For the last couple of months I’ve been making it a habit to visit Swich (104 8th Ave between 15th + 16th, NYC) for lunch. There’s a rotation of three swiches I really, really like. There’s the Karate Chicken, Steak Monster and Thanksgiving Every Day that come highly recommended. Aside from the flavour of the food there’s something else about the environment. Everything seemed considered and designed, more so than usual from what I’ve noticed when a business opens for the first time. One thing led to another and Noah Brier introduced me to John Gargiulo, the owner of Swich. Thinking that this would be the perfect opportunity to learn about Swich, John agreed to do an interview through email about all that is Swich.
Michael Surtees: How did Swich come to be, what was your involvement? What were you doing before?
John Gargiulo: In my life before Swich I was a creative at an ad agency called Cliff Freeman and Partners. It had always been my dream agency and it was a thrill to get to work there. My Art Director partner at Cliff, Matt Woodhams-Roberts and I created and shot Print and TV spots for clients like Snapple, Sports Authority, and Quiznos. Matt is a great designer and has helped me with some design for Swich.
I always said on my 30th birthday if I hadn’t yet taken a big risk in life and started a company or something big, I had to quit my job on that day and figure something out fast. I guess I got anxious because on my 26th birthday I walked into Cliff’s office and retired from advertising. I developed a business plan, found an investor, and a year and a half later in December of last year, we opened our doors.
MS: When I walked into switch for the first time, it seemed relaxed yet the environment and experience seemed extremely considered. What is the philosophy of Swich and how did it come to be? Has the idea changed once the doors opened?
JG: The credit for the design of Swich has to go to the firm that came up with it- a happy group of people called The Apartment. I knew I wanted Swich to be a forward-thinking, future-leaning kind of place, but I also wanted it to feel comfortable and accessible. Homey-chic was sort of what I was thinking. I feel like The Apartment delivered that feel perfectly. It’s a huge credit to them that your experience walking into Swich was precisely what all of us intended! A warm, happy, hip little place to get your sandwich fix.
MS: Everything about Swich is designed yet it doesn’t feel over the top. It doesn’t scream of anyone’s signature design style that I’m aware of. How did your concept for Swich turn into a reality. Were there designers involved? How did the collaboration work out?
JG: Looks like I should have been reading ahead on these questions! Yes as I’ve said the collaboration with the Apartment worked out great. When I was bidding the project I wanted to choose a design firm that I might have to pull back a little, rather than one I’d have to nudge along. What I love about Stefan and his team is that they have the guts to throw just about anything out there that they think could work. No matter how bizarre or impossible some of their ideas may seem at times, they are all original- which immediately puts them ahead of 95% of other creative firms, in my opinion. And many of their ideas are quite brilliant!
MS: What was the process like in choosing the company name? Was it fun, difficult? did you hire writers or let friends and family put in their ideas or did you know it was gonna be Swich from the get go?
JG: Oh my god there were so many names we went through. I asked all friends and family, as well as The Apartment to come up with a name, as well as working on it myself. There was “Stacked”, and “Flaterie”, and about 250 others. Oh! And for a while the name was “Made” which I sort of liked, but we found there was a chain of places in Iowa that the trademark lawyers said sounded too similar, so that got killed. I love the name Swich. It’s clean, simple, catchy, and represents the product.
MS: I think people really enjoy the conversational tone of the experience. All of the sandwiches have funny yet no so obvious names. Where did the sandwich names come from?
JG: I wanted the personality of Swich to come through in almost every aspect of the experience. It may have been more direct if I had called the Swiches Buffalo Chicken and Steak Sandwich, for example, but I think it’s easier to identify with a favorite sandwich if it’s got a name like Buffalo Hot Pants or Steak Monster. It gives each Swich its own little personality.
MS: Along with the sandwich names you’ve taken the opportunity to have a talk with the person eating the food. There’s writing on the stickers begging to be read, there’s more writing on the paper that covers the trays. How has the feedback been on this? It almost seems like it could evolve into a two way conversation, have you considered any options to hear what others think of Swich?
JG: Having a talk with them is exactly how we think of it too. It’s conversational. Every brand is like a person. Mercedes is the guy at the party in the Gucci suit striding up to every girl, Jamba Juice is the hyper-hypo California guy bouncing off the walls, and so on. We want Swich to be just a normal, stylish, totally down to earth guy that doesn’t take himself too seriously. That’s the tone that comes out in all our copy on those cups and trays and all of our branding communication. We absolutely love to get feedback and hear from our customers what they like about Swich and suggestions they have to make it better. On some of our cups we ask that people email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to keep the conversation going. And I think at some point when we catch our breath, I will start a newsletter type of thing as well. I think listening to your customers is vitally important.
MS: There’s a couple great peripheral elements that help make Swich unique such as all the green and white color, the magnetic wall near the front door that has the welcoming type, the large menu display, there’s a plasma tv playing Swich tv, another plasma showing the music that is on, an interesting seating arrangement with a long table. How did all these things come to be?
JG: Well from the beginning I wanted to do SwichTV as well as the screen showing what song is playing. I think music is the most underrated part of the restaurant experience. It totally sets the mood for the place and taken a lot more seriously than just pumping in satellite radio or something. I choose all of the songs that play in Swich very carefully. For the menu display and the type on the walls the credit has to go to the Apartment, who also convinced me to paint the ceilings green by the way, which I’m glad we did.
MS: Why Swich tv? What have you learned by making videos? Any plans to extend what you’ve started?
JG: Making the bits for SwichTV was some of the most fun I had during the whole year and a half lead up to opening the first shop. I just wanted it to be weird, original stuff that you couldn’t stop looking at. I noticed at other fast-casual chains there was never anything to look at while you waited for your food. People would stare at their feet, look for their sandwich, or if you were lucky you would have your iPod and just zone out to that for a while. Part of the Swich experience is entertaining people, and SwichTV I think adds to that. We are definitely making more videos in a couple of months. I want to get our employees involved, as we all think it would be extra funny to look up and the guy who’s making your Swich is dancing on TV or doing some other strange stuff. We have a great, fun staff and they’re totally into it.
MS: The food is great, almost every time I’ve been there I see people swapping bites with their friends. How did the menu develop and what type of process do you have in place to make the food even better? How often will you update the menu?
JG: The Swiches I just worked on over and over again for the year and a half leading up to the opening. I tested every Swich at least 15 different ways before choosing the best tasting, most complete version. My wife Sidney and family and friends helped a lot in that process. We just completed two months of further “real world” testing of every item in our kitchen, and we made a couple of tweaks here and there, and added the Earthy McGee deconstructed. But after so much work on getting the variety right in the menu and making sure the taste profile of every Swich is as perfect as it can be, I would like to keep the menu as static as possible. It also simplifies operations and helps us make sure we can get people their Swiches faster and more efficiently.
MS: What was the biggest learning experience that you’ve had since starting Swich?
JG: I’ve learned time and again during this process that the best thing you can do when starting a business is surround yourself with great people. I have the absolute smartest, nicest, most hardworking team I could have ever asked for. From my restaurant consultant Lisa Chodosh, who teaches a great class at the New School, to my real estate broker to my GM Steve Hardy, I couldn’t be happier with my team. The goal was to build a core group of people who would be sort of the support team in growing Swich out as a national concept, and I definitely have those people behind me now and that makes all the difference in the world.
MS: When you’re not eating at Swich, what is your favourite restaurant in New York right now.
JG: It’s a tie between Pearl Oyster Bar and Blue Ribbon.
MS: How do you think design and marketing plays a role in Swich’s success?
JG: I think that they play a big role. I think first of all as a restaurant concept, your food has to be good. That’s a given. But I think design, maybe second to music (which permeates the entire room at all times) is the most underrated thing about a restaurant’s success. In fact I think right now, and this is beginning to change, but design is one of the most underrated determinants of any retail business’s success. Design for Swich helps us stand out, and it helps define who we are. The marketing, from the stickers on the cups to how our take-out bag looks sitting on someone’s desk in their office 10 blocks away, are also ways in which we present ourselves to the public and have an opportunity to stand out.
MS: In a couple years where do you want to Swich to be? Are there other types of experiences that you would like to take on?
JG: Going forward I am working on making the Swich on 8th Avenue and 15th the best prototype it can be. When the time is right, which I think will be a matter of months, I will get back out there and start looking at locations to roll the concept out further. I can’t tell you how many people from all over the city have written me asking for one in their neighborhood.. But right now I’m just trying to improve the model we have now little by little every day. We just started delivery a couple of weeks ago and it’s been going really well. Next up is catering, where we’re going to differentiate ourselves as best we know how from the competition.
I’m having so much fun doing this every day, and I think going forward Swich will only get bigger and better!
MS: Thanks for taking the time to do this John. You know I’ll be back. I’m looking forward to watching this grow into something better than it already is.