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I’m not a business expert or consultant, but I frequent a lot of small businesses in my pursuit of, well, getting out of the house and shopping and eating. We’ve all been to those restaurants that are doing a lot of things that are right, sure, but often the few small missteps (or just not doing something at all) can be what holds us from returning.

Well this post is dedicated to all you small business owners out there. You could have a restaurant, store, salon, or website, it doesn’t matter because the principles of how to become a repeat destination are the same. This time we are talking about a restaurant, Gracias Madre, and it’s a good one. So good, in fact, that we made a video about it demonstrating these tips:

There are more restaurants in LA than Botox injections. That is A LOT. I generally stick to my favorite 10 restaurants near in Silverlake or Los Feliz ….. unless there is something really pulling me, begging me to get out of my zip code, into my car and onto the peaceful open roads of Los Angeles.

But, Gracias Madre does that for me.

Click through to see the full tour and learn about my small business tips:

This restaurant is 12 miles away from my house, which in LA means it’s a 3 hour commute (45 minutes, actually), and it’s vegan and I’m not … especially right now. It begs the question – ‘Why would I go here?’ or more broadly ‘Why do people initially go to a restaurant or store and what keeps them coming back?’ 

Let’s break it down:


Curb appeal isn’t my number 1 requisite for a restaurant, but having a pretty exterior that represents the interior is important. Think about your storefront as your first conversation with your customers – so what do you want to tell them? It could be that you are cheap, easy and fast like many take out joints. It could be that you are dark, nameless and mysterious like many wanna-be Hollywood joints. Or it could be something like this – high-end sophistication, with the beautiful windows and woodwork, and a dose of fun – with this colorful awning. 


Your window is also is a great opportunity to say something that can draw customers in.So think about what you selectively want to share with them, whether it’s your ratings, your menu, if you are family friendly, your hours, or what payments you take that might benefit your customer. Yes, this series is sponsored by American Express and YES if you are a small business you should take Amex because we Card Members love it.


Just like designing a room, you need a focal point – now this doesn’t necessarily have to be the first thing you see, but having something that makes a statement creates excitement and gives the establishment a sense of heightened energy, like this bar with its beautiful handmade tile. 


Sidenote: they have DELICIOUS drinks, that are also insanely beautiful. Just because it’s a plant-based restaurant doesn’t mean you aren’t indulging, trust me.



Instead I played bartender for no real reason, even though I thought it would be just hilarious in the video (it wasn’t; it was cut:)).


Restaurants (or again, any small business) need energy. Here’s how you create it: the more contrast in color, pattern, shape, style and texture you have in a space, the more energy you create. This is why typical Mexican restaurants have crazy pinatas hanging from the ceiling and 95 different colors mixed together – because you often want a high energy experience when you eat mexican and drink margaritas. Same with lounges – they often have less contrast because they still want energy but it’s more of the ‘artisanal-old fashioned-deep-cleavage-situation’, helped by the darker tones layered together, lots of textures and simpler shapes. 


This restaurant has really good contrast/energy without being too insane. The designer, Wendy Haworth, brought in a lot of black and white, different patterns, and textures, but kept it more pulled back and refined. It still feels like a good time, but not totally over the top.



I think you have to ask yourself how you want people to feel when they are in your establishment. I personally know how I feel when I’m at Gracias Madre and it’s a little indulgent and special. I feel like I’m in the middle of a sea of fun glamorous people doing fun glamorous things. It’s the perfect ‘OOh, let’s have some fancy drinks without being too naughty’ situation. A lot goes into creating this feeling, but I have to think that the design of the space (with the right amount of contrast) helps it along A LOT.


Create a sense of intimacy through the seating and lighting. I can’t stand a cafeteria-style restaurant where it’s just a bunch of tables floating in a huge room. No customer has ever said ‘We’ll pass on the booth and instead take that table that basically feels like it’s in a huge banquet hall’. Everybody wants the booth. And while it’s not realistic or practical to have that many booths in your restaurant, you can give the sense of smaller rooms by creating sections, like they did. 


Instead of just chairs, there is a lot of bench seating (which allows for more flexibility than booths) that are built-in so they feel solid. 


Of course you can have some tables in the middle, but by minimizing the amount of them, even they start feeling more special. Even in the middle of those tables they put a huge fig tree which helps ground that collection of tables and create intimacy so you don’t feel like you are talking/sitting right next to someone else. Which is very important in Hollywood because everyone fancies themselves a celebrity that might be overheard at any time.


They did something even more genius than the built-in benches, they built half walls and put in these huge floating benches in the middle of the room. This gives the feeling of ‘booths’ even though you technically aren’t in one. There is just something about being grounded to a wall that makes everyone feel more comfortable, and when people are comfortable they’ll stay longer (and hopefully spend more).


We weren’t there at night but lighting is VERY important to creating intimacy in a restaurant. Quick tips: have some overhead, but obviously those should not be fluorescent or bare bulb if possible. I realize the whole bare bulb thing is still happening (stop it) but it’s harsh on your eyes unless you get fancy expensive bulbs so be careful with that. If you can have sconces instead, please do. And most importantly candlelight on the tables.

Not having candles on each table (even battery operated!!) is a massive mistake and missed opportunity. It’s a universal truth that everyone in the world likes a candlelit dinner. You want it bright enough to see the menu and each other, but that’s about it. Make sure the light is bouncing around the room – drawing energy to all the corners and giving a sense of party, but if it’s too lit it’s literally a party killer. A too brightly lit restaurant is one that I go to exactly once.


No matter what your business is, people can tell when you’ve cared enough to put thought into every aspect of your business – from the storefront, to the décor, even down to the printed menu, food, and server uniforms. Have a consistent art direction, even if it’s really simple like denim shirts and a pretty font. That can go a long way with creating a memorable experience for your customers.


Or for Gods’ sakes put edible flowers in your drinks and make REALLY large square ice cubes. It just makes the drink special which then makes the patron feel special for drinking said drink. It works, it really does. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to be thought about.



Since I’m showing you some photos of the food, you may as well get a quick food review: It’s awesome. It’s fresh and delicious, not to mention beautiful. I generally prefer eating meat, I do, but whatever they are doing with plants is totally satisfying. And then you can shove WAY more chips and guac into your guac-hole because those chips are vegetarian and therefore they are good for you.


The stamped ‘La Cocina’ on the wall and the pretty serape fabric benches are two good examples of thoughtful details that aren’t particularly expensive to execute. Make the details feel special so your clients feel special.



Now for what is the easiest and often most overlooked thing you can offer your clients/patrons – a good website and smart social media. Your website is really your online storefront, so it’s another way to draw your customers in. Make sure it’s easy to navigate and simple for users to find the information they need: reservations, updated menus, and what payment methods are accepted.

Think of your website as an interactive business card, one that anyone can access anytime and tells the whole story of your business.


And get yourself on social media. Even if you don’t have time to update it, that is fine, but you must have an account for people to share your business on their social media. I don’t shoot/Instagram a lot of my food but I do share pretty interiors and if Gracias Madre wasn’t on Instagram then I wouldn’t be able to give them all the free promotion that I could (and do) otherwise. In fact I learned about Gracias Madre through Instagram – not their Instagram account, but everyone else’s.


The fact that you are even reading this blog tells me you probably know this, but if you know anyone that has a small business that isn’t on Instagram (at least) please tell them that they are missing a huge opportunity at having other people do their advertising for them for free. You don’t have to post pictures yourself (although obviously that would be better), just open the account and have it linked to your website so that I can tag you and people can find you through that tag. Hire your 16 year old niece – she can set you up with a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram account in 20 seconds flat.


Lastly, make it as easy as possible for people to want to spend money. This means being nearby for every drink refill and having many different sharing appetizers on the menu. This means welcoming all forms of payment. But it mostly means really good, warm customer service that makes people want to stay – and return.


I love this place. Obviously the thing that I’m the most attracted to is the incredibly beautiful decor, that’s no secret. But the service, food, art direction, menu offerings, fancy drinks and general experience makes it not just a restaurant but a repeat destination. We’ll be back, Gracias Madre.

*This post is presented by American Express, with photos by Jessica Isaac for EH. American Express is ­committed to helping make merchants like you be even more successful with the latest in business trends, insights and tools. Learn more here:

Enter for a chance to win $10, 000 towards redesigning your store by uploading a photo of your storefront window displaying any of our window decals (including the new decal series by Design*Sponge) to Twitter and/or Instagram with the #LoveMyStoreAmexContest hashtag. 20 runners up will receive a $100 American Express gift card. Get your decal now to get started! For full contest rules, go to

No purchase necessary. Open to American Express® Card accepting merchants with brick and mortar locations in the 50 U.S., DC, PR & other U.S. territories & possessions (“Territory”), who have $3, 000, 000 or less in annual American Express charge volume and who have 25 or fewer locations (“Qualified Retailers”). Franchisees are not eligible to participate in this Contest.  Industry exclusions apply. Only owners or authorized representatives of Qualified Retailers who are at least 18, or the legal age of majority in their jurisdiction of residence, whichever is older, and legal residents of the Territory, may enter on behalf of Qualified Retailer.  Contest ends 11:59 p.m. ET7/31/15. Void where prohibited. See Official Rules at for complete details.


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