Startups: value your own individuality

It’s the classic story, we’ve all heard before – a 38 year-old geologist from Llandudno is working for a Canadian mining company in Ethiopia when he suddenly thinks…Pizza! Well, probably not the most common of occurrences, but that’s exactly what happened to man behind Johnny Dough’s Wood-Fired Pizza restaurants, Morgan Austin.

It’s February 2015. After much research, planning and van-converting, startup Johnny Dough’s Wood-Fired Pizza was created, serving quality, fresh pizzas in minutes to Llandudno locals and tourists, as well as at festivals around North Wales, from his mobile van. The journey to provide delicious, freshly-made pizzas in just a few minutes had begun.

Fast forward to May 2016. It became clear that the demand for his pizzas, made quickly and with fresh local ingredients, was never going to be satisfied with just a van, so in partnership with fellow entrepreneur Jon Hughes, their first restaurant was opened in Llandudno town centre. With an expanded menu, including some local twists like Great Orme Goat’s Cheese, Menai Strait Mussels Marinière and Anglesey Sheep Shish Kebab pizzas, the new restaurant hit the ground running and quickly became a favourite and welcome addition to the town’s tourism sector.

Step forward again to March 2018. As the reputation of Johnny Dough’s spread, the time came to look for another premises. So when The Bridge pub in Conwy became available, it re-opened as Johnny Dough’s at The Bridge. The combination of the range of local real ales, artisan gins and Johnny’s wood-fired signature cooking style made for a winning combination and very quickly this second location became a thriving venue. For these formative years of the venture I was a repeat customer as I took my holidays and weekend visits in the area, I couldn’t get enough. Now as I live in nearby Deganwy, I still can get enough and Johnny Dough’s has become a firm favourite on my eating destinations list. From the moment you open the door and smell the wood smoke oven, you know you are in for a treat.

So many features of this airy eatery are striking. The vibe is warm and welcoming. The decor is pared back, with bare wood tables and brick walls. A small kitchen with an open wood oven sends out freshly made artisan pizzas that are just fascinating in design and flavours, matching the artistry on the menu boards on the wall. And in reality judging by the gusto with which they are consumed, everyone finds them as tasty as I do.

What you see here is an example of entrepreneurship at a much smaller, individual scale – forget the tech behemoths that dominate our everyday lives – the wave of independent restaurants and coffee shops are the playgrounds of true entrepreneurs, where effort and endeavour is given in pursuit of their craft and dreams. The pizza-entrepreneur Morgan Austin is no different from any other person choosing to launch their business idea into a startup reality. They need to do their research, learn their craft, secure funding, find premises, create and test their product and then launch it. Then the hard part – find, win and keep customers, and get a share of their wallet on a regular basis.

The small independent restaurateur has to juggle everything from preparing the food to building a brand to mastering social media to managing suppliers and recruiting and training staff. They are operating in a highly competitive market, against other independents and the global chains. They will stand or fall on the quality of their product, customer service and ambiance of their venue. I’ve watched and eaten Johnny Dough’s operate with true entrepreneurial flair. From dough to pizza to serving on branded greaseproof paper atop of wooden pizza trays, offering signature pizza designs and recipes, providing an alternative to the international chains known for the powerful brands, but their industrial scale lacking intimacy and authenticity.

What makes you choose a restaurant? The food menu obviously, but what about the location, seating – including how far apart the tables are, service, the staff, the general ambience and of course the price. But many of these factors are about experience and given the growth in numbers and genres of cafes and restaurants, how do you stand out from the crowd? Restaurants have to make us want to go there, whether for a quick lunch, dinner with friends or a special occasion meal. But what makes one better than the other?  What I find off-putting is drab, tired décor, ear-splitting background music and tables packed too tightly in a small space. Some restaurants are so keen to squeeze in as many diners as possible, that on occasions I’ve sat so close to the next table that I could have joined in their conversation!

 I also stay clear of those complex menus where Heston Blumenthal influences can be seen – smoked haddock risotto is one of my favourites, but I saw it on a menu last week with peach sauce, and that was simply a step too far. You can do all kinds of things to be noticed, but many of them don’t make the right lasting impression to make customers return. I find restaurants confuse novelty for innovation. For me, a restaurant’s atmosphere sets the stage. It’s about more than just a dining room away from home. As diners, we are investing in a package deal of food, drink and feel-good factor and, while the memory of what we ate might fade over time, the other aspects of the experience remain. So how does Johnny Dough’s stand out from the crowd? Here are some reflections from my recent visit – Farmhouse pizza and Conwy Welsh Pride ale by the way, heartily recommended – that can be taken into any startup venture.

1. Focus on the basics – keep it simple When people walk through the restaurant doors, they are expecting to enjoy their meal. Setting high standards when it comes to the food quality is vital and it is important to ensure that customers get the same quality every time to earn a restaurant a good reputation, causing customers to make return visits.

2. Create a customer experience Apart from serving good food, customers look for a good overall experience. Johnny Dough’s staff help to enhance the guest experience through being courteous and maintaining a great attitude. They are knowledgeable about the cuisine, address issues promptly and make sure that the food and drinks get to the customers in a timely manner. The layout and classic look of the restaurant allows a relaxed ambiance to come through. You’ve got a lot of space on the table and between each table. Customers can have their own intimacy and not join in the next table conversation.

3. Nurture a buzz about your business The atmosphere can go a long way in determining whether customers keep coming back. Atmosphere comes from guests, their conversations, the buzz, the laughter from having a good time, clinking of glasses. It’s a very relaxed environment and Johnny Dough’s understand ambiance is harnessed. The atmosphere is relaxed, fun and easy going. People on holiday want the feel good factor to continue.

4. Make it personal Personalisation has become the key to business success, as increasingly consumers expect a service crafted for them as individual consumers. People go out to eat under many different circumstances, and a restaurateur and staff need to read what people want on that particular service, because the way you treat this table may be completely different to that table. Johnny Dough’s menu includes an option for children to create their own pizza of choice, that’s a great USP and marketing strategy, the ultimate focus on the individual in today’s ‘pay-as-you-go’ economy.

5. Offer something unique Most people are looking for something different when they decide to dine out. A great restaurant promises to offer something that is not available elsewhere. If providing good food and service is all that a restaurant can offer, that is nothing new. A great restaurant will have one or several unique features that will stand out in the patrons mind and this creates a competitive advantage. Johnny Dough’s capture and create their competitive advantage by bundling together a number of unique features to differentiate their offering.

6. Pricing shapes expectations The price is an important consideration when people are dining out and it takes into account different characteristics of the restaurant offering. People pay for the overall experience, not just the food and that is why some restaurants charge much more than others – and why some are always filled to capacity night after night. Customers expect prices to reflect the type of food, level of service and the overall atmosphere of the restaurant. Johnny Dough’s offer a value for money experience compared to other venues in Conwy, and to the international pizza brands. Pricing shapes an expectation in a customer’s mind, and Johnny Dough deliver on that expectation.

7. Perfect timing The co-ordination between the kitchen and table is a well-orchestrated ballet at a restaurant, you never want to see your meal slowly congealing under a heat lamp waiting to be served, nor having your plates whisked away and replaced by the next course while you’re in final mid-chew. The tempo is good, just enough time to savour the experience before eating, and relaxing afterwards. Timing in delivery, is everything.

8. Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic activity in the coming and going of pizza eaters and food being sent from the oven, staff have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and frenzy. Resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the pizza. As an entrepreneur, patience is as important as an ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush out and do stuff. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, able to recognise it, and attack it with great precision. In the frenzy, treat every customer as if they are your only customer, and they will recognise it.

9. Enjoy the oxygen Top athletes use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks in-between agility drills in an intense workout. During those brief seconds, they are exhorted to enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in competition.

So many business folks are so caught up in the heat of the moment that they don’t stop to take a deep breath, step back, and pause for reflection to collect their thoughts. The staff at Johnny Dough’s did this, spending quiet moments to themselves to reflect on the success of their business, what’s working and what’s not, and also enjoying the success of seeing returning customers, before going again.

10. Make the closing memorable So how do you close off a transaction such that is starts a relationship, and a customer returns? Johnny Dough’s give you the bill in a small brown envelope with the words THE DAMAGE – get yer dough out. The last touchpoint with the customer uses humour, reinforces the brand with simple language, and makes the payment memorable – you recall the final act, not the price, it focuses the customer on value and experience, not cost. Simple, but clever!

This is how the independent pizza and coffee outlets win against the global chains, they do lots of little things differently, they don’t try to compete on the same basis, they make a difference by being different, and focus on that. These are great basics for any startup venture. Going along with the crowd may be mentally reassuring, but it is more fulfilling to follow your own unique desires and modes of expression.

Do something everyday to move your startup business forward, and that makes you stand out from the crowd. A sheep has never stood out from another sheep, so don’t follow the herd blindly. People will take notice. Why do we work so hard to fit in, when we were born to stand out?  Value your own individuality.

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