The Minds Behind the James Beard Award-Winning MP Shift

The Minds Behind the James Beard Award-Winning MP Shift

Behind every visionary restaurant, hotel or establishment, there’s a real-life visionary, or two. Meet Amy Morris and Anna Polonsky, the powerhouse pair that comprises The MP Shift. Call them creative directors, and also call them catalysts, coaches and executors. With mutual backgrounds in marketing and hospitality, they were friends for 10 years before forming their New York City-based business partnership. Now they apply their knack for seeing the big picture to defining visions, shaping brand identities and taking spaces from standard to singular. Amy and Anna count restaurants like Acme, Annex and Maiden Lane, as well as Google’s buzz-worthy Lower East Side pop-up among their clients. The duo's most acclaimed project, however, is arguably the NYC restaurant De Maria, whose design just earned The MP Shift a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant Design. 

PRØHBTD spoke with Morris and Polonsky about the future of dispensaries, the New York restaurant scene and what turns a place into a destination.

You make a point of stating on your website that you “deliberately avoid a signature style,” which is interesting and also wise.

AM: We collaborate with the restauranteurs, hoteliers and dispensary entrepreneurs to help them bring their vision to life and make sure it’s communicated clearly throughout the space and their branding. Then when guests visit their property or eat their food, they identify with that brand and understand the personality behind it all.

What is the most important thing you bring to a space?

AP: We understand the importance of a narrative. Owners might have the seed of a concept or a menu, but they have not given thought to the whole story. Hospitality entrepreneurs waste money and energy when key pieces of the story are not being told. You can have great food, but if the space looks like shit or if the press talks about it in a way that doesn’t match, it’s a big missed opportunity. We bring them relevance and cohesion by making sure every piece is on-brand.

Not to be too literal, but do you see a place as telling a story?

AP: Absolutely. You could be serving Brazilian food but is your space folkloric or hip or focused on women? We help define the story for the space and ensure it's represented authentically.

AM: We work with all kinds of brands, spaces and personalities, but chefs in particular have recently become big influencers and big lifestyle brands. That’s happened so quickly, I don’t think they realize that, as a brand, they need to execute everything in a cohesive way. They’re used to focusing on a menu and that’s that. When we started, people were surprised we worked with teams from A to Z—that we could help with the concept, build their visual identity, and translate it to the interiors.

AP: The thing with food is anyone can have an opinion, which is why it goes so viral. I think we also bring chefs and owners confidence. In New York, everyone wants to have a certain look. For a moment, it was the Brooklyn aesthetic. Then it was more L.A. Whether it’s a Thai restaurant or coffee shop owner, they want to have the same look, so it’s our role to give them confidence and say, "You need to embrace who you are."

AM: We also find the rise of cannabis dispensaries to be interesting because now they're opening everywhere and very few are thinking about the narrative. I’ve been to two dispensaries: One in San Francisco that felt like a seedy dive bar and one in Seattle that felt like a hospital.

Dispensary owners should create spaces that are relaxing and foster an easy dialogue between consumer and seller. It’s like creating the ultimate wine shop, but weed is more interesting. We’re starting to talk to a lot of dispensary owners, including ones in New York who are anticipating legalization. It’s starting to bubble up and we want owner to know they can come to us to create an engaging narrative that will make them a staple in their industry.

Tell me about the project you did with Google a few years back. 

AM: They wanted to bring more awareness to their product Google Translate. So they thought, "Why don’t we do a pop-up restaurant?" But they didn’t know how to create the narrative around a pop-up restaurant, so they came to us. We recruited 18 chefs from around the world, each representing a different language within the translate app.

AP: It was called Small World. The menus were in different languages and the wait staff wasn’t speaking English, so customers had to use the app to translate. It recreated the experience of traveling when you don’t know what’s going on.

Does most of your work come from word of mouth?

AP: Initially, work came from word of mouth, but a lot has come from press. A big press moment came from The MP Shift pop-up at Rockaway Taco in The Rockaways. The chef had left, but the shack was still there, so its owner David Selig asked us to take over for the summer and re-create the story. We decided it was going to be about Latin America, so we redesigned the space to feel colorful & artistic and curated a lineup of top Latin chefs from the City.

Across the street, at a sister location, was a tropical garden and here we hosted dinners for big brands, yoga gatherings from Wanderlust, collaborated with Greta Gerwig on a weekly movie night under the palm trees, and more!

AM: The Taco Shack was so daggy-looking at first. We identified a Latin artist we liked, took a couple of his images and wallpapered the exterior with those images in very bright colors.

It’s funny how the Rockaways has kind of become “the place.” What do you have going on now?

AP: Right now we’re designing three spaces in the city. One is a coffee shop in Nolita that’s going to be the flagship location. We’re working on a new high-end salad bar in Flatiron. They’re disrupting the way the line system works. You know how stressful it is when you have to give all your ingredients and run?

I always feel like such a dork ordering salads like that.

AP: Exactly. They found that everyone feels terrible! It’s fun for us to work with anyone who tries to disrupt anything. We have projects across the board, from low to high.We’re also working with an iconic hotel in midtown... The Plaza Hotel.

I’ve heard of it! Do you have any favorite restaurants?

AM: For a long time, I’ve loved Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn. They did an amazing job on the design and food, and they’re lovely people. A new favorite is Karasu in Ft. Greene, an intimate jewel box of a speakeasy in Ft. Greene.

AP: Love the creativity at Mission Chinese, my local. And then many more places! We say the service is sometimes more important than the chef. If you have great food, but you’re treated like shit, which happens a lot in New York, you don’t want to go back.

AM: The same goes for dispensaries. There’s a lot to think about when it comes to dispensaries: the flow, the service, how the design communicates the product. It’s not just a straight sale. Business is booming,and there’s going to be more and more competition, so you want to stand out. We’d love to elevate the dispensary experience and create a standard that makes everyone rethink how it's done.

Do you have any other fantasy projects?

AP: We’d like to do more hotels, for sure.

AM: A third space that maybe has a café, dispensary, cheese shop, and co-working a space. Spaces where people would stop for lunch, do a little work, and then pick up their wine, cheese and marijuana before they go home. We’re finding that great neighborhood cafés become communities. Co-living communities are a rising trend, people share kitchens and living rooms. We’d also like to do more projects in L.A. We were out there last year talking with a lot of chefs and dispensaries.

AP: L.A. is definitely up-and-coming right now as far as food and lifestyle. It’s always been known for street food, but it’s much newer than New York as far as the young, hip, indie restaurants. There’s a lot to do as far as concepts.

AM: We'd also love to help cannabis entrepreneurs with their advertising, currently every ad looks like their selling boring utilitarian products. I guarantee we'll increase their products exposure if they work with The MP Shift on their next ad. Eventually the industry will make the shift, we'd like to help lead it.

Speaking of concepts, where do you get most of your inspiration?

AM: A lot of our projects are inspired by cities we’ve visited and the cafés and colors in those cities. When we were in Berlin, we had two breakfasts, two lunches, and two dinners, every day, so we could see as much as possible. We’ll also try to find our way to the garment or antique district, so we can really get to know that city. We love Antigua, Guatemala. It’s affordable, it’s easy, it’s safe, it’s colorful, and has great shopping, especially textiles.

It must be so gratifying to see a space come to fruition.

AM: It can also be really surprising. We did a space in Clinton Hill. It was rushed, but in two months, we transformed the space with simple tricks and support from a team of artist. We didn't expect much attention from a small cafe but it’s become a huge success. Chefs, food writers, and investors all talk about it. The space, Tilda, was recently featured in Wallpaper magazine.

AP: In the end, it’s not about us. It’s about the clients. We always make a point it’s about the client’s brand, not The MP Shift brand or style. A lot of designers fail because they want to make sure it’s their vision. That’s not the point. Our vision is to best represent the client’s vision. We’re always open to new ideas.

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