Political Insanity: My Investment is Suspended

6 11 2012

Dear Governments of the United States, North Carolina, New Hanover County, and the City of Wilmington,

I am writing to inform you that after careful review of your financial records to date, I have determined that your organizations are not fiscally sustainable in their current configuration.  Not only did I not experience gains on my investment as you promised I would, but my principle investment is now gone due to your mismanagement of the funds to which I have contributed.  As such, I find it necessary to suspend my investment in your organizations effective immediately and continuing until such time as a viable fiscal plan is presented.

As a former business owner, former home owner, former owner of investment property, and a veteran of the U.S. Military Forces, I find your conduct reprehensible.  My own mismanagement of my personal finances led to my having to liquidate my assets and take substantial losses to ensure I could maintain the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter.  While these actions were not what I wanted and it was not a pleasant process, it was necessary.  I am now solvent and living within my means and it only took about a year to get here from the crushing debt I once faced.  It was a radical approach to a desperate situation, but it worked.  It was the only responsible solution to my situation.  Burying my head in the sand and hoping for the best was not an option for me, and it is not an option for you, either.

I recommend that you impartially assess your situation and take some radical actions to pay your astronomical debt in full and stop additional debt from accruing.  It is, after all, not your money to spend.  Perhaps some new people on your teams who understand how desperately some radical changes are needed will be just the thing to turn your situation around.  I am on my way to my appointed voting location right now to see what I can do about getting you some help with fresh ideas.

I am certain of one thing:  necessity is the mother of all invention.  Given the opportunity to keep the vast majority of my paycheck in my wallet, I can and will make decisions for myself that will meet my needs.  I will find a doctor who will accept cash or barter to help me get well when I am ill; I don’t need your national healthcare program.  I will find ways to earn enough money to sustain myself, even if I lose my current job; I will simply look at all the opportunities and find a new niche for myself.  I will treat my neighbors with respect and take personal responsibility, as I have done all my life, and will rarely if ever need the assistance of the police or attorneys or the courts; that will free them up to deal with more serious issues.  I will help my daughter educate my grandson by networking with others, pooling our respective knowledge to ensure the best possible primary education for him without need for your broken public school system.  I will make dinner for the family of the mechanic who changes the oil in my car when I am low on cash.  In short, I will figure it out.

Your job is to provide for the defense of our nation and safety of our town, the enforcement of existing laws, and to ensure we have the means to get where we are going (roads, railways, shipping channels, etc) as we conduct the business that sustains our nation’s workforce.  I am happy to help pay for all those things.  It is not your job to run the businesses that fuel our economy or to tell the business owners how to do it; it is your job to pave the way for people to do it themselves.

Let me keep the money in my pocket and leave me to my own devices.  I’m betting I can do a far better job of taking care of myself and those in need in my community than you have.

Your Loyal Citizen,

Susan Boyles

Retail Confidential: 10 Things Consumers Should Know

15 09 2012

I imagine there will be some folks with small businesses who won’t like me telling you what I am about to tell you.  But it is high time consumers got a better understanding of just how difficult it is to run a small business in today’s market, and why sometimes their prices are higher than the National chains.  This article does not begin to touch on all the variables and details, but will hopefully give you an appreciation of just how perilous it can be to own a business today.  Maybe it will encourage you to shop at the smaller stores like the one I manage more often.

If you don’t shop at independent stores, eventually they will be gone – right along with your choices.  Major Retailers (National chains, “Big Box” stores) do not care about you or what you want.  They are faceless, nameless money making machines, though they will pay lip service to how they value your business, when really they just value your money.  When they carry a product that doesn’t sell, they stop carrying it.  They don’t care that you like one brand of product better than another; it is all about the bottom line.  They are looking for products with the highest profit margins for the lowest investment and are often not concerned with quality.  That’s how lead-paint laden toys got into your kid’s mouths; they didn’t care enough to check the quality of the product, they just liked the numbers and the package so they ordered it.  Small, independently owned stores know that selling you a defective product – or a dangerous one – can literally ruin them.  So they seek out the best quality products to offer, and sometimes those things cost more than what the National retailers offer.  There are other legitimate reasons for higher prices at local retailers, so read on if you care to know just a few of them.

There is so much I could tell you that many of you likely don’t know, but let me just cover what I like to call my Top 10 Things Consumers Should Know about Small Businesses (that no one wants to tell you).

10. The Most Expensive Thing in a Small Business is the Staff.  People are the backbone of any organization, but much more so in a small retail business.  It is not easy to find the right people who can work at a small store and deliver great customer service every day while juggling myriad tasks.  They have to be smart and trustworthy enough to be at the store alone for periods of time and handle any and all situations that arise.  My employees have to fix the computer if it crashes, or use a handwritten sales receipt and a calculator if they can’t – and answer the phone, and wrap gifts, and clean, and help with ordering.  A cashier at Target only scans price tags, takes cash, and hands you change that they don’t even have to count.  They call a manager if they have a problem.  The caliber of person needed for a small business simply costs more, and the really good ones are worth more than you can afford to pay them, so sometimes you can’t get them to work for you.  Let’s conservatively say that for the average retail store that’s open 10 hours a day, six days a week, you spend $5,000 a month in payroll with one full-time and two or three part-time employees with your employer tax contributions and Unemployment Insurance (neither of which are optional).
9. The Second Most Expensive Thing in a Small Business is the Place.  The mortgage or rent for commercial spaces is very expensive.  In my town right now, a rented space in one of the ultra-premium shopping centers where you like to shop (the new, shiny, clean ones with the piped in music, ample parking, and great atmosphere) average about $25 per square foot per year plus Common Area Maintenance (CAM) charges of around $8 per square foot (that’s the money that pays for the parking lot and the music).  This is down from $35 and $12, respectively, about 3 years ago (but if you signed a lease 3 years ago, you are still paying those higher rates).  So if you have a modest size space (about 2,500 square feet), that’s $6,875 per month just to rent the space.  (Just to emphasize how expensive this is, that’s $3,400 per month for 1,250 square feet – the size of a small home that in our town costs an average of $1,000 a month.)  Add utilities, insurance, and maintenance (most commercial spaces make it the tenants responsibility to maintain the heating & air system, repair broken plate glass, and clean the windows), and you can easily spend over $8,000 per month for this house-sized space.  Even in an average, aged shopping center, you are looking at about $4,000 per month, and in a low-end center maybe $3,000.  Poor location is one of the top three reasons small businesses fail in the first 5 years, so it’s pretty important to be in a good place – but it will cost you.  Oh, and when a National retailer wants to put a store in a local shopping center, they generally get offered a much lower rate than small businesses because they have the star power – their name alone will bring traffic to the property, so it’s a quid pro quo that is supposed to help the little stores (even though there is no guarantee that if you are going to Target you will shop the other stores while in the plaza).  In this sick twist of economic karma, the big places with the high sales volume – who can afford to pay more – pay less rent than the little places with the small sales volume who can barely make their payroll.  (If you are doing the math as we go, we have already crossed the $10,000 mark on monthly expenses and we haven’t bought anything or paid the utilities yet.)
8. Many Small Business Owners have Bet their Houses on the Success of their Business.  Commercial Landlords generally require a personal guarantee for the lease of a business space unless you are a National chain.  Yes, that’s right.  Even if you have formed an LLC or S-Corporation, you probably have to sign a personal guarantee to rent the space.  This means that the owner of your favorite restaurant, hair salon, or boutique clothing store is quite literally betting his or her house on the business.  The guarantee allows the landlord to pursue a judgment against you in court if your business fails and you default on the terms of the lease.  Also, tenants usually have to pay to upfit a commercial space for their use (plumbing, electrical, walls, floors, paint, lighting, etc.) and many tenants take a second mortgage on their homes to accomplish this, unless dear Uncle Albert passed away and left them $100,000.  The average upfit of a new shopping center space of 2,500 square feet is about $100,000; modifying an existing space averages $50,000 here in my town.  Retail is not for the faint of heart – I’m just sayin’.
7. Maker’s Mark Taste, Old Crow Money.   If you are a small retailer or restaurateur, you want to offer the best products possible.  Today’s consumers want the best quality for the least investment possible.  The electronics age has fueled this mind set; big machines are producing our little machines by the millions and over time they have gotten really cheap because the volume of sales makes up for the lower profit per item, and the machine is cheaper than human labor.  Cellular phones are a prime example.  The best quality housewares, clothing, and food cannot be made by machines – they have to be handmade, hand fed, and organically grown.  The care involved in those processes costs a lot of money (refer back to number 10 above).  The dilemmas faced here are many, but let’s use this example:  A restaurant may have to decide between organic, local chicken at $10 per pound or mass-produced chicken from Tyson’s Noel, Missouri plant for $4 per pound.  How much are you willing to pay for your chicken parmesan dinner?  If they opt for the organic, they will have to charge you $22 or more to break even on their cost (once side dishes, gas for the stove, and labor are added) or sell it for $18 and not make their payroll (and we didn’t even add in rent and utilities).  So they opt for the mass-produced chicken to offer you a reasonably priced dinner and still be able to make their payroll and order more chicken.  Or they can pound out a few carefully butchered ounces of the organic chicken, portion out more pasta, and hope that you won’t complain that the portions are too small (you bourbon drinkers know exactly what I’m talking about – the choice between ample Old Crow on the rocks, or a little bit of watered down Maker’s Mark).  (Here, I could launch into how the National chain restaurants don’t make much of their food on-site and thus can sell it for less, but I am trying to stay focused.)  The only way a local restaurant can consistently offer higher quality ingredients and a talented staff to cook them properly is if you are willing to pay more for them and come back often.
6. The Crystal Ball is Broken.  Retail is extremely volatile.  There are certain well-established norms in the retail and restaurant industries, but even the norms sometimes don’t hold true.  For instance, Saturday is typically the busiest day in retail each week, and the busiest evening in restaurants.  This does not mean that every Saturday you will sell a certain amount of product, or that you will turn all your tables twice.  Some Saturdays hardly anyone steps into our store.  Why?  Who knows; weather, special events elsewhere in town, certain times of the year – like January – are notorious for being slow.  But on a given Saturday in May, no one knows why it’s dead.  If you do come in, I don’t know if I will have what you are hoping to buy; if I have it, I don’t know if you’ll like the color or brand or price.  In short, retailers and restaurateurs take educated guesses about what you might want and when you might want it.  We can’t have everything that will please everyone on every day.  We don’t have that kind of money or storage space.  Plus we are small and have a certain identity; if the name of our restaurant is Little Italy, are cheeseburgers a realistic expectation of us?
5. Special Orders Don’t Upset Us, But Impatience Does.  When is the last time you tried to get Williams-Sonoma to order you a fruit carving tool that isn’t in their inventory?  Did they look at you like you were an alien?  Did they have any clue what you were talking about?  If you came into our store, we would sift through some catalogs from our vendors looking for what you want.  We might have to call you back the next day, but we will research it.  When it turns out that the tool sells for $8 and we just spent an hour looking for it, we still order it for you even though we spent more than double the price of the item in labor to locate it.  But do bear in mind that our vendors have minimum order requirements so it may take us a few weeks to get it for you since we have to order $300 worth of product from them to get your $8 widgit and we operate on a tight budget and just don’t need more widgits today.  This, my friends, is called personal service.  You don’t get this at the National chains.  But it will cost you some patience.
4. We Don’t Tell You What We Pay for Products Because You Don’t Get It.  Wholesale pricing information is held pretty close to the vest of those of us in the trade.  This isn’t because we are setting out to rip you off and pad our checkbooks; this is because we know you don’t understand the complexities of the pricing structures and we don’t have time to explain it to each and every customer – and we are trying to keep the doors open.  I am explaining it now, through this blog post.  Are you listening?  Your $8 widgit cost us an hour direct labor plus the wholesale cost of the widget itself.  There will be additional labor to prepare the purchase order, pay the freight, verify the shipment when it arrives, unpack it, take the cardboard to the dumpster, receive the product into our inventory, print and apply the price tags, and figure out where to merchandise the other widgits on the sales floor.  Then we have to call you to tell you it has arrived and pay the fees for processing your credit card transaction.  Your $8 widgit cost us a lot more than what you paid for it.  But we are happy to do it for you to earn your loyalty; we are investing in you as our customer in the hope that you will come back and buy some other things from us and that eventually our investment will pay off.  I will tell you this much:  the percentage of profit is about the same for most of the products we sell in our store (package beer and wine has very little profit in it, so that’s the exception for us; by-the-glass beer and wine can be profitable for restaurants and they rely upon their bar to pay some bills, so have a drink with dinner).  You can rightly conclude, then, that if all we are selling are $5 and $10 items, we are not making enough profit to pay the bills unless we are selling a bazillion of them.  When you buy a set of cookware? That might pay half the electric bill for one month.  Buy more cookware.  Please.
3. Small Business Owners Don’t Get a Paycheck Every Week.  In fact, many small business owners don’t get a paycheck at all.  They take just enough money out of the business to pay their mortgage and expenses at home, and many don’t have health insurance for their families.  They have to live like this because it’s a never-ending cycle:  you have to have product to sell in order to make money; it takes money to buy the product; and round and round you go.  Why not cut expenses by closing in slow times, you say?  If my store is not open when you, the consumer, want something from us, you will go elsewhere and probably not come back because we are not open regular, reliable hours.  We do have seasonal hours based on those norms we mentioned earlier in number 6, but if there is no foot traffic on a given Thursday, I can’t just close and go home.  What about that one customer who comes by at 5pm?  The risk is too high.  So even when business is very slow and revenue is at rock bottom, I have to be open, pay my staff (because I can’t work 24/7), and order product for when you do come in to shop.  Sometimes there isn’t any money for the owner to pay themselves.  Imagine this situation continuing for a couple months (while you are on vacation and not shopping in our store).  Small business owners may have had some money when they started the business, but chances are they don’t have any money now that isn’t tied up in the business.  Why do they do it?  To be their own boss, to make their mark on the world, to forge a trail for others to follow, to follow their passions, to live out their dreams.  It is their chosen employment, but the pay and benefits suck.
2. When you Demand a Discount or Play the “Use and Return” Game with Products, You are Taking Food out of the Business Owner’s Mouth.  Literally.  Review numbers 3 through 10 above.  Restaurants probably suffer a bit more with this than other retailers, but we all deal with it.  Many National retailers have a policy that they will take any return you bring them, no questions asked.  They can afford to be liberal with their return policy because they have a volume of sales that renders the effect of their relatively small percentage of returns negligible to their bottom line.  What did she just say?  Big box stores are unaffected by you wearing a dress to a wedding and returning it for full credit, stains and all.  They can take it.  But when you do that to a small retailer, and get belligerent when they point out the stains on the dress you swear you didn’t wear, you box them into a corner – and don’t you know it!  You count on it.  The underlying threat is, “I won’t shop here anymore if you don’t give me my money back, and I’ll tell all my friends how rude you were to me, too.”  At a restaurant, this strategy is often employed thusly:  “Waiter, my <half-eaten> steak is over-cooked.  Please take it back.  Oh, and I want it taken off my bill.”  In that moment, retailers/restaurateurs must make a judgment call.  Me, I usually opt for the less-traveled road:  “Oh, I’m sorry that pan didn’t make your omelet the way you wanted.  But since you’ve used it and it has the marks to prove it, I cannot take it back and re-sell it.  Therefore, I cannot offer you a refund.  I will happily give you a gift certificate for $20 for your inconvenience.”  Go ahead, tell your friends.  I will not be held hostage by someone who clearly wants something for nothing.   I want you to be happy, but I will not be extorted – I simply can’t afford it.  Now if your pan had a manufacturing flaw, I will happily take it back.  But once you’ve used a perfectly good pan, you are out of luck.  If you eat half the steak and then complain, you should pay for it.  Period.  If you can’t afford to pay the bill, eat at home.
1. We Need You to Realize Our Dreams.  You browse my store and say how lovely it is and how you love my products.  Then you go to Bed, Bath & Beyond to purchase your cooking tools.  Was it something we did?  Was an employee rude to you?  Did we not have what you were looking for?  Was it the price?  Why didn’t you buy from us?  If you had taken a minute to tell me, I might have been able to apologize/re-train my employee/order you what you want/give you a discount.  Refer back to number 5 – the crystal ball is broken.  But we want to earn your loyalty and offer you what you need and want.  We cannot stay in business if you don’t buy from us.  If I can’t get you what you need, I might be able to recommend someplace that can.  Hell, I’ve even been known to give free samples of things to people to meet their needs when I am out of stock of a product and have a sample on hand.  I was out of butcher’s twine once and gave the guy a couple yards from my ball in the cooking school kitchen.  I will do almost anything I can to take care of a customer and help the owner of our store stay in business.  But if you don’t shop with us and don’t tell me what you want, I can’t do either.  Buy local, so that we can continue to offer you a choice.  The big guys will not ask you what you want, they will only follow the money.  We want to know you and offer you the best quality possible for your money.

Thanks for stopping in.  Please come back!

On Business: Winners and Losers…and Summer Squash Muffins

18 07 2012

“Winners do things losers don’t want to do.”

That is a quote from Dr. Phil from a 2009 episode of his show that I saw this morning at 6:00 am.  (This is what happens when the dog gets you up too early.)  The show was about couples arguing about money; specifically, it was about women wanting to be entrepreneurs and start businesses while their husbands aren’t sure about making the investment.

In one case, there were two women who are friends wanting to open a women’s boutique together, but the husbands were not so sure it was a good idea.  So Dr. Phil sets them up to have a “day in the life” experience at an existing boutique.  While they are there, a light bulb in the store goes out and the ladder is too short to reach it; while working with a sales vendor, they quickly wrack up a large bill while selecting goods for the shop and have to pare it down; they run short of change in the cash register; an employee calls in sick at the start of her shift; they had their kids at work all day and got stressed out about the kid’s demands for attention (super duh for you, ladies); and they end up working well after closing to get all the paperwork done.  When reviewing the experience with Dr. Phil afterward, the women tell him they think it was a set up to discourage them; if it was their boutique, they would have a plan for those things and it wouldn’t be that bad.

Dr. Phil then has the actual boutique owner join the conversation.  She tells them that she did leave the light bulb unchanged and the register short of change because she wanted them to have things to deal with that frequently arise in her store; but she did not cause the other issues – they are just part of what happens on a daily basis when you own your own business.  Bless his heart!  Dr. Phil was trying to show them the cold, harsh reality of business ownership.  I think he did a great job, and these ladies still think it wasn’t realistic and things will be different for them.  I think they are suffering from ‘terminal uniqueness;’ that’s a state of being in which you think that you are different, special, better in some way than others in the same position, and it can indeed be terminal.

As a former small business owner and now manager of a retail gourmet store, I can tell you it’s every bit of what Dr. Phil showed them and more.  Some days really suck; there are not enough hours in the day.  You have to really love what you are doing and live for the great days because there are plenty of frustrating, not-so-ideal days.  You have to get things done no matter how many hours it takes.  If you can’t meet customer demands and expectations, you will fail.  You don’t have the luxury of going home and letting someone else worry about it.  The buck stops with you.  Being a business owner or general manager is not for wimps.  Indeed, as Dr. Phil said, the difference between winners and losers is that winners are willing to do the things that no one else wants to do, even when they don’t want to do them.  As we used to say in the Army, you have to suck it up and drive on.  No matter what.

I love what I do.  I live for the days when I am caught up on paperwork and drudgery and get to spend my entire day with customers or teaching a cooking class; those are great days.  But you don’t get the good ones without a fair amount of the challenging ones.  Someone has to do the paperwork, and the phone will ring constantly when you are doing it.  It’s all about perspective, really; you can let it wear you down, or you can pace yourself, remain calm, make lists of things to do, and chip away at them a little at a time.  You learn what the true priorities are and those are the things you drop everything else for; the other things can wait.  You learn to take care of yourself, get some rest, take a day off, make sure you eat (even when you cook for others  you sometimes forget to eat), and laugh.  Laughter is so very important.  When things are crazy, just laugh about it – you will feel better.  Clearly, you can’t do anything else but ride it out, so laugh.

When you are done laughing, make these phenomenal muffins.  I highly recommend that you make the butter, too – together they are a heavenly duo that is sure to put a smile on your face no matter the day’s challenges.  I surprised myself with this little kitchen experiment; they are mmm, mmm, good.

Summer Squash Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins with Lemon Honey Butter

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup cake flour

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons poppy seeds (optional, but not for me)

1 large egg

½ cup sugar

1/3 cup plain low-fat yogurt

½ cup milk

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 small or 1 large Summer Yellow Squash, seeded and diced small (about 2 cups diced)

Muffin Pan and Paper Muffin Cups

Preheat the oven to 400oF.  Line 12 muffin tin wells with paper liners and spray them with nonstick cooking spray to ease removal from the paper (or prepare the muffin tins by buttering them if not using papers).

In a large bowl, sift together cake flour, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and poppy seeds.

In a medium bowl, combine the egg and sugar and beat with an electric mixer on high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and beat in the yogurt, remaining 4 tablespoons of butter, lemon juice, zest and vanilla until well incorporated, about 30 seconds. Fold the wet ingredients and the squash into the dry just until moistened and being careful not to over-mix. Divide the batter among the muffin cups, filling each halfway.

Bake until the muffins are set and golden brown and a tester comes out clean, 16-18 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes in the tin and then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes about 12 full size muffins or 24 mini muffins.

Cook’s Note:  If making mini muffins, reduce bake time to 13-15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Lemon Honey Butter Buttons

1 stick (1/2 cup) Unsalted Butter, softened at room temperature

4 tablespoons Honey

1 teaspoon Sea Salt

Zest of 1 Lemon

1 tablespoon Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients in a bowl or food processor.  Mix until smooth and well combined.  Store in refrigerator in a covered bowl or transfer to a piping bag and pipe out into buttons, stars, flowers, or any other desired shape onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Place in freezer until firm.  Transfer to a container and layer butter buttons with plastic wrap or parchment between layers.  Store in freezer until ready to use.

Makes a lot.

Sausage and the Wisdom to Know the Difference

5 06 2012

Retail is a fickle business and should not be entered into lightly.  Owning a small business is fraught with peril and is not for those who are faint of heart or short on cash.  I know this first hand, and have been in recovery from a six-year stint as a small business owner for a year now.  There is no such thing as projected sales, and I don’t care who tells you otherwise.  If anyone tells you they have a definitive way of predicting future sales, you just walk away.  Better yet, run.  Past patterns can be a predictor of future outcomes, but often that is not the case.  There is no crystal ball in retail.

It has been a tough year, not unlike reliving adolescence in a lot of respects.  Certainly, it has been an emotional rollercoaster.  At first I was thrilled to have more than 24 consecutive hours off.  After I had about 24 consecutive days, the thrill had worn off and I didn’t know what to do with myself.  The rest of past twelve months has largely been spent riding that pendulum back and forth between contentment and boredom as gradually the swinging slowed and things evened out.  So just as I had come to accept things as they are and stopped worrying about the big, bad future and what I wanted to be when I grew up – surprise!  I am now facing a decision about getting back on the retail pendulum on a full-time basis managing someone else’s business.

The good part about that is that it is not my business and therefore will not affect my checkbook negatively as sales volume waxes and wanes, as it inevitably will.  But I will be accountable for overseeing the owner’s bottom line and therefore will be riding the waves right along with him.  I am not inclined to be a disaffected, unconcerned manager – I have a conscience and will take the job to heart.  That’s just part of who I am, and it’s not a bad thing.  But it does mean I have to spend some time seriously evaluating whether or not I want this job.  Because it’s a big one, and I will be inclined to get lost in it at my own expense physically and mentally.

I took a good, long browse through the new national grocery store that just opened here last week.  (The Wilmington metro area has just shy of one million year-round residents, so some of the larger chains have not opened stores/restaurants here yet, and others have come, failed, and left.  See? Fickle.)  I noted prices, mentally comparing them to other stores, and noticed the number of sale prices already hanging from the shelves (probably a marketing strategy – get ’em hooked then hit ’em with the regular price).  When I got to the meat department, I was very pleased with the selections if not as pleased with some of the prices.  I noticed that a great deal of the meat had sell-by dates of the next day on its packages (it was already 5:30pm), and not just the front-most package but all of them (I dug around – old habits die hard).

I’m a retailer so I know exactly what that means.  If they had a few meat products at their sell-by dates, that would be normal.  To have nearly all their meats in that condition meant that the meat manager totally misjudged his opening week sales when ordering.  Now, this means that some corporate trainer or district manager misjudged, because when they open a new store they always send the corporate cavalry in to help the newbies (read: tell them what to do).  Some waste is expected in the beginning as you figure out who your customer base really is and what they really want.  You are always going to order a few duds (products that just don’t sell), even sometimes when your store has been open for years (see?  No reliable projections).  But I thought about the waste they were likely to have from that meat case and thought, “Someone’s ass is gonna be sore.”  So I bought some store-made sausage.

On the way home I thought, “Do I want to be that gal who gets her ass chewed for the duds? Do I want to be the one who does the chewing?”  Having been there and done that and really just recovered from the toll it took, I just don’t know.  Writing down my employment non-negotiables and realizing that I will likely get everything I am asking for does not make it easier to make this decision.  I could use the money, though I don’t absolutely need it.  I am totally capable of doing the job.  The problem with this job will not be the compensation package or the business environment.  It will be me.  I don’t know if I can do that job and not lose the peace of mind I have acquired during this year away from that environment.  It seeps into your pores, intrudes on your every waking thought – and most of your dreams – because it is a job that is never done.  Can I learn to leave the job at the door when I come home?  Will the job let me leave it at the door, or will it bombard me with phone, text, and email messages at all hours just like when I owned my store?  Will I be strong enough to put down the phone and turn off the computer and take time for me?

I like writing my blog, sleeping in, and teaching classes and cooking for people occasionally (although the latter are not reliable sources of income or activity).  I like browsing in other people’s stores during the day, reading books at midnight, and watching NCIS rerun marathons on rainy days.  I just got a handle on a storyline for the novel I have dreamed of writing for decades.  I have succeeded in downsizing my life to fit my tiny budget.  Some things are bouncing around in the universal hopper that might pan out to be great opportunities that would not interfere with any of that, but I have no way of knowing if any of them will come to fruition.  If they don’t, I will need to do something to restore my savings account to a comfortable place and keep me occupied.

Near-starving would-be author, or fully-engaged retail general manager.  Huh.  Pros and cons stack up about evenly on both sides, and since I don’t own it, I’m not obligated to do the job indefinitely.  I have until Friday to decide.  All I can think is that I need a sign or two to guide me in the right direction.  Sounds like a good time for some divine intervention.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Especially that last part.

The Top 10 Reasons I am a “Regular”

17 05 2012

I’m off to do good for others today.  So while I am out, here’s a little something for you to digest.  I look forward to your comments!

Since we all know I don’t have a life, I thought I’d take some of the copious time on my hands to write about food from a different perspective:  The Dining-Out Experience.

No, I have not gone off half-cocked and appointed myself a culinary expert.  This isn’t about the food.  Well, OK, it isn’t all about the food.  It’s about the total package of the dining-out experience from the perspective of a customer.  I happen to be an educated consumer: I have owned my own small retail/service business; I have cooked for groups and for people in their homes; and I continue to teach cooking classes in my semi-retirement.  So I know food.  But I am not a culinary school graduate and have never owned a restaurant – so I may not have credibility with those that are and do.  I am just a smart consumer with a good palate who knows how to properly wield a knife.  That makes me at least as qualified as anyone else to write about what keeps me coming back to certain restaurants and never returning to others.  In spite of the credibility issue, there just might be something here that could be of use to a restaurateur should they choose to pay attention.

I’m focusing on the positive here, so you may have to read between the lines to understand why I am not coming back to your restaurant if that be the shoe that fits.  So let’s begin, shall we?

The Top 10 Reasons I am a “Regular” at your restaurant, Letterman style, are:

10.  The décor, lighting, music, and temperature are moderate and comfortable.  You are firm in your identity and don’t distract me from the food with ridiculous wall murals, hideous paint colors, or objets d’art hanging over my table at eye level.  Your décor befits your brand identity.  You know that: lighting that is as bright as a grocery store or as dim as a movie theater; music that is so loud I have to yell at my companions; and a dining room that is too hot or too cold really turn me off.  You have managed to master these elements of ambiance and I am always comfortable here.  I’m here for the food, after all, not for a nightclub experience.

9.  You never fix things that aren’t broken.  I have been eating the _________ at your restaurant for a couple years now, and it’s my favorite thing on the menu.  I went to one of my other favorite places recently and ordered my go-to dish from their menu.  When it came out of the kitchen, I didn’t even recognize it!  And the taste?  Not good.  I could understand removing it from the menu to add something else, but they really shouldn’t have changed it.  I’m guessing they got a new cook and he just had to put his stamp on things.  But you pay attention to your sales history and customer feedback and make those kinds of changes based on facts, not personal whims.  So I know your food won’t go downhill like that.

8.  You always make it right with me.  Everyone makes mistakes once in a while, and when you do you make it right.  Whether offering a do-over, another item from the menu, a complimentary dessert, or just removing the item from my bill – I always leave happy.  I was in this other place not long ago – a very highly reviewed place here in town – and they overcooked my entrée (really, they killed it).  They offered to make me another, but I declined because I was running late and was hungry.  So I ate what I could of it and paid full price.  I was a bit put off that they didn’t offer a discount and have not been back.

7.  You make the best ____________ in town.  My friend had your signature dish when we came in together for the first time.  I had a couple of bites, and had to agree with her that it was really good.  I came back to have a whole order of it to myself.  I have tried most of the things on your menu and still think this is the thing you do best.  Your place is my go-to entertaining spot when I have out of town guests because the _________ is reliably good – and the service, too (see # 4).

If your dining room is empty, read on.

6.  Your menu suits you.  Your name, your décor, your logo, your advertisements, your location – you know, your brand identity – is reflected in your menu.  One of the places I won’t ever go back to again has an Irish name (complete with shamrock in the logo), a dark, confused décor (diner meets tavern meets just plain old), and a completely Italian-American menu.  The menu was also six pages long – that’s just ridiculous.  You aren’t like that at all – I know what to expect when I come into your restaurant, your menu is two pages, and you prepare it all consistently well.

5.   I am greeted upon arrival by someone friendly.  It might not be the host, who may be off seating other people.  But someone is always at the door to welcome me and, if need be, beg my patience whilst you seat the parties in front of me.  I really dig seeing that friendly face who has remembered my name now that I am a regular.  (One favorite breakfast place is small and their server greets me from across the room with a “Hey there! Sit wherever you’d like.”  That’s the diner equivalent of being met at the door and is totally awesome!)  I was just bragging to a friend about how you know me and always try to give me my favorite table.

4.  I am always served promptly, and requests to take my meal slow are no problem.  No, it’s not an oxymoron.  Prompt service after seating makes me feel important.  When I want to take my time and not rush through my meal, you are happy to let me linger over conversation with my companions and a bottle of wine.  You are all about happy, repeat customers, not just numbers, and I have never been rushed so that you can reseat my table.  I reward your servers for their patience, though I know that not all customers do.  But you do the right thing regardless and it keeps me coming back.

3.  It is clean.  The cracks, crevices, baseboards, restrooms, bar, chairs, tables, menus, salt & pepper shakers – the whole enchilada.  Not just at opening, but also at 7:30PM, when I excuse myself from the table between courses (for my fellow diners, this represents peak dinner rush to those in the biz.  But you probably knew that since that’s your preferred time to dine out).  And I tell my friends how clean it is.

2.  You only hire quality people and you take care of them.  Oh yes, I can tell.  Ever been waited on by a bartender or server who is not feeling the love?  It shows in many ways.  Sometimes it is evident in the new faces you see every time you go back, but often one visit tells you all you need to know.  No smiles (or one made through gritted teeth), that look of exasperation, slow service, poorly cooked food, dirty surroundings, oh – silly me.  I’m repeating myself.

1. The food is always good.  I say again, I am here for the food.  When you make a mistake, you refer to number 4 above.  That leaves me in a position to say that the food is always good.  No complaints here.  You make about 5 starters, 12 entrées, and 5 desserts and they are all good.  Compared to other places, I would say that your food is great.  Maybe it’s because you just offer relatively few things compared to some places, so your cooks are able to focus on preparing them really well.  All I know is the food is good and I keep coming back.

<insert pregnant pause>

For the restaurateurs out there, I’m going to let you marinate in that for a bit.  Knowing me, I’m sure there will be some follow-up blog post in the future.  If you disagree or find fault with anything I’ve said, feel free to let me know.  But before you do, bear in mind two things:  1) Sometimes we protest the loudest about things that hit a little too close to home (I call this the mirror effect – seeing the truth can be very uncomfortable); and 2) The customer is always right.

For my fellow diners, I encourage you to chime in with the things that keep you going back to your favorite restaurants.  I’d like to hear what makes you a happy “regular” customer!

The Barter System: A Comeback?

11 04 2012

This is my accountant’s payment for some advice given. A tasty mushroom-leek-goat cheese quiche with a salad for her staff (delivered). You should try offering food in exchange for services. It works.


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