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Thousands of restaurants close: Are you ready to sell the inventory?

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Over 5,000 restaurants across the United States closed their doors in the past 12 months. Most of them were independents, not chains. After you get over mourning the demise of your favorite Friday night spot, thoughts turn to how are we going to sell these properties?

The statistics from this week’s news shouldn’t surprise anyone. Early on in the recession Americans started cutting back on their dining out. Some cut out restaurant meals completely to save money. Those those who still ate out regularly moved to less expensive joints. Fine dining became a luxury for most Americans the past few years.

Restaurants cut expenses and adapted to the new economy (blue plate specials and coupons), utilized creative marketing techniques (Facebook and Groupon) or hung on for dear life.

Now it seems like in 2009-2010 that line snapped. With no more ways to cut costs and record level unemployment numbers thinning their dining crowds to a trickle, many independent restauranteurs threw in the towel.

In my area, there’s one restaurant that has changed hands three times in the past four years. Driving by today it looked dark at lunchtime, and someone commented to me that the location must be the kiss of death if it’s closed again.

(Question: are some locations truly jinxed or just so poor nothing could succeed there? This particular location is the middle of a small strip mall with frontage on a very busy road. It’s got easy access and visibility. What gives? Just three owners in a row who don’t know what they’re doing? Or something more?)

How do you sell this thing?

If you’re a real estate broker and you list a closed restaurant, what’s the best way to sell or market it? Obviously the best and easiest solution is to find another restauranteur (or chef who always wanted to own his own place — see prior paragraph for that downside). If the kitchen and equipment are in good working order, perhaps you can find someone who just wants to step into the prior owner’s shoes and turn the business around. That’s your dream deal.

If leased equipment has been returned and the place is a mess, one solution is to clean it out and perhaps even gut it. Make it a plain vanilla shell so that any business could see themselves there, not just as a restaurant. If it’s got a good location, plenty of parking, what else could use the building? What is the location best suited for?

Survey the neighborhood

What is missing in the neighborhood? Do a survey of local businesses and see where the gaps are. Ask people what they’d like to see in the spot. What kind of retail or services are out of the area, that they have to drive to find? What do locals wish was there?

I had a closed restaurant property with a large vacant lot that was next to a retirement development. The building itself probably should be torn down, so I was marketing a location really. Locals had to drive several miles to go food shopping. I was convinced a small grocer should move in and would make it there. There was no grocery store for miles!

Unfortunately, the large chains decided that the demographics would not support their stores. And the smaller local chains I approached were struggling themselves, and not in expansion mode. I couldn’t sell a single grocery store on the idea.

I surveyed the residents of the retirement community and found they wanted a dollar store, a crafts store, and a pharmacy. I tried approaching these kinds of developers and I got a dollar store interested. Unfortunately they didn’t want my lot and built a dollar store next door on a lot another broker had listed! It was a good idea, but didn’t sell my property.

Selling a closed restaurant is not easy, especially with financing these days. Even when you find a buyer, if it’s another entrepreneur who wants to open a restaurant, it’s going to be an uphill battle to get him to the closing table.

If the seller can handle the risk, perhaps the only way for the buyer to take over would be with seller financing — part of the deal or even the whole transaction. That only works if he isn’t so far into debt that that he’s underwater.

It’s certainly a challenge, but many real estate brokers in 2010 and 2011 had better learn how to handle these kinds of properties. There’s going to be more of them coming on the market in the immediate future.

Flickr image courtesy lindsayloveshermac

Erica Ramus is the Broker/Owner of Ramus Realty Group in Pottsville, PA. She also teaches real estate licensing courses at Penn State Schuylkill and is extremely active in her community, especially the Rotary Club of Pottsville and the Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce. Her background is writing, marketing and publishing, and she is the founder of Schuylkill Living Magazine, the area's regional publication. She lives near Pottsville with her husband and two teenage sons, and an occasional exchange student passing thru who needs a place to stay.

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17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Joe Loomer

    July 30, 2010 at 7:20 am

    There is a location in my town that has also had three separate owners in recent years, and just acquired it’s fourth. All restaraunts, all failed. One – The Upper Crust – was a fantastic pizza joint that was consistently the “Choice of the Town” in the local paper. I think it’s a combination of business sense and the things you state. If the traffic count isn’t there, if people can’t even see your store or park easily, you’re toast.

    In another area – a national franchise shut down, only to be gobbled up and re-opened as a sports-pub. It is doing extremely well.

    Navy Chief, Navy Pride

    • Erica Ramus

      July 30, 2010 at 6:00 pm

      Joe–I confirmed it today. Owner #3 has shut down in that location. What a shame.

  2. BawldGuy

    July 30, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Erica, I don’t envy you a bit. Been there, done that with residential income property, in previous bad times. What outsiders think is ‘creative’ doesn’t make the ‘A’ list of the real creativity pros like you generate.

    We’ve all had those ‘D’oh! Why didn’t I think of that?’ moments when a situation such as yours is suddenly and spectacularly turned around by a new tenant/business. A recent example in my neighborhood was a vacant, failed Taco Bell. It’d been vacant for literally over two years. In my opinion it was the location, as it was in the middle of a street with decent traffic, but if you were on the wrong side, you had to hang a u-turn and come back. So what do ya think has finally replaced Taco Bell and is doing incredibly well?

    A taco shop! But a typical San Diego taco shop, which means just about everything they make is wicked good. In other words, the anti-Taco Bell. It’s been almost six months now, and it’s still ‘the’ neighborhood taco shop destination. Who knew?

    • Erica Ramus

      July 30, 2010 at 6:02 pm

      That just shows that people WILL go out of their way for wicked good food, or service, or whatever you produce. If it’s a tough destination, make it worth their while!

  3. Property Marbella

    July 31, 2010 at 12:10 am

    In finances crisis are bars and restaurants the first who close down. Over here in Spain is the situation the same, your local favourite is one day gone and a new one try with a “new” concept and 3-4 months later a new one…

  4. mike

    July 31, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I miss Pizzaria Uno.

  5. Beth Anne Grib

    August 5, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    I don’t know of any lender who wants to get within reach of a buyer trying to buy a restaurant. This is one of the toughest commodities to sell right now because the lenders know that restaurants are going under and having a tough time of it and they are either not permitted to take that risk due to stringent regulations or just simply refuse to do so. We have contacted almost 200 retailers within the last 6 months for new market areas and they all say …”Call back in 6 months”. Everyone’s waiting for that evading “light at the end of the #CRE tunnel”

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Business Entrepreneur

If you’re easily distracted, you’re more likely to thrive as an entrepreneur

(ENTREPRENEUR) If monotony and boredom at work- well bores you, it’s possible you may fit with the other entrepreneurs with a quick and constantly changing career.

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When Bill Gates was a kid, he knew he liked messing around with code. He couldn’t have known how it might evolve, but he was willing to live in the distraction, focusing on details when needed, but always learning, moving on, taking risks and growing in the process.

Some of the most successful folks among us are not content to sit and make widgets every day. They cannot thrive in a detail and focused work environment. So, it may come as no surprise to know that people who are more easily distracted are also more likely to thrive as entrepreneurs.

According to this study, if you are intelligent and get distracted more easily, those two qualities combined will likely enhance your creativity. And, that creativity and ability to use distraction as an advantage can be channeled to create new things, jobs, companies, etc.

For those of us who are more easily distracted, who enjoy doing different things every day, and who like learning, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests a good option is to find a career path that provides the right amount of distraction and which is a great fit for your personality. If you do that your talent is more likely to be apparent because you are playing to your strengths. Also, if you are working in your sweet spot you will be more productive and motivated.

Maybe not surprisingly, the top job for those who live in distraction is entrepreneur. The term “easily distracted” often comes with a negative connotation, but considering an entrepreneur is taking risks, making things happen and creating companies, ideas, products that may have never existed, this spins that idea on its head. Entrepreneurs are the chief cooks and bottle washers of the world. They ideate, create, hire and inspire. None of that is possible in a monotonous work environment.

“Unsurprisingly, meta-analyses indicate that entrepreneurs tend to have higher levels of ‘openness to experience,’ so they differ from managers and leaders in that they are more curious, interested in variety and novelty, and are more prone to boredom — as well as less likely to tolerate routine and predictability,” according to the HBR story.

Other careers that are great fits for those of us (me included) who enjoy distraction are PR/Media Production, Journalism and Consultant. What these fields all have in common is, there is never a dull moment, switching from task to task is pretty commonplace, and you will do well if you can be a generalist – synthesizing information and weeding out the unnecessary.

Not sure where your strengths lie? Here’s a quick quiz to give you some feedback on how curious you really are.

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Business Entrepreneur

How can a small business beat a large competitor moving in next door?

(BUSINESS) How do you stand out when a big competitor moves to your neighborhood? Reddit has a few suggestions – some obvious, some not so much.

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Small businesses, especially restaurants have been hit hard by lockdowns. Many closed for good this year, and those that are still hanging on are in a precarious position as their local economies shift.

Last week, a user on r/smallbusiness asked a timeless question that is especially relevant right now. Reddit user longbottomjr writes: “We have a strong competitor moving in next door in a few months. Our restaurant is one that pays the bills but […] I feel that if this new competitor takes up enough market share we will lose our restaurant. Can anyone chime in with resources/ideas I can use to help put together our plan of action?”

Comments quickly pointed out what common sense would dictate.

First, ensure the basics are covered. Being clean, quick, friendly, and high quality will take you far, no matter what competition you’re up against. And as u/horsemullet said, “Customer service also happens before someone walks through the door!” So make sure that your online hours, contact info, menus and social media accounts are up to date and accurate.

Another point emerged that is less intuitive: Competing businesses will naturally gravitate towards similar locations. This is a well-established phenomenon known within game theory as Nash’s Equilibrium. In the restaurant industry, this is actually a good thing. It brings entirely new customers to the area and ultimately benefits all the other nearby businesses, too.

Take advantage of the attention by offering something other spots don’t, like loyalty rewards, specials, unique offerings, or meal deals.

Speaking of the area, a great way to stand out from larger competitors is to build relationships with the community you serve, as u/sugarface2134 emphasized. “In my city there are two Italian restaurants in the same location – just across the parking lot from each other. We always pick the smaller one because the owner truly makes you feel like a member of the family.”

That’s an advantage of being a small, local business that all the money in the world couldn’t buy. Get to know your customers personally and you will not only create loyal regulars, but friends as well.

One of the top rated responses, from u/seefooddiet2200, made an often overlooked but critically important point.

“Talk to your staff and see if they have any ideas. These are the people that are working every single day and may know one or two ‘annoying’ things that if they were switched would make things easier. Or maybe they see that there’s specific things people ask for that you don’t serve. Every single [one] of your employees is a gold mine of insight, you just need to be open to listening to them.”

That is applicable to any business owner who wants to improve their practices.

Ask employees what they think, especially the ones who have stuck around a long time. Not only do they know the ins-and-outs of their jobs, but this builds rapport and trust with your staff. A good boss realizes that employees are more than their job descriptions. They have valuable thoughts about what’s working and not working, and direct access to customer’s opinions.

Good luck, u/longbottomjr! We’ll be rooting for you.

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Business Entrepreneur

How a newly funded coffee delivery startup is thriving during COVID

(REAL ESTATE MARKETING) Seattle’s Joe Coffee finds successful funding in hyper specific clientele and operations even mid-pandemic. But how did they do it?

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Amidst a pandemic, you might not expect a small company with limited clientele to thrive. Yet, Joe Coffee, a Seattle-based delivery service, is doing just that.

Joe Coffee, an aptly named coffee runner, has received millions in funding, a large chunk of which was raised mid-pandemic. Their mission is simple: to bring coffee from smaller shops to local consumers, especially without endangering either party.

There’s a lot to be said about Joe Coffee’s valuation and mission, but what’s more intriguing is their unlikely success.

A food delivery service that focuses on coffee may not seem that niche, but when you look at Joe Coffee’s determination to stick to the Seattle area, coupled with its staunch resolve for frequenting smaller shops (e.g., not Starbucks), the service begins to look pretty specific–and, in an economy that honors sweeping solutions, this is a welcome change of pace.

The way their service works is fairly simple: Joe Coffee provides shops with signs and information on how to order through the Joe network, then consumers are able to download and order through a mobile app on all of the usual platforms. Joe Coffee takes a nine percent cut of the order total, credit card fees included.

In return, customers are able to order from their favorite, local, non-chain coffee shops, both supporting them and sustaining their caffeine addiction at a time where alertness is paramount and grouchiness is all too common.

What’s truly interesting about Joe Coffee’s example is that it demonstrates an availability for small services with extreme specificity in terms of operating capacity. By sticking to unique businesses in a relatively small metropolitan area (as opposed to, say, multiple cities), the service is more likely to be successful in execution and delivery, thereby solidifying its relevance to both consumers and businesses alike.

And, by playing into the need for curbside pickup or home delivery these days, Joe Coffee only furthers the perception that its service is necessary.

If the country begins to reopen–whenever that happens–it will be no surprise to see Joe Coffee maintain a relationship between consumers and smaller businesses in the Seattle area. For anyone offering a similarly niche service, this is a perfect example of a company to which you should pay attention.

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