How to be a bad restaurant in a down economy

Photo by Flickr user Naomi Ibuki

The glass is empty for a reason ...

It’s February 2009. We’re in an economic slump the likes of which is scaring many people. Last weekend was Valentine’s Day, and I’m happy to report that many restaurants were full and did several turns. In other words, they got a little (much needed) money in the bank.

Last night my wife and I went out with two good friends. Haven’t done this for awhile — we’ve been holding onto our cash like everybody else. We went to a rather well known local restaurant that has been established for several years. WE WENT WILLING TO SPEND MONEY. I grabbed the wine list and found it smaller and shorter than I remember it being (which is fine). I saw a wine I really wanted to share with my friends, and it also happened to be the most expensive bottle on the list (at $95). I told the server, she got a smile on her face, I felt good about ordering it, and off she went.

Four minutes later, she returned empty handed. “Sorry, we’re out of that one.” No ideas, no suggestions, no offers for another product at a discount. Nothing.

This gave me a chance to think logically: $95 is a lot of money today and I really shouldn’t be spending that much. Okay, then, I’ll take the $55 bottle right there. Four minutes later, the perky waitress came back empty handed and put her hand on my shoulder. “You’re going to hate me, but …”

Think about this: We’re six days off of clearly the busiest weekend in the restaurant business in over a month, and they are still out of stock on two of the most expensive wines on their list. And I KNOW they could have the wine because they are sold by World Class Wines and we have stock! Also consider the following:

  • No options were given. Nothing was presented to try to keep my business.
  • The manager never visited to explain or apologize.

So we left. Us and our $300+ that we were ready to spend but suddenly saw the reality that we didn’t have to. But it gets better…

We were still hungry and wanted one more glass of wine. So we walked across the street to a hip, happening, uber cool restaurant that is known for a good wine list and delicious appetizers. We sat down, were greeted promptly, and things were looking up. My wife ordered a glass of very decent Shriaz (confirming my theory that in tough times people who know wine will easily spend $14 on one glass of great wine rather than two glasses of Chateau Cashflow junk). Amazingly, they were out of it. No offers, no explanation, and barely an apology. We stayed for an hour, spent less than we planned on, and went home.

So a few observations:

  • Inventory control is everything today, and out of stocks are a natural and unfortunate side effect. But please tell your servers and have them convey it to me BEFORE I try to order a wine. Communication is everything.
  • Empower the servers to make offers or concessions to keep me happy. “We’ll happy give you a glass of our most expensive wine at the same price” goes a LONG way.
  • Think about this — Minnesotans are constantly worried about our ‘big city’ image. Are we in the big leagues? Just because we have four professional sports teams and internationally known chefs are opening restaurants here, are we worthy? Well, if instead of four friends that live in the Twin Cities what if we happened to be four business people from Chicago trying to impress a client? If this same experience happened to them, the Twin Cities would be the laughing stock of their jokes when returning home. “You’ll never believe it, they put all this good stuff on their wine lists and nobody even had it in stock!” What happens in your restaurant and on your wine lists are BIGGER THAN JUST YOUR OWN BUSINESS.
  • Finally, because of these incidents, do you think I’m going to be in a rush to return to these establishments? Not a chance. There are too many choices out there.

The New York Times article and the ‘magic formula’

Many of you have read Frank Bruni’s wonderful article in this week’s New York Times regarding the current state of restaurant business in NYC.  Besides wondering how they got the big three to pose for the photo, I was wondering what stones have been left unturned in the quest for customers at restaurants.  My thought is: somebody is doing it right, and maybe that somebody is you.  Maybe you have the magic formula that is keeping people coming back.  And what is that magic formula?

The magic formula is not price — plenty of non-cheap restaurants are drawing the crowds.  People still want to have the experience, but maybe just once a month instead of once a week.

The magic formula is not location — on a vacation to Portland last month I went to a restaurant where the view out the window included a homeless guy fertilizing a tree, among other colorful moments.  The place was packed and it was a Sunday night (the restaurant was Clyde Common, and it was wonderful).

The magic formula is not specials and happy hours, though those don’t hurt for certain time blocks or days.

The magic formula is not necessarily to be hip, new, hot, the new kid on the block.

The magic formula is this: consistently overdeliver for the price, and (this is the critical part) make damn sure to tell everybody you know that you’re pulling out all the stops to overdeliver for the price. If you make it excessively clear to every customer, vendor, and critic that you’re serious about overdelivering for the price, the message will spread.  If you lay it out clearly, people are more apt to pass it along.

This is NOT the time to cut quality and raise prices.  Quite the opposite.  Keep the prices and overdeliver on quality.

Welcome DeLoach, Bouchard, Lyeth, and Louis Bernard to World Class Wines!

We’re proud to announce World Class Wines has teamed with the legendary wines of Boisset America!

These are dynamic additions to our portfolio, and will help to round out our American and French selections. Bouchard has a stellar reputation as one of the top ‘major’ producers of Burgundy. Louis Bernard brings us value oriented wines from the Southern Rhone Valley. DeLoach has been on a tremendous roll the last couple of years, reducing production levels to 30% of what they were years ago. In other words, less wine and far more quality (they still have many of the best landholdings in the Russian River Valley). And Lyeth needs little to no introduction … in these times of customers looking for value and huge bang for the buck, Lyeth is on the top of everybody’s lists!

We look forward to a long and healthy relationship with our new friends, and we hope you will too. Expolore more information about Boisset at their website.