Dealing With Copycats…

Tell the truth – most restaurant and foodservice ideas are some version of what you’ve seen or eaten before. You could call it ‘creative swiping’ instead of copying or plagiarism, but it’s rare for any chef or restaurateur to create a full set of completely original ideas for a new menu or cocktail list. Remember that trip to Chicago, Bali or Barcelona – tasting, taking photos and dreaming up how you could do an Aussie version for your customers?

And sometimes true originality does happen – a magic combination of sauce, spice, protein and fire. An unusual chocolate cake, upside down ice-cream or lethal cocktail – the stuff that drives word-of-mouth, Instagram and crazy return customers.

What can be copied? A recipe, decoration and furniture ideas, a menu layout, fonts, website design or even a name – how many times have you seen an Aussie concept that copies a US original?

What can be stolen? Your chef, your manager, the best waiter and some of your customers…

READ the rest of my Copycat article on p.24 of this months Hospitality magazine

Bar and restaurant found in Madrid…

When You Take Over a Cafe or Restaurant – How to Do It Right

A while back I wrote about the decline of a favourite cafe now under new ownership. I was challenged to give suggestions for how this could be done well, so here’s my To-Do list for the new business owner:

New Faces: own it, and let people know who’s who. Now’s the time for name tags (yes!) and the owner or manager could even add a cheeky label to say ‘Proud New Owner’.  Could you get a ‘best wishes’ message from the old owner? Put it up on the wall for all to see.

This is also time to say goodbye to staff who weren’t adding to the business – the slow and the negative. In most situations, you have a unique opportunity to let go of previous employees without any obligation – the previous owner should be paying them out, or compensating you for any accrued benefits they have (eg long service leave). New owner, new start – talk to your lawyer.

Do More of What Was Done Well: the great cakes, the friendly greeting, excellent coffee (don’t change the blend!) and the special services. Keep buying flowers and providing newspapers.

Fix the Weak System: businesses are rarely sold because they’re making too much money… it’s usually the opposite, no matter what stories you were told by the broker! Audit and start upgrading the ordering systems, stocktaking, recipe costing, booking and customer service procedures. Are staff signing on and off correctly? Assume that there’s been internal theft, and look for system gaps that have allowed this eg stocktaking, POS not being used correctly, cash handling etc. Once you close off these opportunities, the thieves will soon leave.

Dig Into the Numbers: the figures you were given from the old business are probably a bit sketchy, but you will soon find valuable information from your POS and the bills you pay. A well-setup cloud accounting system is essential eg Xero or MYOB, so you can track results day by day – get your accountant onto this immediately. Detailed figures from the POS will soon show best and worst sellers, plus sales by hour and day. A good roster system like Tanda or Deputy let’s you compare wage costs against sales – even a spreadsheet will help to find areas of strength and weakness. Slice and dice all the numbers you can – opportunities will be right there in front of you.

Clean and Repair: businesses for sale often look tired, and cleaning is one of the first things to be neglected. Blitz the floors, and ceilings, plus behind counters and shelves – you’ll be surprised at what you find. Fix the broken appliances, toss out old platters and pots, ditch the broken furniture. Front of house, fix wobbly tables and repair all the dings and scratches on furniture. Paint the toilets and install new toilet seats and amenities.

Don’t Redecorate Just Yet: if you’re launching a whole new concept, go for it. But if you value the concept you bought, minimise the redecoration until you’ve settled in. Once you know more about the customers and service rhythm, you’ll be clearer about new decor.

Leave the Menu Alone: there will be weaknesses that need to be fixed, but in the first few months you are stabilising the ship, sorting out the staff and making friends with customers. You’re also finding out what customers really like, so use the specials board to try new ideas. Ask questions and listen.

Improve the Marketing: another area where the previous owners were probably economising or forgetful. Increase the friendliness and frequency of posts on Facebook and Instagram, including targeted ads. Check that your ‘Google My Business’ listing is up to date and has plenty of photos. The website may need a major improvement – this should be a high priority, with better photos, more relevant information and optimised for mobile phones. If an email newsletters was being send, use it to spread good news – another area where things had probably slipped.

Improve Staff Culture and Conditions: that includes fairer treatment, proper pay, better rostering and good communication channels. There will be times you are told ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ – just smile and explain why it needs to change. Don’t be surprised if within 3 months all the old staff have left – it usually happens with new management. Yes, even the ones who say you’re much nicer than the old boss! Staff manuals and policies, job descriptions and a noticeboard – they’re all part of the healthy new broom.

Invisible? How to Stop Customers Forgetting Your Restaurant

Unless you’re a major industry icon, or they’ve visited 5 times, most people don’t remember your business name…

True story: 2 people in café, one on the phone. She looks at her friend and asks ‘what’s the name of this place?’…and the friend doesn’t know! Worse, there was nothing inside the café to tell them – no signs, nothing on the table or staff uniforms. Future business lost for sure.

Before you go spending big money on expensive promotion, check that you’ve covered all the small, personal promotional items within your 4 walls. You could double your business if everyone came back at least once!

Increase the number of times your business name is seen:

  • The business name on the wall or menu – make it part of the decoration.
  • Business name on awnings and the front window – if it’s just on the awning, people walking or driving by may not see it.
  • The name on the side and back of your company vehicles – include the website so it’s easy to find you later.
  • Name and contact details on the docket a customer takes away.
  • Business cards for people to keep. Makes sure there’s one with every account.
  • Souvenir menus at the counter, even if it’s just a sample.
  • Auto-response to inquiry emails. It automatically bounces back saying something like:
    Thanks for your inquiry – we will be in touch with you shortly. Don’t forget all our menus are online at’…
  • Business name on staff uniforms – just as important as the staff name.
  • Prominent website address – as big as every other mention of your name. If it’s not logical eg instead of, fix this – register the easier name as well, and have them both directing to the same website. If you spell the web name with some capitals (like this example), it’s easier to remember and won’t affect search behaviour.
  • Business name used in menu items eg at Café Troppo we had the ‘Troppo Burger’ and ‘Troppo Trifle’ – distinctive and memorable.
  • And of course your website comes up first when we do a Google search – many businesses still don’t have this happen.

Make contact more personal to reinforce the memories:

  • Hand written ‘thank you’ on the docket or account
  • A personal acknowledgement: ‘Thank you Mr Burgin’ – when my credit card is brought back to me, or when my account details are present eg checkout. If Qantas can do it loading 200 people on a plane, so can you!
  • Real faces on the website gallery – happy staff and happy customers, plus busines owners and managers with short biographical details.

Nice place, but where am I?

The ‘Stage 2’ Error That Can Fatally Weaken a Cafe or Restaurant

A conversation with a new operator during the week got me thinking about a classic and potentially lethal startup mistake: Stage 1 and Stage 2 thinking.

This approach basically says “let’s get this new place open as quickly as we can, even though we don’t have enough money to do it properly. After a few months when we are profitable, we can afford Stage 2 and get the job finished.”

Stage 2 items include things like:

  • A modern website that will compete with the best in the area, with some great photography to attract social media attention
  • Co-ordinated and regular marketing – interesting social media posts, responsive to reviews, developing an email list, and a calendar of promotional events
  • Professional decoration that makes an immediate impression – not just secondhand, DIY and IKEA
  • Plenty of refrigeration and storage space, including a coolroom, so you can buy in bulk
  • A properly-fitted washup area, so kitchen staff can do the job quickly
  • Cost-saving kitchen equipment like slicers, food processors, a salad bar and a properly-tiled floor that’s easy to clean
  • An effective and easy-to-clean kitchen exhaust system – proper filters, easy-access ductwork, and a regular maintenance program. Otherwise it’s a fire just waiting to happen.
  • An efficient and well-equipped counter with great beverage systems – not just the free-on-loan Coke fridge. Fortunately, a quality espresso machine is usually a Stage 1 choice
  • Staff facilities – lockers, a change area and plenty of regular training
  • Staff recruitment and rostering systems – to attract the best and minimise wage costs
  • Correct staff wages, with all the legally-required benefits
  • Well-trained and experienced staff. Most of the best people actually don’t want to be part of a startup, because they know it’s messy. But after a couple of weeks that’s forgotten.
  • Bookkeeping system (like Xero) and someone dedicated to run it, to accurately and instantly track income and expenses

Unfortunately, the lack of these essential Stage 2 items fatally weakens a business from the start, so the great profits expected when you open  with Stage 1 never come to pass. Most Stage 2 items are essential for a healthy bottom line.

You’re overworked and tired, just managing to pay expenses, and the profits to finance investment aren’t there – it’s not long until you’re looking for the exit. Unfortunately businesses stuck in Stage 1 don’t sell for much, and there are lots of them on the market. Invest carefully.

Alimentari in Melbourne – getting it so right from the beginning…

Yuk Factor – Simple Things That Customers Dislike (and don’t tell you about)

We get busy, or need to cut expenses, and it doesn’t take long before shortcuts start with cleaning, maintenance, repairs and service.

Here’s a bunch of familiar items – we’ve all done it, but please find a better way. Most customers don’t complain, they just stop visiting… and tell their friends – these are the opposite of Quality Signals. PRINT and share with your team – they will find more!

  • Sticky things – unwiped tables, unclean carpet, underneath the edge of tables.
  • Wet things – the table that was wiped, but with a wet cloth. The floor or seat of the toilet – they need an immediate fix.
  • The walk to the toilet – is it clean, tidy and ‘neutral’ all the way?
  • Strange smells – in the toilet, cleaning fluid, bleach and more.
  • Dead or dying plants – I’ve always seen this as a strong indicator of a failing business.
  • Grubby kitchen clothes – chef jackets, pants and aprons that aren’t freshly laundered. It’s a time-consuming process, but less than sparkling sends a negative message. And why doesn’t the kitchenhand deserve better than  street clothes?
  • Worn aprons, especially on front of house staff, plus that awful chux in the back pocket for a quick table wipe.
  • Crazy piercings, hair and tattoos – OK, I’m out on a limb here, but our job is not to compete with customers. If you’re in an edgy neighbourhoood, maybe, but if your regular customers would feel confronted, it will turn people away… and should stop.
  • Grubby view of the kitchen – if it’s open, or visible at any time, the shelves have to be tidy, pots scrubbed top to bottom, and please don’t show yellow buckets of chicken booster!
  • Things on the floor – behind the bar or visible on the kitchen floor. Boxes, pots, trays, food cooling.
  • Crap on shelves and counters – staff cigarettes, a glass of old pens, docket books and things that should be in a drawer. Walk around to the customer side and have a look…
  • Staff clearing dirty glasses with their fingers in the rim – touching people’s spit!
  • Stack-and-clear for plates, aka the ‘nanna stack’. Clear professionally so dirty plates are lifted out of the customer view.
  • Fluorescent light tubes visible – in the kitchen or a bar fridge. Surprising how often a great design is sabotaged by careless lighting.
  • Cleaning materials – the mop bucket (usually grubby) and dirty rags.
  • Excess stock – in the corner there’s the big delivery of mineral water you don’t have room for.
  • Broken furniture – rocky tables and rickety chairs. These items get very heavy use, so invest in strong commercial versions or replace every year. IKEA is not a solution 😉
  • Dirty chair legs – they’re kicked all day, and quickly get scuffed and marked.
  • Dirty bins – why are they always so filthy on the outside? Need a weekly scrub.

Italians sometimes call these small, unpleasant items colpo d’occhio – something that hits you in the eye. It’s time to walk around with someone who doesn’t work in the business and see what you find!

How ‘Quality Signals’ Silently Promote Your Restaurant and Bar

They’re the small, carefully chosen elements that, one by one, tell people that this is a quality business. Different people will notice different things, so one won’t be enough. Here are some of the ‘quality signals’ I’ve noticed in the last few months at different restaurants, cafes and bars…

  • Fresh flowers – a big bunch, not a small one
  • Good quality uniforms and aprons in staff – looking new, not washed 1000 times. Matching your staff, who are fresh and well groomed!
  • Staff demeanour – open, friendly and attentive. Focused on the customer, not on each other or their phones.
  • Paintwork clean and unscratched, and floors not scuffed. Wooden floors can be a big problem.
  • Table surfaces polished and not scratched or worn – they need regular replacement or treatment
  • Lighting is warm and the sources usually invisible – no sight of the fluoros in the kitchen
  • Quality tableware – cups, plates, cutlery, napkins and glassware. Water glasses get pitted after hundreds of washes – replace them
  • Good quality coffee machine – it tells us there’ll be good coffee
  • Polished bottles and shelves behind the bar – thorough cleaning
  • Nice view of the kitchen – tidy, clean and organised
  • A visit to the bathroom is pleasant – clean, dry, freshly painted, no smells and a hook for your bag. These little rooms get a lot of use and need industrial-strength fittings eg toilet paper dispensers and deodorising systems
  • The cake display – trays full of delicious treats, hopefully made on the premise
  • Menus freshly printed or laminated – no torn corners
  • Phone answering and email replies – prompt, articulate and helpful

Missing or wrong signals can undermine or sabotage an otherwise-professional operation – sometimes they could be called Yuk Factors. What needs changing?