Are You Losing Business By Being Clever?


One of the neat things about the new Outspoken Media office (other than the office part) is that it’s given me and Rhea an excuse to try out all the great lunch places that exist in downtown Troy, NY. The Judges Inn is one of those great places.

If you’re not from Troy, the Judges Inn is a kitschy little pub/restaurant that takes its legal theme and runs all the way home with it. The menu comes in a blue jacket that is designed to look like a subpoena. When the waiter hands you your menu, he lets you know that he is your attorney and that you’ve just been served. Then he walks away. And you’re left to stare at your lunch mates wondering what just happened and if anyone would notice if you just hightailed it out of there right now. [Luckily, the ample beer selection keeps you seated.]

When you open the menu it doesn’t get much better. You’re starving and even though they serve all the usual fare, you don’t recognize anything. Here’s a quick scan of the Southern District Court section of the menu. I don’t know what that heading exactly means, but I can tell you it comes right after the “Judgewiches”.

The Judges Inn falls victim to something that plagues many business owners – they’ve sacrificed being descriptive and clear in order to be unnecessarily clever. And while “clever” may be more fun, it also comes with some pitfalls. Mostly, you shooting yourself in the foot.


You make people feel stupid: I love a good patty melt. It’s typically my go-to whenever Rhea and I go out to lunch. But at The Judges Inn, a patty melt isn’t called a patty melt. It’s called a Case #2010 CV 001106. I don’t know what that is, I don’t know how to say it, and I probably don’t have enough air in my body to try. So I don’t order it. I’m left to stumble over one of the other impossible-to-say items. I don’t want to feel self-conscious when I try to order my lunch. If I know you’re going to make me feel that way, I’ll probably go somewhere else in the future. It’s the same way on your Web site – if you’re using words I don’t recognize, purposely blocking my conversion path, or making me jump through hoops to do something – I’m not going to stay. I don’t like being made to feel stupid. I can do that on my own.

I can’t share my experience: Ultimately, the sandwich I had at The Judges Inn was delicious. Like, I wanted to lick the plate it was so good. But if you asked me what I ordered, I couldn’t tell you. And because it was named so oddly, I probably couldn’t even tell you what was inside of it. And that sucks. People like being able to share their experiences and to rave about the great lunch they just had. It makes us feel superior to our friends when we’ve tried out a place they’ve never been to. If you take that away from me, you limit my ability to be a brand evangelist for your business and you also lose out on all the word of mouth you would have received. Given that WOM and referrals are how many small business owners make their business, you really don’t want to do that.

You kill yourself in search: This isn’t really an issue for The Judges Inn since they don’t even have a Web site (hi, you need one), but it will be a big issue for your business. If you’re calling them [Wellies] and your audience is calling them [rain boots] then they’re not going to be able to find you when they’re doing a search. If someone is looking for your [stereo equipment] and you’re calling it [products], they’re not going to find it because they weren’t looking for products. Pay attention to keyword research and don’t create a clever name for something when the real name will suffice. Or at least don’t forget to INCLUDE the real name alongside the one you create. While descriptive isn’t always sexy, it’s what your customers are looking for. And that’s who you’re serving.

If you want to increase traffic (foot or Internet) one of the best ways to do that is to call things what they are and avoid your secret desire to show the world how clever you are. While The Judges Inn does a fantastic job staying in character, I have to wonder how much word of mouth they’re missing out on because customers can’t tell their friends what they ate for lunch. How many customers are avoiding going there for lunch because they’re intimidated by the experience? How many people are turned off that they no longer recognize lunch? I mean, how clever are you if you’re turning away customers over it?

Kitschy is good, functional is often better.

Your Comments

  • David Zemens

    Sounds like you had “lunch with a lesson” and the lesson was “User Experience 101”.

    Ultimately anyone who goes to a restaurant wants to have good food. It can be fun along the way. It can even be trendy and upscale. But the end result is good food. Sounds like you had a good lunch, but if it’s hard work to make it happen, you might just go to another place that has good food, too, but makes it easy to order.

    These same ideas apply to the interface of your website. It can be chock full of the neatest graphics in the world, but ultimately folks visiting came for information which is most often text content. Don’t let the pretty stuff get in the way of the content. And certainly don’t let the menu get in the way of the food!

  • Matthias Hager

    I’ve never heard of this place. If I did visit, I imagine I’d be kicked out (deported?) for making fun of it all. Maybe it all makes sense to those in the legal profession, but that’s such a small market to limit yourself to them.

    My first thought response to this was how good a job Moe’s does of this. While their menu item names are equally lacking in description, they are clever and unique enough to be memorable. It also helps that they have a very small menu. Their website is a little painful (flash? ugh).

  • Lauren

    I get your point, kitsch isn’t always klever. But, the experience you had there got you to write a blog post and point out (multiple times) that you had good food albeit a strange experience. How many times have you sat down at an ethnic restaurant and not been able to say the name of the menu item, but still received the menu item?

    And, is the location of this business within several courts, law offices or in a like-minded district? If so, then maybe the majority of the people “get” what you don’t. But you’re right, a good inside joke doesn’t make-up for the remaining people who have no idea what you’re talking about.

  • Randy S

    Southern District Court because it’s southwestern style food?

  • Todd Mintz

    I guess if you asked for a Patty Melt and they looked at you funny, then I’d be worried. However, lots of restaurants (especially deli’s) have funky names for the sandwiches…these names are particularly obtuse but they’re not doing something unique here. You make good points in your post, but I think that saying the restaurant is killing themselves with the weird sandwich names is overreaching a bit IMO.

    • Bob Gladstein

      I agree. It’s fine to have your own cute little code that your regular customers can enjoy, but only if you’re willing to speak English with customers who prefer it that way.

      I remember when Starbucks (at least the ones around here) apparently had a policy that their employees were to act like you were speaking Venusian when you asked for a “large”. If you refused to call the Venti “Venti,” how could they possibly discern that you wanted a Venti? Well, they eventually learned that the number of people who found that policy endearing was at least matched by the number who found it a reason to get their large coffee elsewhere.

    • Rob Woods

      I don’t know Todd. I think I have to go with Lisa on this one. If I go into a celebrity themed restaurant and order an “Elvis” which is a deep fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, that makes sense. I can tell my friends that they definitely need to go and order an “Elvis” and the name has a common recognized connection with what’s in the product. I’m not sure that holds true with a Case #05 CV 02434. I also don’t think the names are going to sink the restaurant, but I think they likely have taken there use of unique jargon to an extreme.

  • Jerome

    Interesting post but would have been even better had you suggested one or more solutions to these poor bastards’ problem :)


  • Rufus Dogg

    Oh, I hate places that do that and even more so when they try to get cute with the restroom descriptions. Men, Women — don’t mess with that! (I have NO IDEA which room to use at the Outback.. seriously, I can’t tell a boy ‘roo from a girl ‘roo.

    We have a local place that tried to do something cute called Oinkadoodlemoo’s BBQ (Pork, Chicken, Beef.. like a turducken only not rolled together) You are supposed to order as oink, doodle or moo. They also did funky crap with their sides (mac and cheese with attitude) and just confused the crap out of their patrons. Granted, we all here is a bunch of hicks and rednecks, but we know what BBQ is s’posed to be and what it ain’t. They since rolled back the menu to basics.

    Cute is like garlic. A little bit is tasty, a lot if repulsive. Well, unless you are Lisa Barone, then seriously, can you do too much cute? :-)

  • Gabriele Maidecchi

    I have to disagree with you (omg it’s a first), I mean, even if the name’s complicated, I’d just point it from the menu. Heck, it’s not much better when I go out to a mexican or chinese restaurants, at most they could put a number next to it (like an ordered list, seen it a lot around).
    Now, the only thing I can disagree on is the theme chosen. Going to lunch in a law-centered restaurants would make me slightly uncomfortable and depressed.. but I am all for pushing the joke to the extremes.
    In Italy we have a perfect example in Rome, restaurant called Cencio La parolaccia (careful, translated with Google, might not be totally awesome :( ), where waiters swear at you with any kind of offenses on sexuality, religion, appearance, anything, while they pass by. And there’s a waiting list to just be able to book a table. Extreme? Maybe. Does it work? Apparently.

  • Jill Whalen

    Wow, I’m disagreeing with Lisa, which I haven’t done since her ole BC days!

    While I agree with what you said about websites needing to be clear in their offerings–particularly because search engines can’t understand clever, I don’t think it’s the same thing with restaurants.

    We also talk about being creative and unique and setting yourself and your website apart from the others, which is exactly what the restaurant is doing. From your screen shot of the menu, it’s not like they’re not describing what’s in the sandwiches at all–they are. If they weren’t, then you’d have the ultimate case of mystery meat…which we all know is bad for websites as well.

    • Matthias Hager


      I think having a themed restaurant and going all out is okay. Where this particular place is hurting itself is the rather generic names in Case 06 civ. 4908 or Case 06 mdl 1879, etc. These might have meaning to lawyers and judges and other law professionals, which is great if they’re you’re only customer. But I imagine they get other street traffic coming in too.

      If I happen into this place I can appreciate the legal theme. I can understand the William Van Ness and the Roe v. Wade or the Subpoena. Those are memorable, if not relatively household names. Just like the Art Vandalay and the Homewrecker and the Triple Lindy. If I want to go back and order the same thing I had last time, I know what to call it. If I want to tweet to my friends how great it was, easy. Case #06 ncc 1701, not so much.

      Why not the OJ Simpson? Or the Salem Witch Trial? They can be clever and unforgettable.

  • Gaurav Jain

    common Lisa, don’t be so critical abt this whole issue and don’t despise the creative effort put by “the Judges Inn” afterall that is what their name. amd as far as sharing your experience of having a mouth-watering “sandwich”, just say to your friend that you had an awesome “sandwich”, you dont have to make a case out of it! and if the next time ur fiend visits Judges inn on ur recommendation, i hope he shdn’t have any difficulty if he says to the waiter, “hey, bring me the case # which deals with a Sandwich, n if there are subcases as well, bring me the most delicious one” !!!

  • Anthony

    You’ve hit this one right on, Lisa. Even on the web we see a lot of startups and SMBs put “glitz and glam” over functionality. When customers land on your page via search, social, online media, or email they wan’t to find the content they were promised- and they want it fast. Unnecessary idioms put a damper on the user experience, and, like you said, just plain make you feel dumb.

  • @TheGirlPie

    SO TRUE! But my experience with this issue of overly-clever/hyper-active branding is with a girl I like and a website with info I want and a service I’d buy — except for the constant “theme” peppering every damn sentence! Every site page, email, newsletter, product — I could barf from all the cutesy theme that is anything but. I wanted to write her to ask for the un-themed version of the free info — hell, I’d pay for it!

    If you’ve got a theme, a concept, even a noun (like clown, frog, witch, etc.) remember: LESS IS MORE.

    Thanks Lisa.

  • Rochelle


    I Absolutely LOVE How Direct you are!!!