Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Coffee Shop in Lansing

Never locate a business in a building where a number of other failed businesses - particularly the same type - have located.  This coffee shop is a case study in how to squander money on an ill-conceived and poorly run business.  It closed twice in the five years we have lived here, and is now vacant again, awaiting some other ill-fated "businessman"  to open a store there.  Lansing is blighted with old, run-down buildings like this, which should rightfully be torn down.

We drive by it on the way to Ithaca.  It is right near the corner of Route 34B and the Lake Road.  And every time we go by, it seems like a good idea to stop there.  After all, who doesn't want a cup of Joe to fortify their ride home?

And yet, we found ourselves stopping there only a handful of times.  And each time we went, it was like, "Well, that really SUCKED!  Let's never go there again!"  And not surprisingly, it went under twice in the space of five years.

When we first moved here in 2005, it was an empty building next door to the Rogue's Harbor restaurant.  We were excited when it opened up as a coffee shop, thinking that it would be a successful business and handy.  But within a year or so, it went out of business.  Then, in 2007, it reopened again, this time as a Gimmie! franchise.  Again, we thought that the basic idea was sound, and now with the Gimmie! people behind it, it would flourish.  But alas, not only did it not succeed, the manager actually chased people out of the store.  It closed this year.  I pity anyone who tries to re-open in the location - it is one of those "cursed" locations that will go through tenant after tenant, all of whom will be unsuccessful.

It is, in a way, a case study of how not to run a business.  The businesses that open in that spot are doomed to fail, it would seem.  But not because of some "curse" but because of inherent problems in the location, the demographics, the products, and the economy.

Small businessmen often do not "do the math" on businesses like this, and determine whether there is a long-felt need that their business is filling.  Rather, they open their doors for business and just blindly hope that people will want to patronize the business.  It is not a very clever business model!

What went wrong with this location?  I think a number of things:

1.  Bad Location:  A busy corner intersection would, at first, seem like an ideal location for a store like this.  But it is on a major commuting route in Lansing, and most folks passing by are late for work (in the morning) or eager to get home (in the evening).  Stopping to get a cup of coffee is out of the question, particularly when getting one of these "coffee-shop" coffees is dragged out into a 15-minute ordeal.

For morning traffic people, driving into Ithaca, the store is on the wrong side of the road.  They would have to make a left turn to get in, and by the time they drive by it, they say "not worth the hassle" and someone is tailgating them anyway.

And it is a car-based location, not a pedestrian one.  Unlike the shops in Ithaca, which cater to a lot of local residents who arrive as pedestrians, this location is 100% drive-by, and as such, needs good car access.  The property is cursed, in that regard.

So what initially seemed like a killer location turns out to be not only mediocre, but actually frightfully bad.  Anyone who wants to snag the commuter traffic from this locale will have a hard time doing so.

2. Poor Parking:  The parking situation is bad.  The building, apparently some sort of garage or something, was built too close to the road - or the road widened in the interim.  It really is an eyesore of a building and would be best, razed (more on that, later).  It is possible to park out front, although it is tight.  In the first incarnation, this was not a big problem, but sometimes, you'd drive by and all the spaces out front were taken, so you'd keep driving by.

In the second incarnation of the business, they tried to get people to park out back.  This was less obvious, although they put up a "parking in the rear" sign, and then tried to block parking by building an ugly planter out of concrete blocks in the front, filling it with an assortment of half-assed plants.  And then the manager screamed at anyone who tried to park out front.  But more on that later.

The problem with "parking in the rear" is that with a drive-by business, you have to make the parking situation obvious to someone cruising by at 30 mph - and from a distance.  If a driver can see that he can easily slide into a spot, he might think about it - an impulse decision for what is an impulse purchase.  But if the parking looks convoluted and difficult, people keep going by, or they realize after driving by, "Oh, there was parking in the rear" and then keep going.

What they needed was a wall-mural on the end of the building, in 3-foot-high letters, saying "Gimmie! Coffee, Turn HERE!"  What they needed was a better location with real parking.  What they needed was to tear down this dilapidated garage and start over and build further away from the road.

3. Bad Attitude - Workers:  During the first iteration, we stopped by there to get a cup of coffee.  This was back when I was still spending money on expensive coffee (more on that, later).  We go in, and of course, I have to pee.  So I ask where is the restroom - you serve food, you have to provide a restroom, it is the law in almost every State.  "The restroom is out of order" the "Barista" says.  I look at the restroom and it has a very neatly printed sign saying "out of order".  So I go outside and piss on the side of the building.  Already, I am predisposed to hate this place.  Oh, and the coffee was lukewarm (more on that, later).

We come back a month later, and the neatly printed "restroom out of order" sign is still in place.  The restroom is not "out of order" of course - where would the employees go to the bathroom?  It was just a cheap ruse to prevent people from using it.  I can see where you might put a "restroom for customers only" sign on there - we all understand that, it keeps the homeless out.  But to not let your CUSTOMERS use it?  And hey, you are turning away business here.  People will stop and buy a coffee if they know there is a clean restroom somewhere. Every gas station knows this, for chrissake!

And of course, they tried to do the usual Starbucks-type "coffee with a bad attitude" trick that was oh-so-1990's.  "Here's your coffee, sir, would you like a sneer with that, or should I say something sarcastic about your sartorial choices?"  That was funny for about 10 minutes when Starbucks opened.  But most of us realize that a "Barista" is just another unskilled minimum wage service job, not a brain surgeon.  And most of us now realize that money is just too tight to put up with nonsense like a 15-minute cup of coffee with a sneer.  You want my money?  Be nice to me, at least.

4.  Worse Attitude - Management:  The bathroom situation was no doubt a play by the management of the first iteration.  When Gimmie! took over the location, we had high hopes that games like this would be a thing of the past.  We were wrong.

The new manager got it into his head that people should not park out front by the door.  My friend, who was a Gimmie! fiend, went one day in his small Toyota pickup.  He parks in front of the door, leaving plenty of room, and the manager comes out and screams at him. 

Not a polite, "I'm sorry sir, but this is a handicapped space" or something like that (hey a little blue paint goes a long way, in that regard) but a full-throated bottom-of-the-lung scream, "YOU CAN'T PARK HERE!  PARKING IS OUT THE BACK!"

Too much coffee, perhaps?  Like I said before, my friend is now an ex-Gimmie! coffee fiend, and drives away (would you park around back and then go meekly in, begging for a $5 cup of coffee after that?).  He never buys from Gimmie! again.

The manager, not content to just scream at people, he builds an ugly cinderblock "planter" out front, which is just a means of keeping people from parking there.  They park anyway, so he moves it further out front.  Like I said, a little blue paint and a handicapped sign probably would have worked better.  So they ended up wasting what little parking they had, and also creating bummer vibes with the customers.

You can only scream at so many customers before you run out of customers.  Every customer you scream at is a customer not coming back.  And in Lansing, there is a finite customer base, it turns out (more on that, later).

5. Inconsistent or Limited Hours of Operation:  When it opened in its first iteration, the hours of operation were crazy.  They basically were open in the morning hours and then closed right before the evening rush hour.  I guess they thought that no one drank coffee in the afternoon.

So on the way back from Ithaca, on more than one occasion, we said, "Let's stop and get a cup of coffee" - because let's face it, by the time you get to Lansing, you are so depressed by the run-down homes and burned-out businesses, that you need a little "pick me up" and Todd's Beach House might not be having Happy Hour just yet.

But the coffee shop was closed.  So much for that.

Small, dying businesses often result to odd hours to save money.  "Open by appointment or chance" is a way of saying you are headed to bankruptcy.  Having consistent hours is important in any business, as if you want people to visit the business, you have to make it known when you are open. 

Short or limited hours works the same way - people can't schedule their lives around when you decide to be open.  Once they get it in their minds that "CLOSED" is associated with your business, they won't stop by, even when you are open.

Going to a business and seeing a CLOSED sign, particularly during what are normally considered business hours (3 in the afternoon) just pisses people off.  Whether this is justified, I do not know.  But it is a psychological effect that customers have.

If you run a business that cannot afford to stay open for "normal" business hours, then perhaps that is telling you something.  Close the business all the way, instead of trying to stay open halfway.  Keeping odd hours is just slow-motion death for any business.

6.  Poor Facilities:  The building in question is little more than a shed, with a roof that appears to have broken its back.  It needs to be torn down - it has no architectural interest and, like most buildings in Lansing, is a real eyesore.   Compared to the burned-out gas station across the street, or the abandoned IGA behind it (odd location!) it looks like the Taj.  But it still is a nothing building.

The original iteration was cleverly done - but clearly on a budget.  Such funky makeovers can work, in places like the Keys.  But it might not work in other places.  During the second iteration, Gimmie! renovated the space, but it was a classic case of "dressing the pig" as it were - the facility was doomed by so many other factors.

A better choice would have been to build a newer building, such as a pole-type building, relocating it away from the road (and the hotel) so as to provide room to park out front and also for better traffic flow.  You could build such a building for $100,000 - which is probably less than the two owners squandered on renovations.  And a new modern building would attract customers better.

Again, like so many run-down businesses in Lansing, it should be torn down.  Businesses running out of old gas stations, run-down homes, etc. really are not attractive, and the entire community has the air of Appalachian  poverty about it.  But the locals, I guess, have seen it for so long that they don't see it.

Kind of sad, too, as some of the properties in town, such as the Hotel, are historic landmarks.  Like much of Central New York, the visionaries of the 1800's built amazing things.  Their children of the 1920's built crap.   And it has been downhill ever since.

7.  Bad Location:  As noted above, the location is death.   There are a number of empty business sites in the area, including a newly remodeled building that has remained empty since we moved here.  Other businesses are run-down and one wonders how they stay in business.  The Citgo across the street no longer sells gas, for example, and one wonders why anyone would even go there (it smells bad) when there is a brand new gasateria not a 1/2 mile away.

Corners can be good locations, as people slow down and change direction and may be inclined to stop.  But the coffee shop was one space back from the corner, and as previously noted, on the wrong side of the street for morning traffic, and closed in the afternoon, turning away evening traffic.

8. Wrong Product for the Area:   The other location issue is the demographics.  While the funky coffee shop model might work in Ithaca, where everyone is a freak and wasting hours in a coffee shop every day seems like a worthy pastime, in a commuter district, you have a different demographic.

You can't sell a hippie coffee-shop model to a guy who is late for work and wants a cup of Joe to go.  And as such, they didn't modify their model to fit the demographic (a drive-through window might have worked well there, but it would have meant an extensive remodeling effort).

9.  Poor Product:  In the initial iteration, as noted above, we stopped by there and were charged an enormous sum for lukewarm coffee out of a carafe, which was several hours old.   This is another symptom of the dead/dying business that tends to accelerate the demise.  Not wanting to "lose more money" the owners refused to throw out old and cold coffee and instead tried to sell it.  But like yelling at the customers, one warm cup of coffee turns away a customer for life.  No one wants to pay $5 for a cup of coffee, only to dump it on the ground in the parking lot.

I am sure under the second iteration, the Gimmie! people did a better job of this.  But again, the whole model of "coffee with an attitude" is so old by now and not appropriate for the more rural customer, who is less interested in appearing "hip" by shopping at the store, and more interested in getting a quick cup of coffee.

10.  Changing Economics:  When the recession hit, it forced people to re-think their spending priorities.  I know I did!  Luxuries and unnecessary expenses like bottled water and designer coffee were the first things to go.

And even though gas has gone back to $3 a gallon, and the recession has eased, people's spending habits often lag behind a recovery.  Sales of hyper-miler cars (40-50 mpg) peaked not in 1979, but years later in 1983, long after gas prices had started to drop.

And I think the same is true for the coffee shop.  The novelty has long worn off, and people are hesitant to spend a lot of dough on designer coffee.  As I noted in this blog, you spend $10 a day at Starbucks, that is $3650 a year on coffee, which is a staggeringly large amount of money.  You can buy all the coffee you can drink, at home, for 1/10th that amount.

* * *

Will another business relocate to this ill-fated coffee shop location?  Is the Pope Catholic?  In Central New York, the poverty of the spirit is strong, and the area is clogged with ill-conceived and poorly executed ice cream stands, diner restaurants, coffee shops, liquor stores, and NASCAR memorabilia outlets.

People open businesses up here without thinking too hard about things like demographics, location, parking, or economics.  They don't think "who is my target customer?  What is the compelling reason they will want to patronize my place of business?  Who is my competition?"

As a result, when a local here decides to "go into business" he likely will open an ice cream stand, which is a seasonal enterprise.  There are no fewer than 15 of them within a 10 mile radius of my home (compared to none, within a 25 mile radius of my home in Georgia) and only a handful of them are any good.  Most end up cannibalizing business from others, and as a result, few are profitable enterprises, and many abandoned ones litter the landscape.

Restaurants are a good second choice, but require more work.  Most have forgettable food - if it is edible and mediocre, you are lucky, some are neither.  Burned out shells of abandoned restaurants litter the landscape, too, awaiting the next chump to "invest" in them.

Bad liquor stores are another popular choice.  You see these places in small towns.  You go in, and they have sparsely stocked shelves.  One variety of gin, one variety of vodka, etc.  Sometimes only one single bottle in stock.  Mostly pints or fifths, and wildly overpriced.  Aimed at the chronic alcoholic, who needs his "fix" now, on the way home, and can't afford to stop by the large discount liquor store, and cannot afford to "stock up" because they'd just drink it all.  There is one of these in Lansing, and one in Union Springs.  They sell a lot of fifths of cheap vodka.  And it says a lot about the area.  But going into one of these sorts of stores just makes one want to weep, it is so sad and depressing.

Of course, in Central New York, opening any other kind of business is problematic.  Stifled by government regulations and the paradox of high poverty and high wages, it is nearly impossible to open a factory or other business which actually creates wealth - takes raw materials and adds value to them, unless you are a farmer.  So instead, we see more and more businesses opening that do little more than provide residents a place to spent money - in most cases, on food.

We are leaving Central New York, and not a moment too soon.  Granted, there are blighted areas in every part of America, which is very sad and depressing.  Why people choose to live in such areas is an interesting question.  There is such beauty in our world, why choose to live in ugliness?  Central New York has such natural beauty, and has some very interesting architecture - from 150 years ago.  But the current residents seem quite content to live in shacks or run-down properties.  Even the most prosperous look to the vinyl-sided tract home as the epitome of good living.

And when people try to change this mindset, as they tried to did in Aurora, New York, they are shouted down by a legion of pot-smoking naysayers, who say they prefer squalor to progress, and denounce "change" as something suspect and evil.  They cling to a status quo, not realizing that it was not a desirable status quo, but a devolution of what was once the most prosperous economy of an emerging nation.  So we burn coal instead of natural gas.  Wind power is shouted down by self-styled environmentalists.  People live in squalor, because remodeling and preservation are viewed as suspect. It is a bizarre place, to be sure!

There are better ways to live - and better places to live.  If you find yourself living in a run-down community, ask yourself why - and why you stay.  Because you can't fix stupid, as they say.  So trying to change attitudes in impoverished areas is futile.  It is those attitudes that insure that poverty and poor living will be perpetuated. 

You have a choice - stay or leave.

For me, the choice was pretty simple.