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Why your business will probably commit suicide one day

One of my favourite Nairobi restaurants just closed down. Given the paucity of people willing to make and serve food to a consistently excellent standard in these parts, I don’t have many favourites. In fact, I don’t need more than the fingers of one hand to count them. So losing even one of them is a big deal.

I won’t name the restaurant that closed. I don’t wish to personalise the matter; just to draw out and share some wider lessons from it. For this is no isolated incident: it is regular tale, repeated often.

The story usually goes like this: an unusually good eatery opens with a bang. The owner seems to have a very clear vision of the cuisine to be served and the style with which it is to be done. It has a focused menu of just a few dishes, not the mismatched mishmash of me-too fare so many try to offer. It has a colour-themed, tastefully done interior. An experienced and passionate chef has been brought in to design and deliver the menu. The staff are energetic and attentive.

It all just works, in other words. Word spreads and the place begins filling up. It becomes a favourite for the Nairobians who know good food when they encounter it.

But, disturbingly often, the warning signs will begin to appear. The fittings will start to look worn, and no one will seem concerned. The waiting staff will change often, and the newcomers will look like they’d rather be doing something else with their lives. Most damningly, the dishes will begin to deteriorate. They will now look slapdash on the plate and that magical taste will become elusive. Many dishes will often not be available, for no apparent reason. The original chef will have left without leaving any legacy, and will usually not be replaced as juniors are asked to step up. The restaurant owner will now have more pressing business interests.

And then it’s gone.

What’s the big deal, you might ask? Businesses close all the time – it’s part of the game. The restaurant industry in particular is notoriously unstable. Most people who open restaurants end up closing them, too.

But wait. I’m angry because many places I’ve seen in recent years have done all the hard work. They come up with a concept that works and draws patrons. They get the most important ingredient – the food – right. They turn out consistently excellent fare. They even get the people side working, with a crew of highly motivated servers carrying the day, day after day.

Having got their show on the road so well, and having overcome the difficult bit, all these winning operations have left to do is: maintain, maintain, maintain. Keep the standard going. Clock in, clock out, start again. Stay in the groove. Don’t slip up. Focus.

And that, I’m afraid, is where too many of us tumble. We become lazy. A little bit of success spoils us. We lose focus. We stop trying as hard as we used to. We get tired of the task. Slowly but surely, the product degrades. And then, just as surely, it’s gone. All that hard work of conception and launch, lost in the unwillingness to execute consistently.

Listen up, people. There are no prizes for momentary excellence. You are either damn good or you’re not. Offering an outstanding meal one time is meaningless if it descends to mediocre the next time the customer visits. Offering warm smiles and great hospitality is pointless if it’s just for a week, or when the right people are on duty. You do it all the time, or not at all. You’re either all in together, or no one is.

That’s what excellence is. And that’s why it’s rare. It’s difficult.

Businessfolk are usually quick to blame external factors when things go wrong. They will tell you economic downturns or unforeseen changes or unfair competition were their undoing. Not so. In my lifelong observation, the problems begin right inside. There are manifold internal failures: of leadership; of standard-setting; of employee engagement and staff retention; of working-capital management; of rigorous routines; of creating a workplace to be proud of.

Statistical evidence bears this out. The death of a business is most often a case of suicide, not homicide.

And so, I have one finger of my hand free now for a great restaurant to lay claim to. But you’d better be very good, and you’d better be very good most the time.

(Sunday Nation, 5 February 2017)

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