Friday, February 1, 2019

Gary Vee on How to Hire the Right People When You're Starting

A while back, I was giving out some positivity and practical advice on social media. One of my followers told me "You sound a lot like Gary Vee. Do you follow his stuff?"

Actually, I didn't know who Gary Vaynerchuk (AKA Gary Vee) was. So I did a little research. I started following him. I've since become a big fan of his knowledge and wisdom in the matters of business (and life for that matter.) It's certainly a compliment to be compared to him.

I hit upon a video of the #askgaryvee show in which he covers one of the subjects I'm mildly obsessed with: how to hire the right people. It's the sort of thing nobody really teaches you in school.

I thought I'd share his take on a case in which someone called in to ask how to delegate responsibilities in their young company. How to motivate their employees and seek buy-in on the employer's vision.

Gary and his business partner offer some very blunt insights on the situation. If you're in a start-up company and are having trouble leading your team, maybe there's some insights you can apply to your operation.

I suppose if you're sensitive, I should warn you Gary uses profanity about as liberally as I tend to.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The U.S. Pizza Family

The night air was cold. In Valley City, we were far enough from Lake Erie to be mostly immune to the freezing lake effect, but the seasonal chill still bit at your bones. The Ohio landscape had been a painter's palette of fall colors on the drive down from Detroit.

Some twenty pizzaiolos and some of their counterparts huddled near Jason Samosky's wood-fired oven, a welcome reprieve from the cold. A steady supply of a seasonal ale magically seemed to appear. It tasted....interesting....but the price of free couldn't be beat. Clinking bottles joined the sounds of merriment, and a din of 10 conversations.

We tried to put a guitar in Patrick Maggi's hands and badger him into some entertainment, but on this night, he wasn't budging from being off the clock. Maggi shoved it back to me, but a nagging cough had left my voice incapable of carrying a tune.

Jokes were told, photos of kids were shown around, and business problems were hashed over for input.

Tommorrow, they would all be competing against each other for a free trip to Italy, but tonight they were just friends catching up and re-living old times. None of these men and women really saw each other as competition.

Patrick Maggi debates the merits of fuel wood choice
with Sean Dempsey.

Tonight, they were mining each other for information, sharing their love of the craft and sharing trade secrets. Adam Smith's free-market economic philosophies may have pit these businesspersons in a dog-eat-dog scenario in theory, but in practice they were partners in a greater endeavor. An enterprise of improving quality and service for all.

For all the pomp and circumstance of awards ceremonies, "black coats," trophies, and titles; what makes the United States Pizza Team special are the not the melodies played in the stanza per se....but the spaces between the notes most people don't ever really hear in the song.

Dan Uccello listens to Anthony Scalia relating a story.
It's never been a "team" in the traditional sense of a hard roster, organized by a coach with some grand "Bear" Bryant strategic plan. But spend any amount of time around some of these folks, and it becomes clear that there is really very few descriptors that fit more than the word "team."

I can actually think of one. "Family."

Sean Dempsey admires a photo of
the handiwork of Lars Smith.

As this loose collection of wild cards all sat down to break bread together, I pondered on the meaning of family. By complete coincidence, my own original concept of what a family was began on this same road, exactly 3.4 miles east of Samosky's Homestyle Pizzeria. My family lived on a farm property in a rented house for several years. It was then the traditional nuclear family with doting grandparents living a couple miles away in Medina.

Eventually, my nuclear family would suffer an atomic split, an reconfigure a thousand miles away in a different form. The farm is no longer there, replaced now by a collection of weeds and trees, and a neighborhood of cookie-cutter mini-mansions where the back forty used to be. The remaining living members of that family are scattered across the country, blown to and fro by the winds of circumstance.

I learned then that family can change. It is not a strict definition determined by a census bureaucrat or defined by what names written are written in a family bible. The saying goes that you can't choose your family. That's not necessarily true. You may not have chosen what family you were born into, but you can certainly choose which people you spend significant parts of your life around. And to that end, as members of this United States Pizza Team keep assembling at this or that contest, year after year... they become connected and stay connected. They look to better themselves and each other, and measure their improvement in fits and spurts, hoping with each competition to not necessarily be better than the next guy... but simply be a better pizza maker than the one they were yesterday.

Ultimately, in these contests, each man and woman really competes only against themselves. The other guys? Well they're just family.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

I Love New York

"I don't wanna talk. I've said everything already. It's already out there. I'm not gonna say it anymore."

Well, that's not the response I normally hear when offering to give someone free publicity. If you've ever been to the historic Totonno's Pizza Napolitano on Coney Island, and tried to talk on the record to Cookie, that's pretty much the response you're going to get. 

Cookie prefers to be left alone in a quiet corner of a little pizzeria located on an island in this city filled with millions. She leaves it to Mike to sling pies behind the counter while she barks orders at him.

Cookie is tough. She won't B.S. you. She's got a story, but she ain't gonna wrap it up in a bow and give it to you as a gift. You gotta put your shoes on, do some legwork and find it yourself. And this, in a nutshell, is also a microcosm of New York City. The same reasons I love Cookie are the same reasons I love New York. 

Writer Tom Wolfe once said of the Big Apple, "One belongs to New York instantly. One belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years." How true that is. From the moment I first set foot in New York City years ago, I immediately knew it was the beginning of what would become a life-long love affair. 

What's not to love about New York? It's gritty. It's alive. It's loud, obnoxious, it's weird, it's in-your-face. It's millions and millions of teeming people with millions and millions of stories waiting to be explored, told, retold, or sometimes buried and hidden away forever. The Big Apple isn't good at keeping secrets, but she still holds quite a few close to the vest.

New York is electric. It makes sleep irrelevant, and teases you with endless possibility. One wants to forego slumber, and spend all their free time exploring each nook and cranny; exposing every buried treasure waiting to be discovered. 

The Big Apple is the city that gave the world hip-hop, punk rock, crystalized the folk music movement, influenced the beat generation, was ground zero for the advent of television, and yes....started America's love affair with pizza. For decades, it served as the bellwether for the American cultural zeitgeist."What happens everywhere, happens first in New York," they used to say. 

The two oldest continuously operating pizzerias, Totonno's on Coney Island and John's of Bleecker Street, both have their roots in Lombardi's, which was once a little grocery store on Spring Street notable for one fact: in 1905, Gennaro Lombardi applied to the city for the first license to sell pizza in the United States. Here, American pizza was born. And thanks to being brought back from the ashes of near-extinction by John Brescio in 1994, Lombardi's still sells pizzas today - delicious as ever.

It's true that there is a philosophical divide between what is viewed as pizza by Italian purists and what Americans devour by the truckload. I don't personally think there's anything wrong with that. America rarely invents anything of cultural significance whole-cloth, preferring instead to take something else, re-invent it here, and make it uniquely its own. That's what New York represents for many an entrepreneur, foodie-turned-chef, and starving artist. An opportunity for re-invention.

New York is that shining city on a hill. The crossroads of the universe where one can go to re-invent oneself. And honestly, you don't really have a choice. New York transforms on a fundamental level, everyone and everything that lives there. As well it should....otherwise, what's the point of even going?
In the August 2018 issue of PMQ, we celebrate the legacy of New York style pizza with a story focus, a dough recipe, and a special pie provided to us by New York's own Tom DeGrezia. Be sure to check it out at

Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain 1956-2018

I've weakly attempted to model my entire professional career in media (without really any success) on the wonderful, wonderful television show that is Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown. Nothing was better than the weekly ritual of watching a bitter man's cynicism overcome time and again by the sheer wonder and beauty of the world, and the depths of the human heart. Bourdain was a man perpetually at war with himself. It made for compelling television to see the genuine joys of curiosity and beauty break through his own hard walls, to see his preconceived notions proven wrong, and to watch him sometimes serve as a model for immersing himself in the opposite side of an argument to try and genuinely connect with differing points of view; a lesson we can all continue to learn from.

Bourdain was a 1978 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a veteran of numerous professional kitchens, including many years spent as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles. He first became known for his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. In 2005 he began hosting the Travel Channel's hit culinary and cultural adventure programs Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (2005–2012). In 2013, he switched to CNN to host Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

With each successive television show, he gained more and more creative control, and arguably an exponential increase in quality along with it. From the dazzling visuals of expert cinematography, to bold and sometimes experimental editing, to risky stylistic choices and riskier journeys, Parts Uknown wasn't just the best food or travel related show on television, it was easily in the top echelon of the best television shows ever aired. Period.

The gadget of his shows was simple. If Bourdain, who's seen and done it all, could still find wonder in the world, there was hope for the rest of us as well, no matter what we've experienced in life. With each new face and new exploration, the show always seemed to always drive home the the point (whether intentional or accidental) that human beings are more alike than they are unalike.

While the pilot light of that hope may now be snuffed out...the flame of hope still burns on. Today we are sad, but the best way to honor his legacy is to redouble our own efforts to chase the beauty, infinite variety in infinite combinations, and genuine love that exists in the world. 

Otherwise, we risk missing the entire point of life. 

Human Family - Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived

as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones

can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas

and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women

called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different

although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,

we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,

are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences

between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,

than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,

than we are unalike.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Why Should I Market?

Time and again, when I question successful pizza operators in the pursuit of sage marketing advice, I'm confronted with the answer, "I don't do any marketing. It's all word of mouth."

I hate that answer. Not because I disagree with it... the truth is, good pizza really does sell itself. I hate the answer because it makes it is detrimental to my long-term job security. (Why have a magazine about marketing pizza if nobody needs to market pizza?) It also gives me nothing to work with.

Okay, fine. So you're selling enough pizza, and don't want to bother with any marketing. Fair enough. But let me give you an argument as to why you SHOULD put more effort into marketing. Everybody loves a story. And everybody IS a story. Without marketing, you let everyone else tell your story. Marketing gives you an opportunity to control your own narrative.  Marketing gives you the chance to reach new customers.

So some of you may be saying "I'm selling all the pizza I can handle. I got enough customers already." Sure... but through marketing you could turn those same  consumers on to higher profit margin menu items and steer them away from high-cost, low-profit pies. That way you could be slinging the same amount of pies, but have an increased profit margin. There's ways to engineer your menu to do that for you. Check out this article for some ideas on how to do that.

Marketing also gives you a chance to cement yourself from one generation to the next. Maybe you're doing fine now, but if you ran brand campaigns in your region, that could help indoctrinate the next generation of consumers into loving the brand and product they grew up with. Once Mom and Dad retire and move to Florida, you need someone to replace them with. Through marketing, you can help ensure the next generation can be buying pizza from the family you leave your pizzeria to when you're ready to retire and hit the bocce courts.

My final point is this: People love to be sold to. The musical Chicago probably puts it best:

Razzle dazzle 'em, and they'll beg you for more!
Give em the old double whammy
Daze and dizzy 'em
Back since the days of old Methuselah, everyone loves the big bambooz-a-la!

Everybody wants the ole ballyhoo. But don't take my word for it. I bet you can think of someone who watches the Superbowl just for the ads. 

So now, if I've convinced you to give marketing a try, can I interest you in a subscription to PMQ Pizza Magazine? Tips and tricks delivered monthly to your door, absolutely free! Now even the late, great Billy Mays couldn't beat that offer. (OxyClean not included.)

Friday, January 5, 2018

Pizza History: 3 Factors of the American Pizza Boom

Pizza is big. BIG. HUGE. Even a cursory glance at the big numbers in PMQ's Pizza Power Report makes the the most obvious thing in the world. 

But how did it get so big so fast in the United States? Post-war mid-century American history combined a number of key factors to create the perfect storm in which pizza would become arguably the most dominantly popular food in the U.S. for the next 70 years. 

1. Production: A pizza parlor needs only two pieces of specialized equipment, a heavy stand mixer for the dough and an oven that can hold temperatures over 550F.  A particularly handy person could even build an oven themselves. So long as you weren't trying to open a full-service restaurant with lots of seating and a varied menu, the only expensive piece of equipment you would need to acquire is that stand mixer.

2. Infrastructure: after World War II, the US government had a lot of surplus items they were selling cheap: jeeps, canteens, army boots... and huge Hobart stand mixers. The Hobart mixers were big enough to mix a battalion's bread, and they were going cheap. A vet could get a small business loan from the GI bill, buy himself a mixer, rent a small storefront, build an oven, and viola!  He was in the restaurant business. Just like that. It's a restaurant that can make a lot of pizza efficiently, but it can't make much else. In this bare bones operation, a restauranteur had limited capacity for sit-down traffic and limited menu. And for many folks, that was just fine.

3. Portability: This may, in fact, be the most under-appreciated aspect of the dish. As pizza parlors spread from urban centers, owners realized there was a limit to the walk-in traffic they could expect. They knew from their urban experience many customers were taking the pizza home. How could they replicate that trade in the suburbs? By offering a new service: pizza delivered to the customer's house. And that was the real ticket right there. Delivery.  There is no other food that holds up to travel and portability like pizza. It is the supreme delivery food item. 

With third-party food delivery services coming into the market, and cloud based apps for them, that last point is important to note. Pizza is the supreme delivery food.

The consumer now has an increasing opportunity to get a wide variety of food delivered from any and every type of restaurant. But those slinging pies still maintain a competitive advantage over other food types. Who wants soggy french fries? Or disheveled fajitas? Nobody. That's who. 

If those factors hadn't lined up the way they did...who knows what would've happened? Somewhere, there is an alternate universe in which hardly anybody eats pizza. 

Sucks for those guys.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Miracle at the Roadside Attraction

In the panhandle of Texas is a town you've probably heard of called Amarillo. Just west of Amarillo, one day in 1974, this group of three art wonks called The Ant Farm half-buried 10 Cadillacs in a field. A very large, perfectly active agricultural field. Sticking up at an angle consistent with the Giza Pyramid, this row of fine American steel and rusted tail fins serves as some kind of ode to American engineering, mobility and Route 66. From I-40, it beckons and beguiles travelers, teasing them to make any sense of it. Why'd they put it there? Just 'cause. That's the only reason an American needs to do anything. May as well ask why we put a man on the moon. Just 'cause.

I have made this trip back and forth a dozen times and I swear I fall more and more in love with it every single time.

Paulina and I pulled up one day, armed with Krylon spray cans. We squeezed through the zig zag fence and made our way through the hard-packed, dried mud. We sprayed our names. We left our marks. And due to the wind, we got a face-full of Krylon. We choked and laughed.

Cadillac Ranch abounds with the sounds of giggles and laughter. Teeming with vitality. Young girls, young boys. Taking selfies. Crawling. Climbing. Crowing. Spraying messages on the weathered car bodies. Young couples in love, posing for photos. Spraying their initials in hearts to commemorate relationships that will be outlasted by this ageless monument. And here or there, stand a couple older folks, temporarily rejuvenated by the infectious energy of electric youth. Smiling. Taking it all in. Fountain of youth.

Eons from now, future societies will struggle to grasp what purpose this structure served, and conclude it was part of fertility rituals or sun worship, or try to measure the angles of constellations against it, much like they do with Stonehenge. Who built it?! What does it all mean!? What purpose does it serve!? Why?! Why?!

Joke's on them. It's just a bunch of old cars sticking out of an old cotton field.

And that's precisely why it works.

A lot of people say they don't believe in miracles. Go to the Cadillac Ranch and you'll see a transfiguration of some junk cars into a profoundly sacred experience. It might not be water into wine, but it's still a trans-substantiation of sorts.

I told you this story to really tell you something you already know. A pizzeria is more than just a shop that sells a widget. People breaking bread together is more than just fueling a body to supply nutrients. It's fellowship. It's friendship. It's love. It's community. It is greater than the sum of its parts.

Folks work in a pizza shop need to make a living. The operator needs to make a profit. And we at PMQ are honored to help you in these endeavors. But beyond the balance sheet, within the four walls of your establishment is really nothing less than the very fabric of life itself.

This holiday season, I want to thank you for letting me be part of your community, and express my deepest gratitude for the joys and rewards that come from the relationships built and grown over pizza.

Seasons greetings.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Kids AREN'T Alright - Millennials Part Two

In my previous blog, I'd made the argument that complaints about millennials are nothing we haven't seen before every time a new generation comes of age.
Vincent Rotolo of Evel Pie and Lars Smith
of State of Mind, mid-competition.

But as the irony of the world would have it, right after writing that blog, I attended a gathering of great pizza minds outside San Diego, during a little shindig called the Western Pizza Trials. A number of them had something to say on the matter of millennials. In fact, they were giving me an earful, practically begging for PMQ's help on the matter of how to find good employees. It seems they're feeling the growing pains of a generational shift.

Participants in the Western Pizza Trials

Now in my defense, I never claimed millennials weren't different than previous generations. My whole point in Part One was that every generation is different. What makes this one different? Salvatore Trupiano seemed to have the best insight on how we got here:

Salvatore Trupiano of Dominic's Italian Restaurant
Oceanside, California
"I think what has happened over the years, if you go back to the days of immigration coming through Ellis Island.... that generation came through the Great Depression. You and I have never, ever understood what it could mean to not know if dinner will be served on the table tonight. That generation did. It was almost an unspoken oath that that generation said 'The next generation - our kids - will never have to go through this. We're going to make a better lifestyle for them.' And then that next generation did the same and so forth. So if you go down the chain to my generation, I've done exactly that."

Speaking from my own experience, I was raised by a child of the Depression. My grandfather, despite being a man of few words, often lectured me on his own meager childhood of extreme poverty. Though we were a low-income family ourselves, the very definition of poverty itself had changed, and it seemed important to him to let us know how good we had it compared to the squalor he knew. So what are the unintended consequences of successively better quality of life? Salvatore continues:
"I never intended to start a family and not have them have a better lifestyle than they did. My kids as well as other millennials have been raised to have everything at arm's reach. They have never been taught to have to work to get something. Today with the internet and social media, everything is instant gratification. 
These kids nowadays, if something extends over their normal existence, they completely and automatically shut off.  If the workload becomes too much for them, that's it. That's their last day, that's their last minute. They shut down. They don't come back. We're learning that if you exceed what THEIR expectations are, you lose an employee.  I grew up knowing and trying to exceed the expectations of the employer, and now we're sort of in a role-reversal. "

Makes sense. So how does a restaurant operator work around that?

"We've changed our configuration of hiring and interviews. Our interview process used to be to find the best employee for the position. That focus has changed. Now our process is - if they make it through the interview, that's already a huge accomplishment. Throughout the interview process, what we're looking for is: Do we have somebody who's actually going to come in for their shifts and perform?
Now instead of hiring one person for a position, I will hire two people for one position because I don't want to put that one person into an over-workload. So what I'll do is split that one position across two people."
Ultimately, Trupiano believes we're in a state of transition.Those millennials who want to work and make an honest living will eventually separate from those who do not. As always, the cream will rise to the top.

If only an employer had the benefit of a magical sorting hat, that process might be less painful. Unfortunately, magic is the stuff of Harry Potter books. In the meantime, we'll make do with good ole fashioned trial-and-error.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Millennial Myth

Millennials have a stigma. "They're entitled. They're spoiled. Lazy. Whiny! Completely self-absorbed. They're just the WORST!"

At least that's how a co-worker's mother described them when asked her opinion over the phone. I, however, remain dubious of these sky-is-falling claims about how the world will end once handed over to this generation.

Mostly because I've heard this tune before.  Each generation thinks the next will be society's complete undoing. Think about the Roaring Twenties. Perhaps most famously immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," it was seen by the elder statesmen of that period to be a whole generation of devil-may-care, wanton excess.

The drinking! The parties! The moving pictures with their depictions of violence and sex! The mini-skirts! And worst of all...that awful devil-music noise of filthy, disgusting, degenerate JAZZ!  Or so people at the time thought.

And then there was the Beat Generation. I'll just let this sensationalist article do the talking:

But Jack Kerouac and company didn't turn America into roadkill.

And then the hippies with their long hair, drug use, free-love, and socialism threatened to rock the very foundations of American values..... at least until they got about 10 years older and magically transformed from the We Generation to the Me Generation in one of the greatest about-faces in social history.

You'll have to forgive me if I seem skeptical when it comes to writing off the current crop of youth that shall inherit the earth. The fact is, in my own experience, I've seen a LOT of really bright kids with good heads on their shoulders doing incredible things.

From my pal Ash, who went from sneaking into my punk rock shows when she was underage, to now being a committed social worker in a troubled community. Or examine in the video below, the pair of teenagers that started an incredible film, arts, and music festival in a neighboring town to where I live.

Or in the pizza world, take a quick glance at a guy like Scott Volpe who recklessly went to Napoli in his early 20s with nothing but a backpack. He didn't speak the language or have any connections. He wanted to learn how to make pizza from the masters at the very source. He went from being technically homeless, starting at the bottom, and dedicated himself completely to learning his craft and skill set. He brought those skills back stateside and is now the proud owner-operator of a brick and mortar restaurant called Fiamme in Tucson, Arizona that started as a small food truck. If that wasn't enough, he also is a world champion pizza spinner. (Frankly, his overachieving kinda makes me sick. He's making us older guys look bad.)

If you look around, I'm sure you can cite half a dozen examples in your own social circles. Every generation has its quirks and youthful abandon. But the best and brightest will always mature and end up as the glue that holds society together. For my own part, I've never been able to identify with either Generation X or Millennials. Depending on which data or study group you ask, I'm classified alternately as either or both.  I have always, however, felt the world is an increasingly better place to live in with each passing decade.

So rather than bemoan the differences from one generation to the next, I prefer to celebrate the rising stars. In that spirit, here's a couple links to short articles with advice on how to work with Millennials in your restaurant:

And of course, a PMQ article on how to market to them:

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

I've Eaten at THAT Memphis Cafe

Confessions of a Buttholegate Customer

I confess. I’ve eaten at Imagine Vegan Cafe, the Memphis restaurant at the center of controversy and last week’s biggest internet story. And not just once or twice. I’ve eaten there several times. I’m actually a repeat customer. (Don’t judge me!)

If you don’t know what Buttholegate is, let me bring you up to speed. Essentially a customer left a bad online review in which she claimed a naked baby (the owner’s child) with allegedly dirty feet climbed up on the table the customer was eating at and essentially displayed…. posterior.

The restaurant owner took it as a personal attack on her children and responded in an extremely hostile manner online and in local media. The operator went so far as to deny they were even a business at all and declared they were not at all interested in whether they made money or continued to have a customer base as a result of the fallout.

Some internet wiseacre thought up the “buttholegate” moniker and the #buttholegate hashtag and story went wildly viral. You can read the whole sordid saga on Vice or Thrillist. Or any number of other websites.

Of COURSE this sort of story could ONLY come out of Memphis. The city, smack dab in the middle of the “Dirty South,” is famous for its gritty, hard-nosed and sometimes off-the-wall character. The Memphis Grizzlies' “Grit n Grind” style is synonymous with the personality of the town itself. Only outsized characters in such a place could produce not one, but TWO eccentric kings and an even more eccentric prince.

Self-proclaimed alien and perennial mayoral candidate Prince Mongo. Photo courtesy of Mongo's campaign facebook.

Photo by Stephie B.
That character is precisely what I love Memphis for and why I’ve spent so much time there over the years—often at a now-defunct dive called the Rally Point in which beer-swilling punk rockers would spit lager on me while I played in one of my bands. (It would probably be viewed in the same light as New York’s famous CBGBs if only any of the bands that came out of it would’ve gotten famous.)  

So I admit, due to my personal relationship with the beautiful trainwreck of a city that is Memphis, I’m not the most objective person to speak on this story. But I can at least lend you some first-person perspective on the Cafe at the center of Buttholegate.

I first went to Imagine several years ago when it was just starting out in its original location. It was weird because the restaurant was also the owner’s living room. Toddlers were watching children's programming on TV and their toys were scattered about their area. The dining area was superficially separated, but it still felt a little like you were invading someone's personal space and made for a slightly awkward dining experience. I chalked it up to quaintness and character. But at that time, an all-vegan restaurant was a niche market that only they seemed to be filling, and I liked the concept. It was obviously a mom & pop operation, and I’m always in the corner of the little guy and want to see local businesses succeed whenever possible. I have eaten at Imagine several times since then, and their current locale is set up much more as a conventional restaurant. I’ve never had an experience I would consider bad.
Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor

My support of my own region and moms and pops everywhere notwithstanding, I have to side with the customer on this whole sordid mess. It’s true kids are funny and they do wacky things all the time. It’s true that even the best parents can’t always control their kids. I can certainly recall moments of being a tiny terror my own mother had to deal with. But the restaurant operator's anger is really misdirected. The customer wasn’t blaming the kids. The complaint was the inappropriate response to the kid's behavior and a perceived lapse in supervision. The owners’ response to the online review and subsequent online comments were wildly inappropriate. This was a textbook case study of what NOT to do in a case of customer dissatisfaction.

The only appropriate response in such a scenario is: "We're sorry you felt your experience was sub-par. If you come back, your next meal is on is. Contact us at xyz and let us know how we can resolve your issue and improve our service." The customer is always right. (Even when he/she is wrong. Which is admittedly frustrating as hell sometimes.)

I'm perplexed why the operators seem so adamant Imagine is not a business when it clearly is. What does it communicate to your employees about job stability when you broadcast to the world that you don't care if you're not making revenue? What does it communicate to guests about your professionalism if you broadcast that you don’t see yourself as a professional? If you truly have no interest in hospitality, you may need to rethink why you're in the hospitality industry in the first place.
Photo courtesy

David Lee Roth once said, “If you stick your head above the crowd, sooner or later someone’s going to try and throw a rock at it.” Unfortunately, scrutiny and constant criticism is part of the gig when you operate in a public sphere as a restaurant does. Or for that matter, a pizza magazine. Believe me, I get earfuls of opinions from folks in our industry all the time. Some of them carry more weight than others.

But ultimately, if you don’t at least consider whether an argument has merit, the butthole may be you.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Walking a Mile in a Grouch's Shoes

"Hell is other people." That's the famous, oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood line from existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre's play "No Exit."

It's usually thought to mean that the company of others invariably will grate on your nerves and drive you crazy. There is some truth to that (and if you don't believe me, try going on vacation with your in-laws.) But as Sartre himself explained, "That does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us."

Reality is a subjective thing. As Obi-Wan Kenobi's wise ghost explains to Luke Skywalker upon being accused of lying, "Many of the truths we cling to depend up on a certain point of view."

It's entirely possible that in a given scenario, you can be 100% in the right, yet someone who disagrees with you may not necessarily be wrong. I once worked on a project for an artist who was once part of a band with a hit record. The band fractured when it split into two camps and a party who outwardly exhibited every sign that they no longer wanted any part of the band filed a lawsuit against remaining parties over a document they never signed.

From point of view of the party I knew, they didn't feel they needed the consent of someone who had completely withdrawn from the entity and no longer wanted any part of it. From the other party's point of view, they were miffed an agreement that could affect their intellectual property would be negotiated without their input. Much bitterness ensued and the end result amounted to both camps essentially losing a bunch of money to a bunch of lawyers. Who was right? Both parties felt they had a point. But neither ultimately accomplished anything except making all parties involved financially poorer while fattening the pockets of litigators. It was an unfortunate state of affairs that probably got chalked up in the music rags as the old cliché of "creative differences."

Perception is reality. If you have done your best to provide quality service and product to a customer who still has a complaint - you have done your part and you may be 100% right. However, that customer has a grievance whether real or perceived. If they perceive a grievance, it's real to them. It's worth time investigating the nature of their complaint and understanding how they are seeing the situation. Even if you ultimately find there is nothing you could've done better, there may be something you find you can change about the way your customers perceive your quality of service or food.

I can't count how many pizza operators feel they have the best pizza out there. And they may all be right.....from a certain point of view. After all, taste is completely subjective. I'll give you an example: For a variety of factors, I believe Queen's Brian May is the best guitarist of all time....but you probably have your own opinion on the matter. (Feel free to comment why I'm wrong.)

The more often you can put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand differing points of view, the more you get out of your own bubble. The wider perspective you have on the world, the better. Knowledge is power. But beware of going TOO far down the rabbit hole of appeasing cranky customers. You can only please SOME of the people SOME of the time, after all.

Ultimately, this is all marketing really is: communicating the right message to the right people at the right time. And recognizing you might be right, but still be wrong in someone else's eyes can help you refine your message, or deliver it in a different way.