Why Is Your Restaurant Stuck? Brand Drift and Mental Quicksand

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

We tend to think of restaurants as brick-and-mortar objects. Restaurants are actually a living thing. Born from an idea and given life by people. Just like any living thing, there is a cycle of growth and development. Your restaurant is a reflection of you. Your actions and attitude have a profound impact on your restaurant.

When things are good, you’re on top of the world. When things go bad, they tend to pull us down into the pit of despair. As human beings, we tend to let our successes define us. It’s actually in our challenges that we find our strengths. All restaurants will experience a challenge. It’s a natural ebb and flow in business. You cannot have all sunshiny days. It’s during the rainy days that things tend to grow.

When you find your restaurant is stuck, there are a few key steps you must take:

  1. Own it. You must be aware of your current situation and honest with yourself about it. Don’t sugarcoat it or use a softener like, “It’s not that bad”. If your restaurant is not exactly where you want it to be, then it’s bad. You need to own it. Nothing will improve until you take personal accountability for where your business is at.

  2. Stop it. There’s an old saying that goes, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” If your restaurant’s marketing plan is not working, then stop doing the same posts that are not giving you any attention. If your restaurant is losing money, then get control of your costs and stop the bleeding.

  3. Be aware. Success does leave clues and so does failure. Look for the warning signs that your restaurant is in trouble and have an action plan to change course before you get into tougher times.

Let’s explore a few the common traps that pull restaurants down:

Brand Drift

Most restaurants tend start out with a bang. It’s easy to see why when you’re the new place in town and everybody wants to check you out. The honeymoon phase of restaurant opening can be euphoric. You have visions of grandeur. Sales are climbing and the steady flow of guest seems unending. Then the honeymoon is over when another restaurant has opened in your market.

Your once happy and carefree life has taken a radical turn. During the honeymoon phase, you’re thinking of location number two and three. Now you’re calculating how long you have before you might need to shut the doors. You start to get stressed. You need help. You’re looking for advice. Then a friend offers up an idea. Now granted, most of these people who offer up this friendly advice have never owned or worked in a restaurant, yet that doesn’t seem to matter. You are desperate.

So, you try out their idea. Maybe it works for a while and brings a short-term pop in sales. Then sales seem to drop even more. So another friend offers a suggestion, and you try that. That works for a while and then sales drop again. The problem is that while you are so focused on doing anything to increase sales that you’ve lost sight of your brand identity by diluting your menu with items that are not a good fit. Your regular guests become confused about your restaurant. Welcome to brand drift.

When your guests are confused about your brand, they become uncomfortable. People tend to crave certainty. That is why so many large chains have lasted. A Big Mac in California tastes just like the one you will get in New York. Consistency builds loyalty. Without loyalty, you won’t last.

Mental Quicksand

How many times are you seen the movie where the characters are calmly walking along and all of a sudden, bam, they just stepped into some quicksand? One panics and fights to get free, which in the end, just sucks them down into the abyss faster. Quicksand plays on one emotion: fear.

When you are living or running your restaurant in fear, you will make more mistakes than normal. You will get lured with the temptation easy sales that will take you towards brand drift. You’ll be afraid of firing that poorly performing employee in fear of running short-staffed. You might even start to buy cheaper and lower-quality products, which compromises your integrity. Real quicksand is nothing more than loose sand that has been oversaturated with water. When you step into it, it cannot support your body weight and you start to sink. The more you fight, the faster you go down. To survive, you need to remain calm.

Quicksand in your mind works the same way. It’s your fears that will pop up to becoming mental quicksand. When you panic, your fears will suck you down.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner-eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” — Frank Herbert, Dune

The fears you run from run to you. They become quicksand. So, how do you conquer fear? Here’s an easy process:

  1. Face your fear. Whatever happened to get you in this situation has already transpired. No reason to beat yourself up anymore.

  2. Be real. You need to see the problem or fear for what it really is, not worse than it is (which the mind tends to do). If you had an employee steal from you, that does not mean all employees are going to do that too. When things go bad, we tend to generalize and become psychics who can predict the future (at least we think we can).

  3. Think solutions. When we get stuck in the mental quicksand, we tend to think in a problem loop. Our problem causes us to think of more problems, which in turn brings about more problems. When something bad happens, focus on finding three positive and actionable solutions. You need to think of three solutions. Two solutions basically create a dilemma. You either have option A or option B. Force your brain to search for three options. Three will set you free, because then you will find it it easier to determine a choice.

The Mirror

The biggest obstacle standing in the way between your restaurant and the restaurant you know it can be stares back at you every morning in the mirror. You are the problem and you are the solution. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. It’s easy to blame others for the problems your restaurant is experiencing. Taking ownership and demonstrating personal accountability is what leadership is made of. Ego, pride, and denial close down more restaurants than a poor economy, lackluster marketing, or bad location.

Twenty percent of restaurant success is mechanics. It’s having solid systems and a solid strategy. They are the foundation. Anybody who has ever built a house knows that a solid foundation is the key to how high you can build up.But 80 percent of restaurant success is psychological. It’s the mindset of the owners and operators that truly makes the difference and what separates the best from the rest.

If your restaurant is stuck, then you put it there. When you admit that, then — and only then — will you be able to pull yourself out.