Monday, November 10, 2008

Fair Business in an Unfair World

I hate it when being a small business owner presents me with moral dilemmas that I have neither the desire nor the capacity to confront.

I recently made the decision to split my grocery order in half and receive two small deliveries a week rather than one large delivery once a week. This works much better for us all around, in terms of making the best use of my limited storage capacities; plus, it controls labor dollars by keeping me from having to bring on an additional staff member just to help put the stock away. My supplier requires a $500 minimum per delivery, and since we are (finally) able to meet that requirement with bi-weekly deliveries, this looked like a no-brainer to me.

But, of course, it can’t be that simple, can it?

Ever since my old grocery company made the misstep that forced me to make the change to a new supplier, I have been very vocal with my new sales rep about how difficult it has been, as a small business in a small town, to get any service from any supplier, much less decent service. Every time I see this poor guy, I beat him up about prices and products I can’t get, just because I’m a small independent restaurateur. The whole system is skewed to favor huge, multi-unit operations. He knows it and I know it. And he knows I know it, and I’m not going to let him forget it.

This supplier’s entire pricing system is based on volume: The more you order, the lower your prices. For instance, if I buy an average of $4000 per month, my price on a case of widget sauce will be $X. If my average purchases are $5000 per month, my price on that same case of sauce will be 95% of $X. If I should be so stupid as to ask them to split that case of widget sauce for me, I will pay 25% more per unit. And, I have discovered, there are products out there that they literally will not sell me because some big chain restaurant has “confined” the stock. If this doesn’t look like a conscious, deliberate effort to put the little guys out of business, I don’t know what it is.

So, poor Mr. Sales Rep has had to sit across the table from me, twice a week for the past four months, and listen to me gripe about the system. He has tried and tried to assure me that The Company values my business, and that my puny little account is as important to them as any other. I want to believe him, but the evidence proves otherwise. In fact, last Monday he showed me something that put another nail in that particular coffin…which happens to be the “moral dilemma” I am trying to deal with now.

When I finished reading him my order last week, Mr. Sales Rep spent a few moments tickety-ticking on his laptop, then he turned the thing around so I could see the screen. It showed the total cost of my order, the total profit margin on my order, and my salesman’s total commission on my order. The cost of the order met the $500 minimum. The profit number I was not particularly interested in, but my sales rep’s commission was ZERO. Zero. He did not make one dime on my $500 food order, and he spent at least an hour just sitting there with me, not to mention the gas it took to get here and etc.

It seems the profit on any given order has to be a minimum of $60 before a salesman can collect commission. And apparently, that $500 minimum order does not necessarily guarantee a $60 profit for the company. So, if I place my orders in the way that makes the most sense for me—dividing it into two smaller orders instead of one big one—my sales rep makes NO MONEY on my account. How very motivational! Tell me that he is going to be just as solicitous of my business as he is of a larger account when he makes no money from me.

What the hell kind of a way is this to do business? Why is business so skewed toward the negative nowadays? Time was when sales people were compensated for any sales—maybe not very much, but if they brought in a dollar for the company, they made something on it. If they were very good, very successful sales people, they would receive bonuses for increasing sales or making large sales. They could make a good living for being good at what they did. In this day and age, however, if you bust your ass and over-achieve, you might be able to make ends meet as a commission sales person.

Why do big companies believe that the only way they can make money is to rip off their employees? The executives and the stockholders get the best of the spoils. The leftovers are thrown to the employees—those people upon whose backs the money is brought in—as if they were the dogs under the banquet table. And if there are no leftovers, the employees get shafted.

So here I am now, looking at one of the few companies willing to do business with a small restaurant in a small town…and their stupid, avaricious business policies just make me sick. I SO want to tell them to go to hell; that I won’t do business with a company that can’t even pay their sales people a fair wage. Of course, I don’t see how I can possibly do that, since there doesn’t seem to be a company available to me that does compensate their sales people fairly. But I’m not entirely okay with simply ignoring the situation. No, I’m not responsible for that company’s crappy compensation package. But I can’t help feeling that as long as we all acquiesce to the daily rip-offs of big businesses, they are not going to go away. And this doesn’t even address the havoc their policies can wreak on ME as a small business owner.

Sometimes I wish I could just keep my head down and NOT think about the more global nature of the things I do every day, or even about how the way I conduct my business affects the other members of the small community of folks that inhabit my immediate world. I wish that I could just worry about getting myself through every day, and let everybody else take care of themselves. Unfortunately, I just don’t work that way. And it’s kind of a pain in the ass...

Monday, November 3, 2008

Cafe Ramble

Ahhhh…the time change! I can’t say I’m going to love that it will be getting dark at 5:00, but I think I hate getting up in the dark more than just about anything. I want it to be day when I roll out of bed, thank you very much. At least light enough to see my hand in front of my face, anyway. Of course, I went to bed at 9:00 last night, and by 5:30 I was done sleeping. My body is still on daylight savings time, evidently. So I have a couple of minutes to fire off a little post.

I’d like to say that things are perfect at the café, but the place is like a game of “Whack-a-mole.” I whack one issue back into its hole, and another one pokes its head up somewhere else and sticks its tongue out at me. While my employee issues seem to have smoothed out for the time being, now I’m having fits with my vendors. I had to switch grocery companies in August, and that was a nightmare. We’re finally getting to where I’ve found my footing with that situation, and my wine supplier bugs out on me.

I have to wonder whatever happened to the concept of customer service, particularly when it comes to restaurant suppliers. As a small restaurant in a small town, I have come to expect terrible service, or no service at all, from any vendor with whom I try to do business. You would think we were located somewhere in the godforsaken wilderness, rather than on the northern fringe of the largest population area in the state. The vendors who do condescend to deliver to this area act like they are doing us the biggest favor in the world to even consider taking us on as customers.

But maybe that’s the problem. There are plenty of customers to be had in the Portland metro area proper. Vendors don’t need to come “all the way out here” to get business. Why waste the fuel? So while Portland restaurateurs can choose from a half dozen specialty bakeries that will bring marvelous artisan breads right to their back doors every morning, I am stuck with Giant National Bakery’s five varieties of “marshmallow” bread. And have a hard time even getting that.

And then there’s the concept of fresh produce. When I sit down at a higher-end restaurant in Portland and read how “fresh local produce” is featured on today’s menu, I have to laugh (with a wistful tear in my eye.) I have not yet figured out where that commodity is to be had, and I’m pretty sure that if I did find out who provided it, they would not bring it to me. Personally, I’m beginning to think that the produce used even in the upscale restaurants in Portland is no more local or fresh than the stuff I can get my hands on; or if it is fresh and local, it’s a large part of why meals at such places are $30 a plate.

My latest run-in was with my wine vendor. I have been doing business with a little wine supplier out of Northwest Portland. I inherited the account from the previous owner of the restaurant; this particular supplier has provided wines for Old Town Café since the grand opening 3 ½ years ago. The service has always been a little…shall we say, lax, but the salesman was personable enough, and the company didn’t hold me to a minimum purchase. This was important, because we’ve only recently built our dinner business to a point where we sell more than one or two bottles of wine a month.

So my routine has been that I call my sales rep when I need wine, leave my order on his machine, and he shows up with it in a couple of days. Last week, however, when my wine did NOT show up when it was supposed to, I had to open an investigation. Several calls into layers of automated phone system hell finally put me in touch with a live human voice, which told me my wine vendor had been sold, and New Wine Company had taken over all accounts.

I had never heard of New Wine Company. And my wine rep had not so much as whispered that a sale was in the works. And New Wine Company had evidently not heard of me, because old wine rep was doing an intentionally poor job of communicating with everyone involved. Long story short, it took more than two weeks (rather than the expected two days) for me to get wine in the place; and, in fact, last Monday I had to make the thirty-mile drive out to one of the closer wineries in the area to get my own damn wine. (Which wasn’t really a hardship. It was a beautiful drive, the weather was gorgeous, and I got the wine cheaper than I would have from the dealer anyway.)

Now that I am a full-blown business owner, I find I am swiftly being healed of my chronic phone-o-phobia, and I have no qualms about demanding what I want. If I need something, I’ll get on the phone and track it down. And if I get frustrated with poor customer service, I am not shy about letting whoever is on the other end of the phone have it with both barrels. I had to growl and bare my teeth all the way through the process of switching our phone service to digital voice. I’ve “squeaky wheeled” my way through this process of changing grocery vendors. And I blasted Mr. New Wine Company rep when he finally did get in touch with me last Friday. I’m afraid I’m getting somewhat of a reputation as a…demanding customer. I want what I want, and I’m not going to settle for less. I’m sorry I can’t be Ms. Sweetness and Light, but I’ve never been a schemer or a cajoler. I fully expect to be able to ask plainly for decent customer service, and get it. That is what I offer MY customers…I’d be out of business if I didn’t. And I expect no less from the people who call me “customer.”

Did I say this was going to ba a "little" post? Well, the sun is up now…and it’s time to get to it. Another day, another story…