We were all very excited about the opening of our first Italian Restaurant in Shenzhen in December 2006. We had done our homework in terms of understanding price points and menu offerings and we felt pretty good about our ability to appeal to the local Chinese in the Futian area. We knew we would need to change some things after a few months and were eager for the feedback from our new customers.
The big opening day came and went and the business was slow. While the whole Mall was slow, our store was especially slow! Some Chinese customers would come in, take a look around and just leave without even looking at the menu. Day after day this was happening so I asked my staff to find out what was going on. Why just come in for a look and then leave? So I decided to approach a group of women who after taking a look, were on their way out the door. “Why are you leaving,” I asked? “No Sofa! Where’s the Sofa?” one responded. And then it began to hit me right between the eyes. I had walked by many so-called “Western Restaurants” in Shenzhen and other cities in China and noticed that the Chinese customers were sitting awkwardly in giant sofas trying to eat their meal or have a drink. It did not make a lot of sense to a “Westerner” like me who had lived in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore and was familiar with the typical cushioned booth or chair that was common in Western restaurants. Surely these type of sofas made it difficult to digest a proper meal!
But it did not matter what I thought. To the Chinese a “Western Restaurant” was a classy place to relax for a few hours with friends and family or just read a book or magazine by yourself. A “Sofa” was a symbol of luxury – a minor extravagance – that was expected given that Western restaurants generally were higher priced than their Chinese counterparts. And given that Chinese homes are still somewhat spartan in general, I guess there is nothing better than lounging around on a nice sofa and feeling special. Not a bad way to take a short nap either!
I am reminded of a story I read in a biography about Mao Tse-Tung. Mao always was photographed in a big sofa with wide arms smoking or drinking tea. Apparently he was angry with his Premier, Zhou En Lai one day, and made him sit on a wooden seat during an important meeting with an overseas diplomat. Sitting uncomfortably on a wooden seat for a few hours was indeed punishment in Mao’s eyes for angering the”Great Helmsman.”
Now the chairs in my Italian restaurant were wooden so you can imagine how I was punishing our customers by making them sit there to eat. It did not take long before we threw out the wooden chairs and replaced them with nice cushioned ones. We did not have enough room for big sofas but the cushioned seats were good enough to attract customers and grow our business. More than two years later I can look back on that period and laugh about our mistakes. It was obvious after the fact but we did not see it!! And it underscores the close relationship between culture and customer expectations. And by the way the restaurant is doing great and making decent money!