Richard A. Lindsey, CPA Lindsey & Waldo, LLC – Certified Public Accountants
  • It’s a Familiar Refrain: “But My Customer/Client/Patient is Different, They Won’t Pay More.”

    Jul 8

    I recently read about a show on CNBC that was described as a cross between Shark Tank and Top Chef. (Seriously… Can’t you see that producer walking into a meeting with CNBC and pitching it exactly that way.) The show was called Restaurant Startup and I just had to check it out.

    The setup is that there are two teams of restaurant owners who approach the “sharks” with their concepts. In one episode there was a married couple who ran a Lebanese-themed deli in Oklahoma City that wanted to expand into a sit down restaurant, and the pair of good ol’ boys with a southern comfort food joint in Kingsport, Tennessee who wanted to open a second location in Knoxville. The sharks sample some dishes and quiz the competitors on their operations. They pick one and give them 36 hours and $7,500 to show off their food and their skills. After that “opening night,” they decide whether to invest their own money in the concept.

    Early in the show, the good ol’ boys serve the sharks some dishes prepared from the owner’s grandma’s recipe book. And the shrimp and grits did look mighty tasty. One shark asked the chef how much the owner currently charges for it in Kingsport, and learned it was $12. Then he asked how much the average check was, and learned it was just $13. “This is a $20 dish in Knoxville,” he said, pointing down at the grits. “You need a $35 average check to make it work there.”

    The chef did not want to hear that he had to raise prices, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued. He objected that diners in his town wouldn’t pay that much for the food. His grandmother who came up with the recipe wouldn’t want him charging that much for the food. And he wanted everybody to be able to afford to eat at his restaurant and enjoy his grandmother’s great dishes.

    (Does any of this sound familiar? I can just hear some of you saying “my customers won’t pay any more!”)

    The sharks agreed that it would be a big jump to raise prices to those levels, but they insisted that the point of running a restaurant isn’t just to share grandma’s southern comfort. It is to make money—and making money, in this case, would require higher prices.

    The sharks chose the good ol’ boys for the test kitchen, and set them up with a local consultant to help walk them through the process. Once again, pricing came up. The owner said flat out “I don’t want to serve a $19 piece of fish.” The consultant explained the restaurant isn’t just serving a piece of fish, it’s serving an experience— then proceeded to show the owner how he could garnish and plate the fish to look like it’s worth the price he had to ask diners to pay.

    At that point you could almost see the light bulb go on over his head. He readily agreed to raise his prices, and the pop-up restaurant opened for business. Diners who filed in that night loved the food. Unfortunately for our good ol’ boys, service and management weren’t as good as they should have been and the sharks declined to fund the concept. It was a hard lesson for them to take home to Tennessee.

    And here’s our lesson for the day. If you’re like most small business owners I know, you at least profess to want to run your business to make money. You may think your customers won’t pay more— but you’re probably wrong. You may think that your mentor, or the person you bought your business from (who didn’t charge enough himself) would disapprove— but it’s your business, not theirs. And you may really want everyone in town to be able to enjoy your great product or service—but can you really make the kind of money you deserve if you price yourself into bankruptcy?

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