In the bar and restaurant industry, distinguishable concepts are like soul mates — when you find one, you keep it.
At least, that's the conventional thinking. But at a time when "branding" is the hottest word in marketing, two well-established bars in Canton and Federal Hill decided fresh starts were in order, despite new ownership inheriting built-in followings.
In early April, O'Donnell Square corner bar Jokers 'N Thieves became Southern Provisions, while Federal Hill's popular — and only — country music bar, Cowboys & Rednecks Pub, ditched the twang to become Wayward Southern Bar & Kitchen.
Both were purchased by people with working knowledge of Baltimore's food-and-bar scenes. Matthew Lasinsky of Blue Agave took over Jokers on Dec. 1, and the duo behind Banditos — Drew Dunlap and Sean White — began operating C&R a month later. (A third partner, Mike McDevitt, also joined the latter.)
These rebrands are calculated risks, but risks nonetheless.
For the first months, the new owners and management observed how the old concepts ran, making notes of what to tweak and what to keep. While the team in Federal Hill was certain they wanted an overhaul, Southern Provisions general manager Larry Romanowicz said the Canton spot used customer comment cards for feedback.
"The general consensus with pretty much everyone was Jokers 'N Thieves was a weird name," Romanowicz said of the Bob Dylan-inspired moniker. "If you said 'Jokers 'N Thieves' to someone, it doesn't really tell you where you're going and what you're going to get."
While Jokers 'N Thieves wanted a more indicative name, Cowboys & Rednecks Pub felt hampered by its all-country, all-the-time brand.
"It kind of pigeonholed them into a corner of attracting a particular crowd," Dunlap said. "Yes, they did business, but I think they were forgetting about a lot of people."
Both spots officially switched over their concepts in early April, and each bar took a different approach as to how much change was necessary.
Southern Provisions went subtle. The bar menu now has more Scotches and rye whiskeys, bringing the total whiskey products to around 50, Romanowicz said. They added more Southern-inspired food items to the menu, too. But walk into Southern Provisions, and the overall vibe will feel similar to Jokers 'N Thieves.
"We didn't change any of the interior stuff," Romanowicz said. "We kept the identity of the place pretty much the same."
The most significant upgrade are the three large garage doors near the front that fully open when it's warm out. (New ownership bought them, but they were installed while it was still Jokers.) It's a feature missing from the Square, and customers have responded well.
"It's got really good people-watching now," Romanowicz said of the view.
Wayward's transformation has been much more drastic.
The most noticeable change is the lack of country music — there are no more filled-room sing-alongs to "Wagon Wheel" or "Friends in Low Places." Acts like the Lumineers and Kings of Leon are played during the day, but the night soundtrack is more like the Top 40 already heard around the neighborhood at night.
Dunlap said country music is "not part of our brand." Most customers have been open to the change, but some still come in and lament that they miss the old C&R.
"If it's the country music that they absolutely miss, all I can say to that is 'Sorry,'" Dunlap said, pointing out that the bar still has "that Americana feel, but it's just not that Western, honky-tonk, put-your-boots-on feel."
Wayward also renovated its space, bringing in white subway tiles to break up some of the wood layout, resurfacing bar-tops, updating lighting with Edison-style bulbs and adding new tables and barstools. Behind the bar, Wayward added a cocktail list, something C&R did not have.
Amy Burke Friedman, president of the Baltimore marketing firm Profiles PR, said rebrands require calculation. (Profiles has not worked with either bar, Friedman said.) If significant changes like a new menu or interior renovations occur, "a name change may be worthwhile" to announce to the neighborhood and clientele the transformation.
Owners must be mindful, though, that patrons will naturally compare the new to the old, too, she said.
"You will always have customers that have an expectation set based on what the restaurant has provided them for years," Friedman said. "When you come in and rebrand, you really need to identify who your audience is."
Last week, I checked out both bars during peak hours.
For Southern Provisions, it was after WTMD's First Thursday free concert down the street. All three bar areas were filled, and the atmosphere reminded me of Jokers, just busier. The garage doors were open, which felt great and added a nice touch. If I had missed the name on the door, I would have thought it was the same place.
Around midnight on Saturday, Wayward was also packed, mostly with what seemed like the fresh-out-of-college crowd Federal Hill is known for. The bar's updated rustic-chic design certainly looked better, and I wasn't complaining about the shift in music. Still, the experience felt like a jumping Federal Hill bar — one I could have gotten at a number of places within walking distance of Wayward.
Both teams said response to the changes has been positive, and the crowds I saw backed up the claims.
But after talking with both Southern Provisions and Wayward, most clear was a truth all rebrands must reconcile with: True change, in the minds of who matters — the customers — happens at their pace, not the bars'.
When asked what's been most difficult about rebranding, Romanowicz said, "People still comparing us, not to Jokers 'N Thieves, but JD's Smokehouse," the bar that closed there in 2014.