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Requiem for a Fallen Business

Have you ever gone back to a place—a store or a restaurant—after some time only to find that it has changed and not for the better? It could be the service, perhaps the product or even just the ambiance of the place. Whatever it is, by the time you walk out you know that you will never go back again.

I had that experience this weekend. I took the family to a suburban pizza place that my wife and I used to frequent in the days gone by. The restaurant had been a fixture in this community for decades, starting out as a little Mom and Pop place and growing steadily on the trade of the local college students and then local and even regional customers long before my wife and I began to go there. Back then, the place was great, winning awards and filling—on a nightly basis—the deep booths and tables that dominated its cavernous dining room. More than that, it was a clean, affordable family place and the laughter and chatter of children only added to the atmosphere.

But that was years ago. As the family grew, I pursued opportunities in other areas of the country, only returning late last year. I hadn’t been back to this place for nearly a decade, not until last weekend. On the drive up, my wife and I talked about the last time we’d been there, when our oldest was four, and how great it had been. It was, if anything, a nostalgic conversation, but that is to be expected. Time has a way of adding a layer of nostalgia to things, places and people; that is true, but even the most softly-focused nostalgia allows you to hang on to at least a kernel of truth. In other words, you don’t lose sight of what made you remember the thing in the first place. It is the basis of the expectations you walk in with when you return.

The six of us walked into an empty restaurant. Given the hour, the place should have been packed but we had it all to ourselves: A red flag. The dining room was also considerably smaller: Another red flag. The upstairs private dining rooms were still there, but a dining room that had once taken up half of this building’s ground floor was not even half that size anymore. The various awards were still on the wall and while my wife got the kids settled at a table—no more booths—I had a look at them. There was nothing recent. I remember a time when a year would not go by without some new plaque going up on the wall. Now, nothing had been added for years.

I will save you the agony of describing the next forty minutes waiting for our food, the sad portion of over-priced garlic bread and the realization that we should have walked out and gone somewhere else. It was the hope that the pizza would still follow its original recipe that kept us there in spite of the fact that the place was now anything but kid friendly. Our hopes for that were dashed when we discovered that like everything else, the food had changed as well. Perhaps not the recipe itself, but certainly the ingredients were no longer the same. The experience was summed up nicely by my daughter who exclaimed in that ringing, high-pitched tone that only an eight-year old girl can produce; a tone that cuts through everything and runs down your spine like ice, that she will “Never, ever, set foot in this horrible place again!” In that moment, I accepted the proposition that neither would I.

I told you that so I could tell you this: It was pretty obvious that this ill-starred pizzeria had changed hands. Everything from the art on the walls—what my daughter had to say about that would put Simon Cowell to shame—to the food on the table screamed new ownership. More than that, it screamed clueless new ownership and it got me thinking of other businesses that I had returned to since my arrival last year, places that had gone downhill during my absence from the area.

It isn’t something we often think about, but what will happen to your business if you decide to sell it, or you pass away and the business joins your couch and cufflinks as part of your estate? Think about it for a moment. You start a business, you have an idea of what customer service should be, you have the drive and know-how to create the very best experience you can for your customers because you know what kind of experience you want to have when you walk in to a business. You make your business the best and always look for ways to improve. These are the things that win awards, fill tables or aisles. There is no magic formula here: Treat your customers better than you wish to be treated and give them the best products and services at the best prices you can.

What a pity that you can’t run it forever. The next generation of owners may not share your customer-centric point of view. They may, in fact, prefer to follow more of a Wal-Mart model. Well, more of a semi-Wal-Mart model since while the operating costs are slashed to nothing, real customer service evaporates like steam and the overall customer experience makes you nostalgic for the greasy spoon down the street, the prices will not drop accordingly. Eventually, word gets around and the customer base dwindles. Before you know it, you are selling the fixtures.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If you are going to purchase an existing business, you not only have a proven money machine, you have a platform to take that business to new heights, the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of those who came before you and really make your own mark in the world. This is how small businesses last from decade to decade, generation to generation. Isn’t that better than squeezing every last penny you can out of the place before busting it out? If you are going to sell, remember all the work and money and love you invested in your business. Sure, you may be selling it, but do you really want to throw all that away or do you want to see it continue to grow and flourish?

Maybe it is time that small business owners think of themselves as founders and empire builders while those who take over their businesses look at themselves as heirs responsible for maintaining the empire and expanding it.

Then maybe, just maybe, great pizza can survive from one generation to the next.