Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

I Can’t Quit

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. It’s one of those times when your focus is truly on family and friends and not on the more mundane things that tend to tie up the bulk of our lives.

One of those things has become social media and specifically Facebook and its family of products. I think that if it was a drug, it would be among the worst drugs ever and should be heavily regulated at least. Let me explain why.

I was an early user (does that make me a long-term addict?). I signed up way back when you needed a .edu mailing address to join. At first, it was fun and getting back in touch with my college and high school classmates was great. I’d accept friend requests from people I barely knew and rarely spoke to from way back when. It made reunions less jarring since I already knew who had gained weight, lost hair, or, as in my case, both.

I don’t feel that way anymore. I limit my “friends” to people who are really just that. Acquaintances don’t make the grade and very few business-only relationships are part of my friend group. Unfortunately, some business associations in which I participate have chosen to do their communicating via Facebook. I also have consulting clients from time to time that want my expertise on using Facebook both for content and for advertising. If those circumstances ever change, I’ll be gone the next day.

I’m sure you’re aware by now about Facebook’s utter disregard for your privacy. They track you pervasively (I use a browser extension to limit that). They sell your data, accurate or not, to scammers and liars as well as to legitimate marketers but they don’t try to distinguish between them. I wrote in 2010 that they just might fail because of their disregard for security and privacy. I could not have been more right about what they were doing and more wrong about their success.

Why do we all seem to hang around? Metcalf’s Law, which states that the effect of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. There were alternatives and still are, of course, but unless and until your real friends, family, and business groups move someplace else, you’re kind of stuck. It’s why I post the screed on Facebook as well as on LinkedIn and elsewhere. Fish where the fish are, right?

My first resolution will be to use Facebook less in 2020 and beyond and to reach out via phone and email to people more often. It’s not just about maintaining privacy but about helping my mental health. Do I think I’m striking a blow for privacy and responsibility? No, not being one of 1.6 billion daily users. I’ll still be on Facebook – it’s the easiest and best way to keep up with old friends and I need it for business. But you can bet I’ll be a lot less active. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you – it’s Zuck.

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Filed under digital media, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

The Grocery Store

The topic for this Foodie Friday is the grocery store. Think for a minute about where you do the bulk of your grocery shopping. Is the merchandise that it carries substantially different from one of its competitors? My guess is that it probably isn’t. All the national brands are there and the same person who stocks the snack or bread aisle at your store might have left a competitor twenty minutes earlier. So why do you go?

We had a Wegman’s open here. The lines to get in were HOURS long. I’ve never shopped at a Wegman’s but those who have proclaimed their undying loyalty. There’s been a rumor floating around my neighborhood (since confirmed!) that a Publix will be opening in the not too distant future. People who’ve missed their sandwiches and service are swooning. In the case of these two stores, they separate themselves from everyone else in very clever ways; Wegman’s via setting themselves up to feel like a European marketplace and Publix via their signature subs.

Some of it is just smart branding. While my local Harris Teeter and Lowe’s Foods both make various types of sausages in-house, Lowe’s brands the entire operation as The Sausage Works and gives each type of sausage a clever name. They even sell “My Sauageworks” tee-shirts (and you can imagine the looks I get when I wear mine in public). They pride themselves as being the Best Of The Wurst and are constantly inventing new flavors such as their newest, The #63 Philly, which they describe as a brotherly love blend of chicken sausage, mozzarella, green peppers, onions, mushrooms, and spices. No commodities here but while both stores sell the same basic sausages, Lowe’s goes the extra mile and can market behind it.

I think may business sectors have become quite commoditized. When I was running a sports site, we would often remind ourselves that people can get a game score or most statistics anywhere. The only way we could compete was to provide something unique, better, and in-demand. I think every business needs to think of itself in terms similar to that, even if you really do have unique aspects baked in. It won’t be long before someone has what you have and maybe is offering it on better terms.

Why do you shop where you shop? If “better prices” is the only answer, that store might have trouble the minute a competitor decides to price match.  It’s much harder to match a better experience or unique merchandise, no matter what business you’re in. Don’t you agree?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Concessions

Let’s go to the movies this Foodie Friday. I did the other day. If you’ve been spending time at home streaming your entertainment and none at the theaters, you might not be aware that things have changed dramatically at the old cineplex with respect to food. I happened to go to my local Alamo Drafthouse, which features recliners as well as a large menu of food and beverage.

You are probably aware that theater owners make more money from concessions than they do from admissions. You might have noticed that most movie concessions are high-margin items such as popcorn and soda. Still, I generally didn’t spend much more than $10 on food and beverage. Boy did THAT change at the Alamo. Even factoring in the additional labor costs for the servers bringing the food to my seat, I’m pretty sure that the theater owner netted a heck of a lot more from me than they might have in the past.

The Alamo overall is an interesting model. There are fewer seats in the theater but that really only reduces the take from admissions. My guess is that the concession net more than makes up for the fact that there are fewer bodies in the seats. Of course, my Alamo also has 10 theaters under one roof, ranging from 50 to 100 seats. What I like about this from a business perspective is how they’ve rethought the business model and focused on the part of the business that makes an owner money. The concessions are a significant upgrade. There are craft beers, top-shelf cocktails, and even a vegan menu. Sure there is popcorn but it’s served with real clarified butter. It’s also a bottomless bowl. There is also an herb popcorn that is tossed with that same butter and fresh herbs. Do I give a second thought to paying $8.50 for it? Nope – it’s delicious. So are the sandwiches, pizzas, and salads. $45 on drinks and food? Even at a 20% margin, my concession purchases yield the business owner as much as my previous bill might have been in total.

Any business can learn from what the Alamo and other theaters are doing as they transform their business models in the face of unlimited streaming options. It’s the Wille Sutton Rule – go where the money is.

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Filed under Consulting, food, Thinking Aloud

Mental Health Is Business Health

Happy Foodie Friday! One thing I’ve learned in my franchise consulting is that people have a fascination with the food business. A significant percentage of the candidates I speak with want to invest in something food and beverage related. I’m generally fairly blunt with them, reminding them that it’s often a business where you’re open for 14 hours a day and are really busy for about 90 minutes. The margins aren’t great, the labor is often unskilled and sketchy, and there are liability issues hanging around everywhere.

Today it’s those 90 minutes I want to talk about. The really busy time. It’s incredibly stressful from what I remember of my days working in foodservice. The stress precipitates everything from accidents caused by rushing to fistfights. It’s not for the faint of heart! That’s why I was happy to read the following this week:

Chipotle Mexican Grill will be providing access to mental healthcare and financial wellness for more than 80,000 employees in 2020 through Employee Assistance Programs and enhanced benefits offerings. This is just one of the many ways that Chipotle continues to enable its workforce by offering world-class benefits.

By simplifying access to mental health benefits and identifying work-related risk factors, Chipotle is trying to minimize the effect of mental health in the workplace.

So many good things here. First, I’ve worked for bosses to whom employees were disposable cogs in the business machine. Someone burns out and isn’t getting it done? Replace them and move on. It’s frustrating as hell when you don’t share their attitude but your hands are tied with respect to offering a solution to the stressed-out team member. Having also worked in places with an Employee Assistance Program I can tell you that they can be literal lifesavers and well worth the cost.

Second, you probably haven’t forgotten that Chipotle had some issues with e.coli a couple of years ago. You know you have a problem on your hands when research showed that 22% of all respondents and 32% of those who don’t currently eat Chipotle said that “nothing” would make them want to visit more often.  The food issues have been fixed but the bad taste lingers. Demonstrating concern for your employees is part of rebuilding the brand. Happy employees don’t make stress-related mistakes that lead to bacterial contamination, right?

You can never go wrong doing right for your staff. As a manager, they are your eyes, ears, hands, and voice. Keeping them happy and healthy is doing the same for your business.

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Filed under food, Franchises, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Local Flavor

This Foodie Friday I’m writing to you from a condo in Myrtle Beach. It’s a place I used to come to only once a year with my golf outing but now that I only live a couple of hours away I’m down here more often. I’d be lying if I said that Myrtle Beach is one of my favorite places to go. Honestly, except for the golf (and there is LOTS of that here), there really isn’t much about it to love. The beaches further north on the coast are way better – less crowded, prettier, and less touristy.

Photo by Gabriel Garcia Marengo

One thing my golf group learned about Myrtle Beach long ago was that there really isn’t a lot of great food here. Oh sure, damn near every chain restaurant has one (or more) iterations and there are local executions of generic food types that one can find anywhere: Italian, sushi, burgers, etc. There are, however, a handful (OK, a couple of handfuls) of places that do their damndest to capture the local flavor and that’s our topic today.

I wrote about Mr. Fish 10 years ago and I still visit when I’m here. His success at capturing the local seafood flavors of the Carolina Coast has enabled him to build a much larger place. There is a huge local supermarket here – Boulineau’s – that has a great kitchen serving local specialties and taking out the fried chicken to the beach is a local tradition.

I’m not going to run down all of the local places that do similar things but it’s instructive to any of us in business. Sure, the national chains are mobbed by tourists that love the notion of eating the same meal here as they can get at home. Those aren’t the loyal customer base though. Any business should be trying to be a local business even if the local outpost is one of many. I represent a national coffee franchise that insists that each local cafe be decorated in a local style, using photos of the town in which it’s located. That’s smart in my book.

People look for the local flavor. You can see it in the push to patronize local small businesses. How can your business be “small” and capture the local flavor even as you grow? Something to think about!

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Filed under Consulting, food, Thinking Aloud

The Right Questions

I was watching the Dems’ debate last night. I’m pretty much a political junkie and this has been an interesting few months as the Democratic candidates sort themselves out en route to a nominee.

As I was watching, I was reminded that the next year is really a very long job interview for a very big job. Watching the debate in that context made me realize that the moderators weren’t approaching it that way at all. They were asking the wrong kind of questions, at least right up until the last one about “someone we’d be surprised you’re friends with.” Let me explain because if you manage a business, hiring is one of the most important tasks you have.

If you’re still asking lame questions such as “tell me about yourself” or “where will you be in five years,” you really should leave the interviewing to someone else. The purpose of an interview is to find out things that aren’t on a resume but which have a huge impact on a candidate’s ultimate success or failure. In my mind, “smart” is the main thing I’m looking for along with intellectual curiosity. I spend my time trying to get answers that demonstrate a candidate’s possession of those qualities or lack thereof. To you, some other things might be important. You need to hone your questions to shine a light on the areas that are critical to you.

Don’t ask “yes/no” questions. Do ask hypothetical questions that reflect the reality of what will be the candidate’s day to day job. I used to test the candidate’s knowledge of my company to see if they really wanted to work there or if they were just looking for a job. “What did you find in your research about us that surprised you?” “As you were finding out about us, what questions came up that I might be able to help answer for you?” If the answers are vague or focused on things like salary or benefits, this is a person who wants a job and not a career. That’s fine, but it’s not what I want.

Asking the right questions can make all the difference in assembling a team for the long-term or constantly having to replace people who either leave for a better gig or who aren’t really qualified in the first place. The right questions get you the right people. You with me?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Changes In Latitude

I did something today that I consider a bit of a milestone and I’d like to share it with you because it brings up a bigger point. One of the areas that I used to help clients with was Search Engine Optimization (SEO). While I never claimed to be an expert on the subject I knew enough to get clients started in improving their rankings, often to great effect. In order to stay current, I had 10 different feeds from blogs relating to SEO funneling into my feed reader. Each day I’d peruse the latest and great information, trying to stay current so my advice would be solid.

I also had half a dozen feeds from the advertising trades and six others that talked about analytics. Reading them throughout each day, along with the feeds on the sports business and many tech feeds, probably took a total of an hour or two each day, and when there were big developments, often longer.

I got that time back today because I deleted those feeds from my news stream. I’ve changed the focus of my business to franchise consulting and frankly, keeping current on tech, advertising, and media when I have very little practical reason to do so (other than to amuse you here on the screed) was an inefficient use of my time. While I am still subscribed to a number of feeds in those areas to maintain a knowledge base, I’m cutting the cord on most of them.

What’s been surprising as I hit the “delete” key is how long it has taken me to do this and that’s the point I think is relevant to each of us. It’s hard to let go. I still consider myself a TV guy even though I haven’t worked in the TV business for almost 20 years. Most of the people with whom I worked are on to other things or retired. I couldn’t let go though and was faithfully reading the trades I read when it was my daily life.

I’ve been at this new line of consulting for a year. I’m thoroughly enjoying it and business is good. Despite that, it’s a struggle not to look in the reaview mirror sometimes at the business life that was yesterday instead of spending that time focusing on what’s ahead. I’m hoping that deleting the feeds and freeing up some time will encourage me looking forward and I hope it’s something you’ll think about as well. As Jimmy Buffett says,

Its these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
Nothing remains quite the same

Make sense?

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Filed under Growing up, Helpful Hints, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud