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.

Watching the Decline of a Cafe Under New Owners

It’s painful to watch the decline of a favourite cafe – it’s been under new management for the last 2 months. It was probably not an easy business to sell, as the menu is complex and standards high – that would make it intimidating for many potential purchasers. The previous owners set it up ten years ago, and it has a passionate following – for the product and for them as people. But new owners should expect this –  it is too personal a business for them to assume people won’t care about changes. Just doing the same as before is never enough in situations like this.

What else have I noticed?

  • The beautiful fresh flowers on the front table are now skimpy, or missing. No more quirky signs or humorous touches.
  • Instagram action has fallen away – previously we would see something wonderful just out of the oven almost every day.
  • Most of the familiar staff have gone. That is inevitable with a changeover, but we miss the friendly greetings, especially from the previous owners. This ’emotional leadership’ can be replaced by new faces, but there are no obvious owners taking on this role – who is running the show? Who is the new chef? Many people like to know this…
  • Cake cabinets are a little less full and abundant. They may have been overstocked before, but all that great food piled high was part of the attraction.
  • Signs of carelessness – staff touching hair between serving, cash sales not rung up properly. Maybe I’m watching too closely?
  • Decline in coffee quality – have they changed brands?!? This can be a disaster for regulars, and I’ve heard comment from others.

Taking over a popular business will always be a challenge, and the last thing that regulars want is change. There’s a strong need for stability, continuity and even more friendliness. Once a slide starts to happen, it can be reversed, but it needs ‘turnaround marketing’ skills that many people don’t have.

>> Check the positive companion article to this: When You Take Over a Cafe or Restaurant – How to Do It Right .

 

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…