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Forget All the Trappings if the Product's Not Right

By: John Malmo

John Malmo began an advertising agency on a cardtable above a delicatessen in 1967 and built it into the largest in the mid-south. He also owned a travel agency, a clock shop, and a snack food manufacturing company. He is president of Koenig, Inc., Management Consulting, specializing in marketing, and he writes a weekly business commentary column for The Commercial Appeal. His 45 years of marketing experience encompass, virtually, every business category. Email him at:

It is puzzling, but increasingly evident, that service businesses seek all manner of ways to differentiate themselves with little attention to the core service, itself.

Laundry/cleaners pick unique, memorable names, build odd-looking structures, put in drive-in windows and still send your shirts back sans a button or two.  But restaurants are probably the best example.

If you lined up all the "shelf" hamburgers from the fast food restaurants in town and blindfolded yourself, you probably couldnít taste one from the others.  Whatís sad is that you could do the same thing with most of the items on the menus of most restaurants in any town.  Itís not that restaurants donít try to differentiate themselves any more.  Itís that so many try to differentiate in all the wrong things.  Real estate, decor, menu design, "My nameís Kevin, Iíll be your waiter," colorful signs, advertising all get tremendous attention.  The food itself almost seems to be an afterthought.

Yet, when Justineís made its reputation it was near the cityís carbarn.  The Camel was tucked away on an obscure block on Jefferson.  The Rendezvous is in an alley basement.  Buster Holmesí (red beans and rice) in New Orleans has a garbage can in the middle of the floor.  People will go almost anywhere, put up with anything for great or unique food.

Fast food restaurants you donít expect to be much different.  Their schtick is convenient location, fast service and guaranteed mediocrity.  Nothing great.  Nothing awful.  But you do expect signature restaurants to offer at least a few signature items that compel you to come back from time to time.  They can be as simple as a Pete & Samís Beacon Salad or a Rendezvous slab of ribs.  Or as creative as Grisantiís Elfoís Special or Pauletteís Jamaican Crepe Amandine.  Once upon a time, even fast food restaurants had signature items.  In the ĎForties, no blindfold would have prevented identity of Toddle House Black Bottom Pie or their scrambled eggs that went into a milk shake gizmo before the pan.  Scrambled eggs.  Who would have thought you could differentiate a scrambled egg?

But as usual, and in almost all businesses, itís the most basic elements of the business that get either overlooked or lip-service.  Such a basic element in the restaurant food business is the ubiquitous french fry.  As originally intended, from a fresh potato, certainly a divine achievement second only to woman.  But, alas, in recent decades the restaurant french fry has fallen victim to those traditional enemies of good food, the K-I-S-S principle and labor costs.

How else can one explain a recent news item from the worldís largest freezer of french fires.  McCain Ltd. of Canada (where else?) has cut the cost of certain frozen french fry items by 10%.  The real news in the press release, however, is that Americans eat from $4-to-$5 billion a year (at retail) worth of rock-hard-frozen fries.  There are, indeed, millions of Americans old enough to cancel your vote in November who have never tasted a fresh - never frozen - french fried potato, regardless which candidate misspelled it.

If God had meant for potatoes to be frozen they would be grown in Alaska.

What we have here is the single, most basic restaurant food item, omnipresent, with enormous margins for the purveyor.  Imagine the tremendous differentiation one restaurant, one chain, could create for itself if it bolted.  If it actually bought real potatoes.  Sliced them and fried them without freezing.  You have before you an extraordinary opportunity for a demonstrable difference.  For $1,500 a restaurant can obtain an automatic slicer.  Only $103 for a by-hand slicer.  The investment and the extra labor cost can be recouped quickly with a small price increase.  No advertising needed.  Just stick a sign in the window - "French Fries.  Fresh, not frozen.  Only 5¢ more."

One of the fast hamburger outfits already spends millions to provide and proclaim their fresh, never frozen, hamburger meat.  But you already proved that nobody could tell one of those burgers from another blindfolded.  And any mouth on a blindfolded face can recognize a fresh from frozen french fry.

After working with food companies for decades one thing has become clear.  People do not put into their mouths twice that which tasted crummy the first time.  That truism should be expandable to, that which tastes great goes into the mouth a lot of times.  In case even youíve forgotten, hie yourself to Cafe Max on Poplar or The Cooker, across the street, where they still make the real McCoy.  You'll never eat another ersatz tater again.

All businesses have "french fries."  Those basic, fundamental elements of the business that are long forgotten while owners and managers spend all of their time on the extraneous stuff.  In the restaurant business itís still what goes on the plate.  And when it comes to french fries, vive la difference.

© Copyright 2000, John Malmo

Other Articles by John Malmo

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