The Value of Negative Role Models

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It AKA How to Run a Successful Business Into the Ground  in One Easy Step

I often use this theme when talking about countries, e.g., the US as a positive and negative role model for Vietnam, but this time it’s about a small business in a big city.  It’s an object lesson, a case study about how not to run a business.

brokeOnce upon a time there was a highly successful Italian restaurant in a city known as the economic engine of Vietnam.  Every night, the place was hopping, full of happy customers, tourists, expats and Vietnamese, drinking red wine and eating pasta, salad, pizza and other delicious Italian dishes.  The service was good, the quality was good, everything was good.  Life was good at this popular eating establishment.  I also have to assume that the profit margin was very good.  What was not to like?  Win-win.

Suddenly, the owner’s wife, who my sources tell me is a vegetarian, decided that she wanted to change the “concept” of this highly successful Italian restaurant and remove meat from the menu.  (Italy’s a vegetarian country, haven’t you heard?)  She decided that since she’s a vegetarian, all of her customers should be, too, at least while they’re in her restaurant.

Too bad they didn’t agree, which is why business has decreased by an estimated 90%.  What used to be a hustling and bustling place is now a culinary graveyard.  Mostly empty, quiet and  hemorrhaging, financially speaking.  She also laid off the long-time Italian manager no doubt in an effort to save payroll money.  (Whatever they paid him, he was worth it.  He could schmooze with the Italian customers and kept the place running like a finely-tuned machine.)  In the early days, I once asked him if he was the owner.  His reply:  If I were the owner, I’d be sitting on a beach right now.  As an Italian, he enhanced the atmosphere of this Italian restaurant in Vietnam.

i love italyNowadays, customers walk in and are greeted by staff who inform them that the restaurant no longer serves meat.  What, you ask incredulously, you mean just for today?  (Is there a temporary delivery problem?)  No, forever (or as long as the “new” restaurant lasts or until it reverts to its original, money-making “concept”).  In hushed tones, the staff later mention how busy they used to be and how few customers come now. They look at new customers, such as they are, the same way a hungry dog looks at its meal the second the second before it hits the floor.  (I wonder if the original owner is saying “I told you so” yet?)

Here are two online reviews.  The first one represents the minority opinion that in spite of its enthusiasm and self-righteousness is not going to keep this restaurant financially afloat.

“New menu is bravissimo!” (4 of 5 stars)

New owner has removed red meat from the menu, helping [large Vietnamese city] live up to it’s reputation as the best Vegetarian dining city on the planet. The ingredients are fresh, the pizza crust thin and crispy and the wine list very good. I’m all for the make over.

 “Terrible menu change” (1 of 5 stars)

Old owner gone while new owner is clueless… Menu changed to no meat. Skip ____ as the new owner wrecked what was a fine venue.

If you’re curious and/or naughty and want to know the name of said restaurant, Google it!  The name is not important; the story is.  Besides, it’s not like it’s a state secret.  As predicted, plenty of unhappy customers are making their views known.

Moral of the story?  Give ’em what they want.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  If your eye doesn’t cause you to stumble, don’t gouge it out and throw it away.  If you want to have a vegetarian restaurant, don’t cram your personal culinary (philosophical?) orientation down your customers’ throats, figuratively and literally.  Check out the market and create a new restaurant.  There are a number of vegetarian success stories but, to my knowledge, none involve tinkering with (or sabotaging?) an existing concept.

Buona fortuna!


P.S.:  If there’s a change of heart for financial or other reasons, reversing course is not going to be easy.  It takes years to build a successful restaurant business, but weeks to send it into PR and financial freefall.

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