Is there a code of silence?

Nobody buys a restaurant with the intention of working 90 hours a week, getting paid less than minimum wage, having their work trashed by complete strangers, risking going broke within 12 months and facing a lifetime of debt as a result.

Unfortunately that is exactly what happens for thousands of restaurant owners each and every year! It’s amazing that nobody wants to talk about this; it’s like a dirty little family secret that’s best left under the carpet and only spoken about when the public is not around or when a few of the oldies have had too much to drink.

I actually believe there’s unwritten code of silence adhered to by restaurateurs, the food media and anyone remotely associated with the industry. It’s almost as if we acknowledge it, it will become real, only it is real and by not addressing it restaurateurs who are struggling feel isolated, to blame, lost and defeated. Worse still new people coming into the industry repeat the same mistakes as those before them, with the same devastating outcomes.

It is devastating, in fact it’s heartbreaking to watch good people lose everything, their money, homes, marriages, health and dreams because they don't know how to play the "restaurant business game". They come into the industry full of passion. They want to create a place where people can have great food, enjoy the atmosphere and feel the love of being served.

Does anyone benefit from this code of silence? Maybe those who sell restaurants do, those who re-fit them, companies who sell new cooking equipment, the lawyers of course and sadly a large part of the marketing industry. Unfortunately the marketing industry has within it companies and individuals that sell “ad space” knowing (and yes they do know) that will do no good for the restaurateur. There are PR companies that promise that articles in the foodie press or getting the restaurant on the cover of a glossy magazine will lead to riches, yet they know (yes they do know) that this will not work in the vast majority of cases. In reality many of those who did get that coveted PR last year also bombed out of business too, think Justin North, Tony Bilson and Gordon Ramsay.

Because restaurant owners don’t know any better they are easy prey for slick sales techniques. They look at what the so called “successful” restaurateurs are doing and think that that must work so they should do the same. From personal experience I know that many of these “successful restaurants” are actually very unprofitable, the owners as just as lost and stressed as the little guy and their advertising doesn't work at all.

Unlike many in our industry at ARMS we do talk about the difficulties, we tell the truth about advertising and marketing and we are obsessed with tracking the sales results from the marketing we do (about 3.5 million emails a year and 300,000 hard mailing pieces) so that our clients get a great “Return On Investment” (ROI) for every dollar spent. Because we get the BS out of the way quickly we can get on with doing what works. We don’t sell “fairy dust” we do real direct response marketing that turns restaurants round and brings in sales.

I have always been passionate about helping people to fulfil their dreams its why I went into social work and became a therapist and its why I feel so much empathy for restaurateurs who are struggling to find success. Despite ARMS being a marketing business our raison d'être is "to be of service". I tell all of our new hires we help our clients to become profitable so that we can help them to change their lives. I find it appalling that these wonderful, hospitable people become trapped in a business that kills their spirit and sucks the life out of them when all they want to do is provide great food and service to others.

So we show our clients how to turn their business around, we help them to become highly profitable and then we encourage them to live the lives they dreamed of when they first opened their doors. For some this means buying another restaurant or two, others buy a weekender, others go on family vacations and some even sell their businesses for a PROFIT (almost unheard of these days when many people are simply locking the doors and walking away with a lifetime of debt to clear)."

When John Hart, the CEO of Australia's Restaurant and Catering Assn was asked what he would say to someone wanting to open a restaurant, he said, "Don't do it... there’s no money in it!"*. Despite John's warning and mountains of evidence to back it up hundreds of new restaurants and cafes open in Australia every year.

One thing that would make restaurateurship less of a gamble would be the requirement for new restaurant owners and chefs to study successful marketing techniques and strategies before being allowed to invest in their new venture, because that isn't the case ARMS have taken on the role as guide and mentor as well as providing marketing solutions to many restaurateurs.

The biggest challenge that we encounter is that most restaurateurs focus almost all of their attention on "the product", the food, service and environment and virtually none on getting people to come in and experience that product. They suffer from what I call “The Field Of Dreams” syndrome, they belief that “If they build it, they will come”. They rationalise that this will work because they have a great product unfortunately these days having a good product is not good enough to ensure success. More astounding is that when this doesn't work many restaurateurs stubbornly stick this philosophy despite it not producing results. I cannot remember how many times I have heard the line “I shouldn't have to market my product”; could you imagine a real estate agent or car manufacturer or Apple™ thinking like that?

So the place we begin when working with restaurateurs is to pull back the curtain and reveal the tricks that are being played on them by big media and PR companies so that they don’t get fooled again. We then show them how by using cost effective, direct marketing strategies they can quickly start to attract more customers and increase their profits. This is just the beginning but it’s like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. At this point we can start to plan for a bright future one that puts the restaurateur in charge on their business not a victim of the whims of the public or the economy.

We teach, coach and support our clients to gain a different perspective on their business. It is very rewarding to watch someone “get it” that by marketing their products and services they can actually rapidly increase their profits and begin to create the lifestyle that they wanted from owning a restaurant. Once they are thinking that way, we work in concert to come up with new promotions ARMS takes on the logistics of getting the marketing pieces to the target market and that’s when the profits really start pouring in.

At that point our clients become more like friends we work together to the same ends, to drive more people into the business and to keep the customers coming back without causing any more work for them. In fact, it’s now when the business is busier than ever that they start to take time out. To have those dream holidays, to fix up the house, to buy the weekender, to get the boat back in the water and ultimately to live the dream.

*As reported in The Australian 19/08/10