In this political year we thought this might be a prescient post!
A customer asked me recently why he isn’t seeing the restaurant at the top of the “best of” lists in a local newspaper anymore. I told him it was complicated but he pressed me for an answer…by the end of the conversation I am quite sure he regretted it…but I thought it might be a good subject for our 2nd blog.
Let me preface what follows by saying this is in no way a complaint or an excuse about whether Sam’s is on any list anywhere. It’s irrelevant too me, but that wasn’t always so. 20 plus years of experience with these lists has made me have to face certain truths with which I am very comfortable in 2016. I also support and believe in all the steakhouses that do make the list. All of them earn it in one way or another, several are friends and I am happy and proud of them.
So, where to start. At the beginning I guess. For years we were always in the top 5 steakhouse restaurants in that local paper. I believe at that point that the “poll “was what it said it was. A reader driven poll. Starting about 10 years ago we began dropping off. I realize some might say perhaps our product or building didn’t keep up with the times. All I can say to that is all of our efforts are to keep Sam’s relevant to modern times while retaining some class that might hearken back to more classic times. That is a fine line and if you came into the restaurant I believe you’d see we walk it well. We are in the process of totally revamping our back room and have been doing so in the bar as well. Next comes our front room. We insist that our purveyors give us only top quality food from the steaks to the lettuce to the house liquor. I would put or Chef, Greg Manuel, up there with the best, even though you won’t see him in the paper a lot …..that too follows the theme of this blog.
Once we began dropping off the lists we redoubled our efforts to ensure that, despite our confidence in our procedures, that we weren’t falling behind or letting our standards slip. So it was at that point I decided to do a few experiments. I would advertise with said paper but in staggered years and at staggered amounts. Interesting patterns emerged; I’ll let you make your own conclusions about those patterns, as I have no desire to get into a legal situation.
At that point I thought I’d be blunt to my salesmen from this paper who was in asking me to buy a rather large ad. I told him what I’ve just told you and he insisted the poll was reader driven. I did not buy the ad and as had been the case before fell out of any lists.
I should state here that we are a one-location restaurant and have never had any intentions of having more then this one location. This is a labor of love for us and that love also includes the building. It is also an essential part of our success and love for our business. Having one location limits your ability to place ads in all the relevant publications…. it forces you to work harder and build a word of mouth reputation to counter your lack of ad buying.
After several years of not buying ads I was once again approached to buy a cover ad and told “there is some editorial leeway in the lists”. I had suspected this all along. I bought the ad and sure enough we were back on the list. I never bought another ad and never will again. A game with wavering rules isn’t worth playing.
In the pollsters defense. They too are playing a numbers game. Any publication knows its demographics…where it’s supposedly more affluent readers are. The more affluent the readers are the more they can tout that to other potential advertisers outside of the restaurant business. The perception in St. Louis is that the wealth follows the highway 40 corridor… out to at least Chesterfield Valley. That means it passes thru Ladue, Chesterfield, West County and touches on the Webster and Kirkwood areas as well.
We are far off of that vein. Sam’s demographics, at least in the perception of many St. Louisans, are not the level they target. What I have learned by growing up in the area and being in business here for over 25 years that the wealth down south is equal to anywhere. The people might be more conservative and save for times ahead, but they are just as classy and just as good a customer for any business. We are proud to be in South County!
Here it is essential to point out that there are South County Steakhouses on the list.They have multiple locations that cover a broad area of St. Louis. Those multiple locations also allow a larger ad budget. Once again, they are great at what they do and deserve it.
I believe the Internet has also changed the lay of the land for print media. They, like we independent restaurants, are in a fight for survival. The dollars that went to print are more often then not going to Facebook or Google. Yelp is subject for a whole other blog that would open a can of worms. Just google the lawsuits to know what I mean. The local print market has also been deluged with Casinos that place ads and that effect can be seen in polls and articles as well.
From first hand experience I can tell you that print media salesmen are under intense pressure to sell and the turnover rate is high. These are different times. I can remember when some local weekly publications had 3 times more reading content and the polls were predictable year to year. As good restaurants tend to retain their customers. Take the last couple of years for example…. several of the reader driven poll top 5 steakhouses are no longer in business. while many that didn’t make the top 5 are going strong. If those poll voters existed in greater numbers for those restaurants then success would surely be greater then those that didn’t crack the top 5.
My point here is not too condemn anyone, publication, person or business. It’s just a small business struggle that I thought might interest some. It is not whining at all. I am comfortable with our place in the market and we will be here for many years. We are a family owned restaurant dedicated to quality in all facet of our business. We have several interior changes in the works that we are excited about and the next iteration of our menu is in the works. The staples will stay and some new exciting dishes will be added. Our staff is the best and closest staff I have ever worked with in every business and it shows in the way they serve our customers
Poll driven food publications are no different from the other local food magazines who write primarily about what’s new and exciting as the foodie is their reader. I do think it short sighted to ignore the real success stories as new restaurants on average nationally 60% percent of restaurants don’t make it past one year and 80% go under within five years. (Reference business insider article http://www.businessinsider.com/why-restaurants-fail-so-often-2014-2)
The local Steakhouse market in the South of St. Louis is about to see a change. A large and successful local restaurant family and good friends will appear soon with a Steakhouse. They will do a good job and I wish them well. The more local restaurants that succeed the more local profits stay that…local. It’s the less quality large chains that we should fight. I am curious though if my buying power theories will be put to the test in the coming year.
Thanks for reading and we hope to feed you soon!