It’s Always about Butts in the Seats
Owning or managing a restaurant is tough stuff. For all the things that you are responsible for: the menu, prep, inventory, safety aspects, health aspects, constant cleanliness, temperature monitoring, dining room ambiance, staff…there’s so much stuff. The bottom line is -it’s really all about butts in the seats: if customers come, you are successful -you win. If they don’t come, sooner or later, you shut down -you lose.
In the real world of independents versus national chains, the independents (delis, restaurants, bakeries) have been getting it handed to them by the chains. This has been most felt in restaurants, where in the past, the average owner would plan on doing enough business during the week to cover his overhead and make his profit on weekends. Gradually, Friday nights, then Saturdays became part of the “overhead days,” making profits weak at best. Owners are often counting on “slammer” weekends to just break even.
How can you protect your business and grow it in this tough climate where there are lots of competitors who are trying to chip away at your rock-solid foundation? Have no doubt -there are. Those who are holding their own know that there are no single answers, no single silver bullets, but lots of things that need to be done and done well…one at a time. There are lots of i’s to dot and t’s to cross. Your primary responsibility is to protect the business that you have…that is your foundation. Protect your foundation but don’t be reckless. We all have trouble accepting it, but there will always be some customers whose needs and desires are not a good match with our capabilities and fares. You will always be too tart for some, too sweet for others: too casual for some, too fancy for others. Is it worth it to gain one customer at the expense of losing three or four others? No. You can’t be everybody’s favorite restaurant.
Ultimately, our businesses are either growing or getting smaller. No matter how loyal we might think our customers are; we are going to lose some. All customers are temporary -so are we. On a regular basis, you will have regulars who move, or die, or God forbid, decide to take up with a competitor.
There are only two ways to maintain and grow your business: 1) keep your current customers, and 2) find new customers. All successful restaurant people have a pretty good grasp of what they need to do to keep their regulars coming back. Not many are very good at marketing for new customers. Yeah, word of mouth, but the problem with word of mouth is that when you do things extremely well, one of eight will tell about it. When you or your crew screws something up, more than half of your patrons will spread the word. (It’s more fun to talk about bad stuff.) So unless you are artistically and technically perfect, word of mouth is going to be a wash at best.
Not that long ago, marketing our restaurants was pretty simple. In those olden days, we would put one ad in the yellow pages, occasionally throw an ad in the newspaper, and if we really wanted to get high tech, we would place a radio or TV ad. Then came the Internet and almost everything changed.
On the internet, doing it right will cost some money: doing it wrong will cost a lot more money, time, and customers. Between social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter…), sites that compile and strategically distribute email, sites that give reviews, services that do on-line crew scheduling, and ones that get bad reviews removed: there are so many options to choose from, there are so many different directions one could go. You don’t have a big budget. What to do?
Find a few people who stay current on these things, people that you trust: maybe an employee or a customer, and get some advice. Or, you can try to do it yourself, and you might be successful. But doesn’t it make sense to spend your time focusing on your area of expertise –running a restaurant? Bottom line is: more butts in seats and you win, not enough and you lose.
You know all about all this stuff, so smile at your youngest “geekiest” employee, they might have the key. Now get back into the kitchen and have some fun cooking more frigg’n peas.
Man who live in glass house should change clothes in basement.
Man with one chopstick go hungry.
—-Proverbs found in Chinese Fortune Cookies
There are so many ways to lose money in a restaurant and so few ways to turn a profit. Above and beyond food costs, there are loads of things that can bury us. Although many fail in this industry, many do very well over long periods of time. We expect to do well, that’s why we are here. But we are not where we thought we would be. What’s the secret? Where’s that magic bullet?
Location helps, but many succeed in very unlikely places. Talent helps, but everybody has some sort of talent. Hard work is a given: win, lose or draw and you are going to put in some serious hours. What’s the answer?
Unfortunately, the cash register is the best score keeper. It’s a direct reflection of how your customers are reacting to your value proposition. This value prop is everything you offer your customers: menu, service, quality, quantity, taste, smell, feel…all the ambiance and nuances you serve up at the price you charge. When something is out of kilter, you know about it every time you cash out. (i.e. there are hungry people in your market area that have chosen to eat elsewhere.)
Yes, you can blame it on the economy, the neighborhood, the taxes, or the road construction. These situations do affect our business. These are things that you need to respond to. No, do not react to them. Reacting is knee-jerking: responding comes from the head. A response contains some thought, a plan and contingencies. Solutions to the low numbers at the cash register need to come from your head and won’t come from a knee-jerk.
Many owners/managers, if not most will choose to blame the economy or some other uncontrollable factor. Getting the blame out of your head is the most difficult part. Once you find some answers, un-puzzle some solutions, -then your attitude and your energy will spark your recovery.
Nothing is more depressing than an owner listing eight or ten reasons for failing as they weep in their beer. These people want so badly to be right about their reasons for failing that they are ready to prove it with their life savings. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, “I told you we couldn’t overcome those obstacles.” You just bet your booties you couldn’t and you won the right to lose all of your money. Oh gee.
It’s only you that can differentiate your restaurant from the competitors. It’s you that has to make the critical decisions. Yes, a good part of your menu should be “me-too,” a version of the items that are popular in your area. Additionally, there really needs to be something that represents who you are, what your passions are, and perhaps dishes that you believe you or your staff prepare as well as or better than anyone else on the planet.
As independents, this is how we win. We outperform the competitors in more areas than they can outperform us, then we deliver something different …something extra that only you and your team can bring.
If you think you can win, -you will probably win, -and vice-versa. Yes, in addition to all the other things that you are required to cram into that grey matter between your ears, that head of yours has to get a look at what is going on in the rest of the industry. How can you outperform your competitors if you don’t even know what they do?
Get an objective, outside (not your cousin’s wife’s brother) opinion, because no one’s brain can be objective about what they spend all of their time doing. Spend a few bucks on a consult: most professionals will give you a free proposal which in itself will be illuminating: – don’t be foolish, be wise.
Try to imagine that there is a huge balcony surrounding your business. From that balcony, you could see everything going on and know what everyone was thinking, -from the customers and potential customers to the staff. This balcony view is going to give you a different perspective. That view will help you find the magic that’s in that head of yours. Leave the blinders on and you just won’t find it.
Nobody ever said it was supposed to be easy. It ain’t. You really know all this stuff, that’s why I’m reminding you about it. Now get back in the kitchen and fix the frigg’n dishwasher and get back to cooking some more frigg’n peas.
You can’t expect to win unless you know why you lose. —Benjamin Lipson
Tell us your phobias and we will tell you what you are afraid of. —Robert BenchlyRead More
True to Herself
We’ve heard them all: “The customer is the #1 concern.” “We care about the customer.” “The customer comes first.” “The customer is always right.” -They have all become clichés; they have become all but meaningless words. “Thank you,” more often than not means “sign on the dotted line and move along so I can go do my next task.” “Care” is handed out as casually as sugar packets are, with as much concern and attention. The words have lost their meaning.
In 1974, with my new B.A. degree in hand, the only job that I could land was driving a trash truck for a private contractor under a municipal contract. This was during an economic time very similar to one we are currently experiencing. Richard Nixon was President, gasoline prices had recently tripled, and jobs were few and far between. My “class2”trucker’s license was more valuable than my B.A., and not very valuable at that. I picked trash by day, waited tables at night. I usually had time for a quick nap in-between jobs.
Ines de Costa was the restaurant boss. Her husband Manny held the title, but Ines was the boss. She talked a tough game at first: -only smoke in the wait staff area, no smoking in the dining room, only one drink per shift, and we could only order a sandwich for ourselves when our last table had been served.
In reality, we ordered whatever we felt like eating, whenever we wanted to eat, had 2-4 drinks a night, and smoked wherever we felt like smoking. Once in a while, Ines would make noise, but she loved her crew, treated the guys like sons, and we could do no wrong. She cared for her staff, she cared for her customers, and was passionate about them all being well-fed.
There will always be a few independent restaurants, delis or food places that break all the rules and do many things wrong: yet they manage to succeed over long periods of time. These are rare and special places, always run by unusually gifted people. There is always a certain passion present in these places and their followers become cult-like.
Ines’s mission …her passion, was to feed people until they were stuffed, -then get them to eat some more. Not that all of her dishes were great, some were just okay…but two of her dishes were without peer and won her fame. Her Baccala: Portuguese style dried cod, was smothered with onions, olive oil and whatever else she magically put into that concoction. Her Caldo Verde, they called it “Sopa Caldene” and we called it Portuguese soup: it was Emeril Lagasse’s choice for the best thing he ever ate on the show of the same name.
Yes, Emeril had her on his show a few times and filmed his last show partly from her place. Ines was his first kitchen boss and his “second mother.” Maybe he is biased on the soup. I don’t think so.
Ines could have written the book on how not to run a restaurant. Portion control was a joke. There was no discipline, yet work got done, everybody pitched in…one person slacked, somebody else picked it up, -it worked. Every vendor wanted to sell to Ines, she paid her bills –early. She’d beat the salesperson for 10 cents a case, then feed them a meal and give them a doggy bag large enough to feed their family when they got home. If a priest or a cop came into the restaurant, the portions grew even larger: ditto for politicians and morticians. She liked being connected to the higher powers.
Well into her seventies, Ines worked six days a week and donated her time to a soup kitchen on the seventh. Her body was bent and frail from the long hours on her feet in the kitchen: her mind was strong, her will was stronger and her passion to feed more people never waned. She didn’t say she cared and she didn’t throw around meaningless thank-you’s: her actions outperformed her words. She was always the genuine article; there was never any doubt about it.
I attended Ines’s funeral mass last Friday. The church was packed like a busy Saturday night. Eight chubby priests co-celebrated the mass. Her daughter, also Ines, beautifully eulogized her. At the end of the ceremony, the congregation gave Ines her last standing ovation, a loud boisterous one, a seemingly unending one, then went for one last time to eat Sopa Caldene- though not as good as hers. When it’s all over, and it will be for all of us, what more could one ask for?
You know all about this stuff, you’re in the industry. Now get back into the kitchen and cook some more frigg’n Caldo Verde.
This above all—to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
The Perfect Mix
Yes, the restaurant looks great: it’s clean, it’s inviting, and it’s comfortable. Lighting is just right and conversations can be had without whispering or screaming. The parking lot has easy access from the street, the lot is well-lit, and parking spaces are well laid out. The menu seems to be iron-clad: tried and tested. Yet, the customers are staying away in droves. Sales are struggling to reach half of what was originally planned.
I now live near Boston. I was born and raised, and lived most of my life in this area. Of course I’m a Red Sox fan. This year, the Red Sox were predicted to win it all: they had all the pieces in place. Before the season, optimism was so high that many were saying that this could be one of the great teams of all time. They failed to make the playoffs. They failed to execute. They failed to perform. What should we do when seemingly, we have all the pieces in place and it’s just not gelling?
It happens in baseball and it happens in restaurants. Watching this team was like watching Jell-O: all the ingredients seemed right, but early on it was obvious that it wasn’t gelling -some more ingredients were added -it seemed to be working, but came apart when things warmed up.
How many restaurants and concepts seemed to have all the right ingredients, yet never really come together? The 2004 Red Sox weren’t gelling, so around mid-season they traded the best shortstop that they ever had and replaced him with a journeyman second-tier infielder. From mid-season on that year, they played as a team and went on to win their first World Series in eighty-six years.
pectin [PEHK-tihn] ..this substance is used for its thickening properties in the preparation of jams, jellies, Jell-O….. Pectin only works properly when mixed with the correct balance of sugar and acid. (Food Lover’s Companion)
How the frig are we supposed to find the proper chemistry in human beings, the “correct balance of sugar and acid,” among the teams we assemble? We have managers, chefs, kitchen help, wait staff and bar staff: all focused on one objective.
Or are they all focused on their own objectives? There are no easy answers here. It is easy to point fingers. When things go awry fingers will get pointed all over the place. Ultimately it is usually the person who made the staffing decisions who owns the responsibility: that’s normally the person with the checkbook.
Yes, there are a million ways to lose money in the restaurant business. Maybe the Red Sox might have helped us become aware of one. Of course you know all this stuff. Now stop dillydallying and smile your way back into the kitchen and cook some more frigg’n peas.
Life is like a grindstone: whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends on
what you are made of. — anonRead More
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