion (and, yes, it’s a little terrifying, too).
Judge for yourself below. We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Discord, where you're welcome to share your own Michelin star-worthy mascots.
Eleven Madison Park
Russ & Daughters
The French Laundry
Blackbird Labs, Inc.