The favourite restaurant of Lee Walters and Shane Hutton, founders of Venice, CA-based Arcana Academy is an authentic Japanese bistro, which faced a double whammy during forced lockdowns. Most of the neighbourhood office crowd had gone home, and nothing about the storefront would call to drive-by traffic. So, the agency revamped the restaurant pro bono, turning takeout-feeling Fresh-In-The-Box Brown Rice Sushi into upscale eatery Michi Japanese Kitchen – a transformation befitting the own experience of master chef Michiyo ‘Michi’ Wilson. In addition, the partners offered to order lunch from the new Michi Japanese Kitchen every day for a year.
We asked Arcana Academy founders Lee and Shane to reflect on the experience.
LBB> What inspired you to do this?
Lee> Lockdowns have been brutal on small, family-owned businesses. Michi is a neighbor, and she’s become a friend. When lockdowns started and her traffic was down by more than 50%, Shane and I decided to go there every day to keep her in business. And then she did something amazing – she redid her floors, thinking she had the time now and it wouldn’t be more than a couple weeks. We were inspired by that optimism and courage, so we offered to take her revamp all the way.
LBB> What was your ultimate goal?
Lee> We didn’t want to just give Michi money, we wanted to help her create money. And it's working. The signage outside has attracted attention from the start, even from people who have been in the neighbourhood a long time. And the new décor and menu are working.
LBB> What needed to change?
Shane> We had to change the name first. Michi’s Ramen, a popular menu item, had already become the name regulars referred to. So, Michi. Then we needed to create an inviting décor that signals quality. Like she's cooking just for you – which is how it’s always felt to us. And then we needed to reflect that you’re getting something special in the menu and signage.
Before and after
LBB> What gives you the greatest satisfaction in this assignment?
Lee> Helping build community. You hear community building thrown around a lot, but Michi truly does build community. She knows everybody’s name; she knows everybody’s order. How many times does the owner of a restaurant open the door for you, carry your food out halfway back to your office with you before she hands it off to someone in your group? That’s Michi. She creates a place that feels familiar and normal even in a world where normal has been turned upside down. Being able to help support that in a material way is heartwarming.
Shane> I smile every time I look out the window at the new storefront. And that meal every day at lunch helps reassure us that everything's going to be okay. It's a little thread to the way things were before all of this started that's still intact. It’s hope one savoury bite at a time.
LBB> Did the Michi revamp allow you to reset perceptions of the agency?
Shane> Brand design like this has always been within our wheelhouse as an agency, but we don’t often get a chance to showcase it. We hope it does encourage prospective clients who may not be ready for full ad campaigns to start considering what their brand really is. A brand design engagement of this nature can be a stepping stone to build long-term, personal partnerships with ad agencies again. When agencies are true partners, everybody wins.
LBB> Why is it so important to help mom and pop businesses?
Shane> Mom and pop businesses are the backbone of the economy. Helping them helps everyone. But more than that, behind every small business’ front door is somebody’s hopes and dreams. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. To us that represents something truly worth preserving in a world being taken over by big corporations.
Lee> Ultimately, unique small businesses make the consumer experience much more interesting. Interactions are personal, connections are authentic, and we start to develop a shared responsibility toward each other and our community. We knew we wanted to give Michi back what she has given to us, but we had no idea how much our effort would inspire people.
LBB> Should all agencies be doing this kind of work?
Lee> We saw a need we could fill, we did it, and it feels great. We would love it if more agencies could have the same feeling. If you want to change the world by starting with other people, perhaps you’ve already failed.