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!