BBQ Essays: Some Free Advice to Barbecue Restaurateurs
1. Start slowly. I know you love the 13 appetizers, 27 entrees and 12 sides you conceived as if they're your children, and you don't want to leave any of them off your menu when you open for business. But treat them as children another way by not trying to give birth to them all on the same day. When you've mastered a core menu, maybe you can branch out and add a new item or two every week. It'll ensure higher quality and give even the most positive customers a reason to come back sooner than they would otherwise.
2. Don't just buy the smallest, cheapest smoker you can find, or your barbecue will suck. Okay, so maybe it won't suck, but if you buy a Cookshack, it'll stand a good chance of being a notch below what comes out of a Southern Pride, Ole Hickory or J&R. At least do yourself (and your business) the favor of tasting barbecue at different joints produced by different smokers, and if you believe smaller and cheaper is the way to go, you've done your due dilligence.
3. Use an answering machine and have a recorded message on it. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it should at least state the name of your restaurant, with operating hours a bonus. Believe it or not, potential customers will call you during off hours to make sure you still exist or to see if you are open on Sundays.
4. List your hours on your website. You can reduce those off-hours calls by simply declaring when you're open on your website. For those of you who say you can't update this information because you have a web guru who charges $75 per hour to make the change, I say hogwash. You might not be technically savvy enough to create your website, but you should be able to change "11:30" to "12:00" fairly easily. Rather than lumping "Tuesday through Thursday" and "Friday and Saturday" together with common stated hours, have your web guru list every day separately, so you can make changes without having to worry about adding a new line.
5. Use Facebook. I know many restaurants are on Facebook, but how many use Facebook? Some of the restaurants I've friended or liked haven't posted a thing since the summer of 2009. Others go through long stretches of posting nothing, then on a snowy day dust off the "Come on in, it's warm in here!" chestnut. The masters of Facebook have figured out that by announcing entertainment ("Right here on our stage... The Meatles!"), food specials ("Today's guest chili is serrano elk stew!"), pricing specials ("Mullet Mondays! Mullets eat free!") or other enticements ("Tank Top Tuesdays! Come see Brianna!"), they're doing something much cheaper and easier than drumming up new customers: they're getting more repeat business from their existing customers. Note that exclamation points are not required but seem to be the general practice. And adding "Woot woot!" at the end of your Facebook post seems to somehow add some hipster cred.
6. In your website or Facebook photo gallery, show pics of the food, not the drunks, fatties and hotties who frequent your place. Okay, maybe keep the hotties. But show the food too. You're not ashamed of your own food, are you?
7. Selling T shirts is cool. Selling them for $20 or more is not cool. I guess it all depends on whether you want to treat T shirts as a profit center or as a break-even proposition that ups your cool quotient and effectively gets you free advertising. For a juggernaut like Redbones (Boston) or Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (NYC), the first approach makes sense. If you're struggling to make a name for yourself, stick with the groundswell approach.
8. Rethink your "no substitutions" policy. Yes, I know the organic vegetables cost a lot more than the dirty rice. And yes, I know substituting tater tots for the cous cous compromises your chef's artistic vision. But regardless of facts, logic and artistry, many customers will just think you're an asshole. And many customers will ask if they can substitute anyway (even if you change "no substitutions" to "No substitutions under no circumstances ever ever ever" [which makes you look like even more of an asshole]). The money you save by restricting your customers to the el cheapo sides is lost—and then some—by the wasted energy your servers will have to go through explaining your policy, asking a manager to overrule your policy, explaining why your manager didn't overrule your policy, etc. And by losing customers unhappy with your policy. And even by the customers at the next table, who had no problem with no substitutions and never thought you were an asshole—instead, they'll simply think the service sucked, because their server was too tied up and never got around to their table.
9. Don't badmouth your competition. It makes you look petty. Most towns are big enough to support both you and your top competitor, so there's no need to take the low road.
10. Taste your food and taste it often. Taste your competition's food too. But don't compare the two unless you're tasting under the same conditions. Sure, your brisket right out of the smoker is going to taste a hundred times better than someone else's reheated brisket that sat sealed in a container on a counter ten minutes, in your car another ten minutes and on your own table another five minutes before you finally dug in. Ever wonder how your own stuff fares after it's been reheated and sitting? You ought to.