Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Remember to Support Local Businesses!

Pin It
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?

Pin It
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...

Pin It
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

Pin It
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: http://tinyurl.com/paca7c

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Restaurant Industry Wedding

Pin It
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!

Pin It
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

Pin It
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