Friday, October 6, 2017

Life After a Smoking Ban

We are all susceptible to a silly myth:

Things will always stay the same.

We see this in moments when:

Our spouse does something unpredictable.
Our child makes a jarring decision.
Someone gets elected we never thought would.
A beloved business closes-up.
Gas prices shoot up. Again.

Or when a city like Kokomo, that’s always had a healthy number of blue-collar smokers, passes a smoking ban.

I’m writing this specifically with the local bar owners in mind. But, let me refer to them as they really are: entrepreneurs.

Every business owner is an entrepreneur, a person risking the comfort of working for someone else in exchange for being his or her own “man.”

And so here’s the reality for every entrepreneur:


If there ever was a mantra to put on a plaque in your office, this may be it. It’s the one constant for every business owner. You may be lucky and your segment of the market hasn’t changed in years or even decades, but change is always coming. It’s just a matter of when.

Minimum wage goes up. 
Utility costs spike. 
Gas prices skyrocket. 
Big banks make hideous decisions that result in a recession. 
A huge chain comes to town. 
Road construction pulls into your neighborhood and stays way too long. 
Your competitors start manufacturing where labor’s cheaper. 
Electric cars start becoming viable. 
People become more health-conscious. 
Sin, sugar taxes become law. 
Or a smoking ban becomes the new reality.

The market always changes.

Maybe it’s someone’s fault. Maybe there were people driving it. But that doesn’t really matter. It happened. The market changed, just like it has for business owners before you. And so at this point, you have one of two options:

Get out or figure it out.

Get out because you don’t like the new reality. You don’t like how the market has changed.

Or figure it out; how can you change your strategy—how can you change how you do what you do to be successful in this new reality?

The worst thing you can do when the market changes, is complain about it. Play the victim card. Blame it on someone or some group of people. 

It’s not helpful. And the more you fight it and just complain to your friends and Facebook, the more you buy in to the myth:  Things will always stay the same

Getting Personal

Right now, if you’re one of the little neighborhood bars that’s being affected by the smoking ban, you’re probably saying to yourself,

Yeah, easy for you to say, mister; try living in my shoes. It’s not that easy.”

You’re right. It’s not that easy. It rarely is. When the market changes and affects our business, it’s almost always gut check time, a time to see what we’re made of. A time to see if we’re really ready to make some tough, hard and even risky decisions.

I changed to pronouns in that last paragraph like we and our because I have been there.
When the market changes, it does feel personal and it has been some of the hardest seasons of my careers.

At one point I was the local store manager of a regional fast food chain when a substantial national minimum wage hike became law. The kind of wage hike that seriously jeopardized profitability, since the restaurant business always runs on thin margins. 

It wasn’t fun categorizing the employees into “who you could lose” and “who you need to keep” because there weren’t enough raises to go around. It was personal. It wasn’t fun. I didn’t want to do it.

And in recent years there was the great recession. I am part of a senior leadership team of a large local church. The recession affected the market. Greatly. Staff salaries was one of our biggest line items.

Congregants suddenly had less money, some lost jobs. Those people represented the church’s income. Therefore, because of reduced cash flow, our operating budget was in trouble.

Complaining about the recession, the market, would have been useless and fruitless.

We had to make drastic staffing decisions. We had to re-envision how we could get things done. We had to deliver the same high standards “product,” even though we had less money to do it. 

We got creative. We basically changed our paradigm of how our church would function. We wrestled with gut-wrenching decisions. We took pay cuts.

And we realized these changes probably weren’t just for a season; this was the new reality for how our church (and churches in general) would function going forward.

It wasn’t fun. It was hard. It affected employees’ lives. Let me re-phrase: it affected me and my friends’ lives. But we had two options: get out or figure it out.

Today, our church is functioning healthily in ways it hadn’t in the past. And our “product” never suffered in the process.

“That’s cool, but I own a bar that’s now non-smoking.”

Recently, a good friend gave me a stern encouragement by way of a social media post, “Ok, all you non-smokers who said you’d now support these bars, where are you?

Even though I was never on record for saying that, I was indeed for the ban and felt my friend’s chiding. So I’ve been to The Elbow Room twice in recent weeks. (And heading there as soon as I post this.)

First of all, the place was incredibly clean, the food was good, made-to-order and ridiculously affordable. In short, this is what I saw: opportunity.

The Elbow Room is a half mile, a handful of blocks, 2-3 minutes from hundreds of downtown Mon-Fri consumers.

The opportunity is to target that downtown consumer market who never before would’ve considered the Elbow Room as a lunchtime option. My hunch is they have the opportunity to do more Mon-Fri lunch business than they’ve ever done before. Opportunity.

Time to Reassess

What it took to start your business was entrepreneurial spirit: showing people that you could indeed, do it. Sometimes after a while, we unintentionally swap out our entrepreneurial hat for a maintenance hat. We’re just managing, just maintaining; we've stopped gaining ground.

When the market shifts, it can awaken the entrepreneurial spirit that got you in the game in the first place; it can re-envision you. 

Or it can be a wake-up call that it’s time to get out.

And guess what: it’s ok to transition out of your business. Life is made up of seasons. Seasons of raising children. Seasons of running a business. No business lasts forever. (Ok, so these are close.) Businesses have seasons too. If you’re not up to figuring out how to readjust to the ever-changing market, that’s ok.

Parting shot

If you’re struggling as a business owner, I am sorry. My wife and I own Main Street Cafe and it hasn’t been easy nor without struggle and sacrifice. Buy my wife, Sandra, a drink in your bar and she’ll be glad to commiserate.

But, I wrote this with you in mind because I want you to be encouraged

If this is still your season to own a bar, there are ways to re-envision it and go after new ways of doing what you do. Kokomo is full of successful business people who are happy to give advice, share best practices and help you figure it out. One of the best assets of Kokomo is its great people who love to help each other succeed.

So if you’re bitter, consider trading your bitterness for optimism and the willingness to seek help. Because if you keep doing what you’re doing, you will keep getting what you’re getting (Stephen Covey).

And remember those prophetic words from the late Sonny Bono, “The beat goes on.” And you can too.

Peace and profits, my friend!