Sharing Success

Capra’s Secret

While Dino first wrote this in 2003, it is just as true today!


It’s no secret that the restaurant industry is experiencing reduced customer counts. While every operator WISHES things would improve, these are somewhat “tough times” for restaurateurs. (“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride!”) If business has slowed, the more appropriate strategy is turning current reality to your advantage! A fitting example of this is movie director Frank Capra, the most popular and successful film maker during America’s truly “tough times,” the Great Depression of the 1930s.

While the Depression was hard on all businesses, movie studios and theaters were particularly hard hit because (like restaurants), they had relatively high fixed costs, making the break even point highly dependent on customer counts. However, because of employment uncertainty, persuading working folks to spend hard-earned cash on a “luxury” like movie tickets was not easy.

Early in the Depression, a little known director, Frank Capra, began creating profitable movies one after another, like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “It Happened One Night”, “Meet John Doe”, etc. Capra won three “Best Director” Oscars, but more importantly, his movies consistently filled theaters and helped rescue financially shaky Columbia Studios.

What made Capra so successful was that he understood movies from the viewer’s perspective! He knew that despite tough times, movie goers would spend hard earned money (like today’s restaurant customers) when the experience provided an emotional “upper.” So Capra chose scripts that portrayed likeable, ordinary people (e.g. George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) who, despite hardships, demonstrated character by doing the right thing. You see, Capra never forgot his Sicilian working class roots nor the immigrant values of Hard Work, Personal Integrity, and Always Doing Your Best. Because Capra understood that tough times increase people’s need for a feel-good experience, his films consistently rewarded fans with positive, happy, feel-good endings, and filled theaters!

You and I know that great tasting food is always the foundation of Italian restaurateurs’ success. However, in tough times, you need to add every possible “edge” to build customer counts. That’s why in addition to superior food quality, you must enhance customers’ enjoyment experience, not just with good service, but with engaging employee attitudes that infectiously make guests “feel good!” Said another way, your restaurant is like a theater. And like a long-running Broadway play, “Restaurant Theater” requires CONSISTENCY in food quality, service quality, and patron enjoyment. Unlike movie making, in both Broadway Theater and Restaurant Theater, your team’s performance is “live” every day! (There’s no opportunity to go back and “re-shoot” an unsatisfactory scene.) Because “Opportunity often arrives disguised as a problem,” this “live” risk is actually a comparative advantage for quality oriented restaurateurs! That is, because patrons spend money more carefully in tough times, they become less tolerant of mediocre food, service, and employee attitudes.

By contrast, in the pizza/Italian food segment, Independents who consistently exceed customer expectations are actually gaining “tough times” market share from operators mistakenly focused on quality-reducing cost-cutting. (For example, if restaurants in your area are down 5% while your business is flat, you’re gaining market share!) Assuming your food quality and service are already superior to competitors, but business is flat, I strongly suggest you:

1. Resist every cost-cutting temptation that will reduce your quality levels. (You can’t save your way to prosperity!)

2. Strive to further enhance consistency. (In Restaurant Theater, customers remember “bad scenes.”)

3. Reinforce positive employee attitudes that provide the emotional payoff of Capra movies. (Give customers a “feel-good” reason to come back!)

Because every employee within a guest’s eyesight/earshot is “on stage” and since your team’s moods are infectious (both good and bad), do not tolerate “bad mood” employees and reward “good mood” ones. Make it every employee’s job to make every customer feel good! If you and your team embrace the above three points, I’m certain your customer counts will improve relative to competitors who complain about “tough times” rather than seeing them as an opportunity.

People haven’t changed since Frank Capra’s day. It is especially during times such as today that customers will be attracted to a restaurant experience that makes their day a little brighter. In my personal experience, it’s also a more enjoyable way of doing business, because each time one of our company’s customers expresses appreciation for what we do, my day is made brighter!