Five Things Slinging Burgers Can Teach You About Branding

“The customer is always right.” I bet Harry Gordon, founder of the UK’s Selfridge’s department store in 1909 and the originator of that phrase, had no idea how far-reaching his rallying cry would travel. I, like countless other service providers, was taught early on to internalize this mantra.

Many interpret that phrase as bending over backward whenever asked, for fear of losing a customer. But I was fortunate. I was given a series of lessons on branding and customer loyalty during my college years, yet this particular learning came not from my classes but from an unlikely source. In fact, it wasn’t until much, much later that I recognized the value of those lessons. Or that they were even lessons at all.

You see, I worked as a waitress at a terrific burger joint outside of Chicago called Hackney’s on Harms.

I had been a waitress before, but Hackney’s was different. They had a couple of locations, but it was not a franchise. It was, in a word, unique. Let’s just say they understood “branding” before they knew there was a term for it. In fact, I bet they still don’t. But they do know how to make happy customers and a profitable, lasting business. Here’s what I learned:

Hackney’s entire menu consists of about four items: burgers (deep fried), “bricks” of onion strings (deep fried), french fries (sensing a pattern?) plus cocktails or beer. It has a tiny inside area with a big outdoor patio in a spot where summers are short and therefore, cherished. The place was packed all day and well into the evening from May through September. Do a few things very well, and you get known for it. Lesson: Focus Your Brand’s Offering (to what you do best!)

For one, they didn’t take reservations (still don’t) so there was always a long, long wait for a table. But, for some reason, customers didn’t mind the wait — they’d stand in line four deep at the bar to get a stiff drink from a cranky, old Italian bartender named Ross Capaccio. Ross was a man of few words. He never said, “Hi, my name is Ross and I’ll be your bartender this evening,” He never even said, “Hi.” You’d just sense it was your turn to order when he looked you square in the eye from underneath his heavy black brows. Then you’d order and he’d turn without a sound and shuffle off. If you were a newbie, you might yell after him, “did you get all that?” To which he’d turn slowly back around and, in barely a whisper, retort “I heardja.”

Becoming a favorite of Ross’s was a slow and rather tortuous process, but once “in,” you were a lifer. My first summer, I didn’t even get a nod from the old guy. Christmas break, I was on the receiving end of a couple of smirky smiles. But by the end of my second summer I became one of the chosen few. It took even longer if you were a customer – but if you earned a salutation from Ross, you felt like Norm from Cheers. Lesson: Take a Stand with Your Brand (Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right.)

My then-boyfriend and his brothers often came to the patio for dinner. His brother once told me he was in an elevator when a particular smell permeated the air and someone piped up, “Okay, Fess Up. Who had a Hackney-burger last night?” Now, that’s what I call brand recognition.

There was a tremendous camaraderie on the patio — all the servers were college kids; and the jobs were passed down through families rather than given up. I worked there every summer during college and then again for the six months before I got my “real” job — and by that time my youngest sister Andi stepped right in. They just inspired employee dedication. Working there was FUN. And they had your back. Lesson: Your Culture is Your Brand Turned Inward

Early on in my “career” there, a customer complained about his burger and sent it back. I nervously took it to my manager for a review and waited to get rebuked — it must obviously somehow be my fault. He took a look, and then shrugged, “OK, let’s give him another one but if he doesn’t like it then, tell him there’s a tavern down the street he might like…where they serve their burgers with Tater Tots!” Sarcasm aside, he knew intuitively that even if you bend over backward you can’t please everyone. Lesson: Don’t be Too Accommodating

“The customer is not always right,” he said. “Sometimes, they just don’t get it.” From that moment on, I felt even more pride every time I placed a plate in front of a guest. I knew they were getting a special experience and, if they didn’t know it, I was now empowered to tell them were to go (to the tavern down the street). What a relief. What a joy. What a brand.

These are lessons that can be applied to any business: Create a simple offering done well and you become known for it. Take a Stand and you’ll stand out. Every aspect of your business that a customer interacts with is a reflection on your brand. Create a loyal culture and you’ll inspire loyalty. Nobody is happy if you are too accommodating. And Know Who Your Ideal Client Is… And Isn’t

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