Is it the macchiato? Or the marketing?

In the 10 years I’ve lived in my neighborhood, I’ve seen a procession of cafés come and go. It’s like clockwork. A new café puts out a shingle. There’s great hope that maybe this time, the owners will get it right. But inevitably, two years in, the lights dim, the doors are locked and the kraft goes up on the windows. And we’re back to brewing our own coffee.

Until another bright-eyed idealist spies the cute little space and decides to give the food business a whirl. The first few times, I introduced myself and immediately started giving little marketing tips: Reach out to residents. Visit every area business. Make special offers. Start a loyalty program.

But after realizing I was being well-meaning but possibly presumptuous, I skipped the advice, ordered my macchiato and wished them the best.

Aside from the recommendation to never open a restaurant, I’ve wondered if there’s a lesson or two in this for those of us in the business of helping businesses engage with customers. Here are three takeaways:

  • Get good advice. When you’re up to your eyeballs in cappuccinos, it’s hard to see the big picture. That’s where an advisor can help. Someone with an outside perspective can open your eyes to things you can’t see. In my case, I hired a coach who pointed out that my 10 years in the utility business made me an expert. That niche was right in front of me, but it took a coach to point it out. What’s your blind spot?
  • Know your customers. I don’t know what my neighbors like, but I’d love to have a cozy café, the kind of place that makes great coffee, offers delicious little nibbles and lets you sit and work in comfort. There was one place like that, but the owner couldn’t roast his beans onsite, and so he found another location. Since then, we’ve had a vegan restaurant, a piroshky-and-pickle place, a place that forced you to listen to the owner’s New Age music, and another vegan place. The latest incarnation is the best, in terms of food quality: a Peruvian eatery that specializes in fresh seafood. But how many people in my neighborhood want Peruvian seafood? The owners better be trying to get the word out to Peruvian food lovers around the whole city. The point is, know your market. The more specialized you are, the wider your geographic reach should be.
  • If you build it, they will not come. Most if not all of the café hopefuls suffered from the Field of Dreams myth. I cringe when I pass these places that have sunk their hearts and souls (and equity) into the business, and they’re playing to an empty arena. The lesson: build it and then promote the hell out of it.

A good restaurant needs great food, service and location. A good business needs a quality product and service. But if you don’t understand your market, get a wider perspective, tell your story and engage with customers, you could end up like the latest café with a two-year lifespan. And that would be a shame, because we need you in the neighborhood.