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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Location, location, location doesn't always matter

By Dick Hirsch

By this time, just about everyone can recite the cardinal rule that supposedly must be followed if success in the retail business is the goal. That rule:

Location, location, location.

Some adherents enunciate it just that way, all in one memorable fragment of a sentence, while others will compile a list, offering the three most important considerations leading to business success thusly: 1. Location; 2. Location; 3. Location; you get the idea. I never learned that rule in school. Does anybody? I do remember my Uncle Sam reciting it to me years ago when he bought a small liquor store on Chippewa Street, where he ended up working 12 hours or more a day, dealing with the wine and schnapps fanciers in the area.

I realize the strategic importance of that advice, but I question whether it can be universally applied. I don’t think it works when it comes to restaurants, a business which operates with a cardinal rule of its own.

Even among those who will readily admit they know absolutely nothing about restaurants except how to read a menu, any discussion of that business always stresses the risks. The conventional wisdom maintains that at one time or another almost everyone dreams about how much fun it would be, as well as how much money they would make, if they opened their own restaurant. They either overlook or are unaware of the investment of time, the long days and the hard work, that restaurants require.

Here we have two apparent truths that were long ago chiseled in stone. I argue they are both accurate, but I’ve concluded that location has less bearing on restaurants than on other retail operations. Let me cite a few case histories; names won’t be revealed to avoid hurt feelings, but the examples are accurate.

Consider the C.T., a long time favorite dining and drinking establishment in a relatively obscure location in Amherst, which closed several years ago when the owner retired. It was always busy. The menu was diverse, the food was good, the servers were attentive and the bar was usually crowded. People sometimes would stand in line to get inside for dinner. Former customers missed the place when it closed.

Since the closing of the C.T., there have been three varied operations at that location; first a “California style” grill, then a Mexican cantina and next a Greek taverna. None of them have been able to kindle any interest among the former patrons of the C.T. Their experience seems to indicate that it is a lousy location for a restaurant and that the C.T. was one of those happy exceptions.

Then there is the case of J.P., a favorite creative dining spot in the Elmwood neighborhood for many years, serving an imaginative menu that changed with the seasons. When J.P. closed after a successful run, the space was taken over by a succession of others who have so far been unable to come close to emulating the success that J.P. developed at the location. Once again, considering the successful past history and the struggle of subsequent operators, it appears that location is somewhat incidental.

There are probably many other similar examples, but I cite those because I am familiar with them. The history of those locations indicates that the site really seems to have little influence when it comes to dining out. What are the deciding factors, the reasons that some places flourish and others are short-lived?

Your guess is certainly as good as mine, but I would say that food type and quality as well as price obviously must be at the top of the list. But there are other considerations that are more difficult to explain and quantify. A skilled, dedicated owner whose presence creates a personality for the place seems vital, as does the performance of a well-trained wait staff, whose members strive to provide good service. Ambiance is important, too, and that doesn’t only cover the decor and the atmosphere. It encompasses the feeling the place projects, the type of customers it attracts, as well as the noise level and the lighting. That is probably an incomplete inventory, but if I were preparing such a list I would put location near the bottom. When pizza was a relatively unknown menu item, people rushed to the B.C. on Hickory Street. S., at a remote suburban location, became a prime destination for its beef on weck.

No, location doesn’t seem to matter when appetites are concerned.


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