Every issue of Food & Drink since Summer of 2011 has contained one of my columns. Here’s the latest one.
One summer back in the day I took college summer classes and worked at one of those smorgasbord places where customers paid an entry fee and ate as much as they wanted of anything their clogged hearts desired. Spending hours in one of those restaurants as an employee is not for the weak or overly sensitive, but I did learn something.
I learned that the way to drive a restaurant out of business is to think of it only as an exercise in cost control.
The people running this restaurant had no vision besides turning a profit—there was no effort to understand why people came, and came back, and then eventually stopped coming back. They just kept filling up the food bins until, a few years later, nobody cared very much about coming to eat there.
If you’d asked them, “What problem does this restaurant solve for the customers it’s trying to attract and retain?” they’d …well, they’d have rolled their eyes at the pretentious-sounding nature of the question, then said something like, “Look, it’s a variety of food and you can have as much as you want for one price. So the problem it solves is we’re the only place you can do that.”
That’s a feature. But the benefit of a restaurant lies in solving someone’s problem, making their life better, becoming important to their lives—beyond just being different.
Looking back, I see that this place actually did offer solutions to certain people—it was a place for curious but picky people to experiment with foods they wouldn’t usually eat, it was a place for high-metabolismed people who burn a lot of calories and don’t have much money, it was a place for tired parents to let their kids exercise a little independence without inconveniencing a server, for starters. But they never enunciated any of that. They just tried to keep the money they spent below the money that came in. So when the people who were fans got tired of it and no new people came in, and an ever-dwindling number of people were giving them money, they had no plan. No levers to throw. No clarity about why people liked them. No sense of how they were improving people’s lives, or providing a necessary solution unavailable elsewhere.
What problem (or problems) does your restaurant solve?
Let’s try an exercise. Here’s how some sandwich restaurants might answer that question.
THE PROBLEM WE SOLVE IS: FAST FOOD IS UNHEALTHY, BUT HEALTHY FOOD IS USUALLY EXPENSIVE AND SLOW. Subway succeeds despite marketing that’s so scattershot it defies generalization—because Subway solves a problem: when you’re in a hurry and want something inexpensive but can’t stand to eat another fast food meal, they magically appear in the nearest strip mall.
THE PROBLEM WE SOLVE IS: PEOPLE LIKE THE CONVENIENCE OF SANDWICHES BUT SOME FIND SUBWAY A LITTLE DOWNSCALE.
Some people get tired of Subway, or find it a little too basic, or something. So places like Firehouse Subs or Potbelly’s solve that problem: when you’re in less of a hurry but still aren’t ready to commit to a place that has a server, this ilk improves on the sandwich you’d probably get at Subway. But their next challenge is to figure out what problem they solve that might cause someone to choose one over another—that’s what’s creating problems for Quizno’s. They used to be “the toasty sub” but now there’s a lot of warm subs available, and they don’t know what problem they solve that Potbelly’s or Firehouse Subs or even other fast casual places don’t solve just as well.
THE PROBLEM WE SOLVE IS: EVERYBODY HAS THE SAME ORDERING SYSTEM AND PEOPLE DON’T REALIZE ALL THE VARIETY THEY CAN HAVE ON A WARM SANDWICH.
That’s maybe what Which Wich would say. And it is kind of fun to figure out their system and focus on all your options—but I do have a follow-up question. Was this a problem? Were people frustrated or bored with the ordering system at other places? Did they feel they didn’t understand their choices? I worry that Which Wich is solving a problem people don’t actually have. I wonder what makes people come back, unless it’s that they develop a hankering for a particular sandwich that the other sub shops can’t replicate.
This is important because when the novelty wears off, and any given location requires a little extra work to get there, Which Wich will need to understand what they’re doing that helps people, that resolves an issue people have, that appreciably improves customers’ days in a way that goes beyond just “it’s unusual.”
That smorgasboard I worked at had the novelty of a big, constantly rotating wheel—oriented horizontally like on Wheel of Fortune. You walked up, stood in one place, and your food rotated in front of you slowly, giving you just enough time to grab a big spoon stuck in the moving bin, scoop out some food, and replace the spoon. But that novelty wasn’t enough.
THE PROBLEM WE SOLVE IS: SOME PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO SPEND A LOT OF MONEY, OR DRIVE TO THE PART OF TOWN THAT HAS A POTBELLY’S, BUT ARE STILL SICK OF FAST FOOD.
I’m a big fan of the new Arby’s campaign, where Ving Rhames dispels all questions about the reason for Arby’s to exist by declaring “We Got the Meats” in an impatient, angry voice. With that, Arby’s solves the problem of dull, wimpy sandwiches, without getting all foodie-esque or hoity-toity about—for people whose problem is they’re tired of both fast food and Subway but are not ready to bump up to the expense of a fast casual sandwich shop, now there’s another healthy-seeming sandwich option. The trouble Arby’s may have now is creating enough of a real difference in their individual restaurants that the campaign retains its believability.
It’s easy to give simple answers to this question, answers that don’t really help when the going gets tough: “We solve the problem of getting a good, hot lunch.” That’s too universal. “We solve the problem of great food at a great price.” That’s hype. The importance of understanding the aspects of your restaurant that make life better for people—not what makes you different, but what makes you important—sometimes only become clear when there’s trouble.
Of course, if you really understand what problem you solve, and solve it well, and repeatedly, and in interesting ways, well, there may never be much trouble.