Conway Daily Sun, Wed. June 9, 2011
I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the potential or plight of small independent, local-owned businesses. The valley enjoys some terrific local businesses, especially in the hotel and restaurant categories, but how do you compete with the advertising budgets and amenities of the big names?
While it’s true that visitors are sometimes drawn to brands they know and trust, compared to retailers, at least it’s easier for hotels and restaurants to get people to try something local and unique. You’re not selling handbags or tools; you’re offering an experience to someone who is looking for a different experience, so you have a reasonable chance to compete with the giant national marketing budgets. In addition to being terrific citizens and community supporters, our local restaurant group, Valley Originals has done an excellent job delivering the perfect message to dine local.
One of the dine-local marketing messages is that the owner is always on or nearby the premises. I love that! From a business development point of view, I wonder if this raises a question – most are on premises because this is their passion, and they make sure it’s perfect. Others are there because things fall apart when they’re not doing everything themselves. This happens in many, many businesses of course. My favorite restaurant owners happen to also have the job of managing their restaurants, so please don’t misunderstand me. If the owner wears the hat as one of the staff, that’s fine. Otherwise, the owner’s presence should be a bonus to the guest, not a requirement to make things function. The first is a sign of a gracious and grateful host; the latter is the sign of a lack of systems and training. With the latter, the owner’s presence is not likely to be sufficient to fix the problems.
When you dine at a national chain restaurant, you don’t expect or need the presence of an owner. You usually get what you order, the way you expect it, quickly and efficiently. Rare, because of constant training, but when something goes wrong there’s no ego getting defensive; just a manager with the power and training to make things right and beg your forgiveness. Is it elegant, romantic or exquisite? Compared to some local establishments the answer is yes; compared to others, the answer is definitely not. The point is that you don’t need the presence of an owner to have a meal – exquisite or casual. The desirable local feeling is created by the owner’s relationships with the customer, not their need to be onsite to put out fires in the kitchen.
If you want to feel local and caring, I like it when I’m greeted at the door by the owner; I like the hugs, the checking on us at the table, the good nights and the thank you all coming from an owner. That feels special. We frequent and recommend our favorite place mostly for this experience. An owner who can create the same culture among the entire staff has a winning business.
The biggest threat to local establishments is not the competition; it’s the owner with more ego than systems. If the owner created the systems and training as if they were a chain restaurant, they would then be on the premises by choice rather than need, and they could go to work on their business, not just in their business.
I’m intentionally leaving out examples of negative experiences – a food critic could help here, but I think if a restaurant deserves praise or criticism consistently, everyone will know it anyway. You can use your imagination if you must. Overwhelmingly though, our local restaurants and hoteliers are amazing, and deliver en experience beyond the expectations of their guests and beyond hospitality standards in other markets.
To make sure we’re in that special group, let’s all take a look in the mirror (me too, at my own stores). Of course we have real challenges hit us from other sources every day. But are we to blame for some of our troubles? Of course, and if we’re honest, the more troubles we have, the more blame we should take. In the good economy money was so easy; did we get spoiled? Let’s stop blaming the economy, the government, taxation, and big name competition until we have our own house in order.
I’m here to say that dining and shopping local is the way to go. If you are a local eatery or shop that needs help, please stop taking it out on your customers and let’s talk systems and culture development.
The secret weapon of the local owner is to be able to build relationships with the customers and the community. Otherwise, you’re just selling cooked groceries.
Michael Kline is a local retailer, success coach and trainer. He may be reached through his website, www.klineseminars.com, or e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.