We’ve all experienced it. It’s similar to running a sailboat aground: the thought of it happening is stomach turning but after the first time it’s quite easy to deal with: if we don’t pay a vendor on time, or at all, they have no problem showing up at the back door of the restaurant they service. Some vendors do it unexpectedly at varying hours, while others will call and make a point of letting us know they are coming. Once we begin the “stop by and pick up a check” payment policy, we can usually mark our calendar when the particular vendor will regularly stop by.
Towards the end of the run in my last restaurant the financial outlook was dire. I paid as few vendors by mail as possible. And ducked an equal amount. Needless to say I had a parade of bill collecting vendors at my back door on a regular basis. However, one vendor in particular was a welcome visitor. We became friends and eventually partners in another venture.
Since I overcame my addiction to restaurant ownership I look at things differently, now. And I enjoy speaking to restaurant owners more now than ever before. During a conversation last week with Bob Shapiro, owner of Light Soda, a San Francisco restaurant staple as important in the business as, say, electricity, I asked how business was for San Francisco restaurants. His reply was simple. “Some are doing well, while others are failing. It’s just the way the economy is.”
Shapiro is the Bay area icon who knows all things restaurants. His words of culinary wisdom on the right and wrong way to run a restaurant are worth his trucks’ weight in gold. Shapiro sees things from a business viewpoint and leaves his emotions at the curb. (BTW- his trucks are parked all over town and seldom is their time on their parking meters. Do the guy a favor and drop a quarter or two in the meter if you happen to see an expired meter in front of one of his white trucks with the Light Soda logo on the side.)
Unlike restaurant owners who play the “passion” card, Shapiro, owns one of the most prosperous equipment companies in the country. His staff services refrigeration, compressors, stoves and coolers. He keeps the equipment that keeps restaurant growing, running and in order. There are no fancy frills in what his company does so he observes things from a much better level than a chef who is love with fancy designs on a plate and not too enamored with profit.
While discussing the ups and downs of the industry, Shapiro brought up a great point.
“When I go to collect money from a client, the ones that are not doing well always ask me, ‘How’s business out there?’ They expect me to tell them things are awful so they feel better”, said Shapiro. “I tell them to stop worrying about all the people who are doing badly. Many of them will not be around in a few months. I tell them to start looking at the guys that are doing great and begin to copy what they are doing. It works.”
When Shapiro shared the story, I couldn’t help but flashback to when I would ask him the same stupid question when he would come by for his pittance of the huge bill I owed him.
“Bob, is everyone in bad shape? Is everyone slow?’ I would ask with the hope that the local industry was doomed and it wasn’t just my inefficiencies causing my financial problems. I wanted fellow restaurant owners to be slow. Misery does in fact, love company. Yet, Shapiro seldom commented on how bad I was doing and how well everyone else was doing. He didn’t want to break the miniscule amount of enthusiasm I had left.
I eventually sold the space and my spirits ran high once again. But I will never forget those nights when the vendor parade showed up.
Today, I completely understand what Shapiro is talking about. Who cares who else is doing poorly? We all know they will eventually either be out of business or for sale. And, for many of those in a culinary downward spiral, the same holds true. So rather than wonder how bad everyone else is doing with the hopes of psychological compensation, it is probably time to develop a plan on how to either increase business or sell the location.
Shapiro, who has an accounting and financial background lives the business. His wisdom is backed by years of experience and observation. So the next time one of the vendors drops by your back door, work at being one of the restaurants doing well. Suddenly, the question, ‘How’s everyone doing out there?’ won’t even matter.