Sharing Success

Hit ’em Where They Ain’t

Dino originally shared these thoughts in September of 2002. Enjoy!


Willie Keeler was a genuine baseball “character” who played for all three New York major league teams (Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Yankees) around 1900. Nicknamed “Wee Willie,” at 5’ 4”, Keeler achieved a lifetime batting average of .341 and established a 70 year National League record for hitting safely (not making an out) in 44 consecutive games. When asked the secret to his success, Willie replied, “I hit ’em where they ain’t.”

“Hit ’em where they ain’t” was Wee Willie’s colorful prescription for winning ball games, and I believe that it is a winning strategy for Independents competing against national chains. That is, in any competition, we need to understand the comparative strengths and weaknesses of who we are up against. While there are exceptions to every rule, generally speaking, here is how I see the matchups between big chains and Independents.

National Chain Strengths1) Thousands of units allow national chains to do much heavier advertising at a lower cost per dollar of sales.2) In house real estate departments give national chains an edge in sourcing desirable locations at lower occupancy costs.3) Centralized purchasing gives national chains volume clout in pounding commodity quality ingredient suppliers for lower prices.

National Chain Weaknesses1) Compared to Independents, national chains’ main weakness relates to the mediocrity of their food, due to lower cost ingredients and lack of onsite “ownership presence.” (There are exceptions, but this is generally the case.)2) Most national chains are publicly traded and hence subject to continual Wall Street pressure to achieve “growth.” (That is why so many continually rely on price promotions and new product introductions to drive revenues.)3) Most national chains must contend with relatively high employee turnover at the restaurant level. (Hence their great difficulty in developing personal relationships with customers.)

It is clear that Willie’s “Hit ’em where they ain’t” is very applicable to Independents competing against national chains.

Here is the A B C strategy I suggest:

A. Do whatever it takes to consistently serve superior quality food! That is, given national chains’ inherent strengths, if your food quality is not demonstrably superior, I don’t believe you can effectively compete against national chains! (Nor for that matter, against quality focused Independents.) Superior food requires your constant commitment to that goal, regardless of cost. Focused and constant commitment to food superiority results in your “Hittin’em where they ain’t” and consistently scoring with quality oriented customers, the kind you can rely on for long term success!

B. Avoid falling into the trap of the price promotion game! It is not smart for Independents to engage in price promotion. First, our costs cannot be lower than national chains’ prices, and therefore competing on price is a sure way to lose the game! Second, price promotion attracts price oriented customers that you cannot rely on to build long term success!

C. Build on your foundation of demonstrably superior food by establishing personal relationships with your customers! Both as a customer and a supplier, I believe loyal customers deserve the owner’s appreciation and attention! If you are an Independent with more than one location, build that vital “owner’s mindset” by making the manager your partner in that restaurant. It is far better to own part of a healthy, successful “owner’s mindset” operation than 100% of one without it!

Summary: Believe me, the foregoing A B C strategy “Hit ’em where they ain’t” works just as well in business. The key is deceptively simple, yet requires discipline to forego chasing price oriented customers (a game Independents cannot win) and to consistently reward those customers who value superior food and personalized service!

In our family business, we too face huge public company competitors (and public company distributors) driven by Wall Street pressure for higher earnings. Because we have always had the discipline to stick by Wee Willie’s principles, we have attracted the kind of loyal customers who value what we offer. I encourage your doing the same, because the long term reward is not just financial success, but satisfying personal relationships you will appreciate and enjoy!