Six Business Lessons from a Burger Joint

Starting a new venture is hard. It can also be lonely, especially if you’re the sole founder. These days, entrepreneurs quickly learn to work virtually and inexpensively, especially if the company is pre- or self-funded. For an extroverted entrepreneur such as me, co-working spaces and coffee shops not only fit the economic bill but also provide the noise and people that fuel us. Every so often, though, I work from home. Starting at 5:30 a.m., I’m usually getting restless by 12:30 p.m. and I need a dose of humanity, which means getting out of the house for a bit (and a bite) before returning for the second act that often runs until midnight. The pedestrian hamburger usually works well for the brief intermission.

After a recent frantic morning working from home creating business models, configuring cloud services, and getting Python code speaking with MySQL databases, I needed the “extrovert recharge.” I reckoned a quick meal at the recently-opened breakfast/lunch restaurant would do the trick. It would also be nice for me to be able to support the entrepreneurial couple who started the establishment. Those of us who “do our own thing” need to help out one another as best we can. I also reckoned that a notebook in one hand and a burger in the other would break a few technical challenges I was looking to overcome. Yep, that’s the way it was supposed to work as I headed downtown to eat.

When I walked in, the place had a good sized crowd, which made me happy. Replacing a 40-year-old dining institution is no easy task and can be a monumental challenge (I grew up working in a Boston landmark restaurant and my family owned another in Maine), so seeing a good number of patrons was encouraging. I was a customer of the previous place for 23 years and sadly accepted its fate. All restaurants will pass away and break your heart: always, but some take longer than others.

Once in, I saw the dining room and open kitchen were well-staffed, with servers, helpers, and whom I assume to be the owners by the grill. Surprisingly, I wasn’t greeted upon coming in, so I went over to the counter and took a seat and grabbed a menu. (I wanted to make sure they had burgers, which of course they did.) I then waited. I still wasn’t greeted even though many members of the wait staff were standing around quite a bit. 2 minutes. 5 minutes. 7 minutes. 10 minutes. I started putting on my coat when the lady behind the counter made eye contact with me. “I been sitting here for ten minutes,” I said. Her only response was “Sorry.” There was no effort to keep me in the restaurant or rectify the situation, which I would have welcomed. I’m not a jerk and I very much want independent places like this to thrive, but desire only goes so far. (Notice I didn’t give the name of the restaurant.)

I left and went across town to the competitive breakfast and lunch restaurant. It was a bit further away, and I’d only been there for breakfast over the years, never lunch. I was greeted immediately and warmly, the server more than happy to walk me through the menu, share the specials, and help determine what I was in the mood for. She was more than happy to oblige me with my simple hamburger selection. And lunch was great. Remember, a simple dish like a burger does not lie: the meat and the bread have to be good, and the cook has to know what he/she is doing. I’ve now gone there several times. I’m going to send a copy of this note to the new place I walked out of. It won’t be done out of spite, but out of concern, especially since they lost me as a customer. However, it would be disingenuous of me not to share some business thoughts.

  1. Make the first contact count. In the early days, your brand is most vulnerable. You rarely get a second chance to make a good first impression, so you must try even harder when you’re new.
  2. Invest wisely. It costs a lot to get a customer. I spent thousands of dollars at the previous place and will spend just as much at their competitor.
  3. Give the customer a great experience, all the time, from the beginning to the end. Treat everyone who walks through that door as your best friend and you’ll be rewarded accordingly.
  4. Build a team. When times are busy, there is a greater likelihood of things going wrong. That’s normal. When a place functions as a team, nothing will fall through the gaps.
  5. Train your staff. And train them. And train them. They need to know what to do with a prospect – or a patron who walks through the door, what we in business call “a great lead.”
  6. Correct your mistakes. “Sorry” is a start, not a correction. Make every effort you can to fix the problem, including following me out the door.

For those of you who know me, food is a big part of my life. I offer proof as an individual who can enjoy a three-star Michelin dining experience in France as well as great luncheonette burger in New England. What do both of those types of places have in common? The good ones pay attention to the customer.


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