Brasserie Branding: A Tired Eatery Tarts Up

Problem: Being seen as a geezer joint by young, hip restaurant goers. Solution: Don’t panic. Take subtle, strategic steps to fix the brand.

Problem: Being seen as a geezer joint by young, hip restaurant goers.
Solution: Don’t panic. Take subtle, strategic steps to fix the brand.

Change is a business battle cry today, and there isn’t a manager alive who isn’t buffeted by the constant baying for transformation. This is especially true in B.C., where our frontier mentality constantly demands the destruction of the old to make way for the new. The problem with this transformative thinking is that many managers believe new and improved means massive upheaval. But scorched earth isn’t always the right approach. Certainly markets and marketplaces evolve, customer tastes move on and operations can become rheumatic over time, but this doesn’t mean a business is broken and requires a revolution. Sometimes simple evolution can make a good, but tired, business better. THE PROBLEM Famed Vancouver restaurateur Bud Kanke and managing partner Darren Gates faced this scenario last year when their signature shop, Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House, neared its 20th anniversary. In the restaurant business, with all its churn and change, 20 years amounts to several lifetimes, but Joe’s was about to enter its third decade chugging along steadily. Joe’s was still one of Vancouver’s best seafood spots and it continued to win foodie awards. Most food writers, while professing a certain tiredness with its menu offerings, allowed that what Joe’s did, it did well. In addition, the place was a favourite haunt of American tourists who felt comfortable with its turn-of-the-20th-Century ‘American brasserie’ format. Movie and sports celebrities were still sighted at its best tables because, as one local hotel concierge says, “they want seafood and want to be looked at so we send them to Joe’s.” All this meant the place was still bringing in buckets of money, almost $10 million in revenue annually, which would definitely put it among the city’s restaurant elite. Considering that many of its opening costs had been amortized away years ago, that meant a very nice and steady profit for Kanke and Gates. So what’s not to like? Well, for one, most of its loyal local diners were now aging and didn’t get out as much as they used to. Plus, there was a perception that Joe’s was really a singles bar, a place where the prospect of scoring was more important than eating. That’s an underlying feature of most good restaurants, but a fine balance must be struck to ensure the action at the tables doesn’t overwhelm the action in the kitchen. Most important, according to several surveys undertaken by Kanke and Gates, was that Joe’s didn’t register in the consciousness of the local 25- to 35-year-old market, the new generation of restaurant goers. The hip crowd had found other places to see and be seen – Yaletown celebrity haunts like the Opus hotel and downtown foodie joints like Cin Cin, where grazing on tapas-like dishes instead of full-course dining has become the rage. What’s a business operator to do when things are going quite well, but not quite how he’d like? Join the brigade of eager business people who want to scramble the eggs, destruct creatively and disrupt innovatively – the ‘if it ain’t broke, then break it, dammit’ scenario. But change management is about creating change intelligently, not forcing it as an ego exercise. Eager young pups who bull their way into a business might learn a few things by watching veteran business operators with a few scars when they go about creating change. THE SOLUTION Kanke’s 65 now and admits to not quite having the ‘damn the torpedoes’ outlook of his youth. His protégé, Gates, while younger, has learned to proceed unemotionally, recognizing that what’s good for the business is good for him, instead of the other way round. So Kanke and Gates chose to change the Fortes format, but slowly and quietly. They made additions here, trimmed there, and generally instituted a seamless process that would see Joe’s retain its old customer base while adding a new and younger one. Importantly, they first did something many young companies forget – they listened to the market. Kanke, Gates and another partner, Robert Gagne, simply asked customers and potential customers – 8,000 of them – what they thought of Joe’s and what they would like to see. They then visited L.A. and New York for the latest intelligence in restaurant management, hired wine and food critics to critique the menus, and canvassed their 150 staff to determine what the view of Joe’s was internally and externally. The results were both humbling and shocking. They didn’t realize the extent of the geezer joint perception. The next step was to execute those changes – but carefully. Uniforms were tweaked slightly to provide a fresh look, menus were updated to include the light fare preferred by young restaurant goers, marketing materials were changed to appeal more to local customers. The single biggest change, however, involved the employees. Gates and Kanke brought in a New York business coach to show managers how to ‘engage’ staff. Because a certain kind of fervour is required to create the right atmosphere in a top restaurant, this goes beyond the usual “our people are our greatest asset” lip flap. It’s a deep inculcation in managers of methods to turn even the lowliest dishwasher into an evangelist for the company. In late May, at the traditional launch party to open Joe’s rooftop garden patio for the summer, the ‘new’ Joe Fortes was also unveiled. It didn’t look a lot different than the old Joe’s, but it felt altered somehow. There was a new energy in the air, a slightly different feel to the clientele. The menu had changed, not radically so, but other kinds of food had been added. It was as if the old lady had gone to a spa and rejuvenated herself. Did the recharging work? It’s too soon to tell, but revenue is up 25 per cent since the change began more than a year ago; a younger clientele is starting to drift in; more tables are filling up with locals when the tourists disappear; lunch crowds are growing. LESSONS: – Listen: Often your customers, your employees and the market are trying to tell you something. It’s up to you to hear them. – Execute intelligently: Don’t run off half-cocked. Proceed thoughtfully and carefully. – Be patient: All businesses have rhythms and an operator must be in tune with them. Click here to read Tony’s blog.