Note: This is a guest article by Kevin Jacoby. More details about him after the post.

3 Business Lessons from New York City Restaurants

My wife and I go out to eat too much. At least that’s what our accountant says.

You need only take a glance at my Foursquare profile to see that our desire for new and exciting culinary experiences borders on the kind of addiction usually treated with Methadone and group therapy.

For me it’s not just about the food. I also find it fascinating to watch a small business ecosystem operate in the fishbowl of one-hour dining experiences that can skyrocket a restaurant to fame or catalyze its spectacular implosion.

It was from this kind of reality show-perspective that I came up with my top 3 things you can learn from a New York City restaurant to better run a business.

Drum roll please… :)

Lesson #1: It’s the service, stupid.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign was run by one hell of a communicator in James Carville. It was he who gave birth to the now famous reminder to stay on-message, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

My version reminds us that without customers, we wouldn’t have much reason to design and sell stuff in the first place.

Last weekend I found myself at a little place in the East Village called Yurba Buena. The food is awesome but it doesn’t have any Michelin stars, the prices are reasonable but I wouldn’t call it inexpensive, and it’s in a nice location but you won’t see Sarah Jessica Parker walk through the door during dinner. Yet the place is always packed.

What they understand at Yerba Buena is that, in NYC, you can go to a million different places to have a great meal so they need to offer something more. In this case, that something more is service that sets them far apart from the ambivalent neglect you get from too many restaurants who feel as though they’re doing you a favor by cooking something that tastes halfway decent.

The lesson here is, no matter who you are, no matter how powerful a brand you wield, you can never work too hard to improve your customer service.

Look at Amazon – they are one of the most successful, profitable and influential online retailers in the world and yet Jeff Bezos himself still drags an empty chair into meetings to represent the customer and his/her needs because he knows that without the customer, it’s all just academic.

Lesson #2: You can’t be everything to everyone.

The Cardinal is a little hole in the wall on East 4th Street. The wife and I, famous brunchers that we are, did brunch there the other day and it occurred to me that the folks who own The Cardinal are certain of who they are and who their customer is.

Walk into most restaurants and you’ll detect the smell of desperation between wafts of grilled chicken and salad dressing. If you are presented with a menu that’s 19 pages long, you know you’re either eating in a diner (which by nature serves everything and rightly so) or in a restaurant with an identity crisis.

The Cardinal has like nine things on the menu and they’re all bad for you. They offer 3 kinds of beer, they have one set of dishes and they use the same glasses for everything from tap water to mimosas.

And though you would think that a little variety would bring in more customers, the very opposite is true. It’s because they do one thing and they do it very well that New Yorkers flock to this den of fried everything day after day.

When you’re running a business and cash flow is on your mind, it’s easy to justify saying yes too often. But even the most powerful brands cannot be all things to all people. Those who have tried have failed, whereas those who have mustered the presence of mind to say “no” at strategically important times have managed to sustain a business and grow a loyal cadre of fans.

The Cardinal is never going to offer you rice cakes and carrot sticks. And so they will inevitably lose out on business from the gym-bunny crowd. But if anyone asks me where the best Southern-fried brunch can be had on any given Sunday afternoon, I’m going to send them to The Cardinal for a big bowl of Fried Catfish & Grits with hot sauce.

Don’t be afraid to define yourself to the exclusion of certain markets. The only ones that really matter are those in which you can excel.

Lesson #3: The power of social proof.

So the wife and I are sitting on the patio of one of our favorite Italian places on East 2nd Street called Supper. I have my face in a big bowl of Linguini Cacio e Pepe.

When suddenly I look up and realize that to my right is Jude Law (in town filming a movie) and to my left is the sidewalk packed with the typical Friday night crowd of New Yorkers eager to fill up on delicious carbs before their weekend bar crawl.

And so I say to myself, “Self, this is an amazing example of social proof you’re looking at here.” On the one hand you have a celebrity endorsement (the hostess later commented that Jude always stops by when he’s in town.) And, on the other you have a very large and very visible lineup of hungry people who could go to any one of a billion other restaurants in the area but decided to stand outside on the sidewalk for hours and wait for a table.

The bottom line is, you can scream from the rooftops until you’re blue in the face about how wonderful your product is. But the last time we lived in an environment where anyone actually believed an advertising message, you were in danger of being run over by a horse and buggy on the way to the apothecary to pick up a bottle of pain relief medication that was equal parts opium and linseed oil.

Show prospective customers that folks just like them are lining up to take part in whatever you got going on and it’s a whole other ballgame.

And the reason is simple: we have become so cynical in this age of 24/7 marketing that we have no choice but to search for little threads of truth wherever we can find them. And someone lining up to pay for a product or service without a gun to his head is just such a thread.

Image credits: Title | End

Now it’s your turn.

3 Business Lessons from New York City Restaurants

Got a favorite restaurant that doubles as a business lesson? Leave a comment below – I dare ya.

Author box:

Kevin JacobyName: Kevin Jacoby

About: Kevin is a co-founder of world-renowned audio/video workstation designer Rain Computers and was named its CEO in 2009. Like most Rain users, he embodies the amazing confluence of art and technology. He spent the first part of his career on stages and in studios around the world as a formally trained freelance bass player and then later as part of Atlantic Records recording artists, Cecilia. In addition to his work at Rain, Kevin keeps his ties to music as a songwriter, performing artist, and producer.

You can follow Kevin on Twitter, friend him on Facebook or find his articles/updates on his blog.

P.S. If you like to contribute an awesome guest post on, please contact me HERE with the subject line: Guest Post (or) send me a DM on Twitter @arkarthick.

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  • Deborah Lee

    Kevin makes very sound and valid points … Too often over here in the UK I see businesses open up, expecting that a steady stream of custom is their given right.
    Of course that custom never materialises … I’ll redirect them to this post in future!

    • Karthick AR

      Thank you for dropping by, Deboarah. Yup, whatever business field you’re in, never take customers for granted. In my experience, more than quality or prize of product itself, people are always expecting quality service. That’ll take care of the rest.

  • Anita Campbell

    Yep, the power of social proof is important. It’s just like on the Web. People want to see how many tweets and shares a post has.

    - Anita

  • Ash Mashhadi (@inspirationguy)

    Thanks for this post. I love looking at other businesses and always look for lessons I can apply to mine. For me, the best lesson was the first: service is crucial. Look after your clients and they’ll look after your business.

  • Cendrine Marrouat

    Dear Kevin:

    What an excellent article! I agree with everything but the part on Amazon. They may be good with customers, but they don’t really show the same level of care for artists who sell there.

    “Don’t be afraid to define yourself to the exclusion of certain markets. The only ones that really matter are those in which you can excel.” – Absolutely!

  • Kevin

    Great article, I definitely think that social proof/ word of mouth means a lot in any form of business. If people give you a recommendation it goes a lot further, than trying to say it yourself with an ad campaign.

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