Saturday, November 6, 2010
"A good problem to have!"
Lorri and I opened our own brand in 2007. Franchising is great, but after you have more than one, unless you can work in all of them at the same time, there is very little about the franchise that is about you anymore. If you have a strong desire to plant your own seed, you'll have to open your own brand.
You already know a lot of this story from my first blog, so I will try not to repeat things. First I should tell you a little about Lorri and myself. We are both drivers. Lorri has always been very smart. She loves college and would go back to take a class every day if she had time. She is very analytical and doesn't dive into decisions without spending a lot of time on research. I am a chess player, and just like chess, I'm often planning many steps in advance. Lorri says that I am the President of the Dreams & Fantasy division of the company. I tend to make decisions quickly and dive in fearlessly. To illustrate: A few years ago, when our children were young, while waiting for everyone to get ready to go out, I turned on a Jackie Chan movie. We were heading out for a fun evening at the movie theatre with the kids. Jackie Chan's stunts and martial arts had got me excited. We all piled in the car. Lorri drove. At the stop light near the theatre, something came over me. In a race to get tickets, I opened the door and told Lorri and the kid's, "I'll meet you at the entrance". I then ran across 3 lanes of traffic and headed straight for the 8 foot tall link fence that divided the theatre from the busy highway. I jumped onto the fence and proceeded to scale it. In my mind, I was about to scale the fence, flip over the top, land on my feet, and race ahead of the car to buy the tickets. In reality, I got stuck at the top, ripped my shirt, and after some painful moments, joined my wife and kids who had already parked and were in line to enter the theatre. Lorri would have given this plan more thought before she leaped from the car. I'm always willing to jump into action and she keeps my shirt from ripping.
We had planned for 2.5 years to open this new restaurant. We knew what it would look like and most of the menu, but there were still a lot of things to do to get ready. We hired a designer, SGID. We hired my Subway contractor, PacTech Interiors. We hired Bargreen/Ellingson to design the kitchen. We hired a Chef to help solidify the recipes and train the kitchen staff. We made decisions about POS, food vendors, beef supplier, bun supplier, beer & wine, smallwares, phone service, gas service, electrical, cable, CO2, Coke, interviews, training, fabrics, floors, toilets, broilers, oven, shelving, dish machine, menu boards, brick, paint... "make him stop!". You get the idea. On paper, it was great! The Blazing Onion Burger Company was a great name. Burger Company made us seem established. This was going to be the time of our lives.
When we finally opened, we were more than a $100,000 over our budget. Somehow Lorri would keep finding somewhere else to get the credit. We decided it would be best to open quietly. A few friends knew when we would open, but we did our best to keep it a secret. Opening day was a Monday. Creekside Village was still a contruction zone. Only a few businesses had already opened. The slow beginning would help us get things figured out. Oops! On March 7, 2007, we opened our doors. OMG!! It was like someone had gone door to door letting everyone know a new burger restaurant had opened in Mill Creek. Could they smell the smoke billowing from our hoods? How did they know? Word of mouth is a powerful tool! The lobby was full, people were waiting outside to get in, and the waiting list was more than an hour long for weeks. By the way, we have now opened three Blazing Onions and all of our secret openings have been bombed from day one. We had planned to ease into business and give the model some room to learn and grow. When feeling worn down and sharing this problem with friends, they inevitably answer "That's a good problem to have!"
When marketing any campaign, the first priority is service. If you get 10,000 new customers from your campaign, but service sucks, you'll never get the return visit or establish loyalty. Sure, some tickets might be slow, but if the food taste great and the service is wonderful, they'll be back. We simply weren't ready for what was about to happen. We just didn't know it yet. The hood selected by Bargreen couldn't keep up with the volume. We were a start up company. If we did well, we might do $400,000 our first year, right? They looked at our projections of $800,000 - $1,200,000, nodded their heads politely, and said "this is the hood you need". During the first six weeks, the hoods would kick the smoke back into the cooks faces. The cooks would put on goggles to survive the smoke. Somewhere below the sea of smoke were the burgers. Some of the smoke would leave the cooks to billow out into the dining room. We would scramble to open all the doors, announcing that things were under control, we weren't on fire. After Bargreens fixed the hood repeatedly, and we established a direct link to the fire department, it finally worked. We still use Bargreens and are very happy with our relationship. This just serves as an illustration that when doing something for the first time, even a 30 year company can steer you wrong. Be ready with a plan B.
During those first six weeks we had more problems than anyone should have to deal with in their entire lives. We had to replace the hot water heater because it couldn't keep up (A good problem to have). We had to buy a new freezer, because the one we had wasn't big enough to store the onion rings and ice cream we were going through (A good problem to have). We had to rent more storage space in the parking garage, fix the fireplace several times, replace the broiler grates because they kept catching grease, call repair for 10% of the equipment, and this was only a fraction of our problems. However, the main issue we had was in our kitchen and it was NOT a good problem to have. Our chef had not trained his team very well. We should have paid more attention. No one knew the menu when we opened. Often times it took an hour just to get a burger. This was a detail that could have killed us.
Here's a typical day: Arrive at 6:00am, begin prepping for the day, clean again, get everyone pumped to open the doors and have a smooth day, open by 11:00am. Busy by 11:30am with a line out the door, Point of Sale is not sending all the tickets to the kitchen. It seems to send 1/2 of some orders while not sending others at all. I really think it might be possesed. The kitchen is having problems getting the orders correct. I apoligize to all our guest that have been served the wrong food. Things are finally beginning to slow down for the afternoon. Everyone takes a small breath, "5 minute breaks" for everyone. Jaws music starts playing, it must be 4:30 pm: Glances of horror are silently shared as we all realize dinner is coming. Dinner is not like lunch. Busy doesn't describe it. Every seat is full, the lobby is anxious, and outside the masses wonder if they'll ever get in. Some of the burgers are served burnt, others are raw, but still a few miraculously are correct. As we get busier, smoke starts building up. The cooks put on their goggles and air mask. Lorri and I brace for the fire alarms and try to console our troubled guests. A guest calls me over and chews me out for building the restaurant too small. Another one says they hate our french fries. Someone is tapping on my shoulder. I try to apoligize and ignore the tapping, but the tapping is starting to hurt and its getting louder. It now is accompanied with a chalk like piercing scream of "David! David!" This has become my least favorite name! "The kitchen broiler has caught on fire. All of the burgers are gone.", they say in a panic. We quickly learn that the kitchen has put it out, but they are starting from scratch on the 50 tickets hanging from the rail. There is also a stream of tickets still hanging from the printer. I can't help but wonder if anyone has food yet. Lorri helps the kitchen and I gather myself and go table to table apologizing. Some have already been there an hour. Slowly we start serving food. Uh Oh! Another shoulder tap. "David! We are out of icecream!" "David! We're out of buns!" "David! We're out of french fries!" "David! We're out of burgers!" Lorri is running to every store in town. Finally after buying every bun, bag of french fries, gallon of ice cream, and #'s of hamburger from our local grocery stores, things start to slow down. We've served four brands of french fries tonight. I wonder if anyone noticed? At midnight, I pour myself an ice cold Mac & Jack as we reflect on the day and plan for tomorrow. "I miss my bed!"
One morning, 14 days after we opened, while getting ready, I noticed Lorri didn't look right. I ask her if she was alright. She turned with water in her eyes and started beating my chest. She pleaded "What have you gotten us into!" We both cried and hugged one another for strength. This was probably the toughest thing we had ever experienced. We were addressing and correcting issues daily, but it would take a while. Slowly we would fix them all. Six weeks after our opening, we started hearing compliments. That was a good day. We could finally take a day off.
We had to terminate our Chef and hired an experienced General Manager instead. We had hired a Chef to help with menu and recipe when we should have hired one who specialized in burgers and restaurant openings. Darius, our new GM, was strong in restaurant openings and had a kitchen back ground. He is now our Regional Manager. Together, we all pitched in to reemphasize our core values. The kitchen team turned out to be pretty good. They just needed better training. You can battle the equipment failures and design issues, but the kitchen must be ready to function to have a successful launch. When we opened our second Blazing Onion, the kitchen rocked. Lorri and I felt unneeded. Lesson learned. We have learned to surround ourselves with managers that challenge us. 'Yes' people make you feel important, but they won't tell you when they think there might be a better option.
I hope you enjoyed this. My next blog will surely cause some tension at home. "Working with your Spouse"
David Jones, CEO/Co-Founder
Blazing Onion Burger Company