Monday, August 31, 2009

August Vacation Over

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Thank you for your messages and notes. I can't believe that today is the last day of August and I haven't posted anything lately. I've been working on a couple of projects that has taken most of my time and a two week visit from my twin nieces. So, I've been busy shaping these projects and being a busy uncle. I hope to have something to announce by September. All I'll say is that I'm very excited and have my fingers crossed that they'll happen soon.

Thank you again for your patience and look forward to the fall and more posting.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Korean Food, The Next Big Explosion?

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I LOVE Korean food, there's more to it than just Korean BBQ...

About 5 years ago, my business partner and I were approached by a club owner at the beach. His club/lounge went through a few changes and was trying to find a concept that would work. They tried a lot of things and now wanted to try adding Asian food to their menu. We suggested a few things and one of them was Baja style tacos, but with Korean marinated beef. The owner wasn’t too into Korean tacos and mentioned that twenty year olds wouldn’t understand it and wasn’t going to work. We ended up not working with him.

Fast forward 5 years ahead and Kogi BBQ is doing the same exact thing, Korean short rib tacos, kim chee quesadillas, etc. I’m very happy for the Kogi team and glad that they’re succeeding. Because of this, I knew that we were way ahead of our time with the Korean style tacos. Even Baja Fresh is trying their version of a Korean taco and burrito. I wish that club was still open so I could tell the owner that he could have started the Korean BBQ taco craze, but the business is now closed.

I’ve often said that Korean food is the next wave of HOT Asian food. Growing up in LA, I never thought sushi would ever become this hot and hip. If you’ve ever been on Ventura Blvd in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, there’s a sushi bar on each block and Ventura Blvd. goes on for miles and miles. There probably aren’t that many now, but you get the idea. On the other hand, Korea Town in LA is growing by leaps and bounds.

Korean food has its own flavor, very bold with lots of flavor. To me, Thai food has a sexy taste, Japanese food is simple and can taste the freshness, and Chinese food has a wide range of proteins, vegetables, and sauces that are interchangeable, something for everyone. Not to forget Vietnamese, Burmese, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Malaysian, etc.

Why is Korean food a hard sell? Language barrier, names of menu items, and service. The language barrier, when you have an item that’s hard to pronounce, chances are that you won’t sell very many of them. If people cannot pronounce them, they won’t remember it. I'm guilty of that and may not know what the dish is by name, but when they bring it to the table, I can say what's in it and what it taste like. Just don't ask me the name.

It all started with the “California Roll” and not many people can understand it’s success. It’s not just the English name, it has to do with the ingredients too. It’s an easy entry into sushi, although the sushi experts out there will laugh at someone who orders a roll like this when they're just starting out. Just remember how you started and it's not funny anymore...

I always ask people if they like Korean BBQ and the answer is always “YES, do you know a place where they speak English?” Or “I used to go with my co-worker but she got married and moved away.”

If done RIGHT, Korean food could be the next BIG thing. Maybe I’ll open my own Korean restaurant…

Thank you for stopping by and reading my post. If you see value, please pass it along. I always welcome your comments, good or bad.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lost in Translation: Part II

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I often ask myself, why do most Asian restaurants FAIL?

As mentioned in past postings, I've had discussions with many Asian food service companies wanting to come to the US and/or sell to Americans. Americans want Asian products and Asian compaines want to sell to Americans. The problem is that Asian companies don't know how to sell to this target audience and Americans don't know what and who to buy from. A consumer goes home with something they don't understand and Asian companies wondering why Americans don't buy, it's "Lost in Translation."

What these companies don't get is that they need a bridge to gap between the seller and the buyer.These companies all want to serve Asian food to Americans and grow their distribution here. With a large Asian community and Americans hungry for Asian food, how hard can it be? They all think that it's just that easy. What they don't "GET" is who they're selling to and how to get the information to them.

I think that Korean food will be the next big Asian wave, but this will have to wait for another post. You'll have to stay tuned...

I'm not picking on Thailand, I've had conversations with food service companies
in Japan, Korea, and a couple other countries.  I've had the same conversation.

Not too long ago, I met with a group of investors from Thailand; they want to set-up a food service business in the U.S. The problem is that their food and operation looks like Panda Express. For example, Americans know Thai food as BBQ Chicken and Pad Thai Noodles, maybe two or three other dishes. If you don’t feature these items as the headliner, you’ll have problems selling the rest of the menu. I had the same conversation with another Thai company about 3 years ago. BTW, both of these companies don't think Thai BBQ Chicken would be a big seller here... Missed opportunity.

Here's some examples of the “Lost in Translation” misconceptions I pointed out to them:

Misconception #1: Thailand has 4 regions and each region is different, different type of curry, sauces, etc. I told them the same thing, unless you have Thai BBQ Chicken and Pad Thai Noodles as the headliners, green curry and red curry will be a hard sell. They mentioned to me that they have over 100 different menu items and all sell very well. YES, in THAILAND!!! If they only wanted to sell to Asians, then no problem, but they all say Americans are the target customers.

Misconception #2: Thai people eat with a fork and spoon, not chopsticks. I mentioned to the Thai corporation that they need to have chopsticks at the US venues. They proceeded to tell me that Thai people eat with forks and spoons. But the American perception is that Thailand is in Asia and Asians eat with chopsticks. I probably would have thought the same thing too, except for having Thai friends who always eat with a fork and spoon.

Misconception #3: Thai food is Spicy! Yes, there are dishes that are very spicy. To some people who live in the US, the MILD taco sauce at Taco Bell is too hot. I mentioned that they need to tone down the level of heat in their food to be accepted to a wide audience. They went on to tell me that Thai people like Spicy dishes, once again, who are you selling to?

Misconception #4: In order to be successful in the US, you need to build a beautiful restaurant. I can give you a list of very nice Asian restaurants that have closed, because they didn’t know it’s the food and service and not necessarily how nice the interior is. Most people don’t look at the chairs or tables, just the food on top of the tables.

Misconception #5: To make it an authentic experience, they want to send a full staff from Thailand who speaks English. Besides being very expensive to do, WHY? I can understand having a Thai staff, who knows the food and traditions, but we have a very large Thai population here and with the proper training would give customers that warm Thai personality; this is just an unnecessary expense. I would bring a training staff from Thailand, but not an entire restaurant staff. To a lot of people, PF Chang’s has the best Chinese food in the US. In my opinion, it’s not the food, it’s the service that Americans are accustomed to and that's why they're successful. They know who their customers are and how to sell to them. Most Asian restaurants spend very little on customer service training and expect me to train their staff in a couple of hours. The bottom line is that they don’t know their customers or how to sell to them.

Misconception #6: They wanted to build the kitchen in Thailand and ship it here, since labor costs are less over there. I mentioned that each county has a different set of building codes, health department standards, etc. I wanted them to know that it would be very expensive if changes are to be made. With my experience, there will be changes, some small and some over $50,000. What passes in one county probably won’t work in another.

I'm not saying that this concept won't work as is, it might but my gut tells me they won't be as successful as they think. Just ask the Japanese how many concepts failed and at what cost? They keep quiet about it as they exit the marketplace. Experience and training doesn't come cheap, I've spent a lot of time figuring it out and finding out what works, but each situation is different. But for a company who thinks it is easy, it could be an expensive lesson to learn. Not to say that they won’t be successful without my help, but it just makes sense to have people with marketplace experience from the beginning.

I always give the example of the California Roll. It was developed by a Japanese sushi chef at Tokyo Kaikan* in Los Angeles in the late 1960's. This chef was a marketing genius! Think about it; crab meat, avocado, and a cucumber inside the seaweed, rice on the outside so the customer couldn't see the black seaweed. It has an English name, no problems trying to pronounce or remembering a foreign name. The success of this roll is due to knowing that the American customer wanted to try sushi, but was afraid to, as it was too exotic at the time. He knew his target market and made it American friendly. A PURE GENIUS!

I've often thought about keeping my mouth shut and saying YES, YES, YES to these companies and make a lot of money. I've learned from my parents, if you're going to do something, do it the right way. I've consulted and developed successful food service concepts and have done it the right way with the right people. These businesses are successful and the owners have learned if it's working, leave it alone. I understand why these companies don't hire me, I just don't get it. Maybe they want to pay millions for their education... Not only food service and food companies that don't understand who they're selling to but also local restaurants too.

I appreciate your comments, good or bad. If you think this has value, please forward it on. I appreciate your time and interest in my restaurant rants. Thank you!

*Tokyo Kaikan - My dad helped with the design of this restaurant, developers of the California Roll. It's funny how things come around full circle.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Restaurant Marketing Tips

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I had a late night conversation with two restaurant owners. They’re trying to figure out how to promote their restaurants in a changing economy. I said that creativity and thinking outside of the box is necessary to survive in these tough times.

They didn’t seem to have a promotion plan, so I gave them some ideas. Right now, everyone is looking for value. Have you noticed the “value meal” commercials on TV? Jack-in-the Box has a $2.99 value meal and KFC is promoting a $5 one. Each restaurant and menu is different, so you need to select your items carefully; it also needs to make sense to the customer.

Social Media is a great way to promote your promotions and do special things for followers. Zippy’s in Hawaii gives special coupons for their fans on Facebook and The Counter has special deals for their Twitter followers at specific locations. This is an excellent marketing tool, but it needs to make sense for your customers. People like to feel special, so make them special for being a fan or follower of yours. If you take care of your customers, they will take care of you. The best advertising you can do is word of mouth from your customers. If they like your business, they’ll tell their friends. You screw them, they’ll tell EVERYONE!

Customers only remember their last visit, so each customer visit counts!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mom and Pops Using Social Media

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I was reading the New York Times last night about small businesses using social media to promote their product or service. Social media is a great way to connect with people, as they get to know you and your business. Consumers buy from people they know and trust. It’s a FREE way to promote your business.

I know there are a lot of people who don’t get Twitter. I always hear that it doesn’t work, I got bored, and I don’t care what someone is doing now. It’s funny because when we call someone, isn’t one of the first questions, “what are you doing?” Twitter is different for everyone, but I always say if you’re bored, you aren’t following interesting people. I use it for information sharing and have asked many questions. My followers have given me great information or direct me to websites to answer questions that I have, it’s been a valuable resource.

I’ve always been a cheerleader for small businesses, as they’re the backbone of this country. During these tough times, it’s a way for these businesses to compete with the big boys. It’s simple to set-up, FREE, and easy to post or reply to a question. Without a plan or targeting the right audience, these businesses give up. Give me a call, I’ll work with you on something…

Last summer, a business owner asked me what size phone book ad he should do now? I said, “phone book?” For the past 25 years, this guy has always advertised in the phone book and the rep was calling for him to place his ad for the upcoming book. I gave him a quick overview on social media and asked me to prepare a social media program for him. I set him up and is very happy with the results, he was the one who posted pictures of his family reunion for the family. Don’t be left out… Remember: People buy from people they know and trust.

If you’d like to read the New York Times article:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Martha Stewart Collection: What Happened?

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I went through the Housewares Department at Macy’s yesterday. In another life, I was Product Manager for a kitchen gadget company and worked on a few Martha Stewart Collection products for her team. Macy’s purchased a few items from us and saw first hand that the team was doing a great job building the brand.

It’s been almost 2 years since I last strolled through Macy’s housewares and was SHOCKED to see the low quality items that were under the Martha Stewart Collection. When I worked with them, they were very brand conscious and wouldn’t put her logo on something perceived as low quality. To me the Martha Stewart Collection represented a “Collection” in matching colors and quality products. The item colors were all over the place and not inline with the Martha Stewart colors that I was familiar with or at least when I was working with them. Some of the products that I saw looked like one that you’d find at a discount store and not Macy’s. Has Macy’s changed that much in 2 years?

I’m not sure if the direction of the collection has changed since I last worked with them, as it often does. To me Martha Stewart always finds a unique tool that get the job done.
Marketing people are protectors of the brand, not sure what happened with the Martha Stewart Collection. It’s not food service, but it’s food related. Another marketing blunder?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Don't Mess with Success...

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I was at the mall during lunch today. While I was there, I noticed that a coffee/juice kiosk was closed and everything was gone, except for the sign. In February, I stopped by and got a fruit smoothie. This kiosk always had about 2-3 people waiting in line, I remember this because I was trying to figure out why it was so popular? They had two 20 year olds working behind the counter, they were taking care of the customers and getting the orders out, the smoothie wasn’t bad either.

In May, I remember walking by and seeing three older women working behind the counter. Gone were the freshly baked cookies, rice crispy treats, etc. and in place were all packaged snack items. The kiosk was now cluttered with every packaged snack item you could think of, not sure if the customers knew where to order. These women had boxes everywhere and were trying to find places to add more snack items on the counters. I could tell they had no experience taking care of customers, as they made the lonely customer wait for service. Saw the writing on the wall…

My guess is that a new owner bought the business and put in family members to run it. The thinking was probably, “How hard can a coffee business be to run?” Gone were the two 20 year olds working behind the counter and the energy they had by make coffee and smoothie drinks. Take out the freshly baked cookies and put in prepackaged cookies that you can get from a vending machine, how hard is that? Too many times I see a new owner come in and make drastic changes. These changes confuse the customers and they move on. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… Wonder how much it cost them for a few months of being business owners?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

So You Took My Idea...

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The restaurant business is very competitive and everyone is looking for the next hot concept. What they should be doing is improving their own food service and having something worth ordering. A few weeks ago, I heard that Baja Fresh was serving Korean BBQ Tacos at their new concept store in South Irvine. I read that the burritos and tacos were different from Kogi Korean BBQ Tacos ( but thought they were working together. This week, I found out that the two aren't working together. Is Baja Fresh is doing fusion food now? I guess I'm confused as it doesn't fit their Mexican menu. Baja Fresh has taken Korean beef and chicken and put them on their menu calling it "Baja Kogi." This week there was talk that Baja Fresh used the "Kogi" name and it's trademarked and has since changed to "Baja Gogi". Also, I thought their new look reminded me of Chipotle Mexican Grill. I get it, but does it confuse the consumer?

Examples of my ideas being used:

Example 1: I met with a restaurant company that needed my help. They have a unique business that others have tried to copy. Unfortunately, the current owners (finance guys) purchased this business from the founder and since it’s not their vision, they have no idea on how to successfully grow it. The look of their restaurants and graphics are from the 70’s, so I know they don’t know what to do to bring them up to date. This week, I saw that they have a promotion going on now, something that I pitched to them about 7 years ago, so I went to check it out. They took the shell of what I was saying, but didn’t know how to execute it, so they filled in the blanks on their own with the 1970’s graphics. I’m not sure if they’ll break even on this promotion and maybe they’ve “Jumped the Shark” and on their way to closing soon. Stuck in 1970, promotions that will put them out of business, and marketing to the wrong target audience.

Example 2: About 5 years ago, my business partner and I were talking about a sports sushi bar. A chef who was there took the idea, found a place, hired people, and opened up the business. It’s a sports bar, but when you walk in, you would think it was just a restaurant with TV monitors. Nothing in there says “Sports”. The big reason why they aren’t successful is that they don’t know sports. The service is not very good, they’re back kitchen guys and don’t know how to train servers. The menu doesn’t reflect “sports” or “sports bar”. They’re having a tough time due to the menu, service, location, and marketing.

Example 3: We took a restaurant owner to a seafood restaurant for lunch and told her that something like this would do really well with some tweaks. She went off and opened a knockoff of this place in another city. She recently called us for help on another concept, her seafood concept crashed and burned. Probably due to pricing, menu items, and no marketing.

My point to these examples, just because you know food service, you need to have a plan and vision for the growth and/or success of the business. You can take a concept or idea, but when you get stuck, you don’t know what to do because you didn’t get the information to get unstuck. My aunt tells me to keep my mouth shut and do it myself. I’m actually learning from these people, although I wouldn’t have done it like they did in the first place. It’s funny, they still call me for help. I guess they’re trying to get more ideas from me, too bad that they only take the bad ones. What if they actually paid me for a good one?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Upscale Restaurants: ACT IV - The Tragedy

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It’s been awhile since I’ve driven around town for no apparent reason. Last week, I drove around to see the current restaurant landscape in Beverly Hills. I went into one restaurant and the manager was telling me about the restaurant closures in the area. It’s very sad.

Warning: Another rant from me about restaurant management…

An upscale restaurant on Restaurant Row was sold after 2 years in business, the company that built it spent about $18 million and it seemed like 5 years to build the building. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful building, but 5 years? They didn't know what they were doing and had problems with permits, staff, etc. When it finally opened, it was a total mess, the management didn’t know the customers, the servers didn’t know about the food, operation problems, and it went on and on. I’m not sure what the PR agency did or didn’t do, but there wasn’t a SPLASH for the opening. PR people love having something to promote, but this restaurant couldn’t deliver and the PR agency seemed to be out of their league. My guess was that it was both. It's funny, there was a negative blurb in the paper about the restaurant's management on the same page as a similar restaurant down the street, their review was great - this made them look even worse. Not sure what the new owner will be doing, but I’m sure it will be more of the same. I would love for someone to give me that kind of money to open a restaurant and then say “Oh well, time to sell.”

Most upscale restaurant owners all do the same thing and are not willing to spend the money to train their staff on the food and what the focus is all about. OK, management doesn't know either and is reflected in their staff's training. They can’t get customers in the door or sell the food that they have on their menus. Rather than to fix it, I guess it’s just easier to just bring in new management or try to sell it. I’ve been telling people for years, MARKETING is so important when you’re selling an upscale product. It's also a different customer and approach. But all restaurants do the same thing, because they follow what the guy across the street is doing. I could go on and on, if they would only call me for help…

In LA, there are about 50,000 people that frequent upscale restaurants on a regular basis. With new restaurants opening all the time, there isn’t a wide target audience to draw from on a daily basis. They just do the same daily business hoping that people will come. Times have changed and these guys don’t know what to do, “value added” is not in their vocabulary and they’re stuck. So, they put up a banner offering “50% OFF”. If you’ve ready my blogs before, you know that restaurants can't survive by giving that much away on a regular basis, they close soon after the "50% Off". If they just offer a value added bonus or better service and get people to return to spend their hard earned cash. But they try to get too fancy and offer items that only a small percentage would want. I just don’t get it and have told owners that, but they know better than I do, as their business goes down the drain.

As you can tell, I get frustrated when I see restaurants playing follow the leader into the ground. It’s sad but very true. What they need is a marketing expert to reshape their focus during these tough economic time. You can't be everything to everyone!

Attention Restaurant Owners: Give me a call, I can help!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Remember to Support Local Businesses!

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Last week, I went to the post office and had to park around the corner. I walked by a fish & chips place that had been in business for 20 years. They were closed and had a sign thanking their loyal customers for 20 years of patronage. It’s sad to see places like this close due to the economy.

I always remind people to support local businesses because in a tough economy, these are the first ones to go. Sure, I like the prices and selection at the big box retailers, but remember that small businesses are the backbone of this country. If it wasn’t for the independent retailer, you might never find that hard to find item or someone to repair the broken clock over the fireplace. Real estate on store shelves are very expensive and retailers will only carry products that sell at a certain threshold, just ask any CPG company.

If we don’t support local restaurants, get used to eating at the chain restaurants. So many of them are closing. Now I admit, some of them had to close due to lousy management or a concept that doesn’t make sense (you should have called me ages ago). I guess everyone is an expert and knows what they’re doing, why pay someone right? One of my clients is very successful, this owner realizes that they can operate a business but needs an expert to get it started. Most owners that I’ve come across think that if they open their doors, customers will come. Maybe in FANTASYLAND, but in the real world, there needs to be a reason why the consumer is seeking you out. They don't think about what makes them special vs. the place next door.

I’m a strong believer in small businesses. Unfortunately, within the last two weeks, I’ve heard that 14 restaurants are closing or have closed. As we celebrate our country’s Independence Day this weekend, don’t forget about our troops and local businesses.

Thank you for stopping by. Please let me know your comments.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Who's the Customer?

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I work with a lot of Asian companies who want to sell to “Americans.” I figure that’s why they’re doing business in the US. In the last two weeks, I’ve talked to or have been contacted regarding marketing projects. My first question is who do you want to sell to? 9 times out of 10 the answer is Americans. Then I’m the one you want to talk to! The next question they ask is, "do you speak Vietnamese, Japanese, Mandarin, etc.?" I answer "No." The conversation/interview usually pauses here. When I mention "I thought you wanted to sell to Americans and I understand Asian products & culture, and a marketing expert all in one", I get a funny look on their faces or no answer over the phone. I'm not the typical Asian.

I understand that they want to hire someone that “Fits” on the team, understands the customs, culture, and is an easy addition to your company. But business is business and I thought they want to grow the business in the US. Why hire someone who hasn't worked for an American CPG company, grew up in a diverse culture, understands the marketplace, and has marketing in his blood? In addition to being outspoken, truthful, and thinks outside of the box, I'm very different from what they had in mind.

If I was to open a business in say Hong Kong and marketed it like I would in the US, I would be laughed at and the comments would be that I don’t know anything about the Hong Kong market. Wouldn’t I hire a marketer from Hong Kong to be my expert? Makes sense to me…

Here’s an example: About 3 years ago, I worked with a Korean based company with their 1st US location. The president told me that he wanted to sell to Americans and needed my help. Before the restaurant opened, we had a tasting, except for me the rest of the testers were Korean. Maybe I misunderstood the president and he meant Korean-Americans. After the tasting, everyone raved about the food. My reaction wasn’t too enthusiastic, there wasn't a problem with the food, but it wasn’t going to sell to Americans. No problem if they were to cater toward the Korean taste, but that's not the direction from the president. The chef had never worked in LA and didn’t know the American taste. After I mentioned my comments to the group, I was basically out of a job, since I bruised his ego and menu. Having worked with a wide range of chefs, they all say they want to hear comments, but they don’t. Once the restaurant opened, I drove by on a Friday night and they were already closed before 10 pm, not a good sign. What they should have done was to Americanize their Korean style menu and marketed it toward Americans. They didn't do any marketing.

The majority of issues facing Asian companies isn't the products, it’s the marketing. If people don’t know what it is, they won’t buy it. I took a group of culinary students to an Asian factory for a tour. There were two students from Central America, the marketing guy asked why they thought this product didn’t sell in the Hispanic market? They didn’t know, so I asked if the product was labeled in Spanish? He said no, and I said that should answer your question. Rather than asking me more marketing questions, he stopped since he was probably embarrassed.

I know that that I’m American who looks Asian and doesn’t speak the language. But, the thing that they’re missing is that I know the American market and have 10 years of experience with one of the best know brands in the world. I’ve developed menus that have blown away chefs and restaurant owners with over 30 years of experience, they’re still trying to figure out why it’s working. But because I don’t speak an Asian language, they pass me up. Just for the record, a number of these companies have contacted me and made me jump through hoops. I understand that they want to squeeze as much free information from me as possible and then toss me away. I'm not a YES man and will tell them the truth and I know they don't want to hear it. So, I don't understand why they ask me? Either HIRE ME or just keep moving on…

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Final Call...

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Within a week, I’ve learned that six restaurants have closed or will be closing and one that was sold at a loss. The economy has hit all of us really hard, including those in the restaurant industry. It doesn’t matter what type of cuisine, fast casual or upscale, all restaurants are having a difficult time. I cringe when I’m watching a morning show or the news and someone is saying “don’t go out, stay home and eat.” I’m all about saving money and consumers need to save money by eating at home these days. Don't forget about the local restaurants in your area, they might not be there when the economy improves.

Consumers are looking for value right now and probably for the future too. Local restaurants should take clues from the chain restaurants and offer value added meals. McDonalds has been successful with their value meal promotions and Subway has a $5 foot long sandwich promotion too.

Hey Restaurant Owners! Take a clue from the big boys and start offering VALUE to your customers, I bet you might even see your customers more often. Having a “50% Off” promotion only hurts your business, to me that’s “Jumping the Shark” and you’ll be out of business very soon. Not many small businesses can give that much away and still stay in business.

Idea #1: Value Added: I tried to help a restaurant owner with a value meal promotion. She couldn’t afford my services, so I tried to give her some ideas. I actually wrote the value menu and pricing for her. She never tried it and her restaurant closed 3 months later.

Idea #2: Be involved in the community. If you know the people in the community and you’re involved in the community projects or hold their meetings at your place, people will take notice. Good Will is a bigger push than advertising.

Idea #3: Take care of your customers and give the best customer service. Consumers have less dollars to spend at restaurants and they want a bigger bang for the buck. Make it a reason for them to come to your restaurant and serve each person like they’re family. If you take care of them, they’ll be back and they’ll tell other people. Don’t be satisfied if you get a good review on Yelp.

Idea #4: Hire someone who knows your business, what consumers want, and combined with what you do best. If you think everything you do is the best, you have bigger issues that you realize. We all can’t be the best in everything we do.

Let’s try to help out each other during this tough economic time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sustainable Seafood

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Last week I was listening to the World Ocean Day Celebration Webcast from the Monterey Bay Aquarium with Julie Packard and Alton Brown. I’ve been a fan of Alton Brown and of the Monterey Bay Aquarium for years and truly enjoyed this webcast. Now that they’ve taken on the sustainable seafood issue, I’m glad that they’re one of many who are making consumers aware of the current situation.

As a sushi evangelist, I’m always being asked about my thoughts about the seafood supply. It’s been almost 2 years since I’ve had Blue Fin Tuna (BFT) and it was Kindai tuna, the first tuna ever raised in captivity. It’s an expensive alternative and not available in many places. Why is BFT popular? Over the years, Japanese chefs have promoted premium items to their customers, such as the BFT red meat or the Toro – the fatty belly. They’ve educated their customers about toro and charged a premium price too, rather than other fish served with an exotic sauce. Taking a fish that needs to be marinated before serving raw takes time, whereas toro you don’t need to do a lot of prep work. I guess business is business and now there is a shortage of BFT and these chefs don’t know what to do.

I have a small sushi following right now and don’t carry the clout as well-known chefs such as Nobu Matsuhisa. With someone who has restaurants all over the world and is one of the best known sushi chef, I’m a little surprised that he hasn’t taken a stand on BFT or at least what I've read. With all of his celebrity clientele, I wonder if any of them have boycotted his restaurants? I’m picking on Nobu because he’s the best known sushi chef in the world, but he’s not alone. The sushi industry and other chefs must get together before all of the BFT is gone and trust me…chefs will continue to use it until there’s no more. As a chef, I don’t serve BFT.

Fish suppliers and chefs/restaurants need to work together to come up with sustainable seafood alternatives and chefs to create dishes that actually taste good for the American market. The Japanese chefs are stuck on traditional dishes and will have to think outside of the box. This is the great thing about food and creating new dishes, no boundaries. Consumers need to be educated and open minded to try things such as sardines, mackerel, crawfish, etc. It’s funny how monkfish will sell in a restaurant, but not at the fish market.

So the next time you’re having sushi and the chef tells you they have Blue Fin Tuna, think about the supply…

Nobu Matushisa: Everyone is looking to you to be the leader, regardless if you want it or not. I'm surprised that you don't have a Blue Fin Tuna plan or at least this is what I've been reading. Have your people contact me…

Here’s a link to the entire Monterey Bay Aquarium Webcast:

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Restaurant Industry Wedding

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Last night, I went to a wedding for a chef that I known for awhile, we actually went to the same high school. OK, so I went 15 years of so before him. I met Bobby when he was a culinary student and I was teaching Japanese cuisine. He’s a very creative chef, but understands food service and the need to fit within the kitchen operation and cost structure. I called him for one of my earliest projects and he came through with flying colors. When someone like Bobby tells me that he won’t let me down, I knew he was the right person to call. I only wish that there are more food people like Bobby.

So last night he married his beautiful bride Sophia in a festive setting surrounded by family and friends. For me, it was more of a reunion to see industry people that I haven’t seen in awhile. We all talked about the same thing, increasing revenue and surviving during this tough economic time. But last night, it was all about Bobby and Sophia. They were gracious in thanking their guests for sharing this special occasion with them. OK, the honest truth, I’ve never seen Bobby so serious.

What would a wedding reception be without mentioning the food? All I’ll say is that if you get invited to a celebration with restaurant industry people, you go. It’s always good to have a wide range of specialty food and last night was incredible.

Best Wishes Bobby and Sophia!

Friday, June 5, 2009

LOST and Found: Management LOST!

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I had dinner at a restaurant that I really wasn’t too jazzed about going. The reviews were not very good and didn't seem that they had a signature dish that everyone was talking about. I usually take a new restaurant reviews with a grain of salt, but this company has 3 restaurants. I went with a couple of people who really wanted to go, still to this day I don’t know why.

We arrived to an empty restaurant, they spent a lot of money on the interior and the menu was really hard to figure out. Not that it was hard to read, it just didn’t make much sense and I didn’t get the feeling that our server felt confident in knowing the menu either. We ordered the sampler platter to try a few of the appetizers, everything was really salty. When the server asked how everything was, I mentioned that the potatoes were really salty. He told me that they’re supposed to be like that. OK, I like salt, but even for me to say this is salty. Our next couple of dishes came and were uneventful. I guess the server felt bad, so he had the kitchen make another order of the potatoes for us. They were still SALTY!

I saw that the manager had his cell phone stuck to his ear almost the entire time that we were there, STRIKE 1. If this was my restaurant, customers would not see any employee with their cell phones visible or on them during service hours. I overheard another server try to explain the menu to the table across from us and I would have done a better job reading the DMV handbook to them. I hate it when servers don’t know the menu or can make suggestions, STRIKE 2. After we somewhat finished the salty sampler platter and the below average dishes, we were pretty much done eating here. Since we only ate half of what we ordered, the server didn’t ask us if anything was wrong? I guess he didn’t want to hear it from me anymore, STRIKE 3.

I wrote a letter to the President of this company and told him about our evening at his restaurant. I mentioned that the food didn’t match this very nice restaurant setting, the menu didn't make sense, and the servers needed more training. I was offering my restaurant consulting services since the whole evening was a complete mess in my opinion. Maybe the manager was on the phone looking for another job? Yesterday I received a reply email. I guess my letter got passed around the executive staff and the CFO replied back to me. The CFO? No wonder things are all mixed up there if the CFO is replying to customers, does the Operations person handle the books? The reply was that the management was trying to workout the issues on their own and would contact me if my services are needed. My services were needed the day you signed the lease for this location! It’s like watching a dog chase it’s tail…

Attention Lost and Found: Management Lost!

I didn’t mention the name of this restaurant, as I might still have a chance to consult. I probably won't hear back from them since I damaged their egos. But stranger things have happened.

Epilogue: On the way home, we stopped at In-N-Out. Guess what? The French Fried Potatoes weren’t salty…

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lost in Translation

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I work with Asian food companies who want to come to the U.S. and set-up business. They’re very successful at home, but when they come here, most fail. In my opinion, these companies fail for many reasons, one of them is “Lost in Translation.” Somewhere along the way, it doesn’t translate properly. This causes headaches for the foreign nationals at the U.S. office.

Here’s an example about a Japanese Yuba and Tofu restaurant. This company buys a building and builds a beautiful restaurant in Beverly Hills. They hired a PR agency to promote the restaurant and the opening. The restaurant received very average reviews and customer comments. I met a cook who worked there and ask him how many people come in and ask to sit at the sushi bar? The restaurant didn’t have a sushi bar and his response was, “How did you know, been to the restaurant?” The PR agency didn’t know the food or how to explain what Yuba is or the Kaiseki style of dining. The restaurant closed within a year.

What should they have done? Anytime you do something different, you needed to educate your customers, explain that this is not the typical Japanese restaurant with a sushi bar and tempura. This is Kaiseki, a traditional Japanese multi-course meal, and it isn't sexy like sushi.

The other problem is management, they don’t know what Americans know or don’t know. I’m Japanese American and was born here and I didn’t know what a Kaiseki meal was until a year before the restaurant opened. If they hired me, I would have invited the foodies in to explain what Kaiseki and Yuba is and the tradition behind it. There are other things I would do too, but you’d have to hire me first. If I was going to open a business in Hong Kong, guess what, I’m hiring managers from Hong Kong…

These companies spend a lot of money and they’ll figure it out at a high cost. If they only hire someone like me to avoid these expenses, they would save in the long run. If you build it, they will come, doesn’t work in the restaurant business. You have to answer all of the questions first…

Asian companies, CALL ME FIRST!!!

Office: (818) 478-9421

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sticking to What You Do Best...

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Last week, I was invited to celebrate National Hamburger Day at The Counter in Studio City. I had been to The Counter before, but today was special and met a fellow tweeter who was a first timer. The menu is easy to follow and you actually build your own burger, well at least on paper. First you select the protein, then the cheese, other various toppings, a side sauce, and last is the type of bun you want. If you’re having a hard time deciding, don’t worry, they have signature burgers and sandwiches to choose from. Too many choices make me crazy sometimes.

I get so confused when I see other restaurants trying to be everything to everyone. The food at these restaurants are usually horrible and thus end up closing. Would you be surprised if the pizza at a seafood restaurant wasn’t good? Doesn’t make sense to me. Attention Restaurant Owners: Pick something and do it really really well. In-n-Out hasn’t added anything to their menu in years and they’re still in business and GROWING!

Being in the restaurant industry, I always hear owners wanting to increase revenue by expanding their menus. Why do they listen to their friends? It’s the friends who want to eat the pizza at the seafood restaurant. If your friends want pizza, send them to a pizza place…

It’s nice to know that places like The Counter are growing by making a great burger the way you want it… Thank you to Craig and Brian for a great celebration!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Going, Going...

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A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a Los Angeles Times article about a pho restaurant. Pho (pronounced fuh) is Vietnamese rice noodle soup which I really like. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a restaurant review, it was about a family that bought a pho restaurant and they’re having a tough time surviving. At first I stopped reading it, since it wasn't a review. But since I'm in the business of helping restaurants, I ended up reading the entire article.

The family spent a lot of money on this small restaurant and is located in an area that has 10 other pho restaurants. This doesn’t add up in my mind, but then again I don’t have the passion to make Pho. After the purchase was completed and the former owner left the business and most of the customers left too. Since a lot of them were his friends and he wasn’t there anymore, why go? Boy, this was a triple whamie.

With this said and as someone who hates to see small restaurants close, I tried to get the word out and help this place that I’ve never been to. Just like the film, “A Wonderful Life”, I tried to help out someone having a tough time. I did it because I'm a fan of small businesses and hope that someone would do the same for me...

A lot of people love to cook or have special recipes, but remember that this is a business too. You need to be cook, dishwasher, manager, bookkeeper, and most of all marketer. Most businesses don't think that marketing is important and think "if you build it, they will come." Not if they don't know about it! The other thing is having or doing something that is the reason why you're in business. Sad to say, but those 10 Pho restaurants are very similar. You go because you feel comfortable or they make it the way you like it.

What should "Pho Minh" do to stay in business? They must get the word out why Pho customers should eat there. What's the signature dish? Is there a special condiment that everyone should try there? What makes this place special? Customer service must be the best out of competition.

I’m a cheerleader for small businesses and always have, since small business the backbone of this country, I hope "Pho Minh" makes it. If you want to read the entire Los Angeles Times article, it can be found at:

Thank you for stopping by and please let me know what you think...

Friday, May 8, 2009

Lee's Got Me Waiting...

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I love Lee’s Sandwiches and have been a fan for many years. I often visit the Rosemead location, this is a fairly new building with an ice cream counter, steam table for hot items, baked goods, etc. Lee’s Sandwiches is a multi-unit quick service company that specializes in Vietnamese sandwiches that bakes fresh baguettes and makes great sandwiches, in addition to other items. They have over 35 locations in 4 states.

I usually go in early morning or late afternoon when the lines are short. This week, I went during lunch and ended up in a very long line, about 8 people. As I’m watching the cashier walk away from the register with each customer, I realized that the store layout is not set-up efficiently. One of the keys to retail success for sandwich places is to first have the customer order and collect payment first and then make the sandwich.

Lee’s does this, but where they lack the efficiency is after a customer orders they pass by the ice cream counter and steam table. If they want something else, it’s like watching salmon is swim up-stream as they come back to the register. The line should have started at the ice cream counter and pass through the steam table, customers would have seen something in these cases before they order. The cashier would stop what they’re doing and go over the other cases. Shouldn’t the cashier be stationed at the register just ringing up orders?

I’m standing in line and watching the cashier run all over the store and the line is getting longer. I guess the company is OK with the lines, as the manager was busy moving the fresh baguettes around on the racks. I don’t understand why the manager didn’t jump on a register and get the line moving. If I was at the end of the 15 person line, I would have left, but I was the next customer. If the layout was better designed, the store would run better with less labor. Even successful businesses, like Lee’s, sometimes forget about having a system and keeping things simple. This is why consultants like me are so valuable in setting up the operations, rather than after it’s built.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Confusion of Japanese Restaurants

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Last weekend, I read an article from The Bulletin by John Gottberg Anderson called “Teppanyaki cooking at Shoji’s.” This is a Benihana type restaurant where the grill cooking is the entertainment. For John and his party, it wasn’t a good experience.

For me, John’s review was a typical one. Arrived at the restaurant at 6 pm, the place wasn’t crowded, but had to wait in the bar for 15 minutes. Seated at the table, but no drink order taken, wait another 15 minutes, etc. If you don’t care to get your customers seated with drinks right away, it’s downhill from here. During this visit, John and his party didn’t try the sushi, so they went back a week later just for sushi. He’s a better man then me, I would’ve never gone back.

As a Japanese American and as a chef, I’m saddened about the current state of Japanese restaurants. Many owners are retiring and selling their restaurants to people who have no experience in the restaurant industry or think they know the cuisine. Everyone is trying to do “Fusion”, because they don’t understand that Japanese food is simple and try to do more upscale. These places turn out to be “Confusion” and a total mess. They don’t stick around long and close soon after they put out the “Happy Hour” or “50% Off” banner.

A “new” restaurant owner told me once that all he needs to do is hire a “General Manager” and all of his problems will go away. Based on his thinking, his problems are only beginning and where do you find a good GM? I wasn’t going to tell him…

Too many owners, managers, and chefs don’t want to look at the reality of their restaurants. Maybe they’re forgetting that this is a “business” and if their customers don’t have a good experience they WON’T BE BACK. No customers, No revenue, No business, No survival.

Thank you for stopping by, I would appreciate your comments.

If you want to read John’s article, it can be found at

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What Were You Thinking?

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Last week, I was at an upscale restaurant having dinner. The restaurant had just opened for dinner service and a guy comes in and asks for the manager. He introduces himself as a “Marketer” and was at the restaurant to introduce his client’s product and started his pitch. This guy struck out on 3 pitches. As someone in the restaurant biz, you don’t come in during dinner service to “pitch” a product, Strike 1. Based on his presentation, it appeared that he had no idea what the restaurant concept was, who the clients were, or anything about the restaurant business, Strike 2. The funny thing was that he didn’t know much about the product either, the only information he has was a product sample, Strike 3. At this point, he tried to throw around buzz words, like he was in the industry. But when you don’t believe in what you’re saying, it sounds even worse. Hit the Showers, You’re Done!

Just because you’re a promoter in the entertainment or fashion industry (as an example), doesn’t mean that you can transfer to food without a hitch. This guy was so far off, I was surprised that he didn’t fall off his chair. You have to learn the food and the concept first. A French chef would have no idea what to do in a Chinese kitchen set-up with only woks.

I'm sitting at a nearby table and couldn't believe what I was hearing from this guy. One would think that he would've done his homework before seeing a possible client. I embarrassed for this guy, but also angry that he was giving marketers, like me, a bad name. Don't think that his product would EVER get into that restaurant. Word to the wise, Never approach a restaurant owner or chef when they’re in the middle of service to pitch something. If I was the client, I would be really upset that a company I hired would promote my product in this manner. I should have gotten the name of the product and have gone after that business...

Isn’t this just common sense? I appreciate your comments. Thank you.

Monday, April 13, 2009

New Era in Consumer Marketing

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When was the last time you flipped through the Yellowpages looking for a service or scanned the newspaper for a coupon? These days a lot of us rely on word of mouth marketing or recommendations. Are paper coupons a way of the past?

With advertising budgets being slashed, how many of retailers can advertise in weekly mailers, coupon packets, and print media? How many consumers these days go through these types of media to find deals?

I discussed this with a client this morning, he was asking what the impact of social media was on businesses like his? "It's HUGE!", I replied. Small businesses need to figure out a strategy that works for them and then to take the time to set it up. Many people think it's too time consuming to set-up something. I'll admit that the set-up will take awhile to get it the way you want it, but once set-up, it takes only a few minutes - just like checking email. Listen to the comments, wants and needs of the consumers.

I've seen a couple of foodservice retailers doing amazing promotions. Some of them are pretty wacky, but they work and drive traffic. They either don't know better or just wacky enough to be remembered. In a world of 3D promotions, you need to be that 4th dimension that stands out in the crowd or is remembered by the consumer.

The tide is changing, don't get caught facing the wrong direction when the next wave comes...

Please let me know your comments. Thank you!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Doesn't Service Matter?

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I work in the restaurant industry and have been to some horrible kitchens and dining rooms. Not that they're really dirty or need new equipment, although I've seen some pretty bad places, but that they need to be taken care of. Same with the customers who come in to eat, they need to be taken care of too.

Service starts with a smile, a couple of recommendations from the menu or daily specials, and takes a drink order. Did the server suggest to save room for dessert? Was the water glasses refilled? In California, we have to watch our water usage, so servers should really ask first. If a first timer, explain what the restaurant's speciality is or a "Must Try" item. How many times have you been to a place and then afterwards someone asks you if you had the ____. You reply, "Oh, I didn't know that was their speciality."

A year ago, I was in a small restaurant for lunch. It was my first time and I asked the server what she recommended? She answered with 3 entrees, they all sounded good and I couldn't decide. She asked the kitchen if they could do a small sampler plate with all three and the kitchen said they would. This server suggested a wonderful homemade soup and kept telling me to save room for dessert (about 3 times). I ended up having soup, an entree sampler, and dessert. She kept my drink refilled and I left that establishment very happy. All of her recommendations were excellent, just think I was probably going to order a club sandwich. She was a pro at customer service and because of it, I listened to her. Here's the kicker, I ended up spending 2x what I would if I just had the club sandwich, but I wasn't thinking about what it cost for lunch, I left happy. I'm sure this server was happy too, as her tip was doubled.

When I'm training servers, I tell this story. Most people don't get it, they try to up sell everyone. Making suggestions is great, but it's the customer service and the details that's important. I'm always asked for my opinion on restaurants that I've visited as a customer. Food is 40%, Service is 40%, and Atmosphere is 20%. My friends are always wondering why I talk about "Service" being an important part when they just want to hear about the food. I believe it's the Total Dining Experience that's important. Regardless if it's a fast food place, fine dining, or a taco truck, the review should be the complete package. If servers want to make more tips, they should focus on customer service and evaluate the level of service they provide. I was pretty successful at serving, but I had a very good teacher...

Please share your comments with me, I appreciate it.