Here's a varied perspective of or merely an addendum to “the customer is always right” adage.

When Letty’s Tavern, a new popular hotspot in historic Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, opened its doors in 2021 after a brutal year of planning starts and stops, many in the community were on board with the new-to-the-area concept. Some were not and just didn’t get it. The space was formerly a very different one and there was, and still is, a community learning curve. While the embracing serves as the majority, the only path it seemed to try and please everyone and capture the non-believers was several short-term initiatives at the expense of long-term brand damage—a price we were not, and still are not, simply willing to pay.

At a time where fear still reigns supreme in the hospitality sector, there are three tenets to which we will always adhere. We wanted to share them here with the hope this gives a twist to, a varied perspective of or merely an addendum to “the customer is always right” adage.

Realize and accept everyone will not get it. Lowering food cost enabling mammoth portions and widening by-the-glass wine options so there could be to-the-top-of-the-glass pours thus cheapening the overall wine list will never happen at Letty’s Tavern. Why? Because by catering to this small, fickle, bargaining demographic the intended customers, the repeat customers will not return. In the experiential world we live in, we believe Letty’s is the sum of its parts and creates the experience and the vibe we as the owners wanted to give the community. Changing it doesn’t make us special anymore. It makes us short-sighted for a short-term cash grab.

Word of Mouth Isn’t the Only Tool Anymore That Makes or Breaks. Presentation permeates every single detail of our business. While listening to customers is important, sticking to the original concept is even more critical. If reviews are positive, that one negative doesn’t override the good. Having trouble with only negative reviews? Hire a marketing firm that pushes them down with SEO or great editorial reviews combined with killer imagery on Instagram. Understand they aren’t being silenced; rather modern-day tools to encourage the word of mouth without begging for positive reviews that nobody writes anyway are being utilized. And let’s face it, people only take the time to press buttons to complain. However, what DOES happen are those who have an unsurpassed, memorable, universal experience will have NO problem telling their friends in passing “this place was awesome because the food was great, and the atmosphere was fun.”

A Bit of Compromise Couldn’t Hurt. Will we change our name? No. But maybe we will have a great Happy Hour. Are we going to change the menu to offer non-seasonal items from bags delivered by Sysco or stop making everything by hand? Negative. But we may feature one item that requires more work, but lower food cost so we can offer ONE dish with a larger-than-life portion. Are we going to change our entire wine list? No. What might happen is one or two additional wines by the glass may be snuck into the offerings, but we still won’t give giant pours. If the devil is in the details, maybe these will go noticed as opposed to unnoticed and attract the non-believers while still accommodating those who continually come back and love us.

And still, maybe they won’t at all. Yet at least we can provide the common ground between valid solutions and fully listening to a small set of customers. We as restaurateurs showcase that we try, listen to and hear the haters, the trolls, and the people who continue to wield their negative power through the dying Yelp platform in quasi-anonymity.

I’m all for constructive criticism, but will end with this tasty morsel as food for serious thought: How many owner operators in this industry can claim the success story of keeping their loyal base against selling themselves out and changing who they are just to win over these people who really go out on average once a month? I say let those people go to an Applebee’s with some Trader Joe’s wine tucked in their purse. We’ll just keep giving all we can to a community that mostly wants and loves us and know we can’t please everyone on every issue every minute of every day.

Jacob Short is the director of Operations at 4AM Hospitality Group.

Expert Takes, Feature