Thursday, June 14, 2012

Did we go too far?

Will you put the weapon down so we can talk about this? Some of you are pissed, big time, because of the nuclear option Tom Feltenstein suggested this issue in a roundup of tactics for besting the competition. Okay, in this instance the projected outcome was the death of a rival restaurant. And that, you’ve screamed loud and clear, is going too far.

Strangely, the flashpoint isn’t the tactic itself but the matter-of-fact observation that it could force a competitor to close. Before publishing the article in our Skills section, we discussed Tom’s recommendation because it definitely went beyond offering superior food or service. Some might call it a dirty trick.

He advised restaurateurs who see a sparkling new competitor open nearby to snuff it right away, not by starving it of business but by sending too much traffic its way. The idea was to feed the newcomer more volume than its staff and inventory could handle, leaving customers frustrated and unlikely to return.

“Let’s say your new neighbor, “Burger Emporium,” is planning its grand opening a block away from your fast food restaurant,” Tom wrote. “You take out a full page ad, inviting all the customers who share a the same trading area to go to the Burger Emporium grand opening. Also run a direct mail campaign conveying the same message to 10,000 people in the zip codes you share with your competitor.

“A store that used this incredibly powerful tactic ran its competitor right out of business shortly after its grand opening.”

Who knew Tom could be so diabolical? (Those of you with your hands raised can e-mail me at

One of you called to alert the editorial team that we had one less subscriber. Other love missives were delivered via e-mail. Given the count of how many people read the story online, we’re likely to get more of those mash notes in the days to come.

Obviously we don’t regard a potentially lethal marketing idea to be a sacrilege for the industry. Isn’t generating casualties the blue-sky objective of any ad campaign, menu revamp or chef change? They’re called killer ideas for a reason.

And what’s the alternative? Aiming only to make rivals a little hungrier, not to starve them? To leave them marginally profitable, just not fat and happy?

That’s our position, though we’re open-minded enough to reconsider. We know what the First Objectors think. What we’re wondering is the take of everyone else. Did we let Tom go too far?

In return, we leave you with this quick listing of the Five Most Controversial Stories in Restaurant Business’ publishing history:

--A cover story that looked at the not-so-subtle prejudice in some industry quarters against gay employees. One letter written in response addressed me as Mr. Homeo.

--An editorial insisting that guns have no place in restaurants, a response to the National Rifle Association’s announcement that it planned to open a shooting-themed eater-tainment place in Times Square to teach the world that firearms and foodservice are a wonderful match.  We can’t take credit, but the restaurant was never built.

--A cover story headlined “Bloody Murder,” looking at the prevalence of shootings in restaurants. The cover was a silhouetted gun, the tracing of a pistol brought in by a staffer for that purpose, set against a blood-red background. Many readers thought it was too lurid. Some of us on the staff agreed. 

--A cover story that looked at a statistically proven racial bias in tipping. New research showed that African-Americans tipped less than Caucasians, validating a widely held contention among servers. We looked at how the disparity had prompted full-service chains to avoid black neighborhoods, and what some people were doing in the industry to resolve the issue. The angle was, How does the industry address this issue without looking prejudiced? The reaction we often caught: Just running the story is proof of your bigotry.

--A quote from Lee Iacocca in a story about KooKooRoo, in which he’d invested something like $10 million after retiring as the head of Chrysler. To draw dollars from a savant like Iacocca anointed the home-meal replacement chain as a concept to watch. But to quote Iacocca’s quote, “I don’t give a fuck about KooKooRoo.”

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