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John Foster: Sharing insight into grandeur of Ferris Wheel, the restaurant business, success, failure

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The restaurant industry has always been an amusement park attraction, for as long as I’ve called Lexington my home. Part funhouse, part coaster, with the unpredictable nature of a tilt a whirl and the grandeur of the Ferris Wheel.

More than once I’ve seen fortunes rise and fall, sending seismic shifts throughout our tight-knit community, and into the consciousness of the general public. Empires have grown too fast or too large, or both, relationships have been forged and broken, and difficult choices have been made, often in full view of the entire population of the city. We are after all a service industry, whose primary service is to entertain, and it seems our work is never ending.

After the recent closings of some local, independent restaurants, there were several articles, and some social media commentary about the factors that may have precipitated the closings.

Many industry people have their own ideas as to what those reasons might really be, and a few gave their thoughts publicly. The data suggests a market saturated with restaurants, allowing consumers to have their choice of eating establishments. It cites, rightfully so, that the labor pool is under-serviced and in certain cases poorly trained. Nonetheless the restaurants are open, the staffs are at work, and business continues to boom for a large part of our industry. The wheel, which is constantly churning forward, seemingly cannot be halted, or even slowed enough for anyone to stop and figure things out.

We can mourn the loss of our local independents, the small business that everyone says drives our economy, but we are at a loss to prevent it from happening again, and that, my friends, is where the cold, heavy hand of business falls on our shoulders. Peel off the sentimental veneer of mom and pop and we see dollars and cents, bottom lines, cash flows and P&L in capital letters. We are in the business of making money, and many of us chose the business that makes the least, or has the thinnest of margins. We start a restaurant on a shoestring, build it through hard work and proper management, and hope that our product stands up and stands out to the consumer’s expectations. To maximize our capital and expand our base we may open a second, and a third, and gradually our restaurant is a group. This shields most restaurants from direct failure as we take from Peter to pay Paul, but all our endeavors hinge on the consumer continuing to buy, whether at one or all our locations. Is this any different from a flower shop or a landscaping business? If the buyer stops buying, for any reason, we stop making money and eventually we are out of business.

Granted the restaurant business is far more pervasive than most small businesses, but the rules of business apply across the board. If you think corporate business is immune to this rule, think again. Look around the major thoroughfares in our city, there is consolidation and outright closings in the big boys too, another sign that we have fierce competition for each and every dollar that’s spent.

Is there a way to stop this from happening to the local independent place?

Maybe so, but it won’t come from being afraid or sentimental or resigned. We need to be careful stewards of our restaurants, training staff, buying carefully and being efficient. Small business has a small safety net and in the case of a restaurant a small margin of error.

With the rise of social media, the critiques that used to percolate through foodie nation are now instantaneous. Choose not to heed the drumbeat and it could cost you. Prefer to ignore the on-line chatter and you could fall into a deep hole that swallows you up. You may buy flowers once a month, have your lawn done once a week, but we eat out 3-4 times a week and enjoy happy hour on a regular basis.

Listen to your base, and cultivate your customer. It’s not enough to be talented, we’ve lost some very talented places over the years. It’s not enough to have money, in a restaurant, money can disappear quickly. You have to be there, both in mind and body, lead by example, and be present for your guest. I’m in no way suggesting that in each recent case these things were not being done. But there is a constant thin line that must be walked, deviate too much and you stand to lose any advantage you may have over your competition.

Let’s talk about competition, since it seems to be foremost in everyone’s mind. There is a standard school of thought that says competition is good for any business, and in most ways, it is. When a restaurant welcomes another spot in the neighborhood, it builds what we call destination spots. Come to my place and if it’s full walk down to another place. In theory, it works, as we can see from Jefferson Street, Downtown, and Chevy Chase to name a few.

The Summit, the most recent spot, is ready-made for just such a theory. And while time will tell whether it works or not, The Summit represents another laboratory for study. Competiton eats you up when all of the other factors that control your business are not being attended to. Something as simple as dirty tables, left for the next group of customers as they arrive, can send a myriad of messages to your next guests. A missed vendor payment that balloons into several doesn’t help the perception that all is not well. There may be very good reasons that these things happen, they just can’t happen on a regular basis.

If you’re truly doing everything in your power to run your restaurant the right way, competition should be what brings people to you. Customers love options and if you become a consistent, reliable alternative, you will be in most people’s “rotation.” Yes, the secret is out, there is a certain rhythm to the way guests frequent your business and it can involve weather, celebrations, traffic patterns and even diet. There is no way you can check all the boxes for every customer, but the boxes are real, and you need to be aware that customers pay attention each time they’re in. They want to know that each time will be like the last, positive and energetic, and that you as a chef, owner or staff are engaged.

Still, all this does not guarantee success. So many other factors may tip the balance each and every day. These factors, and your ability to juggle them all are what makes small business so hard to do, but so intoxicating to immerse yourself in. Desire also, to do all that, still be creative, and still have a life outside the business may actually be the tipping point that eludes people. It may seduce them in, grind them down, and leave them with very few alternatives, other than to close up shop. Being tired, worn out, and overwhelmed are valid reasons for giving up your dreams. Add in all the other reasons against and it makes for a formidable argument against another month or year of the same. When you consider what goes into starting and growing your place, you never really consider the exit strategy. Maybe that should be on your opening list of things to do, as morbid as that may sound.

I am speaking of course from experience, the experience of both opening and closing several local restaurants. There is a natural life and arc to every one of them. The untimely end to one may not mirror another simply because they’re both restaurants, but the deciding factors will. As sad and as frustrating as it is to see one of our own close, consider the relief that is part of every ending. In the interim, we pick up the pieces, keeping an eye on our own staffs and hope for a positive resolution to another’s misfortune. Our industry is resilient and oddly supportive. We may go at each other as competitors but it’s always with an eye towards a sometimes-uncertain future that is more easily faced together than alone.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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