Monday, November 30, 2009

The Brick Wall

If, while seated in a restaurant, you have ever found yourself thinking about ‘what would really make this place work’ then I beg you to start reading very, very carefully. The door of a restaurant is like a transporter that magically beams you into the world of the restauranteur. Upon beaming through you see the restauranteur planting a flag emblazoned with the restaurant logo. It’s a nice enough flag but you notice that the logo isn’t symmetrical. It occurs to you that the restauranteur has made a silly little oversight so you decide to help out by pointing out this irregularity. “You know what would really make this place work,” you rhetorically say, continuing, “a more symmetrical logo.”

Now this seems like an innocent suggestion but you are deeply hurt when the restauranteur glares at you and gruffly remarks, “Thanks. I can’t imagine what I would ever do without you.” You wonder how this terrible person, who is so fortunate as to own her own restaurant, could be so ungrateful. The one detail that you are forgetting, however, is that all you had to do to get there was open the door and step through. The restauranteur, on the other hand, has just completed months of planning, investing, delegating jobs and reading regulations - only to finally arrive in Nepal, ascend Mt. Everest, and pull out a flag that was printed months earlier by a graphic artist who is apparently visually impaired. The magic door you just stepped through doesn’t exist for the restauranteur, except perhaps when it has been purchased at an exorbitant cost from a corporate franchise. The restauranteur has had to endure a much longer journey to arrive at your meeting and going back to fix trivial details is often much more arduous that you might realize.

Even after the restaurant is running, there is an endless stream of sales reps phoning, sending faxes and walking in the door in the middle of a lunch rush hoping to find the restauranteur with some idle time. There are customers demanding food, detailing their complaints, and making suggestions. There is staff who didn’t show up, others that think they weren’t correctly paid last month, and one who needs to describe a remarkably personal problem in nauseous detail. There are bills to be paid, orders to be sent, and perishables that need to be put on special. It’s important to run through a checklist of the checklists that each staff member is supposed to have checked and then check that they didn’t just check off the items without doing the work. All in all, there will be 10 to 14 hours of work to do on every single day and that’s a best case scenario where none of the equipment breaks down, the restauranteur doesn’t have to start waiting tables personally, and auditors aren’t lined up in the lobby. “Why not take a few hours to design custom floral centerpieces for the tables? That would really make this place work.”

This is not a list of complaints but, rather, an explanation as to why the average restauranteur might not seem terribly excited about your suggestions. It is the job of the restauranteur to manage all the chaos behind the scenes in order to provide the customer with a comfortable, relaxing environment in which to dine. Unfortunately there are a few too many customers who mistake this relaxing atmosphere as being the world in which the restauranteur does business. If this seems hard to believe then I suggest you start counting the number of times you see the owner of a busy restaurant sitting peacefully in the dining area, sampling the chef’s latest proposals for the menu, while serenely pondering various autumnal colour palettes that might create an even more relaxing atmosphere.

The most intelligent suggestion ever made by a customer in my bistro was that I put up large flat-screen video displays that played a slide show of various menu items. Large posters of food definitely boost sales, if only the time can be found to combine an empty restaurant, freshly prepared entrees, and a professional photographer. The hardware required for multiple digital posters running through a slideshow, however, would cost thousands and thousands of dollars up front without knowing that the added cost would produce greater added sales. In the end it is far more cost efficient to stick with the oldest and most proven marketing trick used in the food service industry; free samples.

The most ridiculous suggestion ever made by a customer in my bistro was that I strategically place several scuba attired mannequins throughout the dining room. The customer who suggested this cited a very successful seafood restaurant in Vancouver that had successfully employed this tactic. I won’t even begin to analyze this suggestion.

The most perplexing suggestions ever made by customers in my bistro came from born-and-raised Humbuggers. As with their analysis of hockey, they had an incredible knack for stating the obvious as though it were some sort of epiphany. Trying to change the preconceived notions of Humbuggers was like beating my head against a brick wall.

One day a rather sophisticated-looking Humbug woman walked into the bistro. When I describe her as a sophisticated-looking Humbug woman, what I mean to say is that she wasn’t wearing rubber boots. She walked up to the register and ordered an English toffee latte.

“I don’t have English toffee syrup,” I explained, “but I have a very good caramel.”

“You’re out of English toffee?” she asked.

“Actually I don’t carry English toffee.”

“But you’ve ALWAYS had English toffee,” she proclaimed.

“No, I’ve never had English toffee.”

“I have been having English toffee lattes here for years!” she exclaimed.

“No, I’m sorry. You are thinking of the Humbug Coffee House.”

“This IS the Humbug Coffee House.”

“No, this is the Humbug Bistro. It used to be the Humbug Coffee House, but they closed almost a year ago.”

“This is the Humbug Coffee House. I come here almost every week and have an English toffee latte. What kind of game are you playing with me?” she demanded.

“I assure you, ma’am, that you do not come here almost every week and have an English toffee latte. The Humbug Coffee House closed almost a year ago now. I opened up three months ago and this is now the Humbug Bistro and I have never seen you before,” I explained, becoming impatient.

“Why did the coffee house close?” she asked.

“I assume because the most regular customers only came in once per year.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” she blurted.

“Well, you think you are a regular, but you haven’t been here for at least ten months.”

“This town needs a coffee house!” she proclaimed.

“Apparently not,” I retorted.

“Well you should put up a sign that this isn’t a coffee house anymore!”

“The canopy says Humbug Bistro,” I explained.

“But I was on the sidewalk. I didn’t see the canopy.

“Every pane of glass has a full width, one foot high, yellow strip that says ‘bistro’.”

“I didn’t notice. You should put a sign on the sidewalk.”

“You mean like the sandwich board you stepped around to get in here?”

She looked back out the front door and seemed legitimately surprised to see a sandwich board on the sidewalk. I could see the steel spring that was her Humbug mind under great tension as she tried to reconcile the duality of my bistro existing where the coffee shop still existed in her psyche. A vein began to bulge in her forehead and, fearing that she might have an aneurism, I interjected,

“Would you like to try a caramel latte?”

She agreed. As she sipped her caramel latte I could tell that she was becoming more comfortable. Eventually she slipped into a very thoughtful expression and then it happened. Her mouth opened and out poured those dreaded words, “You know what would really make this place work?” I took a deep breath and found the courage to ask.

“What would really make this place work?”

“You need to advertise that this is a bistro now.”

“You mean like the 27 feet of signage outside the repeats the word ‘bistro’ 5 times?”

“Well people here don’t know what a bistro is. You need to tell them there is food here.”

“You mean like the 10 signs in the window indicating today’s specials and the waffles?”

She showed no indication of embarrassment at having missed at least 33 square feet of signage and just continued to bend the steel spring in her cranium. Looking for something that I had obviously missed, she finally hit upon an idea.

“You need to put up a menu of all the food you sell,” she announced.

“Like the one in the foyer, or on the wall beside you, or by the cash register?”

“Well,” she said, further bending that spring, “you should advertise in the paper.”

“Ma’am, this town only has a few thousand people. Several dozen of them knew what colour I was painting the back hall even before I opened the doors – they had a great discussion about it at the hardware store. I’ve had no fewer than fifty people apply for jobs here and, as near as I can tell, they are directly related to at least half of the population. How can anyone not know that there is a new business here? If they have driven down Main Street and haven’t seen the new canopy or the 27 foot long banner across the windows then how big would the newspaper have to be to run an add large enough for them to notice?”

“Well you could put a picture up of your food. You should have a poster outside like at the movie theatre so they can see the food you have. Have you ever thought of that?”

“Actually, it had occurred to me that the people of Humbug might be somewhat unresponsive to printed words. I’ll give the picture idea serious consideration.”

She beamed quite proudly about having solved my problem. After all it was, admittedly, quite the accomplishment for this illiterate dolt to have surmised that the other illiterate, backward, inbred hicks might need me to draw them a picture. The only problem left for me was that not only did I not know how to draw a picture of a ‘sammich’ but I also didn’t plan on adding Velveeta to the menu.

Lyle Duerr was often generous enough to share his profound business insight with me. I was always eager to get retail marketing tips from a man who didn’t want to expand the traffic in his store so I paid his advice great heed. He was often the first coffee row leech to arrive and often took the time we had alone in the store to analyze my business tactics with me.

“You know, Heather,” he began, one morning, “I won’t claim to know your business but I think there is something you should know.”

This was his way of saying, “You know what would really make this place work?” I so loved his original format that I was compelled to acquire his input. “What’s that, Lyle?” I asked.

“You seem to be a lot more experienced in business than the last owner but I have to tell you that he was a lot more attentive to his customers.”

“Not to kick a dead horse Lyle, but there was no last owner. I bought the furniture from the coffee shop but I didn’t buy the business. We just both happened to lease the same location.”

“Well there you go again about this not being a coffee shop anymore. There are already enough restaurants in this town and you’re not going to make it until you accept that this is the town coffee shop – no matter what you call it.”

“Thanks, Lyle, but as you said, I have a lot more experience in business than the coffee shop owner. The numbers on this place require daily sales of at least $800 for it to be a viable going concern. There just aren’t enough people in town to do that volume in coffee. That’s why there isn’t a coffee shop in town anymore.”

“You wouldn’t need that much in sales if you didn’t have any staff. You wouldn’t need any staff if you stopped serving food. If you focused on coffee you could work alone and keep just about every penny that goes into the register.”

“There are two problems there, Lyle. The first one is that I wouldn’t get to keep just about every penny that goes into the register. The second one is that the coffee house DID focus on just coffee and had a negative cash flow the entire time it was in operation. The volume just isn’t there in Humbug.”

“But he was only open about 40 hours per week. If you stayed open from eight in the morning to about ten at night, seven days a week, you could easily double his volume and actually make money.”

“Let me see if I have this straight: Fire all my staff and run the place by myself for 98 hours per week?” I sneered.

“Exactly!” he exclaimed.

Apparently Lyle had never heard of the only word in the English language that uses each and every vowel once, and only once, and in alphabetical order: Facetious. He actually seemed to think that the cost of goods on coffee was zero. I’m not sure where he thought the cream came from – perhaps he thought that I squeezed it from my left tit. He must have thought that the sugar rained down from my happy thoughts and that a cup fairy made daily deliveries. I have no idea why I never thought of running the store by myself for 98 hours per week.

Only a week later I was pleasantly surprised when I walked into his hardware store to pick up some plumbing parts for my dishwasher that, according to his proposed business model, never required repairs. In the center of his store there were two pallets of big red plastic jars containing a value brand of coffee grounds. I made my way back towards his throne, trying my best to appear lost amongst his merchandise.

Now I say I made my way back towards his thrown because all three of the Duerr businessmen in town had created, for themselves, thrones within their stores. This isn’t to say that they sat upon gold and jewel encrusted high backed chairs, but rather they built these ridiculous turrets from which they could survey their mighty retail empires. Entering any of their stores you could find them perched on high in obviously homemade platforms, cheaply finished with painted plywood fences. Mike Duerr’s store was the silliest, for the ceiling wasn’t nearly as high as his brothers’ stores, so he actually had to duck down as he mounted his thrown to keep from bumping his head.

As I passed beneath Lyle’s thrown he leaned down and acknowledged my position beneath him by offering assistance.

“Can I help you find anything, Heather?”

“Well, I was kind of thinking about that coffee you have up front.”

“What for?” he asked.

“To sell in my restaurant, of course.”

“Don’t you sell sort of fancy coffee?”

“Yeah, but since it barely costs anything I figured you’ld give me a pallet of that crap for free.”

The look on his face was priceless. He never again suggested that my cost of goods on coffee was zero.