My heart is a bit heavy this morning. This past Saturday, a one time client of mine, Country Gardens Restaurant, in Parkesburg, PA, celebrated its 25th anniversary by serving its last meal and closing its doors. I want to tell you a little bit about the restaurant, owned by my friends Mike and Deb Fisher, and what I witnessed online over the past few weeks ever since they announced the closing of the place.
First, a little background. I met Mike and Deb last year through their three kids: Brandon, Aftan, and Lauren, all of whom I had met as part of our local social media/Twitter community. Their kids, all in their 20′s and early 30′s, are pretty amazing, and live pretty close to me. They are a lot of fun to hang out with and they are kinda like family. Last year they told their parents to talk to me about helping out with their online marketing efforts. In a world of chains and larger independent restaurants, Country Gardens was struggling. It had a small, but loyal clientele who were like family to Mike and Deb. When I spoke to them, they were seeking to make the restaurant more profitable in order to make it more attractive to potential buyers. If you know anything about restaurants, you’ll understand that they require a lot of work for a very small profit margin, and the Fishers wanted to sell.
I worked with them for a short while, but sadly we couldn’t do a lot due to limited resources, something with which any small business operator is familiar. This was compounded by the fact that their existing clientele was of a demographic that didn’t spend much time online, and wasn’t very familiar with social media. They knew they had to attract a younger crowd, but time wasn’t on their side.
Now let me show you an image of their Facebook insights, and tell you the most important part of this story.
Anyone involved in using Facebook to promote their business would love to see that huge spike in reach and engagement that began on January 24th and grew from there Right? Except that spike you see began the moment they announced to their fans that they would be closing their doors for good. People commented. People posted. People shared their stories. And the engagement (and even the number of fans on the page) grew with each additional update from the Fishers. And it is this graph that caught my eye and which became the impetus for this post.
Now, here is where I admit a bit of selfishness. In my head there were times I got a little angry. I would ask, “Where were these people six months ago??” I kept thinking that if people had shown this kind of interest in the restaurant before, it wouldn’t have to shut down. But as I read on, I felt ashamed for those thoughts. And I want to be upfront that those were my thoughts, not those of the Fishers.
Long story short, the restaurant is now closed. Mike and Debbie told me:
Lots of memories have been brought to our minds again by the folks we have impacted over the years. We have been extremely busy. We’ve broken all sales records. Even considering gift card redemption. (Some of them 6 years old). Those redeeming them said they are really going to miss us.
Since announcing they were closing they experienced record engagement and reach on Facebook, and record sales. What a way to go out! But I hear that, and I look at the insights, and I think, what more could we have done? What more could I have done? Was there a chance of turning it around?
But here’s the cool thing: that’s not what is most important to Mike and Deb. As I have chatted with them on and off recently, there has been no mention of numbers. No mention of regrets. No mention of what they could have done differently.
As I listen to them, two words keep coming up: family and relationships. You see, for the Fishers, Country Gardens wasn’t about numbers. Oh, sure they would have liked to have seen it become more profitable, after all we all want to make money. But it was really about people; and more importantly, people that they consider family. Customers who came weekly (and some daily) and were going to miss the routine. And I would bet that what the customers are going to miss most about their regular visits to Country Gardens isn’t necessarily going to be the food, though I have to say, the food was incredible. But what they will miss most is the community, the family, the friendship. They know what matters most.
And that’s the other cool thing: while the business may be gone, those friendships, relationships, and memories will remain. If you get a chance, head on over to their Facebook page and read some of the stories and photos that were shared. Take note of how the Fisher’s three kids were a part of the conversation, even though they are all “grown” and have jobs and lives of their own. They are still very much a part of the Country Gardens family and story, as are all of the customers.
Yes, numbers are important, but I think that the Fishers would argue that the relationships were even more important, even as they say goodbye to a business and an important chapter in their lives.
For the Fishers, the story isn’t over. It’s just time to turn the page to the next chapter, which is sure to exciting.
Oh, and you might remember from the title of this post that I called it, “A Tale of Two Restaurants.” While this was unfolding online and offline, another restaurant was experiencing something very different. Applebees, which has two locations within about twenty minutes of Country Gardens, experienced a social meltdown of epic proportions, and seemingly didn’t know how to respond. They now have a PR crisis on their hands, but they are big, and they will survive. People will still eat there, and they will continue to make a nice profit.
If you ask me, I think, the Fishers had it right. I also think the economic climate and socio-economic and geographical factors would have made it difficult for them to turn things around and compete, without significantly changing themselves and the core values of their business. They had a great product and great customer service, but sometimes that just isn’t enough. I would also bet that the situation that happened at Applebees would never have happened at Country Gardens.
“We don’t need more stuff, we need more humanity.”
And the Fishers were all about humanity. When you look at that analytics graph at the top, you’ll see a spike in numbers. But it’s a spike in numbers that represents people. It represents humanity, relationships, and family. It represents a story.
Mike saw this in what happened over the past few weeks as people came, early and often, and spent their money:
“Many of our latest group of regular customers were really emotional about us closing. Many came to eat and socialize with the staff and the other regulars, who would come at the same time each day. If they had another activity going on, they would let our staff, as well as the other customers, know what they would be doing and when they would be back. Tight bonds were developed over time.”
I’ve eaten at Applebees. I don’t remember what I ate there, but I’m sure I enjoyed it; I’m sure it was a decent meal. But I’ve also eaten at Country Gardens. I’ve had great meals there, most of which I’ll also not remember. But what I will remember are the people. I am blessed to know people like Mike and Deb Fisher. I cherish the friendships I have with their three amazing kids: Brandon, Aftan, and Lauren. And I’m a better person because of them.
Applebees? Not so much.
I will continue to support small, independently owned family businesses whenever I can. I will also go out of my way to let them know I appreciate and support them. I will reward them for their humanity by spending my money with them, in hopes that they will be sustainable and profitable.
How about you? What small businesses are you supporting? Take the time to let them know you’re in their corner.
- The Danger of Silencing Your Enthusiastic Crowd (inklingmedia.net)
- Best of 2012: How One Small Business Turned Lemons into Marketing Lemonade (inklingmedia.net)
- Social Customer Service, Ruby Tuesday And Five Tips (soulati.com)
- 4 Customer Service Trends for 2013 (customersthatstick.com)
- Best of 2012: The Three Things Marketers Keep Forgetting About Facebook (inklingmedia.net)