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Worst Brand on the Block
Recent study reveals why quick serves in low-income neighborhoods often don’t measure up.
Good service not always expected in low-income areas.

When customers don’t expect good service, they usually don’t get it, and that is sometimes the case in low-income communities, according to a Chicago-based restaurant-consulting firm.

Trying to get at the root of the problem, the Restaurant Success Institute recently surveyed restaurant operators, employees, and customers in several South Side Chicago neighborhoods.

“The purpose was to help deconstruct what goes wrong with these businesses so that they can protect their brands,” says John Moultrie, president of the Restaurant Success Institute.

Moultrie, a former Chicago restaurateur, says he found that inadequate training plagued a lot of restaurants. Often times operators did not have procedures in place to ensure employees took care of standard issues—dirty windows, for example—before they became noticeable.

“Those become red flags or telltale signs in these businesses that something is wrong,” Moultrie says. “It’s an operational issue.”

Part of the problem is that because some of these neighborhoods are food deserts, with few restaurants or grocery stores, there is little competition forcing businesses to improve.

“With some of these owners, there are very few choices, so what happens is that they feel as though they have a monopoly on that community because they are one of two other businesses that are on that block,” Moultrie says.

According to Moultrie, the relatively low rents in the neighborhoods present good business opportunities for companies that are prepared to run their businesses right.

“If you just go in there and keep it clean, keep the customer service right where it needs to be, make sure hot food’s hot, cold food’s cold,” he says, “everything else will fall into place.”

Of course, Moultrie adds, “there are good operators in urban communities as well.”

One of them is John Meyer, owner of South Side eatery BJ’s Market & Bakery, a soul-food restaurant where profits are up 20 percent so far in 2009 over the same period last year. Meyer agrees that customers have lower expectations in low-income neighborhoods, but he rejects their logic.

“If you’re only paying $6 for a meal, people say, ‘how much can I expect for $6?’ That’s not how we feel,” Meyer says. “It’s very important to exceed your customers’ expectations.”

Experience is not just a problem among employees, Meyer says, but among operators as well.

“Education, education, education—not knowing how to run a restaurant, not knowing what food costs … that’s how a lot of restaurants go out,” Meyer says.

With some of these owners, there are very few choices, so what happens is that they feel as though they have a monopoly on that community.”

Ultimately, inexperience breeds inexperience.

“You’re not going to have a well-trained staff if you have a bad operator.”

Operators lacking restaurant experience should consider franchising, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based foodservice consulting firm Technomic. “Being part of a chain is a strong way to go,” he says, because the company will provide training.

Calling service “the biggest differentiator,” Tristano says it can lead to a market-wide change.

“When operators offer a higher quality of service, it will raise the bar and it will raise the competition of the market,” he says.

“As restaurants improve their quality of service, expectations change. Other restaurants are forced to improve their service or go out of business.”

Jordan Melnick is QSR's online exclusives reporter.