by Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor™

A few weeks ago, I received the following message on my website forum. There have been several comparable questions posted and I just completed a concept redevelopment project with similar characteristics. It appears that the issues raised here are relevant to a number of people, so I thought the question - and hopefully the answer - would be interesting. Here is the original posting:

One year ago, I took over a local 65 seat restaurant that I believed to have been popular before its closing two years prior. Given my theory on its popularity, I decided to keep the name. The original unit was Swiss and my first opening menu was an upscale contemporary one. My customer base required a shift from that menu. Six months ago I revised the menu to that of an American Bar and Grill serving burgers, ribs, etc. and am starting to achieve some very slow success. My question is this: given the not-so-goodwill from the former owner and the not-so-goodwill from my original attempt, is it wise to now change the name to reflect the new menu and hopefully get back some of the people I've lost??? Or should I tough it out? Please let me know what you think!!"

This is an interesting question without a short answer. Let me offer a story to illustrate what I think you need to do:

When Ground Round (an upscale burger concept in the Northeast) was at its peak, its success spawned the predictable imitators. One such wannabe had three units that were not performing well. He approached Ground Round about buying them. "They are exactly your restaurant," he said. And they were - perfect clones, right down to the paint colors!

Ground Round bought them, cleaned them up, hung out the new sign . . . and nothing much happened. They did some intense local advertising . . . and nothing much happened.

Then they closed them again and put in about $100K each in exterior cosmetic changes. They moved the front door three feet, painted the building, re-landscaped the parking area and made similar cosmetic changes. When they re-opened, business boomed!

The problem was that, before the changes, the public did not see that anything was different. It still looked like the same place so it must be the same place. You may know of a few restaurants that have changed hands every year or two that the locals still call by the building's original name. It is still "The Sportsman" to them, even though it is now called "Capt. Jack's!"

You can't count on people to figure it out for themselves. So while you don't need to spend $100K, you need to make the place look obviously different enough that people will get that it is a new game. Much of this is external but there needs to be some internal cosmetics as well.

It's like hitting them over the head with a 2x4 to get their attention. Once they snap out of automatic and get that it is not the same place warmed over, they can start to shift their thinking. Hanging out a sign reading "under new management" (or even "under new attitude") will not make it!

In my experience, the fastest way to make this shift is to invest in the facelift. Close it, change it, re-invent it and re-open with a bang as if you had sold the place to a new owner. It may cost a little more money but I think it will give you the best chance to get a immediate boost in sales volume.

You can tough it out but it is a harder road to travel. It will take you longer to reach the sales volume you want, if you can ever get there at all. In the meantime you will expend an incredible amount of effort, both physical and psychic.

Economics may ultimately determine which way you must go but this is my take on it, for what it is worth.

for further information, contact:

Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor
PO Box 280
Gig Harbor, WA 98335
(800) 767-1055

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