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Learning How to Succeed

Sandwich Shop Seeks Elusive Link to Success

Consultant advises owners to market their gourmet sausages by appealing to the stomach, not the mind.

March 15, 2000|CYNDIA ZWAHLEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Standing in the doorway of his sausage sandwich shop, Bryan Johnson is frustrated by the long lines he sees at the nearby fast-food joints. Why pass up a healthy, gourmet sausage sandwich washed down by a premium microbrew, no waiting necessary?

It's not as if he hasn't tried to attract more customers. The windows, walls and menu at his stylish Haute Links eatery are plastered with nutritional analyses that prove his private-label links made with ground turkey, chicken, spices and cheese have less fat, even when fully loaded with toppings, than most burgers, burritos or subs.

He advertises discounts in the local shopper and distributes coupons regularly. But sales, which were below expectations at $250,000 last year, have been flat.

"Nothing has worked as well as we thought it would," said Johnson, a former real estate executive who opened the Lake Forest restaurant with his wife, Heidi, in late 1998.

He doesn't even use the word "sausage" on the menu because he's afraid it will scare off potential customers.

Despite his best intentions, the owner has committed marketing mistakes Nos. 1, 2 and 3, according to retail consultant Bob Phibbs.

Johnson has wasted marketing dollars on people who will never try his product no matter how low-fat or high-quality it is. He's forgotten that sausage sandwiches "are a want, not a need," Phibbs said. And he's lost sight of his most important selling point: taste.

"The guy is marketing this like it's cod liver oil," the Long Beach-based consultant said. "All the education in the world doesn't mean anything if it doesn't taste good."

Johnson, a former project manager for large commercial real estate developments and holder of a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley, acknowledged that he had slipped into a defensive mind-set and tended to preach at his customers.

"We lost sight of the fact of how good it tastes," said the business owner, who first sold sausage sandwiches from a shop in Laguna Niguel in 1993. "Bob's point is people buy food based on emotion, not statistics."

Fortunately, Phibbs said, the sausages taste great. They include gourmet varieties such as the Toscana Link--lean chicken and turkey blended with Roma tomatoes, herbs and smoked mozzarella cheese--as well as traditional choices such as the bratwurst and Polish links. There's even a soy sausage for vegetarians, and, for kids, a corn dog made with a chicken sausage. Johnson is also proud of his chicken chili, the cabbage and red pepper slaw in a peanut vinaigrette and the grilled veggie melt.

Two other ingredients necessary for Haute Links to succeed are also in place, said the consultant: The business owner has a passionate belief in his products and is ready to make a change in his marketing strategy.

"He's not sitting there with his arms folded saying 'Make me a success,' " said Phibbs, who is confident the business will do well. "He's just saying 'Give me some direction.' "

After meeting with the consultant several times, Johnson was ready to toss out assumptions he'd made about his products and his customers, along with most of his current advertising and discount promotions.

A discussion of popular lunch choices had Johnson agreeing that sausage probably wouldn't make even the top 20 for most people. "Especially in California," Phibbs said.

So who does eat sausage and why? Phibbs argued that health--Johnson's main selling point in the past--isn't the draw for most sausage eaters. To determine what would appeal to them, he pushed Johnson to pin down a description of Haute Links' target customer. That's a surprisingly difficult task for many business owners, Phibbs said.

An informal survey revealed that 80% of Haute Links's customers are men. That may not be surprising to an outside observer but it was less clear to Johnson. He had operated under the assumption that he could make a sausage eater out of anyone if he could just prove that his gourmet links had little to do with the sausage-of-dubious-origin of old. Phibbs convinced him to stop wasting his time trying to sell the world on sausage.

"Suddenly that informs all the choices I'm going to make for marketing," the consultant said.

For example, the "very cerebral" tone of Haute Links' marketing, with its focus on health and nutrition, doesn't fit the target market, Phibbs said. "I don't see anything about taste."

He came up with a half-dozen sample ads that featured a more lighthearted tone ("Guys love us. Spare tires hate us," reads one) and suggested a new tag line: "Sausage that's probably healthier than you are." He calls it "guy advertising."

"I told him, 'You're taking this much too seriously, partner. This is just sausage,' " Phibbs said.

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