Survive and Thrive

Grammercy-tavern New problems require new strategies; how about looking in the restaurant industry?

I was listening to WMHT today — our public television station — as the host interviewed Danny Meyer, the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) in New York City.

Like any good Italian, I am fascinated by all foods made with tomato sauce, but having spent summers with my Aunt Margie and her Elm Tree Restaurant in Martindale, NY, I am fairly well-versed in what makes a successful restaurant. In its hey-day during the 80’s, the restaurant seated 200 people — which was huge in those days.  Along with Aunt Margie as well as Aunt Margaret (who had a major pizza joint) and my dad (who reportedly had various restaurant dealings) food was a major part of my  life. It all hit home the day Aunt Margie told Uncle Tony in no uncertain terms the value of her chef, Tony, by saying "I can get a new husband quicker than I can get a new chef so leave him alone!"

The restaurant that she opened in Martindale was my Brooklyn-raised Aunt’s dream. A place in the country, a place for her friends and a place for good food. In the early 60’s, Aunt Margie and Uncle Tony bought an ice cream parlor in the middle of nowhere and eventually turned it into a famous restaurant in the area.

The important part of this whole story is the people came for two reasons: (1) the food and (2) to visit with the family. So, back to the interview with Meyer.

Meyer was asked if he was changing the food or the price of his food in his restaurants to help him get through the economic downturn. Meyer agreed that there were fewer people eating even less food and not ordering as many bottles of wine. In fact, people were buying glasses of wine as opposed to what he called the “trophy wines” – those big bottles for the tables.  But in answer to the question, he proposed two things to think about. I think these statements are essential for anyone who is contemplating his business fate.

  • Think about your behavior in the current economic environment. Do you really want to change the products that you are selling, or the price? Do you really want to change the success that you've had thus far to try something that may not make sense, including cheapening what you have to offer?

    Your loyal customers know who you are, so why scare them? If trust is a reason to buy or not buy, why start behaving erratically with your customers? If you don’t know who you are, why would anyone want to give you their money? At this point, stability is important for all businesses. No one wants to give their money to someone who isn’t stable.

  • The other statement was: think about how you want the current economic drought to end. Essentially, when this is all over (and the more I read and the more I listen it seems like 2010 is when things will start to change), where will you be and who will you be? Are you changing your whole business to become something so you can survive? Here we go, it’s the cash flow thing again. Shall I remind all business owners that cash flow isn’t profit and it’s profit that keeps us in business?

According to Meyer, hospitality is hope. People want to be with people and being out eating great food in a great restaurant makes us feel better. Look into Jack Mitchell's book “Hug Your Customers.” Mitchell has great stories about bonding and loving his customers.

Aren’t all businesses basically in the hospitality business? Many of our products look alike which makes price the only discernable difference. You know the game – if everything looks alike, price becomes the winner if you haven’t anything else to offer. Our society is all about experiences and destination shopping.

Don’t many of you have customers that just drop in and say hello and wish you well? How are you interacting with these customers? Do you just see them as problems, interrupting your day or are you involved in their lives, working for causes that are important to you and your community? I read that twice a week some employees of one of the USHG restaurants prepare and deliver food to patients at a hospice unit of Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan.

Are you asking customers how they are getting through the “big R” and if they have any ideas for your business?

I think Meyer’s book "Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business" is well worth a look, and his statement “hospitality is hope” is uplifting for all of us, with or without food.  A friend of mine, Mark, who owned a flooring store in Yonkers during the 70s, used to cook Italian food on Fridays and opened the door so everyone in the neighborhood could smell the garlic from his white clam sauce. I'm sure it brought in some business. If anything, people enjoyed it.

So, think about your approach to hospitality and your business. We’re all in this together. Now, I'm off to research USHG and pick out my next restaurant for my trip to NYC.

1 thought on “Survive and Thrive”

  1. I could smell the garlic frying.
    In tough times like these, I think that meals really are becoming the center of family time again.
    At our house, dinner is a joint production most nights and it is the time we catch up on our days events. It used to just be time to watch TV together, but I agree that is really is becoming the “circling of the wagons” or the return to “comfort smells” from childhood.
    I really enjoy your blog. I can always relate, and even more times, learn from your experiences.

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