“I now get as much satisfaction from the challenges of keeping my restaurant fresh and exciting as I did from cooking. It is now more than twice as busy as it was and growing at 20% a year–teeming daily with regulars and newcomers.”

Jonathan Rapp

There are enough gems in this short two-page article to keep any business owner churning through possibilities and thought for some time, but the one that grabbed my attention may be the simplest (and should be the most obvious):

Start with what the customer wants and go from there.

A BusinessWeek article was written about New York restaurateur Jonathan Rapp and his journey building a sustainable enterprise in the small town of Chester, Connecticut.

He left New York thinking his experience and reputation would be enough to succeed in the small town. He quickly learned otherwise. Says Rapp: “By Year Two, the trouble signs were too numerous to miss. Numbers were declining for both customers and revenue. There was a persistent drumbeat of criticism of virtually every aspect of the restaurant, except the food. No matter what we did, we couldn’t shake the perception that we were too expensive, too “New York-y” (a nasty epithet here), and on top of that, had inconsistent, aloof service and a menu that was too limited.”

He thought of selling, but after running the numbers realized he had nothing to sell. Quitting was also an unfavorable option, so he chose to take stock and try to turn the enterprise around. “I realized that I had the equation backwards,” said Rapp. “I was making decisions based on what I wanted. In our own minds, we were the best restaurant around—but the fact was, we weren’t connecting with our customers.” Marketing Guru Seth Godin is fond of saying that you shouldn’t create a product and then find a market for it. Instead, you should find out what the market wants and then create that product. This sounds like sage and obvious advice, but Rapp’s story illustrates how easy it is to overlook it in practice.

So he fired his ‘talented chef’ that wouldn’t adapt, formed a focus group of customers, and really dug into the community vibe of the small town. Specifically, he:

  • Remodeled the restaurant to be cozier and more comfortable (less New York-y, to be sure)
  • Began asking his customers what they wanted from a local restaurant
  • Changed hours to be more accessible to when customers wanted to be customers (opening for lunch and dinner)
  • Began communicating with customers on a regular basis to let them know what was happening in and around their ‘community’ restaurant
  • Began collaborating with local artists, businesses and even other restaurants to create events and to reinforce their image as a member of an unique, thriving village.

But the best idea may be the purest, something Rapp calls “Dinners at the Farm.” Dinners at the Farm is “a summertime series of outdoor dinners that we put on in the fields of local farms. The food, 100% locally produced, is cooked from scratch on our bright red 1955 Ford fire truck kitchen. Each dinner benefits a local agricultural nonprofit. Over the past two seasons, we have donated $28,000 and purchased over $50,000 worth of food and wine from local producers. More than 150 guests show up on any given night.”