Opening Day Julie Anns Crystal Lake
Back in 1985, My Grandparents, John and Mary on opening day for their place, Julie Ann’s.
Peter Wisniewski

By: Peter Wisniewski
March 2019

Originally posted at The Startup on Medium

5 lessons I learned from helping build my family’s restaurant brand

An insiders look at growth hacking, culture, social media, coupons, and menu design.

It was 1991 in the Milwaukee burbs. I was into The Cure, swimming, and bikes. At 12 years old, I thought I was pretty cool. Then our parents sat us down to tell us that we were moving to the Chicago burbs to take over my grandparents’ frozen custard restaurant called Julie Ann’s.

So long cool-kid. Welcome to the restaurant grind.

I call it the “grind” because when you are not cleaning tables and serving customers, you are working on menu items, doing payroll, hiring, staffing events, and making sure that everything will run smoothly for the evening rush.

You are literally working on the restaurant every single day with very few breaks. Family owned restaurants are like running a startup with your dad (wink).

Fast forward 28 years, as things come full circle, and we are ready for the next stage of our journey.

I am writing to share what has worked for us and elevate the conversation around restaurant marketing that is only reserved for franchises, chains, and restaurant groups.

Local Mashup Sundae
An early local mashup sundae with Ethereal ChocolatesSunshine in a Jar Preserves, and Foodshed Co-op.

Lesson #1: Grow or die, change or die.

While some restaurants can have the same menu for years and they seem to do all right, our restaurant needed to catch up with the zeitgeist of today. The business model and menu hadn’t really changed since the late 90’s.

We feel that if we are not growing monthly YOY sales, we are dying a slow death.

Therefore, we have methodically instituted a culture of change, collaboration, and an “all hands on deck” work ethic.

With a company that’s been going strong for over 30 years, change could not happen overnight.

In fact, in the beginning of our culture (and business) shift, we found that some long-time employees were resistant to change and tried to sabotage new ideas because they thought they were protecting the business.

Employees that are used to one way of doing things will often recruit other employees to the rumor-mill, making change even harder. The funny thing is that those who cannot embrace change (in a positive way) end up weeding themselves out. They feel steam-rolled and have to quit when they see that change is not stopping.

We fixed this with this through weekly group text messages. We let the employees know what we are working on and why. This helps them deal with the constant nature of change by giving them time to absorb what we are doing and mentally prepare for what is coming next.

Our March 2019 Monthly Flavor Calendar.

Lesson #2: Make menus (and pricing models) less permanent.

At Julie Ann’s, as with many frozen custard places, we make vanilla, chocolate, and 1 to 3 flavors of the day. Therefore, we setup a monthly calendar to plan out the flavors and specials for the entire month.

To be honest, this is a crazy endeavor that has taken us years to master. We bring back popular flavors, customer requests, and seasonal fruit and holiday style flavors. But, we always leave room to try about 5 new flavors to see what sticks.

When you have sophisticated offerings, you need menus that are made to be temporary. We have Monthly Daily Flavor Calendars and large chalk boards to showcase our sundaes, shakes, and concrete pricing. We print new menus every month and turnover the chalk boards yearly. This allows us to play with pricing models rather easily.

Many would argue that having a temporary, constantly changing menu makes it difficult for customers, but we find it adds a lot of value to our social media efforts. If we have new items, we make a post. A new flavor? We post it with the story behind it.

Customers love to be told what is new and amazing. They expect you to direct them to a purchase.

Benefits of our constantly changing menu:

  • It’s the single biggest source of organic social media growth
  • We create collaborative flavors and sundaes with local businesses and makers
  • We create seasonal “hits” that are limited time offerings (think fruit, flavors, and holidays)
  • We add contests and events into the mix to add excitement
  • When we update the inside menu, we can improve and simplify pricing models
  • We can react to the market without fear of alienating our customers
Julie Ann's Fourth of July Root Beer Float Float
We won first place for our Root Beer Float Float where we handed out thousands of fresh floats along with 3,000 free cone coupons. We went through 4 kegs of Sprecher Root Beer ON THE FLOAT. What a riot!

Lesson #3: We don’t discount. Period.

I get tons of calls from coupon books, Yelp, Groupon, you name it and my answer is now always the same. No thanks.

I would rather give away free cones to get people in the door or give free things in our reward program rather than discount. Here’s why:

  1. Building a premium product usually requires premium ingredients. If you reduce your margins too much, then you have to raise your prices, or eliminate staff, or use inferior ingredients. It’s a race to the bottom.
  2. Building an exceptional brand requires amazing customers who can appreciate the extra effort we put into our business. Discounting brings in those who are looking for a deal… and their friends. We have found these types may only come in if there is a coupon or discount involved.
  3. A proper brand experience requires money in the bank to design stuff, print stuff, and build stuff (like food trucks and more locations).
  4. Groupon, Yelp, and Coupon Book Salespeople do not know when to stop calling! They take things too far and become an utter annoyance. Give them an inch, they take a mile.

*Keep in mind, this lesson does not apply to the employee, military, senior, and discounts and fundraising opportunities that we offer.

Here’s a recent local collaboration with Aroma CoffeeThe Olive Tap, and Askinosie Chocolate.

Lesson #4: Social media is a collaborative team sport.

If you think that you can handle the daily grind of running a successful place and still have time to run social media ops too, you are in for a rude awakening… like my late friend Lou said, “you are gunna have a long life kid.”

For me, a sales guy and marketer at heart, this continues to be a hard lesson to swallow. I want everything to look perfect, be automated, provide just the right feeling…

Somewhere along this journey, I ran out of time to be able to post as much and to my surprise, our crew picked up where I left off and magic started happening.

Now I feel that my job is to worry less about the day to day social media duties (although I try to provide input when it starts to feel stale) and focus on larger collaborations and marketing efforts.

I still feel that there is a ton of improvement in our game, but now I work on “Instagrammable Moments” like painted murals, cool stuff at events, etc.

Here’s a contest we do featuring my 95 Year Old Grandfather, John (I still can’t believe he posed for the camera). We battle our customers to see who can come up with the best new flavors and hand out a scoop-style trophy that we display at the shop.

Lesson #5: Being a better business builds the brand.

We are always trying to anticipate our customers feelings, wants, and desires. Everything from the music, to the locally sourced ingredients, to collaborating with bakers and farmers, to gluten and dairy-free product options, to how to make things as fresh as possible…

We talked a lot about the feeling of enjoying the custard and the regret of throwing away plastic.

So, we started researching compostables. In our area, there are very few restaurants who use them, mostly because they are expensive, hard to find the right sizes, and have long lead times.

We decided to pull the trigger about 3 years ago and replace our cups, bowls, straws, and spoons with compostables without raising our prices.

This process required us reduce the number of sizing options, stock extra cases (because of unclear order lead times), take on an extra distributor, and take a financial hit.

Although we get very few people commenting on the cups and spoons, we feel better about growing our business and making less of an impact on the environment. We also think that our customers notice without anyone having to say a thing and without having to brag. More of an unspoken cool factor.

Here was a sundae with did with Tom’s Farm in Huntley, IL during blueberry season, you can see we made the transition to Eco-Products compostable sundae cups and spoons.

Back to the grind…

Time to get back to Julie Ann’s and Lakeside Marketing. I will write more after we launch our 1953 International Metro Frozen Custard Truck and take it on tour. If you are ever in Crystal Lake, IL, stop by the shop and say, “hi”. We will be glad to meet you. Check out a coming soon video…