“Bao is more than a place to eat. When you’re sitting in one of our restaurants, you’re sitting in a story – a story that has been designed.”Erchen Cheng, chef-founder, Bao
In this brilliant interview – from a monthly series called Nicer Tuesdays – Erchen Cheng reveals the origins of the brand for her very successful restaurant chain.
Watch from 4 minutes in to hear how Erchen turned an idea into a story, and how that story infuses everything from the logo to the experience a diner might have in one of her restaurants.
In brief, the concept began with the idea of the “Lonely Man”, a character who’s based on the Asian idea of the hardworking salaryman. When he comes to Bao, he’s run out of energy and he’s lonely at the end of a long day of work. He has, as As Erchen explains, “a sense of melancholy without being sad, but rather humorous”. And then she says something fundamental, poetic:
I think there is always a part of us that is lonely, and we are united by sheer loneliness.
Perhaps unexpectedly, this melancholy insight became the building block for the “Bao world” – the imaginary world of the Lonely Man, full of “different stories and layers”. “We had always visualised how our restaurant would look in a world,” Erchen says.
In addition to the illustrations and Lonely Man logo that blossomed from this universe, the narrative also manifests internally – through the “School of Bao”, a programme of talks, workshops and field trips for employees – and externally – through the aesthetic of their restaurants.
With so many amazing restaurants, I feel like I’m walking into a set or a performance. I feel like restaurants are the perfect place to express that.
The design of Bao’s first two restaurants was quite pared back, so when it came to designing their Borough branch – inspired by the late-night grill joints of Taiwan and Japan – Erchen and her team brought the world of the Lonely Man to life with “rough-around-the-edges posters injecting more colour and tongue-in-cheek references to our aesthetics”.
And this world-building seems to be working – Erchen says she’s always surprised that, despite the fact that much of the story of the Lonely Man is quite subtle, “people are always coming to me and telling me that they’re the Lonely Man”. She also credits Bao’s success “50% to the food, 50% to the branding”.
All of which goes to show that when it comes to eating out, people are just as hungry for stories as they are for steamed buns.
The video, originally posted here, was conducted in March 2021 by online creative magazine It’s Nice That (by the editor-in-chief Matt Alagiah). All Imagery copyright of @ Bao.
Thanks to WXO Co-Founder Alessia for flagging this story to the WXO editorial team. Hey, if you’re here and you’ve seen something about experiences, please send me an email.