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I Had an Identity Crisis Visiting All the Food Spots with the Same Name as Me

Ruby’s Cafe, Ruby’s Bar, Ruby House Chinese takeaway – what could they teach me about my personal brand?

by Ruby Lott-Lavigna; photos by Liz Seabrook
23 May 2019, 11:39am

Photo by Liz Seabrook. 

I’ve always liked the name “Ruby.” It’s a bit interesting but not so interesting that someone would describe it as “zany.” Nor is it the sign of boring parents who name their children things like “Mary” or “Tim.” Ruby is anglicised, avoiding the stress experienced by those with a supposedly “unpronounceable” name (God forbid!), but luckily it’s not anglicised enough to be linked to the monarchy or make me sound like I voted for Brexit (Camilla, Theodora, Cressida). Perhaps I’m not in an objective position to determine the amazingness of my own name since the thing has defined me for 25 years, but personally, I think Ruby slaps.

Turns out, I’m not the only one. After a meteoric rise in 2009 to become the second most popular name in England and Wales, Ruby today remains somewhere in the top 30, healthily ebbing in and out of fashion. On a government database of British companies, “Ruby” is listed 1,638 times – less than “Mary,” but more than “Dorca”. How could you not love the name Ruby, when it holds such important connotations? The gem. The comedian-turned-sincere mental health campaigner Ruby Wax. That extremely annoying Kaiser Chiefs song that became the band's first number one single. My mate’s cockapoo. Associations with pre-millennial Ab Fab humour, whiney guitar-ballads, sometimes a dog name – Ruby has it all.

As well as all the children and acquisitions companies, it’s not unusual to come across restaurants, bars and cafes that deign to call themselves Ruby. When it comes to the culinary world, “Ruby” can really mean anything. Unlike “Biff’s” of “Jim’s,” which just scream burger/fried chicken/rib joint fronted by a man with no personality, or “Francesco's” or “Silvio’s,” which is your charming-yet-scruffy Italian spot, “Ruby” is a name abundant with opportunity.

In an age when your personal brand has never been so important, when Instagram influencers who have successfully monetised their identities can make more cash than you ever will from a well-lit #sponcon selfie, what could I learn from my competing Rubys?

It was time for me to improve my brand, and what better way to do it than by visiting all the food spots that share my name? I decided on a selection to broaden my options (who knows which direction I might pivot my brand to in the future?), opting for an Italian cafe, a Chinese takeaway, a cutesy ice cream spot and a bar in East London.

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The author sits in Ruby's cafe, contemplating her personal brand.
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"Hot Hot Hot." A sign outside Ruby's cafe in Shoreditch, east London.

The first stop on my journey is Ruby’s cafe, a deli in Shoreditch fronted by burly Italian men. Piles of De Cecco pasta line the walls of the small cafe, and a chalkboard above the open kitchen displays today's menu: spinach and ricotta tortellini, chicken ciabattas, lamb ragu and other rich, Mediterranean dishes. I order tortellini and take a seat in the window, pulling out my notebook to begin work on developing myself into a million-pound empire feat. a Superdrug sponsorship and Boohoo clothing line (Ruby Garms™).

Ruby's the cafe immediately puts me on my guard. I’m half Italian, and this place is already doing my brand better than me. Their creamy tortellini is rich and miles better than the one time I tried to make fresh ravioli with my ex-boyfriend and ended up kicking the oven. No one here has kicked an oven yet. Niche, unpretentious, really good at making pasta – this place has outdone me and it’s not even 12 yet.

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A pasta dish at Ruby's Cafe.
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The owner, who is not Ruby???????

Already feeling a little shook at my first attempt at confronting the competition, my photographer and I make moves to leave. The owner of Ruby’s, who has been chatting to us during our visit, requests a photo. Then he recommends we take one of the chef. I’m sorry but...is this piece now about him? The audacity. The confidence. This is big Ruby energy and I respect it

Taking notes on what I’ve learned (pivot harder to pasta), it’s time for our next stop: an ice cream stand in Kings Cross. Ruby Violet is an independent ice cream and sorbet producer with two locations in north London. On first inspection, the whole “cutesy” Boden vibe it’s going for is really not me, but I decide to keep an open mind.

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Cinnamon and salted caramel ice cream at Ruby Violet.

When we arrive, having just consumed a large amount of pasta before midday, I’m a bit taken aback by Ruby Violet’s brightly lit, very “HAPPY CHILDREN RUNNING AROUND A NORTH LONDON PARK” aesthetic. Despite this, God knows I have enjoyed making ice cream my personal brand: last year I became so obsessed by the dessert that I bought an ice cream maker so inconveniently sized that it has to live at my mum’s house for half the year. Ruby Violet, however, is too saccharine for me in brand and flavour. A giant neon sign bearing its name hangs from the wall (egotistical? fine. Sincere and colourful? minus points), and the desserts themselves are extremely sugary. I wolf down two scoops of salted caramel and cinnamon ice cream and move on with my research.

Next up is Ruby House, a Chinese takeaway on Bethnal Green Road. Takeaway food is through and through *me*. I feel blessed to live in a world that has produced such reliably moreish food, no matter how terrible it is. Sometimes, after ordering a salty veggie burger or chips after a night out or in the departure lounge of an airport, I can’t believe how lucky I am to be able to access addictive, shitty food like this from almost anywhere in the UK. I know I should probably tell you that it’s horrible for the environment, extremely unhealthy and exacerbating social divides in the UK, but my enjoyment of vinegary chips or crunchy spring rolls knows no bounds.

I am primed to learn a lot from Ruby House. How could I improve my Ruby fast food concept? How would the menu compare to other London Chinese takeaways? Would an endearingly scummy fast food joint with bright red plastic chairs affixed to the floor teach me more about the aesthetic of my brand?

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:'(

Unfortunately, while I am ready to learn, Ruby House is not willing to teach me. Shutters down and still closed an hour after it was meant to open, Ruby and Ruby House is not meant to be.

Right. Not wanting to give up on developing this brand identity, I decide to go off-piste. To think outside the box. As the guys in the “biz” would say, “take a bunch of coke and look at this from a different angle.” If Ruby’s House is closed...then I will go do Rudie’s, an almost incomparable jerk chicken spot. I will not be beset by the opening and closing times of London’s takeout community!

Ruby and Rudie may be close in name, but in concept, they are different beasts. My personal brand is largely “a vegetarian who is quite ambivalent to vegetables but still cares enough to be annoying about it” but Rudie’s’ menu of charred jerk chicken straight from the grill; wings doused in sweet, sticky sauce; and hot, curried goat with peas and rice is turning me. I panic. I order a pile of chicken wings, a vegan patty (??) and chips, and cover it in a punchy pepper sauce. I begin to question my brand – one that for a long time has avoided meat. Perhaps meat straight off the barbecue is my true calling? Have I been living my life all wrong? Who am I? My hands sticky with sauce, I tear more chicken off the bone, feel sad for the chicken, then eat a bit more. It’s a confusing time.

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Chips and a vegan patty from Rudie's.
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Jerk chicken wings from Rudie's.

Rudie's unashamedly carnivorous menu has uprooted me, making me wonder whether it's time to switch back to the brand of my younger self, who would bully relatives into buying them two cheeseburger Happy Meals at once. For years, I’ve avoided delicious tender ribs and fiery Kung Pao chicken, all for this righteous image of liking “the environment” and “the welfare of living things.” Ugh. What was I doing?

Shaken, I race to Ruby’s Bar in Dalston, a jazz bar hidden in a basement, to drink my identity conflicts into a hazy memory. At 4.30 PM, I already suspected it probably wouldn’t be open, but I am determined to relieve this identity crisis with the elixir of booze. The bar may be shut but luckily, it is situated right next to an offie, so I pop in to get a “Diane Abbott,” otherwise known as gin and tonic tinny, and sit on the steps of Ruby’s to reflect on the different iterations of Ruby I have encountered today.

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Having a tinny outside Ruby's Bar in Dalston.

I wanted to improve my personal brand, but really I’ve been confronted by the multi-faceted nature of our identity: proof that humans are filled with many conflicting aspects and cannot be reduced to one, cohesive brand. Maybe I want to be a Lush face wash-loving vegetarian who also happens to know everything about fish and chips? Maybe I love chickens, but I also love...to eat chickens?

Perhaps there is no cohesive “Ruby.” Identity, it seems, is just more complicated than that. (If this kind of insight appeals to you, then I suggest you follow me on Instagram or Twitter to hear more about Ruby, the brand.)