The Shrinking Hours Paradox

I have seen the hatching and evolution of enough local restaurants in Charlottetown to have noticed a pattern, and that pattern is at the core of what I have just now decided to call the Shrinking Hours Paradox.

Inevitably when a new restaurant opens, the owners, all full of piss and vinegar, decide to set their hours to open very early and close very late. The usual arrangement is something like 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

Do the math: that means being open 16 hours a day.

Because most of these restaurants are family run, and don’t have lots of spare cash to hire employees, and because it really takes the energy of the owners themselves to make a new venture fly, this means either that the owners have to work 16 hours a day or, if they’re a couple, they have to each do an 8 hour shift (which has the unfortunate side-effect of meaning that they never see each other).

Being open from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. is a pretty amazing thing from the customers’ point of view. In essence, for most people, this means that a restaurant is always open. In other words you don’t have to give a lot of thought to when it’s open, you just go there, knowing that it will be open whenever you have the urge.

What happens next is so common that I think its almost inevitable: the owners start to buckle under the strain of being open so much (and, if there are partners involved, they start to hate each other as a result). And, at the same time, the owners start to notice that there are some times of the day that are more popular than others: perhaps there’s a good lunch crowd, but nobody coming in for dinner.

The reaction? The hours start to get cut back. What started off as 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. evolves into 8:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and then, a month later, into 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. And on and on.

On the surface this makes sense: you analyze customer reaction, and place your resources where you need them most. And you help save your sanity at the same time.

But the consequences are often more dire. And therein lies the Paradox.

From a customers’ point of view, as soon as the hours shrink past a certain point, the restaurant shifts from just being always open to being open only some of the time. The problem is that unless you’re a really, really regular customer, it’s hard to keep track of when that only some of the time is, and so, in effect, the restaurant shifts in the customer mind to being probably closed. Or at least gee, they might be closed.

Which is the kiss of death.

Businesses like restaurants, especially local restaurants that depend on a neighbourhood crowd, need to be perceived as being always open. Otherwise, like a cinema that’s closed on Wednesdays, customer confusion about their hours leads to an exponential drop-off in attendance.

Unless the owners are smart, and see this coming, the sad conclusion of the Shrinking Hours Paradox is that customers simply stop coming around because in that 15 second “where should we go out for dinner?” period of intense hunger at 6:30 after a busy workday, there’s no energy left to worry about what’s open and what’s not. Customers will always opt for the always open option given the choice.

The clearest example of this phenomenon I’ve ever seen was with a restaurant in that ill-fated location at the end of Victoria Row in Charlottetown that’s been occupied by so many failed restuarants over the years (it’s now Jumbles and Gems, which seems to be doing just fine). The incarnation I’m thinking of, the name of which escapes me, offered uncommonly good food and uncommonly good service at very reasonable prices. They might have actually suceeded.

Instead, they went through the complete shrinking hours cycle in about 30 days. Started off open 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Ended up open only for dinner. Closed forever shortly thereafter.


Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on September 8, 2001 - 17:50 Permalink

There restaurant business is defined by a few simple truisms:

1. You will always be busiest when you first open. After things level off, your sales will be about 75% of what they were when they first opened.

2. Once the initial levelling off occurs, it is critical to grow that 75% base by at least 2% to 3% per year. The only way to do this is ensure your operations are consistently tight. The place must always be clean. The food must always be good. The service must always be good. And when shit happens that adversely affects cleanliness, food quality and service, (as it inevitably does from time to time), it must be dealt with properly, such that the negative becomes positive.

3. The hours of operation must be consistent. “If you’re not open its hard to do business”. The one time you close at 10:30 on a Monday night because its slow is the first step towards destroying your business. (I know this from personal experience. I used to have an Assistant Manager work for me who always closed on Monday nights. We closed at 11:00. Unbeknownst to me she routinely closed at 10:30 or even 10:00 because she wanted to go home. Six months after she left we finally started to have business on Monday nights again).

4. Good help is hard to find. The pay is low, the work is hard, and the hours are long. The paradox is not about shrinking hours, its about finding employees who are invariably around for a short time (Whether its a seasonal business or not, there are not a lot of career waiters or dishwashers or even managers. The average shelf life of a restaurant manager is about 3 years), and somehow making them care passionately about a business which is forced to pay them minimum wage to remain viable. How do you get someone passionate about Burger King without being a total phony prick about it? This is the crisis facing the food service industry. I say crisis because the industry is booming. People eat away from home a staggering amount of the time. And good people are hard to find. Over the cousre of my 14 year career in the Food Service Industry, I’ve seen a myriad of different approaches to this problem with varying degrees of success, and I wrestled with it daily myself. The only thing I came up with was this: people generally work best in a place they themselves would patronize. The more phony bullshit you try to force upon them (uniforms, service standards, “flair” etc.), the more you suck the lives out of your most valuable resource. Then again, I drove myself nearly insane in the business and I was never a highly successful manager. Thats my rant.