Lessons from an Italian Restaurant

By Mae Schaefer I grew up with a mother who worked full-time as a nurse. When my sister and I were in elementary school, she worked the 3-to-11 shift. This meant that dad was in charge of things like meals, homework and getting us ready for bed. Dad was—and is—a pretty good cook, but preparing creative meals after working all day can be a real drag, so he sought out more convenient methods. In those days before Costco, he acquired a box of frozen burger patties from a friend who owned a restaurant. We ate dry, freezer burned burgers at least twice per week.  Broiled chicken featured heavily in the meal rotation, as did the odious casserole. A staple of 1970s cuisine, casseroles, for those of you lucky enough to have never endured this culinary aberration, were a conglomeration of protein, vegetables, and starch, bound by some viscous substance like condensed cream of mushroom soup, topped with cheese and baked in the oven. We complained loudly when it was casserole night; to this day, I will not eat anything that is called a casserole or resembles one, including lasagna. Once in a while, we broke free of the mealtime drudgery and went to a local Italian restaurant on Friday nights. Ron’s was a magical place. Dark, paneled walls, a haze of cigarette smoke, loud laughter coming from the bar area. You could order bar pie, a small, personal-sized pizza (no sharing!). It was the only place that had fried mozzarella sticks, which we thought were a delicacy. I always ordered the chicken parmesan, while my sister opted for the bar pie. I don’t remember what Dad ordered. I’m pretty sure he was just happy not to have to cook or listen to our complaining. In the intervening 30-plus years, the restaurant landscape near my parents’ home has dramatically changed. They now have a choice of Thai, Turkish, seafood, Asian fusion, sushi, Jamaican, Irish pub fare, and, of course, Italian. I was at my parents’ house recently, and when the subject of what to have for dinner arose, I suggested we go to Ron’s. My father looked at me quizzically and asked, “Really? That’s where you want to go? That place hasn’t changed in 40 years!” Yes, that’s where I wanted to go! I hadn’t been there since the early 90s. It was still in business, so it must still be good, right? I walked into Ron’s, and was practically giddy to find that it looked exactly as I remembered it, minus the cigarette smoke. The menu looked to be pretty much the same as well. Then the food came. And it, too, was exactly the same. Overly salty, overly oreganoed sauce adorned pasta that had been cooked well beyond al dente, well beyond recognition. Chewy clams, which obviously came from a can. A salad of anemic greens and unimaginative dressing. Spongy bread. No amount of grated Parmesan cheese could rescue this meal. I was forced to admit that my parents were right; I didn’t want to go there, not because it was no longer any good, but because it was exactly the same as it always had been. There was no longer a huge crowd on a Saturday night. Why would there be? What Ron had failed to do was to adapt to the changing appetites of his market. (Pun intended.) In 1981, he could serve spaghetti and meatballs in a dimly lit, smoky dining room. In 2016, particularly in the heavily saturated market for Italian restaurants of north Jersey, that doesn’t fly.  Our palates have changed. Our expectations have changed. We watch the Food Network for entertainment. We’ve come to adore lacinato kale. We’ve moved beyond the 1978 Family Circle magazine recipes that involved a can of condensed soup. Ron’s is no longer the only game in town; we have other, better options. Failing to adapt to the changing needs and desires of your market is the death knell. Just because your market clamors for your product now does not mean that they will in six, nine or 12 months. Maybe you are the market leader, but if you don’t pay attention to the changes happening in your market—by listening to what the market is telling you—you won’t continue in your position of market domination. You do not decide what your market wants from you. Your market dictates that to you. Don’t serve them spaghetti and meatballs when they want fresh semolina penne sautéed in a light plum tomato sauce with garden basil and freshly grated Grana Podano! Mae Scott-Schaefer helps companies position their products and services in ways that resonate with the needs of their markets. She has worked in the publishing, consulting and software industries, and holds both a B.A. and an M.A. in English. Contact May at mae.schaefer@gmail.com.
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