BGP’s Spyglass Spotlight is a series of commentaries dedicated to showcasing some of my design projects, the clients that commissioned them, and the way those projects took on creative lives of their own.

Umami Treats and Gourmet Delectables is a Detroit-based catering company, founded by Chef Robin Steele in 2004. As a company, Umami has come to be known for its specialty items — delicious chocolate chip cookies and pastries made from scratch. When Robin first introduced me to the concept and business plans, I had reservations about the name. In comparison to many small bakeries and cookie companies, Umami seemed either too exotic or too ethnic for the typical confection brand.

Umami Kanji

The word Umami is of Japanese in origin, loosely interpreted as ‘good taste’ or ‘deliciousness’ although it has many levels and many meanings. Oxford English Dictionary advisor Michael Quinion sums up Umami as “The fifth taste, sometimes associated with a feeling of perfect quality in a taste, or of some special emotional circumstance in which a taste is experienced. It is also said to involve all the senses, not just that of taste. There’s more than a suggestion of a spiritual or mystical quality about the word”. During a conversation, Robin emphasized that food that achieves the Umami taste looks great, smells great, tastes great, feels great and even sounds great when it’s being eaten. She believes that there’s a spirit of love and passion that transcends the cooking process and causes an almost orgasmic awakening of the senses for the person enjoying the food. After days of research I came to the conclusion that Umami is one of those words like “Zen” — conceptual, experiential, and steeped in cultural dimensions that would probably be considered enlightened by most Western schools of thought.

early Umami Treats sketch

Because of the factors mentioned above (and Chef Steele’s personality), I decided that only an unusual design was going to work for Umami Treats. A logotype wasn’t enough. And although I personally love how the word Umami looks in its native Japanese Kanji, when the average American sees Asian writing on a package design they tend to assume it’s a product for Asians. With Detroit’s population being a little over 81% Black, 12% White, 5% Latino and 1% Asian, this brand definitely needed mass appeal. I also needed a somewhat surrealistic representation that would tie the brand name in with the product without being too symbolic. The final design had to have a hint of an old fashioned enclosure yet still look new enough to convey ‘progressively traditional yet fresh and organic’.

Umami Treats Logo (final)

I went through quite a few ideas before coming up with a rough sketch I was ready to present. After importing the sketch into Adobe Illustrator, I reached a bit of an impasse about halfway through the manual tracing process. Because of the size of the cupcake in proximity to the cookies, it didn’t look like a cupcake. The top looked more like a baked mushroom cap and the cupcake liner resembled a stiff curtain at a cheap hotel. And where I called myself having fun with the idea of alternating orange and canary yellow beams radiating from a golden Sun, ethnic symbolism crept back into the picture… this time in the form of the “Rising Sun”, Imperial Japan’s World War II flag.

A few days later I spoke with Chef Steele and learned of the proposed Umami Treats coffee house in the works. Whether I was caught up with inspiration or frustration, I ended up completely scraping the cupcake and sunbeams. Instead, I added a coffee cup off in the distance of a warm, vague landscape. Luckily, this helped the chocolate chip cookies gain a greater presence in the final design.

Umami Treats — Brand in Action

Umami Treats Sample Commercial

Original Format: VOB MPEG-2 (stand-alone DVD)
Duration: 00:01:06s

This video was produced for Umami Treats as a cost-effect commercial demo to help her pitch the business plan. I figured the best approach was for potential investors to feel like they’ve seen the coffeehouse so I decided to create a mock commercial spot and burn it to a self-playing DVD. Since there wasn’t a budget for live actors, voiceovers or broadcast-quality production, I decided to produce this commercial spot using Ubuntu Studio (Linux). Although the address noted at the end was the coffeehouse’s proposed location, as of the date I completed this video it was still at the corner of an empty strip mall that was under construction. To “create” the coffeehouse I used a piece of stock footage of a Detroit street, interior shots from a couple of lounges in that area, and the smiling people and live music shots are from my photo archives — taken while hangin’ out with friends at Cafe Nema on U street in Washington, DC.

One morning in late February while brainstorming ideas for another client, I overheard some talking heads on CNN (my back was to the TV). The chatter was about how President and Mrs Obama used an Air Force helicopter to fly back to Chicago for their Valentine’s Day.

Umami Treats Obamas Flyer

Something about that inspired me to follow up on a silly design idea — a slick, very functional, professionally printed full-color 5.5″x4.5″ flyer. The back was to remain blank so I could make a small menu template. Robin could then use a labelmaker program to print the menus and slap them on the back. Some menus would be for her cookies and other confections. Other menus would be for her catering services. The final result was to be an attention-grabbing leave behind with menu info that she could change without requiring complete flyer reprints. Simple, humorous and cost-effective. The next variation of the concept involves an over-sized postcard that can be filled out and dropped in the mail.

Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate keeping in touch with many of my old clients. A great fringe benefit that comes with what I do is that when a client is a genuinely good person, sooner or later we usually become friends — even if we’ve never met.

Chef Steele has been one of those long distance friends for a long time. One afternoon she forwarded a photo and a text message that had been sent to her phone. “Please tell Rhyn to stay Awake in class. Thank you and hope you can make it to open house at seven. Anthony S______ – Rhyn’s Fifth hour teacher.”

Umami Treats Refrigerator Magnet

I couldn’t help but laugh. The young lady is Rhyn, Chef Steele’s daughter, caught in what is best described as a familiar story with a modern twist. Back in the day, if you got caught snoozing in class usually the worst that happened was a rude awakening and ruckus of laughter from your classmates. Now, here I was, one of many distant recipients chuckling at a digital Kodak Moment almost right after it happened. Inspired by the humor of the moment and the coffee-like smoothness of her complexion, I loaded the image into Photoshop, added the comic elements and emailed it back. Robin took my image and had it turned into a 4.25”x5.5” refrigerator magnet. It’s a great example of how promotional ideas can (and often do) happen as a result of happy accidents. Rhyn loves it, although we still don’t know why she fell asleep that day in the first place.

Umami Treats Promotional Materials

Although Umami Treats has faced a tough uphill road in these economic times, Chef Steele has proved to be very sharp when it comes to thinking (and investing) in promotional materials to help grow and strengthen her brand. With the way things look, this is just the beginning. 😉

And, in case you’re wondering, the cookies are phenomenal.

Until next time, thanks for reading. Be well and be blessed…

Max Nomad