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Restaurants Finding Success by Focusing on Small Towns

When opening up a restaurant, most entrepreneurs think big—big city, big population, big rewards. What also comes along with these types of establishments, however, is “big competition.” Some restaurants are finding that success isn’t necessarily found in the bright lights of Los Angeles or New York, but rather in small-town USA.

Why Small Towns?

The theory, that small towns can lead to big business success, goes against the recommendations of most advisers and business consultants. After all, as with most businesses, a restaurant needs people to turn a profit.

Colby Williams, the founder of Parengo Coffee in Sikeston, Missouri, and the author of Small Town Big Money, would disagree. He has found success in a small town and believes that others can do the same. One of the more memorable quotes within his book is this, “Entrepreneurs can be small business owners, but small business owners can never be entrepreneurs. Once you decide which one you want to be, you’ll act differently.” His example: A small business owner owns a coffee shop; an entrepreneur owns a coffee company.

Lesson One: If you’re considering opening up a restaurant in a small town, get out your entrepreneur hat and realize that you may just have to think “out-of-the box.”

So, just what is a small town? For restaurants, populations less that 100,000 often fall into this category. However, it’s not so much about the population as it is about a sense of isolation and fierce pride. While no major interstates or airports define its boundary, the residents have defined their roots, their heritage, and their homes—and they’re not leaving any time soon, as in, close to never.

The Challenges

Restaurateurs find themselves faced with demographic challenges as well as the lack of a skilled labor force. And, if your competitor just happens to be the once-star high school football quarterback, you may just want to consider a different concept.

Tackling these problems involves training and staff that are able to wear different hats. Your FOH manager may just be a server one night and your server may find themselves behind a bar. Like all small-town businesses, it’s a matter of developing a community that works together. And, if you can market your establishment as a destination spot, all the better.  

The Benefits

Thanks to the World Wide Web and its everyday inclusion in people’s lives, little town USA is no longer unaware of the latest happenings and events in the far-away big cities. They see the trends on Instagram, Facebook, and the news—and they want to experience a bit of the unusual too.

Also keep in mind that small towns are becoming in vogue. According to the Washington Post, 27 percent of Americans would rather live in a rural area and another 12 percent would opt for a small town. Only 12 percent would choose to live in a big city.

This new migration means that people are used to specific standards when dining out and are eager to find establishments that can offer them the caliber of food and atmosphere they once demanded.

RopeSwing, an Arkansas-based hospitality group, has found success by focusing on rebuilding and developing the downtowns of small cities—a business decision that others have also found lucrative. Once thriving downtowns gave way to historic downtowns as outlet malls, that have since seen their demise, lured consumers away with the promise of more for less. Now, they’re making a comeback.  

Chefs Moving from the Bright Lights to Rural Communities

Eater reported on several chefs that left the limelight for the starlight. These included Chef Ian Boden, who left New York City for Staunton, Virginia, a town of 25,000 people. While he experienced some challenges adjusting, he also notes that he knows of a restaurant in New York that pays seven times the monthly rent he pays in Staunton.

 Overhead and space are definitely a part of the small-town calling card.

Chef Boden was also fortunate to have a write-up in Esquire about his restaurant, The Shack, declaring it “The Incredible Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere.” His restaurant has made the Best New Restaurant in the South list by Southern Living.   

Chef Vivian Howard left New York for Kinston, North Carolina, a town with a population of 21,000. In 2006, Howard and her husband opened Chef & the Farmer with the intent of helping some of the areas displaced tobacco farmers turn to food farming. They now offer a Specialty Dinner Series and were recently honored in Southern Living’s Best of the South Awards. Since their first small-town restaurant was born, they have opened two more.

Larger franchises are seeing the benefits of small-town acquisitions as well. Jacksonville, Florida-based Woody’s Bar-B-Q is restructuring their franchise sales to include a focus on small towns throughout the Southeast. According to a report in Fast Casual, they believe their concept will resonate with people who have small town values and they are “banking on success through the ’big fish, little pond’ analogy.”

In the end, it’s really about what resonates with you, the chef and restaurateur. Cream rises to the top—in towns of a million and more or those that barely reach 10,000. Find your niche, define your concept, and give your guests something special to remember.


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