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More Butts in Seats

Keep Them Coming

The previous two guest blogs were from folks who are pretty savvy when it comes to getting more “butts in seats.”  Getting guests in the first time and getting them to come back, again and again - that’s basically what the restaurant business is all about. 

Chain restaurants are very good at this, -getting them in, getting them back; the numbers would suggest that they are much better at it than the independents are. 

A Story

In September 2005, I was transferred on short notice from Toronto, Ontario to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  I was in Food service distribution senior management, selling stuff to restaurants, delis, caterers, nursing homes, etc.  The great part about the food business is that virtually all human beings consume food multiple times each day.  Get a group of humans, you have a potential market. 

Toronto is a very culturally diverse city with 5.5 million humans living there.  Halifax is the commerce center of Atlantic Canada. There are four Provinces in that area that I would be overseeing.  This part of Canada is a demographically spread out but there is less cultural diversity.  The population in Halifax is only about 300 thousand.  Although the population of Halifax alone can consume more beer than that of Toronto, they can’t begin to consume nearly as much food. 

My job was to figure out how to get my company to get better at selling food to companies who prepared food for humans.  In the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, there were plenty of miles (kilometers), and not so many humans.  (The USA seemed so much easier.) 

Because I was there on short notice, I took a temporary downtown apartment while my wife stayed on in Toronto to sell our house and get our “stuff” ready to move.  I was in short walking distance to 20 or 30 of Halifax’s downtown restaurants. 

Nights were spent learning the nuances of this smaller and very different market place: that and trying to figure out what a Donair was.  Each night, I dined at different places looking to 1) fill my belly, which seems to always want more, and 2) trying to figure out this market where humans preferred beer over food. 

Eating lunch alone sucks.  Dining alone in the evening really sucks.  I know, single men should eat at the bar.  Sometimes I did.  But I get a different feel for a place when in the dining room; I can see the operation differently.  I wanted to see these places operate. 

One evening, I went into a long-standing, family type, 3 meal-a-day restaurant.  The place had an ideal downtown location.  I don’t remember the food that evening, but I’ll never forget the service.  It was genuinely awful. 

The restaurant was about 20% full when I arrived.  There were 4 waiters/waitresses on duty and it immediately became obvious that no one wanted to take a single (me).  I think that they felt that if they ignored me long enough, I would leave.  I should have.  I was finally seated and waited on by the waitress who pulled the shortest straw.  She didn’t want to be there, she didn’t want me to be there, and she didn’t want to “get stuck with a single”. (Maybe it was me? Did I have a bugger hanging from my nose? Was my fly open?)  I left feeling like an unwelcome outcast in a strange town.   

The next evening, not feeling as adventurous, I settled on East Side Mario’s, a Canadian chain that I previously had done business with when they moved into the New England market.  I knew that I would get fairly mediocre food in a well-lit, artificially cheery environment.  After the previous evening, this seemed appealing (artificial cheer versus perceived disdain).   

My expectations were exceeded.  Generally …the food wasn’t great – I expected this:  but the server was friendly, courteous and managed to make a single feel comfortable.  When she brought me the bill, she told me, “Now you make sure you come back again.”  I nodded yes, -made a commitment to come back.  I left feeling pretty good about the place and the city. (This is a friendly city.)

Epilogue

A few weeks after that awful dining experience, I got to meet the owner of that first restaurant.  We spoke for a while and I let him know of my bad experience.  He answered, “I don’t care about that stuff; I care about the price of bacon, I care about making money.”  He had a very successful restaurant – I thought that maybe that’s what it takes. 

When I visited Halifax last year, the chain was still operating; the independent was sadly boarded-up.    

I don’t have to tell you about this sort of thing, you know this stuff.  But sometimes, with so much on your mind, you forget.   Now get back in the kitchen, smile …or maybe growl, and cook some more frigg’n peas. 

 

 

What a pleasure life would be to live if everybody would try to do only half of what s/he expects others to do.                             –Wm Boetcker

 

Blessed is s/he who expects nothing, for s/he shall never be disappointed.                         – Alexander Pope

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