Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Don't blame the customers you couldn't keep

     On Friday, my wife and I celebrated the end of the week by walking over to Kamehachi and enjoying a sushi dinner. We could have gone to BluFish on Willow, also very good, or Fuji Yama over on Dundee, truly excellent. But those require getting in the car, and we like to support restaurants in our immediate neighborhood.
    Good fish. Good prices. Good service. As always.
    On Sunday morning, we did make the drive to Prairie Grass for breakfast: Sarah Stegner's lemon ricotta pancakes. To. Die. For. We had thought about Georgie V's—also very good, and within walking distance. But those pancakes...
    "And besides," I said, sealing the deal, "maybe we'll run into Bill Kurtis." Sometimes we run into Bill Kurtis. We've gone there 50 times. At least. We chatted with the owners, Sarah and her husband Rohit Nambiar. We praised their pumpkin pie: really, the most delicate pie. Not too heavily spiced... 
     What I'm trying to say is we're restaurant sorts. We eat at restaurants, think about restaurants, enjoy restaurants. Especially restaurants in downtown Northbrook. We are rooting for them, patronizing them, hoping they can solve the puzzle and find success. Nobody wants to see a business fail. To see someone's dream wither.
    So of course we noticed, and were saddened, when two, count 'em, two restaurants within a few blocks of our house both closed at almost the same time. Lucky Fish abruptly covered its windows with brown paper a couple weeks ago. Then Jar Bar, directly across the street, announced it will go out of business at the end of the month.
    In a story on the closings in the Northbrook Patch, both restauranteurs threw their customers under the bus.
     "The support wasn't there," said Lucky Fish's Steve Geffen, washing his hands of doing anything wrong.
     "Small business can only thrive on continued daily support from its community," wrote Jar Bar owners Karen and Adam Firsel.
     And why wasn't the support there?
     They didn't say. So let me designate myself as a spokesman for the community and suggest a few possible reasons.
     The support wasn't there because both restaurants fell down on the job.
     Lucky Fish is something of a puzzle. An extension of the popular Lucky Fish in Highwood, it always seemed crowded. I ate there a dozen times. It was expensive, but the food was good. Except when it wasn't. The quality was erratic. My wife would find a meal she liked, then return and order it again and it would be completely different. That bothered her. What bothered me was that the service was fumbling. At those prices, they should have had the bring-your-meal-to-you drill down. They didn't. Instead it was Amateur Hour. It was as if they yanked passersby off the street and put them to work rushing meals from the kitchen. The space also had an unfinished quality; it was like you were eating in somebody's garage.
     And the Jar Bar. I was really excited about the Jar Bar. Good advance press. They spent a lot of money getting the place ready. It had this way cool blue sign.
     A day or two after it opened, I went in for breakfast, hoping for the start of a beautiful relationship.
     "Would you like to try our buttered coffee?" a woman behind the counter asked.
     How nice. "Sure!" I said, expecting, from her phrasing, that she was about to give me a sample. I had never tasted buttered coffee. 

     Instead she handed me a cup of coffee and charged six dollars.
     I've never spent six dollars on a cup of coffee in my life, at least not one that didn't have a slug of Jameson in it.
     On top of that, the oatmeal was the sort of gelid glop you make yourself out of a pack of instant. Half filling a little paper cup. Like the old Catskills joke: lousy and in such small portions.
     So let's reprise: wildly-expensive buttered coffee that I didn't know I was ordering, coffee that tasted, well, like coffee, plus a dollop of the kind of oatmeal you made for yourself in a cup in college. Total price, $11 plus tax.
     Would you go back? Despite feeling robbed, kind soul that I am, I did return, figuring they wouldn't rob me twice. I got a cup of non-buttered coffee, drank it and left and that was it. Why? I can make coffee and instant oatmeal at home. Plus, the place was packed with the owners' friends; sitting there, I felt like I had crashed a party where I hadn't been invited. The sense of having been robbed lingered. They had other meals, but they didn't appeal: poke, bleah. Plus the fare didn't sit well together on the plate of the mind: the only thing worse than poke is poke and oatmeal. The room itself was uninviting. I walked by Jar Bar dozens of times—my dry cleaner is around the corner—and never once saw anything that moved me to step inside. Not an appealing sign, no special offer, no "Try our fresh-baked whatever." They did have a chalkboard on the sidewalk, and would write witticisms, and I give them credit for trying. Still, I live two blocks from the restaurant, and never got a flier, a coupon, nothing. Were it my restaurant dying on Shermer, I'd be buttonholing customers in the street.
     I was tempted to write this while they had a chance to fix themselves, but didn't want to draw attention to their shortcomings, to step on the fingers of a new business trying to climb up the slippy pole of success and, frankly, my experience of human nature is such that I know it wouldn't have mattered. Very few people can take responsibility for their own failings. They'd just resent it. Reading how the culinary masterminds behind Lucky Fish and the Jar Bar both blamed the communities where they set up shop for their own mistakes, it tells me I was right.
     People can eat at home. If you want them to patronize your place instead, you had better give them an offer they can't refuse. And if they do refuse it, don't lash out. It's a bad look. I want people to read my column, but I'd never dream of damning those who don't. It's unprofessional. Read what you like.
     The two restaurants mentioned in the beginning of today's post  aren't the only ones we've gone to this week. After another great meal at Kamehachi, we were walking home, and decided to stop in at Graeter's and pick up desert to take home. Graeter's is always crowded, even selling ice cream in the dead of winter, because it's really good ice cream, sold with enthusiasm in a fun setting. What's not to love?
     Before we could walk across the store to the freezer case we had been intercepted by Daniel, a clerk, who stepped from behind the counter. Could he help us? A pint of ice cream? Why here they are. Have we tried this flavor? Or that flavor? Please, taste some samples. He handed us little spoons piled with ice cream, apologizing that they were uneven.
    Read that sentence again: he apologized that the free samples he was handing us were uneven. Compare that with Jar Bar tricking me into buying six buck coffee.
     Daniel kept up a banter so enthusiastic, so friendly, that I not only paid $6 for a pint of ice cream, but tipped him a buck AND signed up for their special Graeter's fan club. And I never sign up for those clubs.
     That's how a food establishment stays in business. It isn't rocket science. Sell something good. Do so from a pleasant setting. Nicely. Treat your customer like you value their patronage. Form a relationship: I knew the name of the clerk at Graeter's because he was so personable I asked him. My wife and I walked away, happy, talking about that bright young man's shining future. 
     If you can't do that, at least have the good graces not to blame everybody else for your own shortcomings. A lesson for whatever establishment moves into the Jar Bar and Lucky Fish spaces. The restaurant game is difficult. But it can be won if you play it right. And if you screw up, don't try to ladle out your bitterness to the public. That, you should eat in private.

22 comments:

  1. Thank you. Spot on. Deal with this all the time.

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  2. Oh wow. It’s like you read my mind. Lucky Fish has a beautiful space, but you could have been reading my mind with what you wrote. Jar Bar closed so early in the day that it wasn’t convenient. Plus, food was really Unexceptional and expensive. If I want a $15 salad that isn’t even that big. I can easily get that in a nicer restaurant where it’s comfortable to sit and I don’t have to listen to a commercial blender. I’m sure the construction was frustrating, but on the other hand, I’ve been going to that block every week during construction and it’s been no issue at all.

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  3. Also, Jar Bar has had an attitude since the beginning. When they first open, they were constantly running out of food and closing unexpectedly. People would post on Facebook that they were irritated by it and the owner would reply extremely defensively. But she’s the one who used her connections to coordinate a huge media campaign, even national press, because she used to work with Oprah. So if you’re going to make a big deal about your opening, you should probably be ... open. She was talking about going national before they even opened, and referenced the press in her closing letter, as if to say “Northbrook just wasn’t ready for me”. I don’t know, maybe I’m being mean, but there was a real attitude to the operation all along, which I didn’t really sense at Lucky Fish, which after all, is part of a group of pretty successful local restaurants.

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  4. Yes! Yes! Yes! Spot-on analysis. In addition, running successful business requires a lot of hard work. More work than most people realize, and more than most are prepared for. People have dreams but dreaming it doesn't make it happen.

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  5. I wish you could deliver a copy of this blog to the restaurant owners. Maybe they can learn from it.

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  6. Exactly, Neil. Having visited both places desperately seeking more local restaurants in NB, was not happy with either - let me add: When you would walk into Lucky Fish, the menu was on a chalkboard about 7 feet up, over your head, and impossible to read if your wear bifocals, unless you stood by the front door and people's way. Could not get a printed menu, only a computer printed list of the specials. Maybe they fixed that, but the service and prices kept us out of there since last summer... Jar Bar? We walked in because it looked cute and friendly. Except we realized soon why it was called "Jar Bar." Everything was served ... in a jar. Not a big jar, just smallish fake-y Mason jars that looked to me like samples, yet robustly priced. Really, your uniqueness is based on serving everything in JARS? Have you never seen Steve Martin's "The Jerk?" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52jSB5s33aA

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  7. Thanks. I often hear laments such as these from restaurateurs as they shut down.

    There was a fancy pasty shop that on their way out lamented that their poor customers didn't know how good their pastries were, and that we'd cheerfully hand over four bucks for the muffin if only we were more sophisticated, more knowledgeable about the love, the care and the fantastically expensive ingredients that went into it.

    And this may be true. But first they have to get me to want it. Sell me the sizzle, sure, but don't forget to deliver the steak.

    I have much more respect for the corner coffee shop that put up a note of apology in the window after closing, saying that they were sorry they couldn't make it work and were working to make way for new ownership.

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  8. This post has an unpleasant personal resonance with me, because before I was born, my father failed in the restaurant business.

    It was a place he’d inherited from his father, a lunch counter/ice cream shop. It was on Harrison Street, across from where the Cook County juvenile court used to be (and maybe still is, for all I know), so they did a nice business with the cops, lawyers and other court personnel. One of the regulars was Kyran (sp?) Phelan, who briefly served as acting Chicago police commissioner after the Summerdale scandal.

    Anyway, the family story was that the restaurant failed because “the neighborhood changed,” and black people, I dunno, don’t eat lunch or like ice cream. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I learned the truth. My father, whom I loved dearly but who had not a shred of common sense, got into a snit with the longtime cook, fired the guy and tried to do the cooking himself.

    It was a disaster. People liked him personally, but he could not keep up with the orders. If you’re hungry and have a limited time for lunch, and you walk into a restaurant and walk out without your lunch because the owner doesn’t know what he’s doing, it doesn’t matter how much you like the guy, you’ll go somewhere else tomorrow.

    I have a couple of uncles who did succeed with restaurants. It’s hard work and you have to know what you’re doing.

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  9. I'm still mourning the loss of Alicia's Restaurant, 69th & Pulaski. Ironically, a sign advertising the place remains in the vacant lot left after they tore down the building. The owner didn't complain. He just sold out to people who didn't know what they were doing and moved to Darien. I loved the place: it was cheap with delicious and plentiful food and great service. Now everybody goes to Huck Finn's down the street, where mornings if I stop in for coffee and a doughnut I see the regulars munching breakfast and reading the Sun-Times. That'll be me pretty soon, when I get tired of burning up pans left on the stove too long.

    john

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  10. Wow what an excellent article. Were those businesses active in the community or with the Northbrook Chamber of Commerce? Not that I've seen. As a business owner in Northbrook I work very hard at being a part of the community. Take a look at another great Northbrook business that does an amazing job at participating with and donating to the community - Waterway Car Wash (not my company). They are a great example of how to make a business part of the community.

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  11. How hard is good food and good service? I've literally sat waving my arms trying to get the attention of any of three servers standing around talking and apparently looking at the floor. My parents owned a small restaurant on the southside in the 50s-70s, and I worked as a waitress in high school. I was taught to always be looking over the dining room for that customer looking for, you know, service. If I brought coffee or water to one table, I always walked around the dining room to see if anyone wanted more or just made a quick tour of the room asking if anyone wanted anything. Great food, attentive service, and a smile - it's not exactly rocket science.

    Who the hell thought butter coffee was a thing?

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  12. Too many people, both dreamers out of chef school and successful moneyed types like TV producers and real estate entrepreneurs, think they can spiff up a vacant space with a little sweat and some creativity and a lot of capital, then put up a sign (Mr. S. knows all about eatery signs), and that the result will be a license to print money.

    And if they don't know what the hell they are doing, or their culinary skills are sub-par, or the service is bad and the reviews are mixed or worse, they go under in a year or two, and someone else remodels the space and tries yet another "restaurant concept"..."East Coast and New Orleans-style seafood with a Mexican flair"...or perhaps it's "rustic Italian-Sicilian with a little Mediterranean flair"--all of which “appeal to young, hip adults that want an urban dining experience in a convenient suburban location that caters to their modern lifestyle”…in English, that’s “busy and well-heeled Northbrook Millennials who want to eat out like they’re on the mid-North Side, but who don’t want to shlep into the city and would rather eat close to home.” The only folks that seem to be heavier on the crapola than restaurateurs are politicians.

    Here in Northeast Ohio, the food editor of our local “alt-weekly” (yes, we still have one) devotes far more column inches to openings and closings, followed by news of even more openings and closings (in the same spaces), than he does to reviews of decor or ambiance or what’s on the menu. Poor food and bad service are primary causes, but many failures seem to be due to bad attitudes. Staff are often rude and condescending and patronizing. They sneer rather than attempt to educate the unknowing and unhip, or the confused. They have elitist mindsets and foodie hauteur that borders on the unforgiveable and the outrageous.

    And their bosses seem to be only in it for the quick buck, not to build up a following or to give back anything to their community. If someone charged me six clams for a sample of…ugh…buttered coffee…gag…they’d quickly end up with a cup of it in their face. Coffee to die for? well, no...but maybe worth getting arrested for.

    Many eating establishments also seem to have the chutzpah to berate their customers for lack of sophistication or for being ignorant about their “concepts’…and finally whining and crying about “lack of community support” (or endless construction projects) when they finally throw in the towel after patrons reject their arrogance and their screwy ideas. A “fast-casual healthy lifestyle of clean ingredients in recyclable packaging”--overpriced frozen dreck in a Mason jar--who the hell were these high-rollers trying to kid? Customers may be ignorant, but they are not stupid.

    There are only so many foodies with a certain level of discretionary income that they choose to spend on dining experiences. Not everybody eats out three or four or five times a week. A lot of folks can no longer afford that luxury, or prefer standard "home-style" fare, not exotic meals. It’s not an unlimited market…and if potential customers are continually disrespected, conned, insulted, ignored, demeaned, overcharged for tiny plates of unpalatable slop, and baffled by marketing bullshit, these places, no matter how new and hip and shiny, will soon be serving up nothing but…yes, I will say it…toast. Sorry…couldn’t resist.


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    1. Cartoon--in a neighborhood bi-weekly:

      Woman: "Hey, a new restaurant just opened down the street."
      Man: "Cool...we should go there some time...before they close."

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    2. Back in the 60's, in a four flat on the south side directly across the street from George M Pullman School, our nonna used to treat us to buttered toast dunked in coffee. Absolutely sublime.

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    3. "busy and well-heeled Northbrook Millennials who want to eat out like they’re on the mid-North Side, but who don’t want to shlep into the city and would rather eat close to home."

      Can they afford to eat out on the mid-North Side if they're living with their parents?

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  13. It's amazing when you think about how many restaurants have failed to make it in that one block stretch. Off the top of my head you have My Pie, the upscale Mexican place (can't remember the name), Drumstix, Lucky Fish, Yogen Fruz, and now Jar Bar. It seems like the established places on Shermer continue to thrive, but most of the new places fail.

    The one place I have to give serious credit to is Leonidas. When it first opened, I didn't think it would last a year. It just seemed like too niche of a market. Clearly, I was wrong. I've only been in there a couple times, but the owner does seem incredibly friendly. I'm sure this is a major reason why her business has survived, while so many others have gone under.

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  14. I wish you'd write columns EVERYday like this one, it's what makes you the best beat writer in the United States. The restuarant market is way oversaturerated, too many guys chasing the same nickel. Unless you own the building the landlord is the only party that makes any money in a lot of establishments. Still, sad to see someone's 401k being savaged in 18 months. There's an entire industry of liquidators that circle like scavenger birds waiting for the restaurants to go under. They buy the equipment and sell it off to the next batter up. Do a column on the liquidators that'd be very interesting. This economy is becoming a race to the bottom for the little guy...

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  15. Never ate at either. Also I never had one person tell me I had to go and try them either. That is always the tell.

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  16. Too much Food Network and nkt enough Real World restaurant experience. Spent a lot of years working in the food industry. From mopping floors and flinging pizza dough as a teenager to being a hotel banquet server and food purchasing agent. Opened Sieben's brewery and was at the grand opening of tje Sheraton Hotel and Towers. Do i know what it takes to be successful in the food industry? Yes. Could i be? Doubtful. It is very risky and demands every second of your attention just to gdt to break even point.
    Would i ever try? Only if i had a million dollars to throw away and wanted to kill myself trying.

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  17. We went into a pub type restaurant that opened in our area. When we walked in, no one came to greet us for seating and there was one waitress in there, she looked and didn't even comment. We turned around and walked out. No surprise that the place didn't last.

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  18. Right on about Lucky Fish. We went there once and it was too expensive for a meal in a crowded little table with lots of noise. Apparently others agreed with me. Never tried Jar Bar bc everyone said it was too much money for a "jar" of food. I saw that she blamed the community.

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