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Should your restaurant exist?

Article by
Charlie Hopper
Principal, Writer
Young & Laramore
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My favorite moment from the 2013 National Restaurant Association show in Chicago last week came during a panel entitled, “Franchise Operators Presidents’ Panel.” It was when John Maguire, CEO of maybe-kind-of-still-languishing Friendly’s, described a dark night of his business soul soon after taking the job when he asked himself, “Should Friendly’s Exist?” and didn’t instantly reply to himself, “Of course.”

(That’s my précis.)

Heavy stuff.

There is a tendency to assume mere continuity is positive: if something existed yesterday, then it should exist tomorrow. As part of my neighborhood preservation alliance, I know that some people unthinkingly assume that we should maintain everything that ever existed.

But what if a restaurant’s time has come and gone? What if it’s no longer useful?

If you think of your restaurant as a solution for people with a problem—people in search of relaxation, people needing affordable and quick refreshment, people seeking a pleasant space in which they can be social, people who are tired of the same old—then it forces you to ask: what problem does your restaurant solve well?

Is it even a problem people really have?

Are there other people solving it better than you?

Was the restaurant brought into existence by solving a problem that’s changed, or gone away?

That’s kind of what happened to Friendly’s: people have a lot more choices for “places to indulge and celebrate” and as the restaurant let their operations, um, slide somewhat, people failed to see Friendly’s as a necessary business. Nobody needed a place like Friendly’s had become.

Maguire is working on that.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to ask: should your restaurant exist? Does it solve a problem that people actually have, and solve it better than other places? Are you Howard Johnson’s-esque?

Let’s think about this. Should these restaurants exist?

  • McDonald’s Sure, yes. They’ve burrowed into our culture so deeply, they’re the go-to choice in most small towns when you’re in a hurry or not dressed up much, or with a kid. In larger markets, they’ve kept their products relevant and innovative, and their prices affordable.
  • Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. I don’t know. They have momentum, for sure, and they’ve made a pretty broad appeal to young men. But if they went away, wouldn’t their customers just migrate to the QSR across the street?
  • Subway Sure. An alternative to QSR (we all know we’re supposed to limit our QSR occasions for health reasons, but it’s so darn convenient and somewhat addictive). Almost as fast and about the same price. Yeah. We need that.
  • Quiznos Maybe not. Maybe there are enough hot, grilled sub-type places—and Quizno’s has managed their brand into a confused, indistinguishable mess: they accidentally took themselves from appearing truly different, innovative, risk-taking and fun to appearing me-too, uninteresting, typical and commoditized. Just look at the cameo from Jim Parsons—Sheldon from Big Bang Theory—in that old ad, and compare it to that newer ad: I’m not wrong about the branding represented by those two ads. Maybe there were problems with the original positioning, or there was no comfort level with the bolder corporate image among the franchisees, or some other problem. But when I watch these ads, the difference is stark: one business I “get” and identify with, for better or worse. The other is telling me nothing new and nothing believable and nothing that commands attention or affection—I shrug. Maybe we don’t need a brand like that.
Charlie Hopper, Principal, Writer at Y&L

Over the past 30-something years, Charlie’s played many roles at Y&L, including writer, principal, general enthusiast and creative director on Steak ’n Shake during its heyday at the agency. He is also the author of Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word “Delicious.”