How to Deal with Customers Who Are Stuck in the Past

Last Updated Apr 8, 2011 6:23 PM EDT

By Chris Dagger, Co-Owner, Cakettes Coffee Shop and Bakery, Warren, Mass.
Fifteen months ago, my wife Tessa and I opened a new coffee shop called Cakettes. We opened in a space that had previously housed a diner but it had been closed for two years. When we moved in, we made some renovations, changed the menu, and changed the name. Then we opened.

Much to our surprise, we had no trouble attracting customers; the problem was, they assumed that we had just re-opened the old diner. They came in wanting burgers and fries, but we sell coffee and pastries. Rebranding an establishment with a history proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of building our new business from scratch.

Customers have long memories
We picked this building because it was a good location at the right price -- the fact that it was a former diner didn't really factor into the equation.

When we moved in, we struggled with the decision to change the existing furnishings: They were almost new, so it seemed like a waste of money. Still, we decided to replace all of the tables and chairs to give the place a new look. We repainted the walls, and changed all the signage. We did decide to keep one major element of the diner, which was a 50s-style lunch counter. Unfortunately that was pretty much the only thing people saw when they walked in.

One gentleman came in not long after our opening and asked for a sandwich with a side order of fries. I informed him, "We don't do fries." In fact, we don't fry or grill anything. Our menu offers coffee, pastries, specialty chocolates, and light meals. Still, the gentleman protested, "But you used to do fries!"

Despite all the modifications we'd made, he still thought it was the old diner. It's turned out to be remarkably difficult to change people's perceptions.

Winning them over
When customers come in asking for items from the old diner menu, I'll calmly explain that we don't offer them. I'll tell them what we do serve, and suggest that if they'd prefer a full-cooked breakfast, there's a diner across the street that offers what they're looking for. Sometimes they'll stay, and other times they'll go across the street.

Customers tend to be thankful that I'm not trying to sell them something they don't want. I could try to persuade them but I know that if they leave feeling disappointed, they won't be back. By taking this approach, I may lose a few breakfast customers, but they'll often decide to stop by in the afternoon for a coffee and a pastry anyway.

Even now, more than a year later, we still occasionally get people expecting the old menu. For the most part, however, locals have learned what we're about and enjoy what we have to offer. We brought in $140,000 in revenue for 2010, and we've just opened a new location in Leominster, an hour away from the first shop.

Learning from our mistakes
Our new location used to house a coffee shop, so we're not encountering the same problems with rebranding. We spent a month renovating the shop completely to match the décor and branding of our first shop. It helps that now we have an existing brand to build on.

This time around, we also informed our customers about what they should expect. We posted information on the doors while we renovated explaining what we would serve. We spent money advertising the business in local papers and on Facebook, and we've worked to build a presence on our Facebook page where customers can communicate with us and ask questions.

The shop opened earlier this month, but it's already receiving more daily customers than our first location and there's no confusion over what we're about.

I think when you're going into a building that once housed a different business, it's always going to be difficult for locals to make the transition. When customers have difficulty adapting, I'll try to do things to make them happy -- but I won't go overboard to change the business into what they want it to be. You can't be everything to everyone.

Chris Dagger's wife, Tessa, invented their trademark "cakettes" confection. In addition to selling the chocolates at their two shops, the couple sells more than 2,000 cakettes a week to countries all over the world.
-- As told to Kathryn Hawkins

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