Keeping it LowbrowScroll Down
How does good food, design, and humor come together to create a unique restaurant?
Images courtesy of LOWBROW
When you think about the process of creating a restaurant, you’ll probably think of a bunch of chefs huddled around a table thinking of what kind of food they make. Everything else — the tables and chairs, the decor, the experience — is probably secondary.
For Lowbrow, which creates and operates restaurants like Bad Bird in Serendra and Fowlbread in Bonifacio High Street, that process is a little bit different. For one, Lowbrow’s team is led by designers, and not chefs.
The result is restaurants that are impeccably designed, not just in its aesthetics, but also in the experience that they offer. Each and every element is thoughtful, and a touch of humor winks at you when you least expect it — a witty name on the menu, an irreverent product description, or a sign that points, “find love here.”
But that’s not to say that the food they serve comes secondary. Once you bite into the spice-filled umami bomb of a fried chicken at Bad Bird, or into the juicy, hearty, and tangy chicken sandwich at Fowlbread, you’ll understand that the food is part and parcel of having a well-designed experience.
To learn more about the restaurant group’s ethos, we spoke to Lowbrow’s managing partner Dwight Co — himself a graphic designer — and talk about their creation process, the amount of questions involved in design-forward thinking, and how they’ve been holding up during the pandemic.
PASYAL: What was the impetus for starting Lowbrow?
DWIGHT CO: We didn't really plan things out. Our first store was Wrong Ramen, a meme shop we didn't take too seriously, around 8 years ago. We were shocked by how successful it was so we thought we could do more. So we did. From there, we made Hole in the Wall, followed by Bad Bird, Fowlbread, and all the rest.
We called ourselves Lowbrow because we wanted a name that was equally dumb and dignified, and represented the type of food we made. Over the years we've tried doing many things, leaping through varying levels of culture and sophistication, but we would end up loving our dumbest choices the most.
So we leaned into the food we just like eating: fried chicken, fries, and greasy noodles, and just found ways to raise the bar in places others tend to ignore.
Lowbrow is led by designers and not chefs. What would you say is the difference between having a design-led food business versus a regular one?
Most people assume that in designing a chair, a designer would think of how it will look. Any good designer would not go anywhere near that question until a few hundred questions were answered first.
Who will use it? In what setting? For how long? Doing what activities? For butts of what sizes? At what temperatures? You get the point.
Good designers put only one person on the pedestal: the user. Who will use the product? How will it be used? Is there anything frustrating about it? Is it solving particular problems? Is the experience smooth and delightful?
When we make our concepts & food, it's always just really asking hundreds of questions and thinking about who will use it and how it will be used.
Fundamentally this is very different from how many restaurants make decisions. Restaurants owners tend to be very emotional or personal and see their food as an extension of themselves and their families. We don't.
What's the first thing you think about when creating restaurant concepts? What's the process like?
We always start with food that we like, otherwise how can we sell something we're not excited about? But before we green light any project, we need to run it through some criteria:
Can we make a version of this thing that’s at least 10 times better than the average? Is this something people will actually buy or does it just sound cool? Can we sell this at a reasonable price? Can we design our operations so we can serve this type of food in less than 15 minutes?
There are probably 20-30 more questions but I'll hit the brakes before I put you to sleep [Laughs].
How does humor come into play in both conceptualization and execution of the restaurants? Does it also factor into the way the company is run?
Humor makes great days amazing and bad days tolerable. We can't imagine working with people who don't have a sense of humor.
One thing we actively try to do is to call people dumb names and use embarrassing profile photos in our internal comms. It helps build relationships because it makes people vulnerable and more open to criticism. (Just to prove to you that this isn't abuse, I'm always more than willing to be the first to be pelted.)
This way, we can build a more open team who feel safe speaking up and sharing their thoughts.
How does Lowbrow decide on what kind of concepts to build and food to make? Is there a very stringent data-driven process, or are these just food you guys love or want to eat?
We can't really do focus groups/interviews because people don't know what they want (for example, nobody would have said they wanted an iPhone in the age of Nokia) so our imagination would require us to invent new things people wouldn't be able to articulate. In contrast, we can't just dive into things without being practical about what people actually buy.
One approach we like doing is to find a category that people already buy (like fried chicken sandwiches) and ask how far we can push the form to something really good that won't be a fad?
This is always going to be art and science.
On a more personal note, how did your love for food and design begin?
It's really weird that I don't actually love food and design extraordinarily. When I see a restaurant owner or chef cry about food or endearingly describe them like a newborn child, I don't get it—I can't relate at all.
What I deeply care about is building. Restaurants and food give me a great space to build and it gives me plenty of joy to see these things come to life and see our customers genuinely enjoy them.
But if you were to ask me what my favorite food is growing up when all I knew were fried eggs and spam? Spam. I love Spam. Spam is the best. I would eat one can in one sitting.
How have you guys adapted to the new normal? Apart from incorporating mandated safety protocols, has anything changed in the way Lowbrow is run?
One thing we got going for us is we're probably the only restaurant group in the entire country that didn't have an office before the pandemic. I hate traffic & meetings so I made a deliberate choice to give everyone the option to work from home ever since. When the pandemic hit, our work culture didn't actually change.
But what's difficult now still is just plain old surviving. With dine-in still in pieces, we're barely scraping by and just doing what we can to survive. The good news it that it looks like we will, but we're bruised all over and a bit tired from the slog.
Lastly, what are you looking forward to in 2021? Is there anything readers should watch out for from Lowbrow?
This year we're razor-focused on our online shop. We like building and optimizing our website and we think we can build the best online delivery experience in the country, so we're working on that. It's nowhere near how we envision it to be, but we'll get there slowly.
With everything else, I can't really say. We don't plan our product timelines that long: we do only one to two months ahead. So as much as I would like to share, there's nothing on the table yet.
Fowlbread is located at B3, Bonifacio High Street, and Bad Bird is located at The Shops at Serendra. Both are open daily for dine-in and take-out. For more information, check out the Ayala Malls Zing app and eatlowbrow.com.
Dining at an Ayala Mall soon? For every single-receipt purchase worth P3,000 using your Visa card, get a free P100 gift certificate from the supermarket of the Ayala Mall where the purchase was made. Promo runs January 1 to February 28, 2021 in these participating Ayala Malls: Abreeza, Alabang Town Center, Ayala Center Cebu, Ayala Malls Cloverleaf, Ayala Malls Feliz, Ayala Malls Solenad, Ayala Malls The 30th, Bonifacio High Street, Centrio Mall, Fairview Terraces, Glorietta, Greenbelt, Harbor Point, Market! Market!, MarQuee Mall, and TriNoma.