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A Simple Recipe for Success

Brew Pub Advised to Hone Focus of Menu, Marketing

September 17, 1997|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Westwood Brewing Co. opened its doors early in 1996, its operators figured they had a sure thing.

After all, what could be easier than opening a brew pub next door to a campus filled with students eager to quaff pitchers of designer suds and down affordable "pub grub"?

A stone's throw from the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood boulevards, the location near UCLA also seemed tailor-made for reaching older, upscale consumers. And after years of economic uncertainty, Westwood Village's merchants believe the storied neighborhood is poised for a rebound.

Yet, less than two years after tapping its first keg of designer beer, Westwood Brewing has changed course. The restaurant's owners--a group of 30 investors who pumped $1 million into the venture--found that the college crowd's party scene was scaring away older customers.

So the beer pitchers that made it easy for older students to pour an illegal drink for an underage friend are gone, replaced by large mugs and a strict policy of checking ID.

In late July, the restaurant made a bid for older, upscale customers by augmenting its pub-style fare with sophisticated lunch and dinner menus, ranging from Creole shark ($9.99) and swordfish ($13.59) to Cabernet filet mignon ($13.99) and rotisserie pork loin chop ($10.99).

Two weeks after introducing the new lunch and dinner menus, investors directed management to shift attention to other parts of the business--including a weekend brunch and a weeknight happy hour program--that weren't generating profits.

But Pacific Palisades-based restaurant industry consultant Raymond L. Coen recently suggested that the brew pub could make better use of its decidedly limited advertising and marketing budget by continuing to play to its strengths--the lunch and dinner segments.

"It's a mistake to look at your weak areas first, particularly when your cash is limited," Coen told Westwood Brewing Vice President Kent Mader. "I say start your push where you're strongest."

Beer is still king, judging by the gleaming brewery equipment that fills the tastefully decorated, 12,000-square-foot pub.

On a recent Wednesday night, the restaurant was moderately crowded, and not just with college kids looking to blow off steam.

In one corner, eight men and women from a nearby office were eating and drinking. A few families and couples were also dining, and the bar stools were filled mainly with well-dressed professionals and nearby residents.

"That's the crowd we're looking to attract," Mader said. "We want to be the place for office workers and people who live here. Most of our customers, in fact, aren't college students from UCLA."

Like most small businesses, Westwood Brewing has a laundry list of jobs that need to be done--but a limited supply of funds. The investors' money helped cover $250,000 in brewing equipment, $100,000 in restaurant improvements and $30,000 in point-of-sale equipment, among other things.

But Coen quickly noted that the restaurant is paying a hefty $20,000 in rent each month, so the challenge facing Mader and his partners is to fill empty seats with upscale diners who will eat and drink.

The lease payment makes it even harder to turn a profit on the college crowd, Coen said, because the campus population falls off significantly during vacations.

The restaurant's owners have a limited budget for advertising and marketing, so they're instead relying on "sweat equity."

Some of the investors and the restaurant's managers are trying to spread the word to office workers and nearby residents. The restaurant has sponsored some charitable events, and it is using joint-sales programs with local nonprofits to drum up business.

Richard Moore--the manager brought in to institute better accounting controls and shape up the menus--also is making sales calls on Hollywood production companies and nearby hotels.

The restaurant also has a grand plan: Mader said its owners want to "reach out to the greater L.A. population and become a household name . . . like Lawry's or Gladstone's."

But Mader acknowledges that the independent restaurant is dogged by the same problem facing most stand-alone businesses: "We're trying to do it without the expense of traditional advertising budgets."

Is that the theme from "Mission: Impossible" sounding in the background?

Not necessarily, said Coen, a 17-year restaurant industry consultant who works with mom-and-pop operators as well as companies with $4 billion in revenue. Coen believes there are profitable niches for small companies like Westwood Brewing if they can identify and defend those markets.

"What you need to do is find out what you do best and then get people talking about it," Coen told Mader. "If the beer is good, it should take care of itself. But the restaurant has to pull its weight."

Coen suggested that restaurant employees involved in the marketing effort meet each week to brainstorm. When Mader suggested that the meeting take place during the weekly managerial meeting, Coen objected.

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