Something has gone wrong at one of my old favorite restaurants.
Ironically, I decided to make my notes for this part in the series from a table at one of my old favorite restaurants in Orlando – Luma in Winter Park. Five years ago, Luma was the hottest new restaurant in Central Florida. It was a first date kind of place. We entertained some of our best clients here, and for awhile I was spending a significant pile of cash here every week, without an end in sight. This was a great restaurant, with an adventurous menu of contemporary American fare, and creating massive buzz throughout Orlando and Central Florida – but judging by my latest visit, Luma has fallen from grace.
When this restaurant first opened, you needed a crowbar to get in and could expect a two-hour wait before being seated in the dining room. Tonight it was very different. There was no wait for a table, and the dining room was far from packed. Sure, it was a weekday, but you could feel that ghost-of-restaurants-past lurking in the lonely shadows. My previous visits to Luma felt exhilarating, but tonight it felt eerie.
What went wrong? How can Luma get back to the level its fans have come to expect? And what lessons are there for the rest of us?
Luma burst onto the Orlando restaurant scene with great fanfare. Owned by Brian France, the CEO of NASCAR, Luma had deep-pocketed ownership that was willing to invest in creating a one-of-a-kind experience. Housed in a former bank building, the owners reportedly poured in US$5 million to convert the prime corner location on Park Avenue into a restaurant.
This kind of math simply doesn’t work for mere mortal restaurateurs. When you have deep pockets and your first priority is delivering a spectacular experience (even before the imperative of profit), you tend to think about the restaurant business differently than a start-up mom and pop (or those evil, “profit only” chain empires). I watched the launch and progress of Luma with great interest, as I’m always particularly interested in restaurateurs who think about experience first, profits second (whether they have big budgets or not).
I happened to have a meeting with one of France’s top executives who told me that while some wealthy people collect cars, or planes, or mansions, Brian France’s muse is the restaurant business. This passion and level of cultivated personal interest was apparent in every aspect of Luma’s atmosphere. Luma was a pretty spectacular new addition in the local market. Truly they had a hit on their hands.
Five years later, the place is a shadow of its former self.
While it’s hard for me to diagnose what went wrong based on a single visit, I would venture to guess that Luma has been coasting on its previous success.
Too many restaurants fall into this trap: they start out with a big launch, big buzz and critical acclaim, but then they fail to follow up with something new to buzz about. Eventually the initial buzz fades, and so does the restaurant.
Even the best, most acclaimed restaurants need to constantly innovate.
A year or two after Luma opened, one of Brian France’s top executives stopped in to visit us at our office. He was looking for some fresh new ideas, industry insights, and PR strategies for Luma. Maybe this sounds odd – after all, the restaurant was doing blockbuster business, everyone loved it. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right?
Wrong. Even though we didn’t end up working together, France’s executive was doing exactly the right thing by seeking out new ideas for Luma. Barely weeks after Luma’s honeymoon period, this guy was on the hunt for fresh ideas to keep Orlando’s hottest restaurant the hottest. (This is what a good “number two” does, by the way – they think about what number one needs before number one thinks about it.)
Investing in something new to buzz about might seem unnecessary; isn’t it better to maintain momentum and profit off the restaurant’s existing direction? Rather than staying the course, the smartest investment is to keep ahead of the curve. Some restaurant executives prefer to simply ride out the profits gained from coasting after an initial push; it costs less to coast than to keep your foot on the accelerator. Others recognize that if you take your foot off the accelerator, you may coast pretty well for a while, but if you wait too long you’ll dramatically lose speed, and you’ll end up needing to spend a lot more energy to get back that lost momentum and recapture your market positioning.
How can your restaurants avoid the trap of early success?
In the corporate world, we tend to plan months, years or decades ahead. Restaurant customers tend to plan just days or hours ahead. Restaurant customers want to know what’s hot TONIGHT – not, what are some guys thinking that they may or may not do a few months from now.
Executives often think about what’s going to be relevant to the quarterly balance sheet or annual stockholders meeting. Customers think about what’s worth talking about, what’s new to experience, what’s exciting and worth my hard earned money for tonight. Today’s restaurant customer asks, “What’s worth Tweeting about?” That’s how much the attention span has changed.
Madonna has reinvented herself so many times it was the title of one of her world tours (I didn’t go; Wikipedia tells me that was the title of the 2004 tour). She has remained a relevant hit-maker for decades now by consistently giving her fans a new dimension to be awed by, her critics something to talk about, and her potential fans a new reason to consider buying in. While Madonna’s clothes, hairstyles, and collaborators have changed through the years, the core of her brand has remained constant. In other words, if she were a restaurant, she hasn’t changed her “brand personality,” “brand positioning strategy,” her “brand promise,” or her “brand story.” She has evolved, ‘renovated’, and reinvented a dozen or more times while still remaining true to the core brand attributes that put her on top.
The same goes for any celebrity or brand that has enjoyed longevity – to have staying power you have to constantly look to one-up yourself. You have to constantly give your fans and critics something new to talk about.
The iPhone is the fastest selling product in history and Apple is now the highest valued technology company in the world as a result. How they got there was not with discounting but with innovating. Consistently, under Steve Jobs’ leadership, the company has believed in the impossible and continuously strived to out-do themselves. That is a key distinction – Apple sees their biggest competitor as not some other force “outside” the company, but the company’s own past performance. Apple wasn’t looking to one-up the competition or win customers by offering a lower price for something that people were already buying. Rather than look for a bigger piece of an existing market, Apple created entirely new markets by dreaming up how to solve a problem and deliver a product that customers weren’t even aware of yet – but that they soon couldn’t live without.
Apple used to be kind of a “niche” company for early adopters and enthusiasts of a certain type of personal computer. Apple was for true believers, while IBM and Microsoft products were mainstream. However, in the past 10 years, Apple has become a mainstream company – not by appealing to more mainstream people, but by transmitting their marketing efforts through their true believers and biggest fans.
To go mainstream and enjoy wide market penetration you have to first win over the “Innovators” and the “Early Adopters” and give them something to buzz about that reflects how they see themselves. Innovators and Early Adopters don’t buy Apple products because of the great features and functions; they ultimately buy Apple products because they believe in Apple’s mission of challenging the status quo, and they see themselves reflected in that mission. As Seth Godin puts it – “A reason to bring it back to the hive.”
Now most of you have heard this message a few times before and get it. However, what we need to remember is that this innovation cycle isn’t just for startups. Mature or established brands have to repeat the cycle again and again; offering the Innovators and Early Adopters a stream of new reasons to bring your brand back to their hive in perpetuity. Flowers keep offering up their nectar to the bees, giving the bees a reason to come back each day, pick up their pollen, and pollinate the entire garden while bringing back something to sustain the bee colony living in the hive. In this analogy, your brand is the flower and your consistent stream of innovations are your nectar, giving the bees (or customers) a reason to keep coming back again and again.
“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” – General Eric Shinseki
Seth Godin argues that the era of mass production (Henry Ford and the assembly line) and mass marketing (pushing ideas out to try to “hypnotize” audiences with TV ads, etc.) is at an end. Instead, the new model of marketing is very old: tribes. Your restaurant needs to cultivate a sense of mission to inspire passion and devotion by a community of devoted fans who will go out of their way to connect with you and support your business.
Starbucks would have never been born of a focus group.
If there is already a case study to show it’s a good idea you’re probably too late.
Surround yourself with people who are comfortable being uncomfortable, who believe in the impossible, who fan the flames of your creative passions. The business world already has enough creative suppression systems in place – there is already an “abundance of caution” in business. It’s often more likely that you are costing your company more by playing it safe than by having the courage to take calculated risks.
Richard Branson didn’t even finish high school and admittedly still doesn’t know the difference between net profit and gross profit, yet he has built one of the most admired multi-billion dollar corporations on Earth. When he thought of going from music stores to airlines to taking his brand literally into orbit (with Virgin Galactic) he didn’t go to the world’s best space ship designer; he went to the most creative designer he could think of: Philippe Starck.
Neither Starck nor Branson had ever designed a space shuttle before but that didn’t stop them. In fact, their unfamiliarity with the status quo is what propelled them. Sure, they surrounded themselves with lots of technical folks, financiers, and “grown-ups,” but the two creative forces led the project. The technical folks will help make sure the ship doesn’t blow up, but the technical folks would have never taken the leap or conceived the same project.
Richard Branson has built a multibillion-dollar business empire by doing things that other people told him were “crazy.” He believes that life is a relentless process of learning and “turning the status quo upside down.” In this TED talk, Richard Branson discusses some of his most famous and boldest business decisions, like the time he decided to sell Virgin Records for an all-in bet on saving Virgin Atlantic airlines. His business advisors told him it was crazy, but it proved to be the best decision he could have possibly made.
Albert Einstein, when asked what was the most important breakthrough in helping him develop his Theory of Relativity, responded: “Thinking about how to think about the problem.” There are a number of great Einstein quotes that are relevant here.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
“The only real valuable thing is intuition.”
“Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds.”
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Famous ad for Apple: Think Different. “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
If that way of thinking was what helped Einstein pioneer ground breaking scientific discoveries that fundamentally changed human understanding of how the universe works, surely it’s good enough to help our industry figure out how to put a few more butts in seats. He had 24 hours in the day just like all of us. He told us his secret. Heck, so has almost every great achiever or brand pioneer. It was to zig when the competition zagged. It was to follow their intuition more than a case study or feasibility study.
Captain Kirk says it: to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Joseph Campbell: Follow your bliss.
Jack Welch: You have to be on the lunatic fringe.
Seth Godin: Be remarkable.
Good food, good service and good atmosphere is NOT remarkable. Sending a steak to the airport for one of your most vocal fans is remarkable.
That Shankman story has been sent to me a half-dozen times by now. It’s the very definition of WOW. Who wouldn’t feel like telling everyone if they had that kind of experience?
Already the naysayers are exclaiming and dismissing such a thought as impractical, not business-minded, “giving away the farm.” “We can’t afford to do this for our customers! It costs too much money. Better to just keep our heads down, keep buying billboard space and running ads in the phone book…”
When this type of objection used to come up with clients in the past, I would expend the energy, lay out the case, expand the logic and proffer more “realistic” ideas for them to baby-step their way into this more innovative way of thinking. Finally, I realized after much pain and anguish that you can’t baby-step your way to being remarkable. The people who don’t get it are never really fully going to get it, and fighting with them only distracts you from the really important work of finding the people who believe in “remarkable,” and becoming remarkable.
As Seth Godin explains so clearly in Tribes, your followers want to you to lead them. Your followers are the people who believe in your brand: your customers and your employees. And you have many other prospective followers among the silent masses who share your beliefs and are interested in your mission, but have not yet been introduced to your brand. They will be pleased to meet you and to have you lead them.
At the risk of using too many quotes of great men who say it so much better than I could, I wanted to close with perhaps my favorite quote of all in the hopes that any restaurant industry executive or marketer looking for the courage to follow their own convictions – and pursue that big, hairy and risky idea or campaign – will find it in these words of Theodore Roosevelt:
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
Be bold. Give your customers, employees, franchisees, investors, media, and community something new to talk about. Truly worth a “WOW!” Not a gimmick or following in the footsteps of some other company that did it first, but something that wows even yourself. Something that reflects the true convictions of your brand and your company’s reason for being. That gray twilight is the least safe place to be these days.
AFTERWORD: Just a few days after I wrote the first draft of this article, Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple. So I want to include just one last quote from Steve Jobs, the greatest innovator of our time, from his address to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford University: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” Stay hungry: Innovators are hungry – they’re restless in pursuing change and challenging the status quo. Stay foolish: some of the best innovations are the “crazy” ones that people think are too unsafe, too risky, too out-there. Be foolish.
DISCLOSURE: A sacred truth and conviction we hold is to keep all client (and prospective client) information confidential; in the strictest of confidence to be sure. While there may seem to be an air of familiarity with Luma mentioned in this post, it is derived from publicly disclosed information and personal consumer experience. No confidences were betrayed and several years have passed since we were asked – as many others were – to bid on the Luma business. We hold Luma, its management, and its officers in the very highest regards. The opinions tendered in this blog post are those based strictly on public and non-confidential information and are in no way intended to harm Luma or its stakeholders. To the contrary, we remain fans and cheerleaders for the company and generally hold Luma and the France family in the highest regard as they are among the most remarkable of entrepreneurial success stories in recent American history. We wish them and Luma much continued success. However, we also wish that they would rev up their engines and get Luma back on the right track. Central Florida needs Luma to regain its former glory; there are too few contemporary-oriented restaurants in Central Florida, and we need to keep the ones we’ve got. Like a Ferrari, Lear jet, or beautiful mansion; a great restaurant must be maintained. High-performance vehicles take more care and attention to operate than a beat-up Buick. The same goes for high-performance restaurants. Luma is flaming in its need for attention.