Issue 29

Staying Cool

Staying Cool

“Change is inevitable ~ growth is an option…” Anonymous

No one seems to like change, unless it involves someone else changing. And no one likes to see the things that they have grown accustomed to change. But no one likes to be bored either, it seems, and in business there is a fine line between what has been, what is, and what needs to be.

With that in mind, my editor recently asked me to put some thoughts to the question of how a restaurant, or any business for that matter, stays relevant and progressive for a prolonged period of time without losing its soul and its base. It is a hard question to answer, and one I struggle with on a daily basis. But over the three plus decades that I have been in the restaurant business, I have come to see and learn a lot about what works, what doesn’t and what I have absolutely no answer for.

We live in an interesting time, where change and modernity are as constant as winds on the prairie. Competition is fierce, and the “new shiny thing” is always on the horizon with million dollar advertising budgets poised to swoop in on your customer base. So how does a business stay up to date (let alone be progressive) without alienating its current base, in an effort to attract a new and expanding clientele? It is a delicate balance to say the least, but for those who do not try, who stay entrenched in the ideas that worked for them “yesterday” there is a dire consequence awaiting them. Boredom. Boredom by their clientele, their staff, and even their own minds. And in my experience, any of these can spell disaster for a business.

Creativity is at the heart of all entrepreneurship, and essential to the ongoing relevance of any concern. But like all things, too much of a good thing is really just a bad thing in disguise. The overly tinkered with menu becomes a lesson in futility for the customer, just as neglected new trends send the tried and true clientele to the newest venture on the block out of sheer curiosity. Again, the question, how does the small business continue to grow, but not out grow itself or its clientele?

The answer is complicated, but can be simplified by none other than Einstein’s theory that no problem can be solved by the same thinking that caused the problem in the first place. So the real issue is in identifying what is or is not a problem to begin with. Many people complicate their mission when the answer is really right in front of them. (I speak from experience!) Over the years I have learned to listen to many different concerned opinions, valuable insights and negative comments alike. In the end I have grown to trust my instincts, not my critics. It boils down to balance. If you have too many voices pulling you in too many directions, there is no focus, no clear direction. On the other hand, stubborn defiance gets met with no voices left in the building at all. Leadership is about making tough decisions at the hard time, and only instinct and experience can cushion the pain of experimenting.

That being said, there are times that any owner must go outside the comfort zone of staff, friends and loyal customer base to identify solutions to problems known and unknown. The easiest problems to solve are the ones you know about. Then comes the ones you don’t know about, but can see once they have been revealed. Harder yet are the issues people are trying to get you to see, but you can’t…yet. Fatal are the problems everyone but you can see, but you refuse to address. It has been very crucial to me and my staff to listen to the right balance of trusted observers, through well timed comment cards, hand picked focus groups, follow- up phone calls with yesterday’s guests and keenly honed radar for the well intentioned critique. But through it all, the staff and the owner really must be the ones to use their collective instincts to make a plan, and then work the plan.

It may be even harder to keep innovation and motivation at their peak when sales are strong. Yogi Berra’s famous line “Nobody goes there any more…it’s too crowded” kind of sums it up. There can be a collective complacency that occurs when it appears that the line at the door is always going to be there, and it is the worst kind of trap. I have found it to be easier to identify why people aren’t coming through the doors than why they are, crazy as that sounds. Tying to keep a staff in humility when the phones are ringing off the hook can be a chore, but the alternative is unspeakable ~ arrogance and aloofness. And usually the tone is set from the top down, so it is always important that the owners and managers have someone trusted to keep egos in check. No one should be in the position to “grade their own test”…that is just bad policy.

In the interest of brevity, I will try to break down the things I have seen work, those that don’t and then leave you with some things I haven’t a clue about, which may end up being the longest list.

I am sure of one thing. That is, that in order to be successful it is imperative that there be passion and a drive for excellence in the leadership of any going concern. Complacency kills even the oldest and most established business, and no amount of advertising and public relations can make up for a neglected business plan, whether it be menu, training or new and updated products or services. Another assuredness is flexibility. Things change. It’s a law of nature. (See the opening sentence…).A business that is agile in the face of rapid movement in their respective industry shows foresight, bravado and willingness to persevere. The alternative is arrogance and defiance, whereby the customer base sees an unwilling partner in the business owner to compete in the ever changing stage of new ideas. This is an attitude that will bring any business to its knees swiftly and must be avoided at all costs.

More subtle is the idea that you must get good professional advice, and have a way to keep learning and studying yourself. When managers are less informed than the workers they supervise, there is a lack of trust and respect from the most important people in the business…the ones who talk to the customers directly. Whether this takes shape in the form of continuing education in a formal setting or a looser knit group of like-minded professionals who meet regularly to discuss problem solving precepts, I find it invaluable to continue to find ways to practice self study and be updated regularly in my field of endeavor.

I’ll conclude this installment with some thoughts I have about a few things I have no answer for. Like how do you predict who your clientele will be? It seems to me that your clientele almost picks you. It is then up to you to decide to keep them as they are, or to try to mold them into something different, but that can be a tricky business. People today are rather fickle, and want the ability to buy the newest and best, but at the same time long for the comfortable and certain. Again, we are back to the concept of balance. Another mystery is why a business that has no visible plan makes it when another who seems to have so much going for it just simply goes under is beyond me. The first has poor to little training, an overpriced product and a “bad” location, while the other is armed with an educated sales force, competitive pricing, innovative products and killer visibility, to no avail. There is such a thing as bad timing, and just as unfortunate is being ahead of one’s time. These make it is very hard to predict why a concept that is working in neighboring communities isn’t working in yours, despite all of your best efforts. Being in business is life’s ultimate “craps” table, after all, and who ever knows if you’ll roll sevens or snake eyes?  As my favorite funk band Tower of Power so eloquently stated: “What’s hip today might become passé…”

Ron Samuelson

Ron Samuelson

Ron Samuelson has co-owned M’s Pub for over twenty years with business partner Ann Mellen. They also own Vivace, which will soon celebrate 20 years of operation in the Old Market. Ron’s 38 year restaurant career has spanned from Dallas and Denver to Omaha, with stints in the kitchen as well as front of house management for both corporate and locally owned concepts. He has served as President of the Omaha Restaurant Association and is a recent inductee to the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame.


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