Don’t let panic alter a solid formula

2009 has been especially hard on the restaurant business. Since becoming empty-nesters, my wife and I eat out more than we used to. In some ways, it’s cheaper than eating at home, especially with the proliferation of coupons and two-for-one deals that are one positive byproduct of the New Economy, at least from the consumer standpoint.

Unfortunately, many of our favorites are no longer with us. One night, a few months ago, we drove to three different establishments, only to find each one dark and empty. These were all mom-and-pops, a sector that has been particularly hard hit. By the time we pulled into the parking lot of the last one, it was time to give up and go home. It would have been comical if it weren’t so depressing.

Another time, we drove up to Carlos’ Mexican Café in Boulder City to satisfy our craving for the greatest fish tacos in the world. We had been talking about it and looking forward to it all week. As we headed down Hotel Plaza and noticed the dearth of cars surrounding the café, we experienced that familiar “oh-oh” moment. Sure enough, one glance through the window revealed the by-now familiar scene of chairs stacked on top of tables and fixtures piled haphazardly in the corner. Sadly, we’ve never found a replacement for those halibut delicacies. If you know of any, please don’t hesitate to contact me. We’ll drive for food.

The larger chain restaurants are by no means immune either. Last year, I tried to order a side of chili at Chili’s, only to be told they were out of it. Marketing note: If you’re going to name your place after a certain item, please make sure the item is always in stock. I had a sneaking suspicion that something was wrong even then. Sure enough, most (if not all) of the local Chili’s are gone.

More recently, one of my lunch stand-bys bit the dust. Evos, a healthy fast-food diner just down the street from our office, was always my fallback place when I needed a quick, guilt-free meal. Their baked chicken fingers and fries were always crisp, never soggy, and satisfied my craving for fried food without all the grease.

A few months before closing up shop for good, they changed their name to “Fast and Fresh” – or something along those lines. That was part of the problem. It sounded too much like “Fresh and Easy.” Not only that, but people naturally assumed they had changed hands, even though it was still under the same management. To make matters worse, they messed around with the menu. Some things were better; a lot of things weren’t (like their chili. What is it about chili, anyway?). They also got rid of their ketchup bar (which included mesquite and fiery hot flavors) and their excellent selection of organic iced teas.

The first day I walked in after the change, I knew it was their death knell. Not because I’m psychic, but because they allowed panic to alter what I knew to be a solid formula. Admittedly, as an outsider I had no knowledge of their financial situation. All I know is that changing the name and menu is a risky move even under the best of circumstances. You spend a certain amount of time building a reputation, an identity and a storehouse of good will, only to eliminate it overnight. This decision did not seem to be well thought-out, and the subsequent customer drain hastened their departure.

So, my favorite restaurants have dwindled to a precious few. The economy seems to be improving in some areas, so I hope they can hang in. In the meantime, when you send me suggestions for fish tacos, please drop in a couple of recommendations for baked chicken fingers. I’m really struggling here.

Brian Rouff is the Managing Partner for Imagine Marketing.
Contact Brian at
brouff@imnv.com.

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