What Makes a Successful Restaurant Successful?

The Chocolate Bar in Cleveland, OH is wildly popular. People from all over town shuffle into the restaurant/martini bar every weekend in massive numbers. Bachelorette parties, first dates, 20 year anniversary celebrators, and many others like my wife and I who, last night, just wanted to grab dinner downtown. Everybody in Cleveland knows about the Chocolate Bar. Even those who have never been have undoubtedly heard nothing but good things about the “new” place at the end of East 4th St. But the question is, why? Why is it so popular in a city with so much to offer (yes, Cleveland has a tremendous restaurant scene) and on a street where it competes with over a dozen great dining options, including Iron Chef Michael Symon’s Lola Bistro and Zack Bruell’s Chinato. Why is it so successful when its food is average at best and its service is generally sub-par? The combination of those two factors would geneally lead to the following for most restaurants: OUT OF BUSINESS.

But somehow the Chocolate Bar not only survives in a highly competitive environment, but thrives, seemingly as well as any restaurant/bar in the area. The reason they excel is that they know who they are, and their strategy proves it. Let’s look at a few of the factors that are key to their success:

1) Location – as you walk down the lively, exciting, bustling East 4th St, at the end of the street, almost with a light at the end of the tunnel feel, you see the Chocolate Bar. Highly visible, high volume of foot traffic passing by, and they get the benefits of having an East 4th St location without blending in with the rest of the restaurants that are all right next to each other. Win, win, win.

2) Atmosphere – they have somehow managed to combine the atmosphere of an intimate little martini bar with the openness of a nice restaurant. You never really feel like you’re being crowded, but you also feel like you are part of a small, priviledged group of people that have been lucky enough to get a seat. The music is a little quieter and low key earlier in the night, and gets progressively louder and more up beat as the bachelorette parties begin to shuffle in a little later on. They keep the lighting low, so with the large windows in the front of the restaurant (with a great view of the East 4th activity) it has more of a restarurant feel. As you move further back in the narrow building, the lighing naturally dims, making you feel as if you are in a different place that has more of a martini bar feel to it. Brilliant. And it allows them to cater to multiple demographics. On a weekend night, you will undoubtedly see families up front, and younger adults towards the back.

3) Their Food – although average at best, it’s good enough. Yes, your product or service can be good enough – it does not have to be the best in town for you to succeed. While their food may not even be in the top 10 on East 4th Street, it is very reasonably priced. Last night I ordered a Turkey Club that certainly could have been worse, for $8. Tough to find dinner on Saturday night in downtown Cleveland for $8. And their food matches their target market’s needs and expectations. Meeting needs and expectations are two very different things – perhaps a blog post for another day. But the Chocolate Bar meets both.

4) Clientelle – the three key factors above have positioned them to attract their target market. A lot of 20-30 somethings frequent often. They have chosen the correct location, created the right atmosphere, and offered the right mix of food/drinks/desert to attract their target market. The beauty of this success is that it creates additional success for them. Once they attract and impress their target market, those patrons spread their satisfaction by word of mouth. As more target market patrons check the Chocolate Bar out, more people want to be there. Now it seems like they have achieved the ultimate success (at least short term) – people want to be at the Chocolate Bar because it’s the place to be. “It’s crowded and looks like a good time, so that is where I need to be” mentality.

Congratulations to the Chocolate Bar on their success. They aren’t likely to receive any raving food reviews any time soon, but I don’t think they mind. They will be content to play to their strengths and have tremendous success. Take a page out of their book – define your target market, meet their needs and expectations, and exploit your strengths.

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