Bring On The Salsa

I was going out to lunch with a co-worker a couple of weeks ago, traveling to that area of the city where all the chain restaurants seem to land and compete against each other in a lunch rush death match.

Anyway, there on the left was the skeletal remains of a Chi Chi’s Mexican restaurant. Seeing it there made me blurt out: “Man, what the heck ever happened to that chain? That would make an interesting case study in how to run a business into the ground.”

Well, I suppose it would, but frankly, I was a fairly keen observer to the demise of this chain that dominated the mid-1980s to a degree equal to Outback Steakhouse and Chili’s today.

High school friends that moved to the West Coast for college called home and told us about the marvels of Mexican fare back then, so when Chi Chi’s came to town, it made quite a splash. 

Chips and salsa to start the meal? Cool. Spicy, cheesy, tasty stuff we hadn’t experienced before. Margaritaville. Happy Birthday sung at the table. My wife-to-be was hooked, so we were there about every other weekend.

They brought a lot of value to the table, including well-trained and upbeat servers. It was great for quite a while. But then, something happened.

I can remember the meal like it was yesterday. The hostess was not so upbeat. The chips came, and they were obviously from a different (and frankly inferior) source. The chip basket was smaller. And instead of bringing out both hot and mild salsa, they asked us to choose, and brought only one kind.

I looked up and caught my gal’s gaze. She said: “What’s going on? It’s all different.” I said: “Hon, it feels like some managers got hold of the place and they’re trying to cut costs.”

I don’t generally have the guts to ask stuff like this, but I couldn’t resist asking our waitress about it.

“Sorry, sir, they changed our instructions on serving guests.” 

“But we liked it the way it was!”

“Sorry, sir.”

Clearly she was exasperated, and it was likely not the first time she heard it. We paid for the meal, left, and never again returned to a place we considered special to us.

I’m sure there was a rational business reason for doing what they did. Profits, minimizing waste, efficiency … very practical, measurable reasons. But businesses built on the personal experience are anything but practical.

In many ways, seed selling is an impractical business, too. It takes year-round commitment. It takes getting out with the growers, in the combines, scouting the fields; testing, talking, sharing the experience of growing, harvesting, measuring, learning, and analyzing well before a sale is complete. Without that commitment, seed selling can never become what it must for the full-service retailer ­— a pillar of profitability.

In the cover story, I included an interview with a farmer-seedsman to bring home the importance of dedication to seed. As a full-service retailer with multiple inputs to deliver, it may not be a business model you can emulate. But it does show the level of commitment possible with a high degree of focus and unquestionably strong service.

To get growers, and to keep them coming back, your service must be excellent and consistent. In other words, keep the salsa coming …

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