How to Choose the Best Restaurant Name

A good restaurant name is many things, chief among them: memorable, simple, searchable and relevant.
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Don't overthink the name of your restaurant. Instead choose something straightforward that will stick with your customers. (Photo: ChiccoDodiFC/Shutterstock)

NCR Silver's Guide to Starting a RestaurantConsidering that opening a restaurant will take all your time and most of your money, it’s not really just a business, it’s your baby. And that baby will need a name.

You might think you have the perfect name in mind for your restaurant, and maybe you do. But before creating your logo, ordering signs, designing menus and registering your domain name, make sure the restaurant name fills all the bills it should — and that you can legally own it.

Follow these nine tips from restaurant naming experts to hit upon a name that will serve your baby well for life.

Related: Biggest Lessons Restaurant Owners Learned in Their First Year of Business

Choose a name that stands apart

Above all, your restaurant name should speak to your target market and set you apart from the competition.

“Every business needs to consider a brand — name, logo, slogan, colors, etc. — that connects with the intended audience and stands out from the crowd,” said Kyle Golding, CEO and chief strategic idealist at business consulting firm The Golding Group.

“The most important part of marketing a restaurant is drawing the right customer, someone who will appreciate what you do and how you do it, along with differentiating your product or service from the competition. A well-crafted name can be a big part of these efforts.”

Let customers know what to expect

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It’s a good idea to work the style of food you serve into the name of your restaurant. (Photo: travis manley/Shutterstock)

“Restaurants do really well when part of their name lets you know what type of food they have or what type or style of restaurant is it,” said Golding. Think “Shake Shack” or “In-N-Out Burger.”

“Any good branding needs to paint a picture of what it is before you arrive, not only the type and style of food but other expectations such as cost, service, speed, etc.”

That doesn’t mean a name like “Speedy Pizza” is the ideal. There are, after all, plenty of quick-serve pizza places. The name should be “universally recognized but specific to you,” said Golding.

Take the name “Chipotle” for example. “It doesn’t say ‘burrito,’ but it has the connotation that it’s Hispanic and a little different from Taco Bell, Taco Bueno, etc.,” said Golding.

To arrive at that sweet spot, Golding advised, “Start at opposite ends of the spectrum and work toward the center as a compromise.”

The name can also give clues about the overall vibe. When creating the name for a new restaurant and bar in downtown Oklahoma City, the Golding Group arrived at “The Manhattan,” after the drink of the same name. “It fits the style of establishment we’re trying to create — classic but comfortable, familiar but not old-fashioned.”

Don’t just describe the “what”

Joseph Szala, restaurant and beverage brand strategist with Atlanta-based branding and marketing strategy firm Vigor, said a name like “Taco Taco” or “Spaghetti House” may describe what your restaurant does, but that’s not enough. The chances of owning such a generic name are slim. More important, “It’s a very competitive world in the restaurant space, and you’re not competing on what you do, you’re competing on why and how you do it.”

Szala said when his firm brainstorms restaurant names, “We try to find out what’s the driving passion behind the brand. Is it because the pizza recipe was handed down through 16 generations of your family?” If so, the name of the restaurant should start to tell that story.

Related: Brand Storytelling: How to Use it to Boost Your Small Business

Consider the URL

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If that great name you want is already taken as a URL, don’t give up. Get creative by adding strategic keywords. (Photo: ILYA AKINSHIN/Shutterstock)

“If you can have ‘yourbrand.com.’ that is awesome, but I wouldn’t let the inability to own that hinder you from staying with an otherwise great name,” said Szala.

If the exact restaurant name you want isn’t available as a URL, look at adding words such as “get” or “eat” or “my.” The words you add should align with the image you want to convey.

“You can start to give a feeling about the style and attitude of your brand with your URL,” said Szala.

Adding a word such as “café” “or “restaurant” or the acronym for your city could also work, noted Golding. For example, since “TheManhattan.com” was taken, The Golding Group went with “TheManhattanOKC.com.”

“Now people are so comfortable with URLs that you can go with a little bit longer URL if you need to,” said Golding.

Break the rules

Many experts advise against choosing a name that’s hard to spell or pronounce.

“Your name should be approachable, like a welcome mat. Do not make it difficult for people to pronounce or spell. Siri doesn’t like that either,” said Alexandra Watkins, founder and chief innovation officer at Eat My Words in San Francisco.

But for every rule, there are reasons to break it.

“A lot of people say ‘Chipotle’ wrong,” said Szala, but a hard-to-pronounce name isn’t going to stop someone from trying your restaurant. In fact, knowing how to pronounce a difficult or interesting word “can be a way to tap into people’s desire to belong or be on the inside knowledge track,” he noted.

Similarly, a strange word people aren’t familiar with can make consumers curious and want to learn more.

Think timeless

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Choose a restaurant name that will remain relevant 25 years from opening. (Photo: VTT Studio/Shutterstock)

“Any business name should be able to stand the test of time, still be relevant and attractive 5, 10 and 25 years from now,” said Golding. If in the 1980s you named your restaurant “Miami Vice Sandwich Shop,” that name “wouldn’t make any sense today.”

Tempted to use an emoticon or emoji as part of the name? Don’t go there, said Golding.

Make sure it translates to merchandise

Consider that someday you may want your restaurant or café name on napkins or on brand extensions such as T-shirts, mugs, cookbooks or food products. How well will the name you have in mind work?

Names that are very long or rely on punctuation may not play out well on products, said Golding. If the name is based on a color, such as in “Red Café,” know that “there may be times you have to print that in black and white.”

Related: Antonia Lofaso of ‘Restaurant Startup’ on What Makes a Restaurant Succeed or Fail

Make sure you can own it

Figuring out if you can legally own the name you want is your foremost consideration, said Szala.

Step one, per Szala: “There’s a tool called Google use it.” Search the name you want, plus relevant terms such as “café,” “restaurant” or “deli,” and see if anything comes up.

“If you get a lots of hits, chances are you can’t use that name.” -Joseph Szala

If someone already has your URL, you can pursue a variation, but, Golding warned, “it should be an early indicator that maybe your name is too generic.”

Step two: Run some basic searches at uspto.gov, the United States Patent and Trademark Office. “This is what a lawyer’s going to do, but rather than dropping $1,000-plus dollars, you can do it yourself for some basic terms,” said Szala. Follow the same drill as above. “See if you get a name that comes back, live or dead or abandoned (in which case you may be able to own it).”

Step three: Hire a lawyer to run a national trademark search. “When you apply for your business license with your city and state, that should be part of that process, but that will only cover your state,” said Golding. “If you want to do a national search you’ll want to consult an attorney that does that. The cost is going to be less than $2,000 for a total search and protection service from most reputable attorneys, and in the long run it’s probably worth it. You’ll spend more than that on the signs you’ll put out front, so you don’t want to take them down and start over.”

Try not to overthink it

When working with clients, Szala said, “With my left hand I’ll hit you with, ‘the name is most important thing in the world,’ and with my right hand I’ll say, ‘it’s not that important.’”

The name, after all, isn’t your restaurant, or even your whole branding strategy. It’s just the name.

“Names should be perceived by whoever’s doing the naming as semi-empty vessels,” said Szala. “You’ve never going to have a name that somehow magically tells every nuance of the story — what you do, how you do it, why you do it.” A name is not going to make someone “drop everything and come eat at your restaurant and be loyal forever. But a lot of folks really want that to be the case, and so they tend to spin their wheels over naming options because they can’t commit to one.”

See the name as something you’ll add context and meaning to over time. “If you look at it like that,” said Szala, “the name doesn’t seem as daunting.”

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