Stay in business with smart, tough strategies

Stay in business with smart, tough strategies

There’s a story that motivational speakers like to tell: Two hikers are on a backcountry trail. They stop to rest. Hearing a rustling in the bushes, they crane for a better view and see two bear cubs playing near a stream. They watch the cubs for awhile, bemused. One of the men wheels around, freezes in terror and jabs his buddy in the ribs.

“Look up there” he rasps. “It’s the mama grizzly bear, and we just walked between her and her cubs. What are we going to do?”

Before either man has time to react, the mama charges downhill at breakneck speed toward them. The terrified guy stands motionless and panic-stricken. His companion quickly tears off his hiking boots, digs into his backpack, pulls out a pair of tennis shoes, and quickly laces them up. His buddy is stunned. “There’s no way you’re going to outrun that mama grizzly!” he cries. “I don’t have to outrun her,” his companion responds. “I only have to outrun you!”

The moral of the story is clear: think ahead, stay ahead of the competition, and let circumstances beyond your control affect the unprepared. The mama grizzly may be an appropriate parable for the current economy and the action we need to take. What are you doing in today’s recession to be ready for tomorrow’s upturn?

Not that we’re out of the woods by any measure. Grocery prices are falling and restaurant prices rising. Technomic recently reported that in the past three years 21,425 units have closed in the United States, and 84 percent of those were full-service operations. That reflects the worst three-year contraction in foodservice history. Some 8 million-plus people are unemployed today that weren’t a year ago, and that has affected commuter traffic and breakfast business. I shudder to think of its impact on foodservice relative to consumer confidence, employment and discretionary spending. So you have a choice: either whistle past the graveyard and hope you’re not next, or stiffen your resolve and begin now to enact smart strategies to insure you’re running when the upturn comes. Here are a few lessons in leadership to help you get ready to pounce.

1. What do you want to be famous for? Harvard professor Michael Porter argues that a company doesn’t really have a winning marketing strategy if it does the same things as its competitors, only a little better. A company has a robust strategy when it has strong points of difference from competitor’s strategies. “It’s not enough to be pretty good at everything,” said speaker Bill Taylor at the recent Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators confab in Dallas. “You have to be really good at something. What are you the ‘most of’ to your customers?” If you’re unsure what the answer is, Taylor suggests asking the question: “If you went out of business tomorrow, would anyone really miss you and why?” Give more “why” now.

2. Action is great. Unless it’s the wrong action. Assess your systems and processes in key result areas like costs, throughput, service, hiring, training and marketing. Know which actions within each system still truly serve to move you forward and which ones are no longer effective. Determine which changes you’ve made in the downturn that deserve to be permanent and which ones need to be retired or reconsidered when the upturn comes.

3. Big ideas, small practices. We have to think differently about other industries, such as retail, that we’d never consider as competitors before. We compete against them for both our labor pool and customers’ disposable income, why not for their ideas too?

4. Make hiring the biggest decision. Many operators and managers believe that all employees are the same and that they don’t mind who they work with. But the thing is, they aren’t and they do. Be picky about who you let on your team.

5. Train more, train better, train all. Recent industry research reveals that foodservice chains have cut training budgets for meetings, materials or personnel an average of 19.5 percent in the last 12 months. Getting through a recession by dumbing-down your franchisees and hourly teams is like improving automobile mileage by not putting gas in your car.

6. Clean everything twice. Now clean it again. You always sell more in a clean restaurant. Counters, tabletops, bars and to-go areas need to be spotless now more than ever. And QSR operators should take a good look at their pass-through windows in the drive-thru lanes.

7. Don’t play it safe. When a market shrinks, smart operators actively steal market share. Weak leaders become risk-averse and motionless, like the first hiker. Don’t be reckless, but look for opportunities to improve. Customers have long memories, and they’ll be there in the upturn for the companies that tried hardest in the downturn to respect, refresh and renew their experience with your brand.