Houston’s: Name Change Sinks Brand Equity

by francine Hardaway on March 21, 2010

My favorite restaurant is in the process of throwing twenty years of brand equity out the window, and all the local customers are in mourning.

Houston's is a wonderful restaurant. It's part of a chain, but you would never know it by the way the food and atmosphere are created. The food is utterly reliable and high quality, the staff is always well-trained, and the interior design is comforting. I've eaten in the Phoenix Houston's for the past twenty years, since it opened. I brought up my children and my foster children there, and its bar has seen me through the ends of two marriages. Tom and Al, veteran bartenders, have watched me and a whole host of others who live in and near the Arizona Biltmore grow older. When I walk into Houston's, I always see people I know. It's "Cheers" for the white collar class.

 I've also been to their restaurants in Kansas City, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Scottsdale. In a strange town, I seek out the familiarity and comfort of a Houston's. It's the artichoke, it's the apple walnut cobbler, it's the salmon, the chicken, the pork chop, the chicken salad, the wine list, the waitstaff.

But I've been thrown for a loop by the decision of the Phoenix Houston's to move across the street to a free standing building and change its name to "Biltmore Grill." Biltmore Grill? Where and what is that? Why would George Beall, a man who clearly knows how to run restaurants and create repeat customers, do that?

I have a theory. My theory is that George is phasing out, and younger members of his organization are phasing in. George has a "succession plan." The chain has been re-christened Hillstone Group. All the restaurants are no longer the Houston's concept. He's moving into the future.

Those younger people probably have MBAs and research about statistics like parking, cost of goods sold, etc.  They have decided that a free standing building is better than the mall we are in now, and that we, the family of customers, will get used to it.  They probably also have theories about the name: since the shopping center is named Biltmore, and the neighboring hotel is named Biltmore, and every crummy condo development in the neighborhood has borrowed the Biltmore name to give itself some class, that Biltmore Grill is a better name.  After all, it does say where the place is located and what the food is like.

I really understand all this.  It's rational. Houston's always was a meaningless name, and parking in a garage or with a valet is a pain in the tail. Rationally, the new location will be much better, and the same bartenders will be there, with the same waiters and cooks. As a change junkie, and a futurist, I am trained to plan for future generations and live in the youth culture. I even eat dinner at the bar now while Tweeting on my iPhone after checking in on Foursquare.

But it will still take me a while to get used to my favorite example of brand equity throwing it all away.

Posted via email from Not Really Stealthmode

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

D. Patrick Lewis March 21, 2010 at 7:10 am

I grew up frequenting that Houston's and will mourn its passing in the name of change and the future. Which, by the way, I think is a stupid reason. Some things are worth keeping, like a strong brand foundation.

Great post.

WesleyTech March 21, 2010 at 9:27 am

“Biltmore Grill” is the most generic sounding name they could've picked. That's a huge branding fail IMO.

hardaway March 21, 2010 at 9:31 am

And that is what I thought!

hardaway March 21, 2010 at 9:40 am

Thanks. Of course I agree. Many grew up there. Let's see if they have
a Google alert for their name and read this.

nilandmortimer March 22, 2010 at 11:01 am

Completely agree! I have enjoyed the Houston's in Manhattan and San Francisco (always wondering why this excellent chain is named after my least favorite city.) Will they localize their other restaurants' names, too? Then they will become just another place in the come-and-go dining scene. Too bad.

Steven March 24, 2010 at 9:57 am

Completely agree. However, the rational behind the name change is to get around being considered a “chain” in NY state, therefore they have to reduce their number of same-named restaurants.

Rob McMillin March 26, 2010 at 5:08 pm

We used to have a Houston's in Manhattan Beach, CA, but they folded the thing a while back, part of an overall “right-sizing” (whatever the hell it is you call it these days when a business overextends itself). Good food but a tad overpriced. In your neck of the woods I much prefer Charleston's.

Rob McMillin March 27, 2010 at 12:08 am

We used to have a Houston’s in Manhattan Beach, CA, but they folded the thing a while back, part of an overall “right-sizing” (whatever the hell it is you call it these days when a business overextends itself). Good food but a tad overpriced. In your neck of the woods I much prefer Charleston’s.

Houston October 23, 2010 at 6:01 am

Don’t flatter yourself, Houston doesn’t like you either.

Niland Mortimer October 23, 2010 at 6:06 am

Then it’s a deal.

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