Food for thought

by Mark Zweig ([email protected]) 949 views 

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law were visiting us from New Mexico recently, and we decided to take them and our two youngest girls to dinner in Fayetteville.

While my wife and I eat out pretty often, we usually try to go to dinner at what we call the “Bella Vista Hour” at 5:30 p.m. or earlier. On this occasion — on an ordinary Wednesday — we left the house at about 6:20 p.m.

After going to four of our favorite spots and hearing wait times of 45 minutes to an hour, we found a local Mexican restaurant that could seat us. We could only think, “Wow! The restaurant business around here is booming!”

The business is good for those that are providing what their customers want. Yet, others are still struggling in this boomtown region. Why do you think that is? Here are my thoughts:

  1. They don’t know how to attract and retain good workers. So many restaurants complain about their inability to hire and keep good people. When I hear this, my first thought is, “What are they doing for their people?” Most of the time, the answer is nothing. No consistent work hours, no benefits, no bonuses — in other words, nothing they aren’t required by law to do. Is it any wonder they have problems?
  2. They are undifferentiated. We have dozens of Mexican restaurants here, all essentially the same. And we ended up at one that wasn’t busy when everywhere else we went was. Yet, our area has a newer, higher-end Mexican establishment — La Media Luna in an older Johnson strip mall — and it is always full of people waiting. What does that tell you?
  3. Their menus are too broad, and they can’t do a good job with all of it. Watch a few episodes of “Restaurant: Impossible” hosted by Robert Irvine, and you will see this is a common problem. No one is good at everything. Too many offerings greatly complicate the business and make it inherently less profitable. They have to have more ingredients, and they won’t all be fresh. And their cooks won’t know how to do all of them. Too much variation is a recipe for disaster.
  4. They aren’t open when they should be. Try going out for dinner on a Sunday or Monday, and you will find out several of your favorite establishments aren’t open. If I owned a restaurant,
    Mark Zweig

    you can be sure we would be open on those days so we could serve our existing customers and woo new ones. Some people will say restaurant owners and workers deserve a day off, too. My response is that maybe they are in the wrong business then.

  5. Portion control is out of control. Have you noticed how portions at mainstream restaurants keep getting larger, and they keep piling the plates higher and higher? Most portions at restaurants could serve a small family in its entirety. No wonder so many people feel their weight is out of control. And no wonder so many restaurant owners feel they can’t make a profit.
  6. They do no marketing. Yes, I say a lot about small businesses in my column. But do you know why? I see many restaurants in the consulting projects my students do in the small business classes I teach at Walton College. To see total annual marketing expenses of $120, or $36, or some other paltry sum is not at all uncommon for those that aren’t making any money. When you ask the owners about it, they usually tell you that they “believe word of mouth is the best advertising” or “We tried advertising once, and it didn’t work.” Sure, word of mouth is great, but someone has to go there in the first place to spread that word.

The restaurant business — like many businesses — is hard. It would be best if you didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to create a successful business. It just takes some hard work and dedication and doing a few things differently from the masses for those owners who want to be very successful.

Mark Zweig is the founder of two Fayetteville-based Inc. 500/5000 companies. He is also entrepreneur-in-residence in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas and author of the award-winning book, “Confessions of an Entrepreneur.” The opinions expressed are those of the author.