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Small Business | LEARNING CURVE: BIG KITCHEN

Dishing It Out : Restaurateur Adds a Dash of Personality

August 13, 1996|KAREN KAPLAN

At the Big Kitchen restaurant in San Diego's Golden Hill neighborhood, owner Judy Forman is as much of a draw as the food she serves. She has learned the pros and cons of making her personality central to her business. Forman was interviewed by Karen Kaplan.

I was a social worker in Detroit for 10 years, but when I moved to San Diego I couldn't find a job. I started washing dishes at a restaurant 2 1/2 blocks from where I lived. Soon I was working as a waitress, and six months later I bought the business.

When you're a social worker and your clients are juvenile delinquents, you don't get a lot of positive reinforcement from the people you serve.

When I started out as a waitress, I was getting positive reinforcement immediately. My personality was a bit outrageous to start with, but the feedback I was getting encouraged me to be even more outrageous and entertaining. I tend to be a very up, very positive person.

It just sort of happened that this persona that I call Judy the Beauty on Duty became a main draw and an integral part of the business. But I'm not so sure it's a good idea to have a business based on a personality. Now I have to be there all the time. I can't go away for a long period of time because no matter how big the personality is, the residuals don't last too long without me.

The success of the restaurant in my mind relates directly to who I am. When business goes down, I have a tendency to blame myself. Of course, I should take the responsibility. But even if it's due to something that's beyond my control--like the economy--I figure if Judy the Beauty is working her best, people will come out anyhow.

I am able to channel my social work skills and energies through my restaurant by using it as a meeting place. For example, once a month I gather teenage boys in the neighborhood to come into the restaurant for a group discussion about issues in the community.

The Democratic Party of Golden Hill was started in my restaurant. There's also a feminist group that meets here once a month, and many others too.

Opening my doors to all of these groups has been very good for business. I have found that advertising is not very effective for my restaurant, and because of where I'm located I don't get a lot of walk-in business.

Most of my business comes from word of mouth, which arises from activities with all of these different groups. It allows new people to come to my restaurant who never would have been here otherwise. Then they go home and invite their friends to come back for breakfast the next day.

I still do social work, I just don't have to do the paperwork, I don't have a supervisor and people don't have to qualify monetarily for my services. I believe it helps to be a social worker when going into any business because it's all about people and it's all about the community.

On how her personality became a dominant part of the restaurant . . .

"My personality was a bit outrageous to start with, but the feedback I was getting encouraged me to be even more outrageous and entertaining."

On the downside of basing a business on a person . . .

"I can't go away for a long period of time because no matter how big the personality is, the residuals don't last too long without me."

On the payoff of opening her doors to community groups . . .

"It allows new people to come to my restaurant who never would have been here otherwise. Then they go home and invite their friends to come back for breakfast the next day."

AT A GLANCE:

Company name: Big Kitchen

Owner: Judy Forman

Nature of business: cafe and catering

Location: San Diego

Owner since: 1980

Number of employees: 14

Annual sales: Expecting $300,000 to $400,000 this year

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