The photo that started this crazy journey. Picture by the author.

I approach this essay with the slightest of trepidation. This, after all, is the culmination of nearly four months of work, toil, and sweat. I feel I should be forgiven for a feeling of inadequacy to the task. Nevertheless, time waits for no man, and as the due date surges closer I must finally explain my work to the world. This all started with a whim of mine- why not research a restaurant for my project? This would prove to be not only a large mistake, but also a window into something I knew nothing about. In any case, I hope you do not mind a bit of a chronological story- let’s start at the beginning.

I remember the combination of confusion and interest I felt when first presented with the concept for this project: “analyzing the rhetoric” of a specific location mentioned in S Street Rising, with a small list of choice selections presented to us. To be honest, my gut reaction was to pick some place that was convenient- while I didn’t know at the time how long I would be spending there, I would be happy with any place close to a Metro stop on the Red line. Seeing a burger place on the map and being a hungry college student, I naturally gravitated towards BGR, a restaurant I had seen but never entered. Thus, I made the fateful spreadsheet entry, flinging me face first into the world of fast casual dining.

While this is a misnomer, their advertising was very real. Picture by author.

Let us skip forward a bit to after our first essay. By this point, I had realized that there was only so much one could say about BGR: The Burger Joint, an incredibly boring restaurant whose food I refused to eat a second time. I was left with a conundrum- how do I spend the rest of a semester beating what seemed to be a dead horse? I realized this when I thought about the building for a moment- there were THREE fast casual restaurants sharing tenant space in a single building on one block! This seemed beyond odd to me for several reasons, the biggest of which is how they could stay in business without succumbing to competition, even if they weren’t all directly fighting for the same customers. I was forced to look deep into a sort of business that I had never patronized before moving to DC- I had never even been to a Chipotle branch when I began my research. To begin with, my first real question was where this fast casual trend had even come from? The research into that brought something far more interesting to my attention: the intense similarity in fast casual chains. As well as a set of ten rubrics which tended to define these chains, sourced from Technomic by the Washington Post’s Roberto Ferdman, it also came to my attention how many built off the idea of “customizing” a menu item within a limited subset of ingredients. This made me realize a more relevant truth- all three of these restaurants, despite vastly different self perceptions, all shared the same storefronts and likely much of the same style of space. This meant, quite simply, I could compare their rhetoric on an apples-to-apples basis, rather than resorting to abstraction.

My research was then focused on examining the fundamentals of how these chains cultivated an intentional atmosphere, which I examined through several articles about more scientific views of how restaurant design and service worked. These were helpful, but only to a degree- the format of this project did not allow for as much in depth analysis as I would have liked, though they did help me interpret much of what I saw. Similarly, I focused my Digital Archives research on getting photos of the restaurants I had yet to patronize, though I chose to focus on exploring the architecture rather than an in-depth look at Sweetgreen from the perspective of my pocketbook. This gave me a decent basis for my project, giving me professional insight and a photo library I didn’t already have access to. However, I still had not yet decided on a focus for the multi-modal portion of the project.

I had hoped to have more interactivity in this project, but American University’s insistence that I didn’t know what I was doing meant a lot of time staring at this for no real benefit. Screenshot by author.

My gut feeling was that at least half of it would be a presentation. In all honest, I would have preferred an essay- I am much better at composing my thoughts into sentences rather than condensing it down into a sensible presentation, but nevertheless I wanted to keep to the multi-modal formula. I went with Prezi, recently the subject of a revamping, for its dynamism, easy embed-ability, and unique way of presenting slideshows compared to similar products. While I have several complaints about it, it’s nevertheless an elegant way of making decent looking presentations. The second half was more tricky- I had originally considering a video art piece intending to bring like to the consumerist consumption inherent in the restaurant, but I lacked the AV equipment and software necessary to bring such a lofty idea to life. However, inspiration came to me from another one of my classes- my AU Scholars seminar, which involved a historical research project. In particular, we made heavy use of mapping tools to present our data and visualize our conclusions, which inspired me to do something similar, though in a somewhat less fancy manner. While I may have had a grander project with more time or a better understanding of the Google Maps API, nevertheless I took on the goal of mapping out every restaurant within a rough half mile of Dupont Circle, and determining the hot spots for fast casual dining. This eventually panned out well, with a handful of interesting data points relating to this which I attempted to give meaning to in my presentation. After writing this essay, I concluded with a simple bit of web design utilizing WordPress- a useful if beyond irritating tool when control over HTML is limited.

I will say that, in the end, I am mostly satisfied with what I have wrought- though I admit not quite. Certain technical limitations, both of my own inadequacies in dealing with APIs and of simple time constraints, meant I had to focus my research on a single block rather than the entire city. Such a thing would have been sufficient in scale to deal with an topic on a national scale, but alas, we find ourselves bound by the neighborhood. While I admit I would have preferred another location if I could go back and change time, I would have likely not learned half as much. Ultimately, it’s what we make of it.

This is what finalizing this project looked like. Photo by author.

The brick parking lot of the building had back entrances, much as you would expect- but this one in particular stuck out.

While I admit I am very easily surprised, this door was by far the biggest surprise of the back entrances here. While there’s nothing abnormal with having the business who occupies a space mark their back entrance (which makes navigation far easier), it’s quite abnormal for them to do as much advertising as BGR does. This is not to say this is completely pointless- undoubtedly the people who park here for work would likely have at least a passing interest in getting lunch at BGR’s establishment. Nevertheless, this is the first time I’ve ever scene a company use their rear entrance to advertise- whether it’s simply a smart move or a plea to potential customers.

The PNC Bank Building (formerly the Dupont branch of Riggs National Bank) rents out a lot of space to restaurants.

While this Digital Archive set is meant to focus on the interiors, I felt it was important to explain the wider concept I’m exploring. This building, up until recently, was the home of four fast casual restaurants all on the same block- an incredibly questionable set up, though understandable with all of Dupont’s hustle and bustle.  BGR itself is an incredibly uninteresting restaurant- a subpar burger joint with overly greasy food and the ability to confuse Dijon Mustard with barbecue sauce. Perhaps the only way to gleam more information is to examine the two remaining restaurants: Sweetgreen and Beefsteak. Perhaps even an examination of the final death of Chophouse is worth the time. There has to be some secret to why this stretch of land is worth fighting for customers on.

This is a short recording of a relatively quiet hour at BGR on a Sunday.  Listen to the piped in rock music, the banter from the kitchen. I refrained from eating during this half minute, but if you were to be there earlier you might even have heard chewing of what I ate of my admittedly subpar burger. Sound is an interesting medium for describing an interior for many reasons, but one thing to note in particular is the relative quietness of the restaurant. It doesn’t bode well for its popularity when you can hear the voices of the kitchen staff over whatever is playing on the radio and the patrons- perhaps a reason for their rebranding?

3. Exhibit

BGR’s concept art for their new style of kitchen. Notice the grill-mark motif. Picture by unknown people working for BGR.

BGR: Burgers Grilled Right, “BGR Concept.” BGR: Burgers Grilled Right, 26 Feb. 2017. Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

In this corporate slideshow, designed specifically for potential BGR franchise owners, BGR details their rebranding from BGR: The Burger Joint to BGR: Burgers Done Right. BGR begins this powerpoint with some of the key messages of the restaurant’s branding and advertising meant to entice investors: “Award Winning Food,” “Chef Driven w/o the Chef and Cooked to Temperature,” and “Build Your Own Creation or Order a BGR Masterpiece” (2). After this summary, BGR then goes into greater depth explaining not only the bigger picture but the minutiae of branding. It’s quite apparent that one of their main prides is the quality of their food (including their “Sushi-grade Ahi Tuna”), not merely cooked but also incorporated into unique specialty burgers and milkshakes, which rotate monthly (5). On top of this line of rhetoric, BGR is also citing a move towards a more health conscious clientele, citing their veggie burger as well as tuna and turkey, as well as an expansion into fresh salads (7). This is combined with a sizable visual rebranding, which they define by three “concepts”: “Simple But Not Minimal,” “Passionate but Not Aggressive,” and “Modern But Not Trendy” (9-11). In the menus, their “passionate” angle holds the most sway, referring to specialty entrees as “Masterpieces” (13) and referring to combos as “Box Sets”, which, in the case of the latter, is “too high quality to be called a combo” (14). They then detail their new visual identity: a motif of diagonal grill marks to emphasis their flame grilled cooking, as well as the central placement of this burger chef to signal the quality and “freshness” of these items (22-23). After noting the selling point of being a locally owned and operated franchise, the Powerpoint concludes with franchisee targeted information (26).

This rebranding provides a unique glimpse at how BGR positions itself in the market, and helps prove several of the points I’ve presented previously as correct. This will also serve me quite well in examining their rhetoric of place much more accurately- how their intended rhetoric reflects into their building, and whether or not it wins as the dominant factor. In case of a remodeling in the Dupont Circle branch, this will also give me at least an idea towards the aspirational design of the “Burgers Grilled Right” era of BGR.

4. Background

I had to look up what a Fuddrucker’s even was. If I heard someone say that name before I would probably slap them. Picture by the David McKee Architecture firm.

Ferdman, Roberto. “The Chipotle Effect: Why America Is Obsessed with Fast Casual Food.” The Washington Post, 2 Feb. 2015. Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

In this article, Roberto Ferdman discusses the newest trend in the restaurant industry: the rise of fast casual dining. Once restricted to more upscale urban neighborhoods, where it’s on foot accessibility would drive traffic, the style took the United States by storm on the success of restaurants like Chipotle (this article written before the E. Coli scandal), Panera Bread, and Shake Shack (Ferdman). Ferdman takes the time to address the question of what, exactly, is a “fast casual” restaurant? This is a surprisingly contentious question, though it’s narrowed down to a usual ticket of $9-13 and over 50% of their revenue coming from take out. Technomic gives other criteria, such as “fair pricing,” “a perception of freshness,” and “first-rate decor,” but these are not universally accepted- sources disagree about whether Buffalo Wild Wings qualifies (Ferdman). However, one thing is certain: at the time of writing, Chipotle led the charge with its value, not price, commitment, which companies like Panera Bread began to emulate, especially in regards to ecological commitments (Ferdman). Ferdman dates the earliest examples of this trend to the early 90s, with companies like Fuddruckers and Au Bon Pain, but the category took off with the “Great Recession,” rapidly growing among millennial demographics who found the increased health consciousness compared to fast food a worthwhile investment. It’s quite evident that this category, which currently controls 5% of American food sales, is quite potentially the way of the future- leading chains like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway to make moves towards emulating their competitors (Ferdman). Only time will see the final product of this evolution.

BGR: Burgers Grilled Right is an incredibly obscure chain, so analyzing subjects involving it requires generalizing outside information in its context. This article, communicating an amount of insight about the trend of fast casual restaurants, is fairly unique of a subject and may prove helpful for a wider analysis of the company. Furthermore, if I expand my analysis to the scale of the building it shares with other restaurants, it’s possible to examine wider trends in Dupont Circle’s food scene, as well as what is gained by placing competing restaurants side by side.

Anyone who has spent time around marketing in the last 10 years knows that the traditional marketer seems to feel horribly out of his element in our digital world. Confronted with the fact that independent millennials with no dependents spend at least an hour a day more on digital devices rather than watching broadcast television, these few old hands have bravely pioneered into the wild depths of this new land open before them: Facebook. Corporate social media marketing has always been somewhat of a crapshoot- ineffective strategies combined with a lack of understanding of what content makes a social media feed effective has meant that for every Denny’s, who have managed to craft a surrealistic and entertaining social media presence on youth targeted platforms, you have countless others asking people to “like” for individual shampoo and conditioner or “share” for a 2-in-1. BGR The Burger Joint, punctuation evidently unnecessary, falls into the latter category. Despite everything they seem to be aiming for with their social media presence, their work seems to fall flat on its face. In this essay, we will examine the content, tone, and overall message conveyed by every single Facebook post made by BGR over the span of the previous six months in order to examine what I see as its failings in engagement.

The goal of a restaurant is, fundamentally, to make a food product that is worth more than its ingredient cost to a patron. This is accomplished through a variety of means- hiring skilled cooks and chefs, sourcing unique or rare ingredients, or even using additives to create food that surpasses its “natural” equivalents. However, the main problem is all of this is that few people will visit a restaurant they have heard nothing about- and the best way to fix this dilemma for a restaurant who can’t stand on the merits of its food itself is marketing. BGR’s social media team seems to have brought their methodology of food marketing down to a “science”- a relatively attractive photo of a burger, combined with a supposedly pithy quote. For example, one photo depicts a grilled chicken burger combined with the quote “‘I’m kind of a big meal’- Grilled Chicken Sandwich”.

This is the mentioned “big meal,” posted on 9/8/16.

BGR seems to mostly have not thought to branch beyond this sort of content- with the exception of the occasional image with text in it, usually describing a piece of food that’s also pictured, the whole thing is remarkably, or perhaps understandably, formulaic. Such repetition, other than the occasional announcement of closure on holidays, leaves posts with around zero to five likes, with outliers hitting ten at best. Looking over the photos, the two most featured items appear to be through an admittedly unscientific analysis to be their burgers, for obvious reasons, followed closely by their milkshakes. Said milkshakes also get a prominent place in the physical restaurant, getting their own section of the posted menu as well as their own featured spot at the checkout counter- strange for a restaurant not known for them. Getting into the analysis of the text itself, the entire thing, much like the food, is remarkably bland- simply urging the reader to give in to the indulgence of buying a hamburger or milkshake, or otherwise make them consider eating one of their food products. The pictures are mostly shot from the side to accentuate the large volumes of ingredients going into this meat-filled sandwiches, and they also take the time to laud their ingredients as high quality, something most of this class of restaurant seem to do on a regular basis- claiming everything from having “sushi grade Ahi tuna” to “the mostly perfectly crisp fries you can find around”. Tellingly, the term “sushi grade” is entirely unregulated in the United States, making it mostly marketing speak to upsell a fish. In any case, having plumbed the actual content in depth, it’s now time to address the gestalt of the matter: what are they trying to convey?

Only the crispiest of fries. Posted by BGR 1/24/17

Most restaurants try to cultivate an experience of sorts through their marketing, decor, and product lines. Take the Starbucks chain, for example: everything from the modern design of the furniture to the abstract wall art and free-flowing espresso is meant to cultivate an air of culturedness and refinement that does not match the fact that it is effectively a bourgeois McDonald’s. McDonald’s itself has relied on a combination of nostalgia marketing, including a relatively successful campaign attempting to bridge the McNuggets of yesteryear to the modern day, and an attempt to modernize the decor of their restaurants to more match the style of something, ironically, like Starbucks. BGR The Burger Joint is a bit more of an enigma to say the least. The store itself is stark and barren- seemingly attempting to cultivate a sort of “hole-in-the-wall”-chic

The “hole-in-the-wall chic.” Picture by author.

that they might feel appeals to a younger crowd more concerned with “authenticity,” a ultra-common buzzword when it comes to marketing in relation to millennials. The restaurant seems to want to become a sort of local institution- the kind of place your average 20 to 30 year old goes with his friends for a wholesome burger. They say as much in a post, combined with a picture of multiple people at one table, stating “Friends that eat burgers together are more likely to remain friends. Grab a friend or two and head our way”. BGR, in general, attempts to project a bit of a playful attitude- making comments about onion rings being healthy because “they are a vegetable, right?” to urging people to “put a ring on it” in regards to a picture of a burger with a side of onion rings. The overabundance of onion ring related humor aside, their marketers generally want to not only validate BGR as something more than a horribly generic burger chain with two minor awards to its name, but also to reinforce that their quality is a cut above the rest. They remind us that their burgers are “consistently delicious”, have commented on the meaningless “sushi-grade” quality of their tuna four separate times since August 10th of last year, and use their header space to proudly proclaim that they were voted “#1 Burger by MSN & Washingtonian Magazine” in 2015. Now that we know what they’re trying to convey through their messaging, it’s finally time to get to the heart of the matter- what is BGR’s message in all of this?

While perhaps it may be considered reading too much into too little, all places, to some degree or another, have their own rhetoric. From the authority and tradition transmitted by the neoclassical US Capitol, the political heart of a country less than 300 years old, to the down-home accessibility of your average diner, there are clear motives in most places built for purposes beyond mere survival. While examining the rhetoric of place through a social media account is perhaps something that would come off as fallacious, the corporate nature of its existence means that there’s often not much difference between the information conveyed by a social media feed and the idealized image a business wants portrayed of itself. Overall, the image BGR The Burger Joint wants so desperately to convey is one of hipness- relevance beyond being a subpar burger chain with a couple of easily disregardable local awards. BGR does not just want financial success- any incredibly bland takeout place can stay above water with the right location- BGR wants social relevance. Everything, from their attempt to decorate their interior as sort of a nostalgic late 80s/early 90s throwback with a matching soundtrack to a somewhat pitiful attempt at “social media engagement,” screams at an attempt to somehow be cooler than a restaurant chain started by a mildly successful chef but owned by a corporate investment firm is likely to ever be. In the end, BGR suffers from a tragic case of “trying too hard”- an overwrought attempt at being cool that singularly defines everything in life that does not scream cool to the youth audience everyone so desperately covets.

It can be seen that BGR’s social media presence is strongly formulaic, spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to signal the quality of their product, and is ultimately targeted at an attempt to achieve an atmosphere of “coolness,” and by extension quality, presently beyond their grasp. While this may not be considered a great revelation- most businesses targeting consumers want to be “cool” to some degree- it says a lot that a burger place, a place whose main popularity is its deep roots in American tradition, still feels the need to advertise how cool and modern they are compared to whatever competitor they see themselves punching up at. While ultimately BGR probably doesn’t care much about their social media presence, the fact they have it at all and believe it’s adequate either says a lot about how much money they’re putting into it, or how trusting their advertising executive is. Either way, this is the first step into the depths that is BGR The Burger Joint- we have only scratched at the surface of this rich vein of inquiry.

1. Background

The facade of BGR at Dupont Circle

Neibauer, Michael. “PNC Sells Dupont Branch for $60.75 Million.” Washington Business Journal, 4 May 2015, http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/breaking_ground/2015/03/pnc-sells-dupont-branch-for-60-75-million.html.

In this basic, mostly no nonsense article, Michael Neibauer deals with the most immediate history of the building in which BGR is a tenant: the PNC Bank branch on Dupont Circle. Originally, this building, built and formerly owned by Riggs Bank in 1923, was acquired by PNC to house a local branch of their own bank, with the bank’s leased properties staying put. However, it was sold to L&B Realty Advisors on behalf of an unnamed pension fund client. Nevertheless, PNC themselves have obtained a lease on the property to continue their business there, appearing to have offloaded the bank purely for the immediate financial gain.

This sort of information forms the backbone of any research into the underlying ideas of a place. A property’s history of ownership can tell stories of local history and help to support other narratives surrounding a place. This will likely be used to complete a more immediate understanding of a place’s history as well as provide the leads for more in depth research on this building’s history.

2. Background

The former headquarters of Riggs National Bank.

O’Brien, Timothy L. “At Riggs Bank, A Tangled Path Led to Scandal.” The New York Times, 19 July

2004. NYTimes.com, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/19/us/at-riggs-bank-a-tangled-path-led-to-scandal.html.

In this article, O’Brien details a massive scandal that implicated Riggs National Bank and ultimately lead one of the capital’s foremost financial institution into PR ruin. After the infamous events of 9/11, banks were subject to vastly increased scrutiny in a quest to find anything that could stop another major terrorist attack- and Riggs found out the hard way. For instance, a Congressional inquiry stemmed from the discovery that the bank had unquestioningly harbored a bank account for Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and gone to lengths to hide it, including changing the name on the account when sent to regulators and sending him his money rather than freezing the account during a Congressional investigation- all for a man accused of human rights abuses. In addition, a similar issue occurred once again with another dictator- this time that of Equatorial Guinea, one Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago. Specifically, the bank blindly helped Teodoro shuttle money away from government treasuries to foreign shell companies after pursuing him as a customer, going so far as to allow a deposit of $3 million dollars in cash without question. Furthermore, similar issues of non-reporting occurred with the accounts of numerous Saudi officials, a sticking point in the post-9/11 era that likely escalated this more more than it would have been otherwise. Consequently, all this together was enough to put the final nail in the company- selling out to PNC in 2004.

This article provides a great introductory point for digging deep into the history of this building, and what it means for it to house a simple burger joint today. This kind of deep, hidden scandal is far too common in the US business world but only rarely uncovered- and when it is, all hell tends to break loose. The behavior of the bank cost them their respect and wealth, all for the pursuit of questionably sourced dollars- a fascinating case of rise and fall. Contrasting this with the simplicity of BGR may prove to be an interesting viewpoint.

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Deciding the best way to get in touch with the aesthetic of the place was in the food, I decided that sitting down and ordering off the menu was probably my best shot. I went with a veggie burger and the garlic fries. This was perhaps not the best decision. The cooks seem to have mistaken garlic for oily, giving me an ungodly pile of greasy french fries with no real distinguishable seasoning. The veggie burger was better, but the addition of BBQ sauce instead of mustard rendered the thing nearly unpalatable. All in all, I’ve seen better burgers from fast food joints- and those probably use horsemeat.

A sort of restaurant manifesto in a cup, BGR boldly claims to have “quality that stands apart” and lauds itself on using the “highest quality ingredients.” It then cites awards it won from local publications, many of which don’t get a year- not the best sign, to be certain. However, the one thing I can laud is that they have consistent branding.

The decor of the restaurant seems to be some sort of “hole in the wall chic,” combining plain wood furniture, white painted concrete, and a perpetual soundtrack of 80s rock. I could not exactly pin down what the restaurant was going for- it was too bland to go for any real aesthetic.