Category Archives: Helpful Hints

Last Night’s Lesson

It’s Foodie Friday. We went out for a bite last night to one of the places that’s in the usual rotation. On most Thursday nights the bar is crowded and there’s often a wait to grab a table. Last night we pretty much had the bar to ourselves and there were tables available without any delay.

My buddy Tina the bartender said that business wasn’t great and I think we all know it’s due to the fear of the coronavirus. It’s hard to keep a safe distance from folks in a crowded bar or when tables are close together. While you expect your servers and cooks to have clean hands, it’s not a great time to find out otherwise. Apparently, my little microcosm isn’t much different from what’s been going on around the country and, I suspect, around the world.

What a number of food businesses (this one included) are doing is a great lesson for those of us in other businesses with respect to how to behave when the proverbial pandemic hits the fan. I’ve seen Facebook posts and received several emails from places I patronize and most of them have the same message. First, they aren’t minimizing the situation with any kind of casual joking (“Hey! Come on out and play! It’s just a little flu!”). Second, they all talk about both their normal cleaning process as well as the enhanced measures they’re taking during the crisis. This includes more frequent cleaning using higher-strength disinfectants and retraining of staff.

It’s the big guys too. Starbucks, which markets itself as a gathering spot (not something we’re being encouraged to do these days) has actually taken to limiting seating, spacing seats further apart, and even closed a store temporarily after a worker fell ill. The message is loud and clear: we place our customers and their health above the short-term profit hit we’ll take. Well, duh, people. Dead customers don’t buy things, so helping to prevent the spread of this virus is smart business no matter the cost.

Some places have amped up their delivery service. I’ve heard of other places that will bring your food to the curb so you don’t have to get out of your car if they don’t deliver. Who knows – maybe those services will become a normal part of their business going forward – we all know how delivery services’ menu of menus has grown over the last year or so. Acknowledging that not everyone is comfortable or able to go out for dinner at this time and not attempting to persuade them otherwise is being supportive and adult. That’s what any of our businesses need to be.

We overtipped last night (50%). Why? These are our friends and they might be hurting for the next month or so. If you get out, do the same. Buy a gift card at your favorite place, restaurant or otherwise, and use it down the road when you go back. We’re all in this together, right?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, What's Going On

South Bye Bye

These are odd times indeed and it’s when we’re under stress that our true nature often shows. That same is true of organizations and that’s often to their detriment because that true nature is often anti-customer. There is an excellent example of this in what’s going on with the SXSW Festival.

If you’re unfamiliar with the South By Southwest festival, or South By as it’s commonly known, this is how it describes itself:

The event has changed in many surprising and meaningful ways since 1987, but at its core, SXSW remains a tool for creative people to develop their careers by bringing together people from around the globe to meet, learn and share ideas.

It’s sort of a spring break for the tech, marketing, film, and music communities and it attracts thousands of people who attend for the connections they might make, for the music they’ll hear, and for the learnings they’ll take away. It’s become a huge deal and passes to the event cost about $1,400 per person for mid-priced interactive badges that last the length of the 9-day festival. It’s an investment, obviously, and that doesn’t include all the spending by agencies and sponsors.

Here is the problem. They canceled the festival over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and won’t refund attendees and vendors. They’re offering to defer your ticket to 2021, 2022, or 2023, but they won’t give you back the money. Is this in accordance with their stated policies? Yes, it is, but as we began the piece, these are odd times and maybe, just maybe, it’s time for this business to have another think about alienating their customers.

Many agencies have been cutting back their spending as the festival has become too big and unwieldy. I suspect this might anger those who haven’t been cutting back. Airlines have been refunding tickets and Airbnb recently announced that some coronavirus-related cancellations will qualify for refunds under its “extenuating circumstances” policy.  Many of the attendees are small business people looking to promote themselves or artists they represent. Tying up this money for at least a year can be a big hit, one that just might put them out of business by the next festival.

On top of all this, the festival company fired 30% of its employees. Insurance won’t cover enough to maintain the full-time staff where it was.

Should a cancellation something that should have been in the disaster plan? You would think so. This didn’t happen overnight. Companies and artists began pulling out of the festival weeks ago. Should the decisions that seem to have been taken about how to handle the aftermath of a cancellation been more consumer and business partner-friendly? Based on the extreme negative responses in both sectors, definitely so. Will SXSW ever recover from this? Time will tell, but the lessons we can learn will be the same. Be customer-centric. The short-term pain leads to long-term gain most of the time.

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints, Huh?, What's Going On

Stocking Up

It’s Foodie Friday and the big news this week is the coronavirus. Besides the presidential election here in the US, nothing else seems to be getting nearly as much news coverage and rightly so. It’s a very serious thing, one that could require you to “self-quarantine” for 10 days to two weeks.

One of the more interesting effects that the spread of the virus has caused is people stocking up. It’s impossible to find hand sanitizer, either in a store or online and some enterprising folks are selling $5 bottles of the stuff for hundreds of dollars. Nothing like a little price-gouging, right? In Australia, it’s apparently hard to find toilet paper as Aussies have been stockpiling toilet paper in response to the coronavirus.

I did my regular weekly shop yesterday and the shelves were full of everything except the aforementioned hand sanitizer. It’s interesting. Every time there’s been a mention of a spell of really bad weather, bread, water, and eggs are hard to find as people stock up in case they can’t get out for several days. In this case, several days will extend for much longer and yet as I looked over other carts in the store, nothing seemed different. Maybe they’re not thinking yet about how to make three meals a day with limited access to the outside world.

It got me thinking. Most people don’t have a well-stocked pantry. I’m willing to bet most also don’t have a large, stand-alone freezer. I happen to have both, not because I’m a hoarder but because I like to have a lot of ingredients on hand to be able to deal with whatever meal situation arises. One study estimated that 80% of households don’t make dinner plans until 4pm that day. I try to plan ahead but the reality of work and energy sometimes sets in and those plans get changed. It’s good to have the ability to change up and having the pantry and freezer stocked up make that possible.

There’s a business point to be made here. I’ve worked in places where there was no “stocking up.” Budgets were locked and inflexible. There wasn’t any training system in place to help employees grow their skill sets. There was THE PLAN and that’s what was going to be executed regardless of changing conditions. As businesspeople, we need to think ahead. Not hoard nor overspend on solutions to problems that are highly unlikely to occur. But when there are warning signs, or as in this case, very clear examples, of a situation developing that could impact the business, we need to plan and move quickly. Think about how many businesses’ supply chains from China have been interrupted and you’ll get what I mean. For example, investing in training means that when some folks are absent and unable to work from home you’re covered.

How serious is the coronavirus problem? Watch the news for a few minutes and you’ll see that it’s quite serious. Stock your pantry with staples that will keep – pasta, canned goods, etc. Stock your freezer with frozen veggies and maybe some proteins. Hopefully, this passes quickly. Do the same for your business. Invest in stocking up and you’ll be prepared for any eventuality.

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Reality checks, What's Going On

One More Chance

Foodie Friday at last! I live in a smallish town. For a town its size, there are actually a lot of dining options and many good examples of different cuisines. Still, it’s always disappointing when one of the places here goes way downhill.

That happened to a place we used to frequent. They arguably had the best burger in town. It was ground in-house and always cooked perfectly (mid-rare, and only because they grind the meat themselves). They had wonderful parmesan truffle fries. When I wrote about this place two years ago I said

They grind the burgers themselves out of a combination of several cuts of beef and they cook it nicely. It’s perfectly seasoned and is served on a bun that absorbs the juices without falling apart. I order mine with bacon and a runny fried egg (why not have breakfast with your burger?) but they offer many other options. It’s a work of art: the Mona Lisa of burgers.

Unfortunately, shortly after I wrote that, things began going downhill. First, our favorite bartender (we always eat at the bar) departed for parts unknown and even texting him didn’t help since he must have got a new phone number (people generally don’t change their numbers just to avoid me). Then something changed in the kitchen. The burger wasn’t the same and it was never cooked right. The fries left the menu. Soon, we left too and haven’t returned.

A few weeks ago, signs went up outside the place that new management was coming. Their Facebook page went into more detail. So the other night, we decided to give it a second chance and went back. We sat at our usual places at the bar and the new owners were sitting there having dinner. We talked about what had changed and they talked a lot about how they were going to make it better. And it was better! The burger was a little different but was ground in house and cooked well. It was back and it was joined by a really good fried chicken sandwich that was new. Woo hoo!

My point today is about second chances. Some people think that there are no second chances in life. As managers, they operate the same way. One employee screw-up and the relationship is never the same. That’s wrong. Giving someone a second chance is giving them the opportunity to improve. Mistakes are learning opportunities.  In general, the only mistakes I wouldn’t tolerate were errors that resulted in destroying trust (you lied to me) or multiple repetitions of the same mistake. That’s either willful or demonstrates that you can’t – or won’t – learn.

Maya Angelou said something that’s always resonated with me on this subject. “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” That’s what I think we all should be after, whether it’s as managers or as people looking for a great burger. Things can change, people can do better. When you see that those changes have happened, I think it’s incumbent on us to give a second chance to see if things have improved. Don’t you?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Please F Off

Part of the process in the franchise consulting I do is to acquire leads, just as it is in most sales-related businesses. I do that in a number of ways, once of which is through what are called “portal leads.” These are names, phone numbers, and email addresses, among other things, those interested parties have submitted to get more information about a particular franchise or just to speak with someone about franchises generally.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that some percentage of these leads are submitted by people surfing around late at night. Maybe they’ve been drinking or maybe they’ve had a bad day and are angry with their current job and are thinking about moving on or taking more control by investing in their own business. These folks don’t answer the phone or respond to emails. There is another tiny percentage of leads that have been submitted by people playing jokes on their friends, generally college students.

I got one of those the other day. The lead was in Norman Oklahoma although the phone number was a Dallas area code. Still, Norman is a college town so it wouldn’t be unusual for people to relocate there. Of course, when I dialed the number, the person who answered was not the person whose information I had. That happens sometimes too – often a typo when the person is typing in their number. The email worked, however.

I hadn’t heard back the next day so I sent another email explaining why I wanted to speak to them. This one came back with a curt reply: “please fuck off.” That’s an exact quote including all lower-case letters. It’s our topic today.

I’m from New York so I’m quite used to rude. My issue is that rude seems to be the new normal. If I was, as this fellow is, a senior at the University Of Oklahoma and was going to be entering the job market with my BBA in Finance and another BBA in Venture Management come May, I wouldn’t be cursing anyone out, especially not someone I don’t know. I appreciate the fact that I may have obtained his information through no fault of his own, but the reply and how he handled it is all on him. I realize that he doesn’t know me but I’m also relatively easy to check out. Maybe a contact with 40 years in business could be useful to him even if he’s not interested in a franchise?

The world moves quickly and at times we’re all under a lot of pressure. It’s taken me four years living away from New York to truly appreciate how far nice will get you. The old me would have tracked this kid down as well as forwarded his comments to the heads of his major departments, inquiring if this is how all OU seniors approach the world.  Let’s all remember that privacy is non-existent and people with bad intentions can find you and make your life hell, as sad as that is. Maybe it’s the old hippie in me, but a little more nice in this world would be just fine with me. You?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Fried Chicken

It’s Fried Chicken this Foodie Friday. What comes to mind when I mention that dish? Is it the stuff you get from The Colonel or Bojo’s or Popeyes? Maybe it’s a plate of true “southern fried chicken” which is generally on offer at most of the classic BBQ joints here in the South. Whatever you’re thinking, let’s see if we can get you to think a little differently about it today as well as about your business.

At its core, fried chicken is juicy meat surrounded by a crispy coating. From that point, all roads seem to diverge. Is the bird marinated in buttermilk or some other seasoning? Is the coating full of herbs and spices or relatively plain? Is it thick or thin? Are we deep-frying or shallow-frying and in what oil or fat? I vaguely recall my mom making some sort of cornflake encrusted “fried” chicken and I’ll admit we had Shake-N-Bake on many a night. Does that count as fried chicken?

Decisions, decisions, right? But the choices we make can result in a completely different product even if it’s still “fried chicken”. Not many people would mistake Japanese karaage for traditional southern chicken nor Korean Fried Chicken for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even within the south, Maryland Fried Chicken, which is breaded in just seasoned flour, shallow-fried and served with a cream gravy is very different from what’s generally served throughout the South – marinated bird, deep-fried, coated in flour and often cornstarch and/or baking powder.

All of this is a way to get you to think about your business. First, how is your product different? If you’re promoting “fried chicken,” is there a gap between what the common perception of that product is and what you’re actually marketing? Second, given that your fried chicken is different from most, why is it better than any types that are similar? KFC, Bojangles’, and Popeyes all sell the same product on the surface but it isn’t hard to tell the three of them apart when you try them side by side (I’m a Popeyes guy myself). I’m not sure, however, that you should need to do that comparison if each of their marketing clearly differentiates why their product is different (and better).

Many products fall under broad umbrellas even though there may be substantial differences, just as there are with the types of fried chicken. Our job is to stand out and to make consumers aware of how we’re different and why we’re better. How are you doing that with your fried chicken?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

TLI

We live in a time when many people overshare. You know what I’m talking about. They post pictures of what they’re eating. They check-in and post about every place they go with the exception of the bathroom. Every random thought is posted with the hope of stimulating some response even when the thoughts are pretty vacuous and of interest to none but the author (Hey, be nice – this screed doesn’t count!).

It’s TMI – Too Much Information, and I’ll admit that at times I’ve been as guilty as anyone. In my defense, I’ve now accepted that you can’t win an argument on Facebook even when you’re armed with facts so I won’t be engaging in THAT anymore. But one thing that I find to be just as bad as TMI is TLI – Too Little Information and that’s today’s subject.

A real-life example. I represent over 500 different franchise brands. While I’m very well acquainted with several dozen, it’s not really feasible for my aging brain to retain complete information about all of them, especially the ones I don’t discuss very often. Fortunately, the network I’m part of provides an information page on each of the brands and often there are recorded webinars that provide even more information. The brands themselves maintain the pages. Some provide a few pages for us to read with key selling points, finances the candidate must have, etc. There are often sales brochures we can download and send. Most importantly, they tell us why their brand is different from their competition. The very best brands give us extensive information and it makes it easy to present their brand. No issues here.

A large number, however, gives us nothing. Oh sure, we know what the franchise costs and what the royalty rates are, but we don’t have any materials to send nor do we have any information beyond the very basics. It’s TLI and it makes my job quite difficult. How do I represent a brand that’s a mystery to me? What distinguishes one residential cleaning service franchise from another? How is your lawn service franchise unique? Why should someone invest in your franchise vs. another in the same category?

You may be guilty of the same thing. Do you give employees enough information about a task you’re asking them to complete? How about vendors? Do they really understand why and how you use their products so they can provide better service? All of us in business are constantly providing information to various constituencies. The key is avoiding TLI just as much as we all want to avoid TMI. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints