Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Another small restaurant opened—another one closed

And what the hell does that have to do with writing and publishing?

I tend to make strange connections in both my writing and in business, which is one of the reasons I like Freakonomics.  My observation is that there is a similarity between my observation of how many small restaurants open for business and then go belly up and writing (and publishing).

A huge number of really smart and often successful people try and open a restaurant. Have you noticed the number of celebrities who open up restaurants? New immigrants? “Retired” business men and women? Others? It’s the low barrier to entry. You really don’t need any special skills to open a restaurant, nor do you need huge amounts of capital (some, but not huge).

You do work your ass off. If you are a great chef, your odds of a favorable review go up and this increases your odds of success, but neither guarantee success.

Yeah, you’re smart. You are starting to see the analogy (imperfect though it may be). In a down economy I actually see more restaurants starting up, not less.  And more of them fold. The competition heats up. Randomness, like location, or some gimmick help determine success.

What makes for a great restaurant? (You figure out the application to authors, I trust your intelligence).

There are inspired chefs, who never had training and are still just incredible and there are those who go to culinary school and are technically really good, but something is missing and there are those who have both the training and inspiration to some degree. The little restaurant in the neighborhood I used to live in was run by an Czech woman who had 1 item on the lunch menu each day, 1 soup, and a choice of pastries.  She made them all herself. Very nice, food. Seating for 4 total. ToGo available. You were never going to find French food there. The food was plain, simple, but Czech (similar to German or Austrian). The restaurant folded, but fortunately because her pastries were doing so well she concentrated on those and sold them at farmers markets (this is all in Seattle).

She found her niche and she stuck to it. She concentrated on her strength and never got formal training. She is never going to get rich, but she makes a living.

What all these successful restaurateurs have in common is that they work hard, they are professional, and they either perfect their niche, or they are constantly experimenting. New fusion of old ideas.  After all, food has been around forever, how many new ideas can there be? Yeah, same thing with stories and novels.

What strikes me is that in a down economy, there is less of a market for restaurants – less people eating out – yet more restaurants than ever are opening. And closing. The restaurants that are successful in a down economy are not exactly the same as those in an up economy. Cheap is good. Simple. Comfort food. Value. The smart restaurateur will adapt. Some will open up another restaurant, with a different theme. You might not even know they were owned by the same person. Many, seven out of eight, will go bankrupt. Many owners will try again.

Colonel Sanders, as many know, didn’t get successful (really successful) until he was almost 50 and he started out serving food out of his gas station. Ironically, his path to success really started in the great depression. It wasn’t until he was 65 that he, due to failure, managed to get franchises going.

So, in this down economy, be aware that there will be more, not less competition, and what you serve may need to change over time, but you can still be successful.


  1. Authors. Restauranteurs.

    Voice. Taste.

    Supply. Demand.

    Audience. Niche.

    Genre. Specialty.

    Attracting new customers. Managing expectations of loyal customers.

    While the parallels are many, they're all basic ingredients for any business. The question yet to be answered for me is right brain vs. left brain. Can the brilliant writer or brilliant chef be expected to be a good businessman? Is that really what is required in today's economy? Is quality of the "offering" suffering as a result?

    "Shades of Grey" = "Outback Steakhouse"?

    How deep will we have to dig for the good stuff?

  2. Hey Jeb!

    I think you nailed it on the head. Brilliant writers are rarely, brilliant business people. It is what is required in today's economy if you want to control it yourself. One of the thoughts I was trying to project was that many of us (as writers) succumb to the temptation of the low barrier to entry (restaurant or publishing) and then realize that it is a business (thus they close down).

    I listened to a public radio interview with a restauranteur (Tom Douglas) who runs 10-11 restaurants and catering businesses. He uses only from scratch ingredients, he pays for health care (not sure if it is all his employees) and similar. He says up front that he loves it when he finds a better chef than he is. He is a business man, but his business is really good food, from scratch, and treating the employees right. Still, a business. He hardly does all the cooking, or even menu creation.

    I don't know if one can say the quality of the offering is suffering. The AVERAGE quality of the offering might be. There is more being offered and in a down economy with the current low barriers to entry (just as in the restaurant business) you will see even more being offered and a lot more failures. Many of those failures will be good quality, but not the right thing in the right place, or not finding the right audience.

    So, there is a bit of the "find your audience" (or customer).

    You will have to dig deep.

    Most writers do want to be heard. Some are willing to be heard by a smaller audience. Here is the key. If you are going to be successful and high quality (just like a restaurant) you need to accept that volume is probably out of the question. Not impossible, but don't assume the mortgage on it. Then, just like a good restauranteur, you need to find the audience. (Location, location, location). Then, stick with it.

    Moving from the home chef, to the quality smaller restaurant is BOTH business and CRAFT. The craft is consistency and moderate volume. If you want to create one random awesome meal, it may or may not get noticed (To Kill a Mockingbird was awesome, but she never wrote again).

    MFA's help a bit with the craft and show you what some really good chefs can do. You still need to decide if you are going to open the restaurant, or be the great chef in someone else's restaurant (big or small). Left or right brain, if you think of writing as a career, you need to decide which path you are willing to take.

    Shades of Grey is the new fast food. Like many fast food chains, it will explode, potentially do well for awhile, spawn immitators, and potentially disappear. Remember Boston Market (the restaurant chain)?

    Just being a great chef at home, the odds are lottery odds that someone discovers you on your own. So, yes, you have to get out there and either work for "fast food" place, open your own, work for a quality small place, work your way up to the big quality place, or get lucky.

    Man, I rambled a bit there!


Unfortunately, due to the hacking level going on, only registered user (including OpenID) can leave comments. Generally not a big deal for this blog. SKF.