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    Why Creative Agencies Should Serve Chips and Salsa

    What if we ran a design firm like our favorite taco shop?

    Andy Stone Partner at Emerson Stone

    After a long day at the shop — or, just as often, knowing there’s a long night ahead — Brett, Jamie, and I like to sneak out for an hour and walk to T/aco. Tucked along Walnut Avenue in Boulder’s beating downtown heart, it’s the best Mexican food in town. The fare isn’t what keeps us coming back, though. It’s the ritual itself that makes us happy and brings our creative selves back to life. Plus, it’s getting to see our friend Peter Waters.

    Peter is world-famous in Boulder, an erstwhile corporate telecom salesman turned restaurateur and bon vivant. (If you’re looking for the courage to quit your dead-end job and risk everything on a wild dream, his story is a must-read.) Walking into T/aco, which he helped launch in 2012, is like stepping into a party you really want to be at.

    We at Emerson Stone recently had the opportunity to do some creative work for T/aco (pronounced “Tee-ah-co”), starting with an update of the restaurant’s brand identity. From there, we designed new print collateral, from dinner and drink menus to advertising and shirts.

    It’s the kind of assignment we love, breathing new life into much-loved local brand, knowing we’ll get to see impact of our work each time we visit.

    Shortly after the project wrapped, Brett and I stopped by to T/aco at happy hour to see how the creative rollout was going (and, you know, to do a little quality control on the duck tacos). As usual, Peter greeted us like friends he’d been waiting all day to see — his superpower is greeting everyone like this — and showed us to our table.

    T Aco Menus Boulder Colorado

    New menu designs for T/aco from the team at Emerson Stone

    As we sat down, he said, “So we’re starting with chips and salsa, right?” It was a subtle upsell, not so much a question as a statement. An order of chips at T/aco — which comes with three colors of regional salsas — isn’t spendy, but it’s also not free. Our answer, without pause, was an easy yes.

    While we devoured the starter and waited for our drinks, Brett and I got to talking: What if Emerson Stone served chips and salsa?

    Not literally, of course. But what if we borrowed a page from the taqueria playbook and gave our clients something to snack on while they waited for their deliverables to arrive? The web redesign we’re working on might take three months, but let’s serve them something in the first week to get them excited, make them feel cared for, and show them just how good their final product is going to be.

    Consider the strategy behind serving chips and salsa in a restaurant. It keeps customers happy while they wait — a big help on nights when the kitchen is slammed. It teases their palate with salt and gives them plenty of time to order a second drink. Physiologically, it whets their appetite for the main course; psychologically, it creates a small burst of reward (chips!).


    What might chips and salsa look like at a creative agency?

    An easy one is business cards, a service we often do as part of a larger identity or digital project. It’s design work we can create quickly, it’s public facing (we want our clients to look good, after all), and when we ship it unannounced, it creates that same small burst of reward (new cards!).

    Menu Design Boulder Colorado

    T/aco menus with the best margaritas in all of Boulder

    Recently, one of our clients mentioned to Brett, in passing, how much he hated his company’s sales deck. Brett asked to take a look, spent a couple hours with it over the weekend, and on Monday sent it back to client with a facelift. The guy was thrilled, almost giddy. From an agency perspective, Brett’s time and labor cost was negligible. But in terms of long-term relationship-building, the return on investment for those couple hours was immense.

    Obviously, there’s no such thing as “free” chips and salsa. Some restaurants, like T/aco, charge separately for them; others don’t. Either way, they’re built into the cost of the meal.¹ The cost isn’t the point, though. Chips and salsa are a marginal part of a restaurant’s bottom line. They don’t make or break its profitability.

    It’s short-sighted to see chips and salsa as an opportunity for the customer to buy something right away. Instead, they’re an opportunity for the customer to get something right away.

    Another advantage of a chips and salsa project like a new deck is the ripple effect it creates within a company. Our client, a member of the sales team, now shows the deck to his colleagues, who ask to borrow it. It catches the attention of his boss, who’s obviously impressed and wants to know where he got it. His clients notice how sharp it looks. It gets him thinking about what other projects he might ask Emerson Stone to take on.

    Chips and salsa projects (a) keep us top-of-mind among our clients, (b) tease our final product, and (c) create the kind of reciprocal goodwill that sustains a long-term relationship.

    Selfishly, too, they’re a chance to run a quick design sprint and stretch our creative legs. When we’re bogged down in a sprawling, months-long project, the opportunity to spend a couple hours on a small deliverable and take it start to finish is just plain satisfying.

    At Emerson Stone, we believe that every project we take on — whether print or digital, advertising or branding, strategy or UX — should start with chips and salsa. It’s our way of saying welcome.


    [1] Not unlike airline bag fees. Some carriers, like Southwest, build them into the cost of the ticket while others, like Frontier, charge per item. Either way, you end up paying.


    We invite you to share your ideas for small, chips and salsa deliverables in the comments. For any questions about the article or thoughts about your own projects, you can reach us on Twitter or at Emerson Stone. Along with client projects, we are constantly exploring new technologies to understand their impact on design and users around the world. If you are interested in working together, please reach out.


    Andy Stone Partner at Emerson Stone
    Andy is one of three partners at the design agency Emerson Stone in Boulder, Colorado. Over the last decade, he’s led projects in print and digital design for both startups and national brands, including Adobe, Polaroid and Travel Channel.