Small businesses are at the heart of everything we do here at BusinessBlocks. In our new series, we celebrate and highlight the brave visionaries who work day in and day out to turn their dreams into reality. Read Amy Williams’ story about taking her appreciation for food and putting it into practice at her newly-owned restaurant, Elm Square Oyster Co. in Andover, Massachusetts.
Tell us a little bit about you and Elm Square Oyster Co.
I’ve always been entrepreneurial and loved the idea of owning my own business. Having the power to make decisions whether they be right or wrong was the big appeal for me. And as someone who loves going to restaurants, you’re always thinking about how you would approach it if you were the owner. It was exciting to think about creating and shaping a unique restaurant experience for customers, like me, both as a food lover and restaurateur.
The idea to actually start a restaurant came to light during a family dinner. My brother, Eric who is a former chef, was telling me how much he wanted to go back into the restaurant industry. He wanted to apply his deep passion for food to a real business, so he made me a proposition.
Fast forward a few months, Eric and I, with our spouses, decided to buy an existing restaurant in our hometown. Everything seemed to fall in place, like it was meant to be. We found a great location, it was the right size and it was operated under a unique concept: great seafood coupled with a scratch kitchen. Everything at the restaurant is prepared from scratch – from the ketchup to the salt and all the seasonings. Nothing comes out of a jar, and everything is fresh.
Who is your biggest inspiration when it comes to creating new menu items?
Our customers and our chef. My sister-in-law, Roseann, is Elm Square Oyster Co.’s general manager, and she makes it a point to talk to every single table, every night. We put a huge emphasis on feedback – good or bad – because we see it as a gift from our customers; not everyone is willing to speak up and tell you the truth. Because we’re so small and family-owned, we can adapt and make changes to the menu, if and when necessary.
What are the challenges your restaurant faces?
What surprised us at first is that it takes all four of us to operate the restaurant efficiently and smoothly. My brother manages the back of the house, my sister handles the front, my husband does all the administrative and accounting work, and I fill in the gaps wherever it’s necessary, including marketing and social media.
Before we bought the place, the previous owners weren’t marketing the right aspects of the restaurant. They were just focusing on the oysters, so my first challenge was to create awareness around the various types of food we serve and uniqueness of the scratch kitchen. We’re also only open for dinner five nights a week, so our opportunity to get customers is limited. Every table that sits empty is lost revenue in the already limited number of open hours. It’s important for us to keep the restaurant full during the weekday nights, so we knew marketing was going to be crucial to the success of our restaurant. The responsibility fell on me to try to educate myself on marketing.
We also struggle with staffing. We have about 13 employees, and other than the key folks, like the chef, the bar manager, bartender and dishwasher, it’s been hard to retain talent. We do our best to listen to our employees by letting them know: ‘We’re here to make your job easier. Tell us what you need, and we’ll try to fulfill that.’ We evaluate personality and attitude in our hiring process because a lot of times, we can overlook experience if they are highly customer-focused, friendly and excited to learn.
What’s changed since you joined the BusinessBlocks community?
The courses and business coach gave me a wealth of knowledge. Clearly, Leslie, my coach, has been doing this for a while, so she had lots of good tips and tricks to share. You’re able to ask questions specifically relevant to your restaurant and look at the challenges and opportunities in real time. For example, she helped me review all the various words I used on our restaurant website, all the way down to the nitty gritty of reformatting the layout – the level of help was incredibly invaluable.
With her help, we saw a 171 percent increase in page visits this week compared to the previous 7 days and a 145 percent increase in new visitors.
I’m also working on a plan to frequently and routinely engage with our customers on social media and through our newsletter – which is a work in progress. Our social posts used to say, “Here’s the new cocktail that Colin, our bartender is making.” Instead, we’re trying to make 80 percent of our content to be informative and interesting, such as putting out interesting facts about oysters, and keep the 20 percent promotional. We’re literally re-thinking the way we engage with our customers.
What’s your advice for other business owners?
All the decisions are on us – we either own success or failure. It’s hard talking to other restaurant owners for advice because it’s such a small word. Sometimes, seeking advice from another business owner can create a rumor that could be devastating to your business. People don’t want to admit that they need some level of help, and that’s where your coach can be useful.
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