Are you getting my message?

There are many reasons as to why restaurants are such risky businesses and so many fail but one of the biggest is that they’re not very good at telling people that they’re there. As part of my ‘apprenticeship’ whOldfields NEH cmykere I spent a number of months working voluntarily in a number of different establishments, I was interested to notice the different way in which each place ensured there were enough customers to make the business viable.

Typically you hear that ‘word of mouth’ is all it takes and what is necessary to ensure success. And while yes, word of mouth is indeed a sure way of inspiring confidence in people who’s heard about you, it’s not actually mathematically a reliable way of ensuring it. Nobody in charge of a business should leave these things to chance.

And so, went I opened my first place, I made it my mission to ensure that I always had a marketing plan in place. As my first restaurant was launched a little before the days of mass email (only 1997 – not that long ago), I became a champion of the use of the fax machine. Thinking up attractive stories and sending them off to news organisations became my hobby and, when I decided to put some crocodile and kangaroo on the menu, I hit gold when BBC Radio Tees (or Cleveland as it was in those days) read one of my faxes instead of throwing it in the bin and decided to ask me in to cook on the radio. Success! I was going to be a media star.

Not quite so. Have you ever tried to stir-fry on a Baby Belling and make it sound interesting? But it did bring me to the attention of a wider audience and my restaurant became slightly more well known.

Then when I had a dispute with British Gas, I enlisted the help of the then labour MP for our area, the fabulous Derek (now Lord) Foster and, as a result, got onto BBC Radio 4! Not only did it win me my dispute, I had people coming into the restaurant purely because they’d heard me moaning on You and Yours.

The place was jumping. I now had to think of ways of keeping customers returning which, when there’s competition in the area, not just from other eateries but also from other activities such as cinemas, theatre and staying in with a bottle and the telly, wasn’t an easy thing. So, I collected customers’ addresses – the physical kind rather than email – and laboriously wrote to them every month, telling them what we had on and giving them oodles of reasons for coming to see us. Which meant my staff and I stuffing and sealing envelopes and licking stamps and and making multiple journeys to the post office.

As email became more common, we moved to this more cost effective option and, as a result, after all these years we currently have around 10,000 people in our Real Food Club.

So I got a bit of a reputation for being someone who knew how to publicise his business. Because I did. But it doesn’t matter how hard you try, no matter how much you put out your messages, you cannot connect with everyone. It amazed me how, after seven years of operating my first restaurant in Barnard Castle, there were some locals who thought it was still the vegetarian cafe that was there before me in 1996. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some people who still think the same.

Getting your message out is not as easy as people think. It might be the only time we should feel sorry for politicians.

And so I refer back to the column I wrote last week where the subject matter was that of our restaurant building in Durham being bought by the accommodation developer, Student Castle. Because they’ve now received planning permission to demolish the building and develop the site, despite us having a protected lease for the next seven or eight years, I wrote about my dilemma as to how to negotiate my way through things and come out successfully on the other side, for all concerned, and compared it with learning to swim through, over or around waves in the sea. Unfortunately, one of our staff interpreted that as meaning I was drowning – and promptly burst into tears.

But, as I’ve always said: blame the communicator, not the communicatee. Maybe we shouldn’t feel so sorry for our politicians after all.

Previously published in the Northern Echo as Bill’s Bites


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