Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A few thoughts on why small businesses fail

The other day the S.O. and I drove over to Hurley, approximately 100 miles one way, to help the older grandson with his income taxes. He'd never done them online before and was a little apprehensive about the process, something that's not going to be true in the future. Companies like TurboTax have gotten it down to where if you can read at anything above a 3rd grade level, you can follow their instructions and fill in the blanks with no trouble. We had a good time bonding over his taxes, we imparted some words of wisdom ("Try not to blow your refund as fast as we would"), and headed home. It was not a bad way to spend an afternoon. It kind of made up for the unpleasant experience we'd had at lunch.

On the drive over, we decided to stop for lunch in Bergland. A new restaurant had opened there a few months ago, a place that calls itself JW's BBQ and Brew. We walked in around 12:45, the place was relatively busy but not packed (about a third of the tables were occupied and there were a couple guys sitting at the bar). Our first impression was good -- it's a brand new building and it does look nice inside. It's a seat yourself place so we found a table and waited for the server. Anyone care to take a guess at how long it took for a server to bother coming over to our table? Or, for that matter acknowledge our existence? There was a huge clock hanging on the wall so it was easy to time it. Ten minutes.

The fact that it took ten minutes just to get a server to the table did not bode well for this particular establishment. The S.O. and I looked over the menu and both opted to order items that should have taken nanoseconds to prepare. We both ordered sandwiches. He asked for the brisket with fries as a side; I ordered pulled pork with a side of cole slaw. Half an hour later. . .

I repeat, half an hour later we finally saw some food. It took so long the server actually wound up refilling my Coke once. That never happens. Never. Invariably when we stop for lunch somewhere half my drink ends up still in the glass when we leave. The fact the server did do that one refill meant we did decide to tip, although not as much as we normally would.

You know, I could semi-understand it taking a while to build a sandwich if there was some actual cooking involved, but when it's a barbecue place? The pork is sitting in a metal tub ready to go, and the brisket is ready for slicing. The only cooking our order required was the fries, and just how long do french fries take? Not half an hour.

After we got home, I thought about doing a scathing review on Yelp but changed my mind. We'll never stop there again, but who knows? Maybe if enough people bitch about slow service, they'll get their act together. I did leave a comment on their Facebook page about all the stuff they're doing wrong. I couldn't resist: their latest post was basically a Help Wanted ad. They're looking to hire cooks and wait staff. I suggested that if they do, they try training them. The server who waited on us didn't have a clue what she was doing.

A short list of stuff she did wrong:
1. She saw us come in, but made several trips to other tables and then back to behind the bar or into the kitchen before bothering to acknowledge our existence.
2. When she did come to the table, she came empty-handed to ask if we'd like to see menus. She should have had them in her hand. People don't enter restaurants and sit at tables just to enjoy the view of the parking lot. In fact, she wasted a lot of time and energy running around empty-handed. Obviously, no one ever bothered telling her one of the fundamental rules of working in a restaurant: your hands are never empty.
3. When she asked if we'd like menus, she did not bother to ask what we'd like to drink. We didn't get to order a beverage until she came back to take the food order -- the place sells beer, wine, and mixed drinks. Which beings me to
4. She should have been pushing the local beers they either have on tap or available in cans and bottles. She never said a word about any of the booze, but that's where the profit margin for a lot of restaurants with liquor licenses falls.  Doesn't matter if it's lunch or dinner, when customers come in, one of the first things the server should do is ask them if they'd like a glass of wine, beer, or a mixed drink. This is especially true if the kitchen has a tendency to be slow. We wouldn't have ordered anything alcoholic, but she didn't know that.
5. She did not push the daily special (a half-rack of ribs), nor did she mention the soup of the day.
6. She didn't try to sell us a dessert. They weren't very busy; it was a situation that calls for trying to get customers to linger and spend more money instead of encouraging them to leave.

I have a hunch she figured out we weren't exactly happy customers when she came to collect and we had the exact amount, right down to the penny, ready for her. There was going to be no cheerful "Keep the change" from us. The rather miserly (for us) tip she found after we left probably came as a moderately pleasant surprise.

Right now the restaurant is apparently doing reasonably well. It's been a good winter for snowmobiling, the motels in Bergland seem to be doing a booming business, and there aren't a lot of local choices when it comes to going out to eat. But you can't count on tourists to keep a restaurant going 12 months out of the year. You have to get repeat local business -- and they lost ours. How many others have they managed to turn off since they opened? I can see it now. Business will slow down, they'll start losing money, and you know who'll they blame? The government for all its onerous regulations. If only they didn't have to meet health department standards they'd be making money. Or if they didn't have to pay legal wages. Or if there were no taxes. They won't take a long hard look at themselves and realize that maybe, just maybe, they should have trained their staff -- or not hired their wife's best friend, their slacker brother-in-law, or a cousin or two.

I have no idea just what percentage of new restaurants fail quickly after opening, but I have noticed they seem to come and go quickly. And, of course, I've watched  Kitchen Nightmares enough times to see the many ways in which people can drive businesses into the ground. I think if I was going to open a restaurant or a pub, I'd at least do a few marathon sessions of watching Gordon Ramsay or Jon Taffer (Bar Rescue) in action. Somehow, though, I have a hunch that instead of consulting with Gordon Ramsay via television, the owners of J.W.'s BBQ & Brew decided that hey, we like to cook -- we should open a restaurant -- and now the only question is how long it'll be before there's a For Sale sign on the building. Or, more likely, the smoldering ashes of the insurance fire. After all, there's precedent. That's how the last restaurant on that site went out of business.

We would, incidentally, put up with lousy service if the food was better than average. It's not. It's bland and it's overpriced. It's a shame, because there really aren't many options left on the western end of M-28.


  1. We seldom eat out... but when we do, I want it to be kinda special... something I really like, or a great place... something. What a pity whoever started this restaurant isn't more on the ball and checking that everything is "the best". You're right... it won't last.

  2. Well, according to Thom Tillis, the reason small businesses fail is because of these horrible onerous regulations like requiring food-service people to wash their hands after using the bathroom.
    If only cooks and servers could work with unwashed hands the service would probably have been a lot quicker. But no, they are forced by this tyrannical government to spend extra time soaping up and rinsing off their hands while we, the customers, sit and wait.

  3. Too bad we aren't secret shoppers. There would be a number of places getting dinged for lousy service and/or lousy food. (Like Habaneros.) My sandwich reminded me of the Andy Capp where he asked the bartender if he wanted to know how to sell more beer?? Fill the bloody glasses!! My sandwich could have used more meat to at least cover the small hoagie bun.

  4. I really wish the Feds would divide the category "Small Business" by three. A Mom and Pop business like mine has entirely different stresses and strains than a business of 100 employees, yet the Feds treat them the same. And the rest of the business world follows with the same treatment. This results in the true small business getting shoved to the back of the line when seeking help from the SBA, the Feds, the banks. And if any business needs help regarding good business practices, it is the small, small business like a restaurant. Of course, that is if they survive their first year. Sounds to me, the one you ate at is heading in the wrong direction.

  5. bad waitress's and slow service can kill a business faster than bad food..bad food you might think it was a bad day..bad service ? its not going awayl..maybe she's screwing the boss.

  6. There is no way I would own a food service business here but if I did the help would be well trained, or be down the street.

  7. When I was in the restaurant/bar biz 30 plus years ago it would never occur to us not to train every single staff member - now, it is so apparent in all but the most upscale places that there is no training going on. I agree that is the reason most restaurants fail - not regulations but laziness and shortsightedness.


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