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Surviving a tough economy

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The author, Lisa Bote, at her Wisconsin restaurant Bistro 101

In May, my restaurant, Bistro 101 in Mt. Horeb, WI, turned five. We opened in 2008 just as the economy was starting its downward spiral. At that point, we were too far in not to move forward with the business. So, we charged ahead.      
I operate a small independent restaurant in a small town. We did a lot of things wrong and we did a lot of things right. I was our chef and I cooked good food. I did a lot of table visits, I listened to our guests’ comments and worked a lot of their feedback into our operations. We adapted and kept at it.

We’re located in a town of 7,000 people just west of Madison, WI. We don’t have office buildings that release hundreds or thousands of workers at the end of each day, and without that pool of potential guests streaming into our doors, we were determined to make ourselves a destination restaurant.  

We leveraged an e-mail list that we built, did a lot of local advertising and used word of mouth to build our business. We send out a personalized e-mail each week via Constant Contact that contains details of our weekly features and news about upcoming events, staff birthdays/babies, etc. We have a 30-35 percent open rate on these email which, to me, is amazing. And, I love it when a guest calls me over and says, “Lisa, we came in tonight because you wrote about scallops in the e-mail,” or, “Lisa, we read the email and couldn’t wait to come in.”
Below are some tips on what we did to make our business work in a tough economy. Of course, they’ll work in a more healthy economy as well.
Hours of operation: When we opened, we were open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to midnight. This gave us a lot of down time. After a busy and successful four months, our sales started to suffer so we looked at our hours of operation, staffing and menu. We changed our hours of operation to 4 p.m. to closing five nights a week. This move automatically scaled back our staffing. As for our menu, we opened serving paninis and tapas. Within six months of opening, we added entrees.

Good bar manager: My business partner liked to eat at a nearby restaurant because he enjoyed the service and the experience there. After 12 years, it closed.  So we contacted its bar manager about coming to work for us and he did. He had a huge following of loyal guests, many of whom now eat with us, have company parties with us and celebrate their anniversaries and birthdays with us. He was also instrumental in bringing over handpicked servers and cooks.

Consistent staffing: We have consistent staffing five nights a week. Unless he’s sick or on vacation, my bar manager is here every night we’re open. People come in specifically to see him. Turnover for servers is very low, as is cook turnover.

Procurement: I do the purchasing and am vigilant about what we bring in. I once did the purchasing for Spago in Chicago and learned not to hesitate sending back dead lobsters, moldy lemons or steaks not cut to spec. So-called ‘fresh-cut’ chicken that smelled also gets sent back. We may be small, but I expect fresh, high quality products.  We buy fresh fish instead of frozen, we buy Certified Angus Beef steaks, which cost more than other grades, and we make our own sauces, vinaigrettes, dressings and desserts. We bring in good products and treat them well.

We know our guests: We know them by name, by what they drink, by what they eat, where their kids go to college, etc. They return for our hospitality.
The items above may seem like real basic restaurant dos and don’ts, but I see lots of restaurants where staffing is inconsistent, product quality is iffy and no one knows my name. I don’t return to these restaurants. The restaurant business is a lot of work, but when done right, it can be so rewarding.

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