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Keep customers from being bored

Question:

We have been in business for 24 years and have seen much success. We operate in a small town, Waterbury, Vt., which is central to a lot of ski resorts and our capital, Montpelier. So, why aren’t guests filling up the dining room?

– Maryanne Larkin, Owner/Chef, Arvads Grill and Pub, Waterbury, VT

Answer:

To summarize your situation from what you shared and what I could glean from my research, you have strong operations and are community fixtures with nearly a quarter-century of success. So, why aren’t guests filling up the dining room? They’re bored.

You serve good bar and grill food and have a competitive beverage program, which, as you note, is simply a must in Vermont—but that makes it less of a competitive advantage than it would be elsewhere. You are good, but so is the competition, and the novelty of the new blood is outweighing the comfort that familiarity provides for both locals and tourists.

Danny Bendas, Managing Partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants in Irvine, CA, has plenty of ideas: "I looked at the website and checked out the menu...

  1. Look at menu items. Potato skins and mozzarella sticks won't cut it. Work with your chef to market items that are appealing to a younger crowd.
  2. Re-invent the drink menu. You don't include a martini, and the margarita is at the bottom.

As far as promotions, with all the recent reparation, it might be smart to offer something to the construction workers in the area (Ie. a free appetizer with next visit). Additionally, use social media to your advantage. Do like the food trucks do and tweet happy hour specials or recent events.

Find what differentiates your restaurant. Is it a great brunch or happy hour? Could it be late nights? Find what sets you apart and push it!

Instead of donating money directly to an organization, co-plan a dinner fundraiser with the nonprofit/charity of your choice. Select a night where that organization will encourage supporters to dine and after showing a coupon, you will donate 10% to their cause."

It seems to me you have three options:

  1. Invest. Put the structures, menu offerings and human resources in place to beat your competition in terms of quality and experience.
  2. Divest. Take advantage of your excellent business history and solid reputation to sell a turnkey operation to someone with new energy.
  3. Rebrand. Leverage your operations expertise, local knowledge, and the town’s craving for new experiences and use your space for an entirely new concept.

Of these, there is no right or wrong—it really depends on how you want to spend your time over the next few years—in semi-retirement, in rebuilding mode, or starting a new concept. One thing is clear from your description—doing nothing will start a slow decline that will put you in a much weaker position. The great thing you are able to do is to peek into the future and take action now before it is too late.

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