Serving Up Branding for Small Circle

Serving Up Branding for Small Circle

The first thing that you should know about this story is that R.J. Hartbeck is an idea machine.

I’ve known R.J. for a couple years now, and every time we meet for coffee or lunch, he’s constantly telling me new ideas for products and businesses and connecting things. The guy has a great mind for business, and a genuine entrepreneurial spirit.

The second thing you should know is that he loves St. Louis. But when he told me his latest idea for a cookbook, I was caught a little off guard.

Especially when he explained to me that it wasn’t an app or website, but an actual physical, printed book. Also, R.J. is not a chef. The whole thing seemed odd.

“You know they have those on the internet now?” I joked, referring to the sea of recipe websites and cookbook apps already available.

“I know, but this one is different,” he explained.

Small Circle Cookbook cover design

Small Circle Cookbook Inside Spread Design

Small Circle Cookbook Recipe Spread Design

Baking in the difference

The first difference is that the cookbook would feature recipes by St. Louis’ most talented chefs. Over the years, St. Louis’ food scene has grown, garnering national attention, with James Beard awarded and nominated chefs. We have some of the best and boldest chefs in the country right here.

The second difference is that the cookbook would actually be a series, coming out four times a year, each one featuring recipes by a different chef in our region. Inspired by her passion for cooking, project co-founder Mary von der Heydt came up with the idea to have the chefs share personal recipes from their home kitchens.

Thinking Small

The name of the series is Small Circle Recipes, representing a close group of friends, an inner circle, special people you share real moments (and meals) with.

And yes, R.J.’s vision was a tangible, printed book – no larger than a Moleskine notebook. You can write notes in it. You can get it dirty. You can let someone borrow it.

This is the third difference. Most traditional cookbooks are oversized, with dozens of recipes. Testing all the recipes and publishing the book takes a long time. But because the Small Circle books will be shorter, with fewer recipes, each issue will be more seasonal—a better representation of what the chef is currently cooking, as opposed to old dishes he or she has long since retired from their repertoire.

Small Circle cookbook recipe - maple braised bacon

cookbook recipe - Lyonnaise salad

Small Circle Cookbook - Braised Halibut with Mustard Creme Fraiche

Now we’re cooking with gas.

We were on board. A cookbook series featuring our city’s best chefs was a new idea that hadn’t been done before, and the Atomicdust team wanted to do everything we could to help it come alive.

Branding concepts for Small Circle Cookbooks

Branding concepts for Small Circle Cookbooks

Branding Small Circle Meeting

Senior Designer Amanda Pickens and R.J. Hartbeck discussing the Small Circle brand identity.

We started working on branding concepts. R.J.’s beautiful food photographs would take center stage, so we chose neutral colors that would translate well from issue to issue, no matter the chef.

Small Circle Cookbook Series Design

An accent color will distinguish each publication—in this first issue, it’s a crisp red. Clean, elevated typefaces let the recipes shine, and the simple layout allows for readers to easily follow along, step-by-step. After each recipe is a blank spread so home chefs can jot down notes.

For the cover, we designed a system that incorporates the names of the recipes printed with a spot UV finish, adding texture and creating consistency from issue to issue. A circle-shaped labeling system, similar to wine labels, includes the issue number and chef’s signature for each.

Small Circle Cookbook recipe

Dig in

The first issue features recipes by Ben Grupe, who was chosen last year as a James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef: Midwest. (He’s also chef and owner of the forthcoming Tempus, a project Atomicdust is creating the branding for—watch this space for more.) The book features recipes like Cumin Carrot Confit, Baked Halibut with Mustard Crème Fraiche, Sous Vide Short Ribs with Braised Cabbage and Honey Thyme Glazed Parsnips.

Designing a cookbook is a first for Atomicdust, and the final product turned out beautifully. Our more culinarily talented team members are looking forward to trying out the recipes at home. I just hope the bring in the leftovers.

Order your copy of the first issue of Small Circle (or sign up for a subscription) here.


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Mike Spakowski

Mike Spakowski

Mike Spakowski is Principal / Creative Director of Atomicdust and is involved with the day-to-day design strategy, art direction and studio management.

More posts by Mike Spakowski