Recently I spent some time in the town where I went to college. One of the things that tends to happen when you meet old friends from those days is to check out your old haunts and see if how they fare against your (probably) inaccurate memory of them. From the business perspective, it speaks of consistency – but also of gaining return clients. Any college town that hosts a school with sports and other major events is likely to be judged like this on a regular basis.
Still holding their own
The first place is a rather old barbecue place, but not the one I mentioned last week. It was closed for a little bit, bought by a competitor some time later and has remained without significant changes for the last three decades.
It’s a unique place in some ways. You order your meal the same way you did over 30 years ago – via an old school wall phone in each booth. The current owner has a few other local BBQ places under different branding – and all of them are solid locations. More importantly, the current owner of this old BBQ place has kept the qualities that people remember from decades ago. They’ve kept most of the menu, the funky booth ordering phone system, and did so while keeping the food quality at the level of their other locations.
Recognizing and promoting the story of this old place and the memories people have for it wasn’t all that hard to do – but someone had to recognize the value of retaining these things and execute them well. Keeping all of that intact despite having a multi-location barbecue business with different branding is a good example of understanding what makes customer retention and return visits happen.
Fresh face, old place
This place is unrecognizable compared to the original. It’s on the same site, but the original building was torn down back in 2015. The new place is bigger, brighter and frankly – a serious improvement. I worked at this place back in the early ’80s while I was in school. The business has changed hands at least once since that time and there’s a lot of water under the bridge. However, this place also had a lot of long-time customers and, of all things, is “famous” (if not memorable) for the old building’s iconic blue metal roof.
Customers remembered it so much that when the new building went up with a silver metal roof, you might say they received “a little” feedback about it. So much feedback, in fact, that they changed the color of the roof on the newly constructed building and included a reference to the roof (and its color) in the new name of the business.
Best of all, when you walk in the door, you see a large photo of the original building on the wall, along with another large sign next to it that tells the story of the business. While all aspects of the business have moved forward and improved substantially, they’ve remembered their past and helped their customers do so as well.
Unfortunately, not all of the old haunts in my alma mater’s town are showing the life that the previous two displayed. Many are closed, replaced by new things and / or new buildings. While the loss of some of the more revered ones is sad, after 30 plus years, you have to expect it.
One of the old joints now has numerous new locations, but has closed the original location on the college’s main drag / hangout street.
Unfortunately, the resemblance ends there. While the menu is largely the same, not much else is. The food’s gone downhill, even from our last visit two years ago. The service? Missing. Locals now comment that it has become a BYOF (bring your own food) restaurant because the food and the service are so bad.
The lessons in all of this come down to a number of things:
- Knowing why people love your place, even if it wasn’t (and still isn’t) perfect.
- Knowing why they come back to a place you recently bought.
- The importance of the story that existed before you were involved – so that you can respect & leverage it, even if you need to make big changes.
Talk to your customers. They’ll tell you what you need to know. Don’t make it harder than it really is.