How To Deal With "Copycat Concepts"

QUESTION From: Danni in Tampa

“We purchased a sports bar last year. The guy we got it from had the original owner in a non compete clause for two years. Times almost up and they are opening a bar right down the street opening next week. His daughter whose a spoiled little brat will be running the place and spending all her Daddy’s money to outdo us with a big deck, fire pits, pool tables, darts, more beer taps and such. He comes in one day before we open and gets mad cause we won’t serve him 30 minutes early. He knows the hours since he created them! He then goes out and revamps his entire business and when he reveals the menu today it is an exact copy of ours. Obviously, he knows the recipes since he established them. What do you do in a situation like that? We’re thinking we should change the items on our menu now and go with a different concept to improve upon things.

His place is going to be newer and people love the charm of a new place in town. Plus the additional games we have no room for. How do you compete with the person who built your business copying and refining the decor and opening less than 5 minutes down the road?

We aren’t a big enough town to support both identical places...My history is real estate and I am in this to support my husband’s dream since I just had a baby. I am here to learn from those that have gone before me because when I do something I wanna do it the best I can.”


HH ANSWER:

It never ceases to amaze me how some operators waste so much time and energy worrying that their competitors or existing employees might steal their recipes/concept.

Recipes don’t make restaurants great. Smart, compassionate and dedicated multi-taskers do... that’s what your time and energy should be focused on: collecting, improving and protecting them.

If someone copies your menu or concept and executes it a lot better than you do, then you’re a more of a “thinker” than a “restaurateur”...and you need to find people who can execute your vision to be the latter.

“You should consider that Imitation is the most acceptable part of Worship, and that the Gods had much rather Mankind should Resemble, than Flatter them.”

-Jeremy Collier and André Dacier | Emperor Marcus Antoninus His Conversation With Himself, 1708

Listen, if there’s one thing you can take away from this, it’s that there’s always going to be a newer place - or a place serving the same dish for a lower price - or a place with better food or more polished staff or more attractive staff or better music or better location or cheaper drinks or newer decor....You can look for excuses of why you’re losing all day long and focus on that stuff (and whether or not his daughter is “spoiled”) OR you can focus on yourself, your staff and your guests.

One focus just may endear you to clientele who decides to support your business - the other may very well negatively impact your employees’ and guests’ perception of you. And believe me- your business isn’t going to thrive if people perceive you as jealous, petty and defeatist. It sours the vibe you’re trying to sell regardless of the direction you vent these frustrations.

Don’t let people slinging cheaper drinks or better food in a bigger or sexier build-out distract you from what’s important.

The magic is in creating a unique and genuine brand of hospitality that is all your own.

That’s what people come back for.

Don’t get me wrong… the atmosphere, food, drinks and pricing are all of paramount importance and help create the sizzle but making people feel valued/important and making sure they’re enjoying themselves is the steak. If you can’t provide that, people will spend their time with someone else who does...and that goes for guests as well as employees.

Competition is good. No casino owner in Vegas ever complained about too many casinos on the strip. More competition breeds more traffic and more traffic means more business. Your new competition is going to exponentially increase your opportunity - and you didn’t have to pay a dime for it!

Don’t worry about the guy down the street. Wish him all the best and, as an old football coach (Coach Michael Rawlings) used to tell us “Don’t look at them! Let them waste their time watching and worrying about us. “.

I’m all for having at least one unique signature item (if not 3 or 4)and a refresh every 5-7yrs but if you are contemplating a complete menu/concept change because someone else is copying it - you may lack the confidence, strength and experience to execute it in the first place. In other words...what if you changed it to a tapas or seafood centric concept and then someone copied that menu a few weeks later? Are you going to reimagine your restaurant every few months?

On another note, If I wanted to do something “the best I could”, I’d make sure I had two things first: enough time and plenty of experience (i.e., time working for & learning from others who have already spent years of their lives and millions of dollars learning lessons that I might not be able to afford to learn on my own dime).

Do you have live-in help? Parent(s)? In-law(s), older kids? Someone to help with the baby??? How much time can you dedicate to this overwhelmingly demanding industry now that you have a newborn? I ask because it only gets more and more demanding from here - not less…especially if you don’t have the basics of a solid foundation dialed in.

If you’re in this business with no F&B background and seeking to fulfill someone else’s dream, this is going to be a hell of a lot harder than you can imagine and a lot less rewarding than it should be.

And if that’s the case…I’m going to tell you what some may not want to...because I’ve seen situations like yours play out more than a few times:

You should explore a few exit strategies if you haven’t already.

If you’re determined (and have enough capital) to stay the course, stick to your concept...or your Chef’s concept. Especially if it’s what you know the local market wants. And stick with your Chef if they’re a responsible and capable leader whose strengths/wheelhouse is in alignment with what your local market is demanding.

If you don’t have a GM or partner with significant experience in operations, I STRONGLY advise getting one onboard ASAP. If you do have one - bring them in on the conversations and trust their judgement.

Best of Luck,

Josh