In the college town of Claremont during my high school years in the early 1960s, there existed a charming, bustling restaurant nestled in a quaint old house on Foothill Boulevard, its neighbor a rudimentary gas station. This eatery exuded a unique, "homey" ambiance, marked by an eclectic mix of tables, chairs, and dishware that added to its character.
The kitchen was unusually open, featuring ordinary home stoves where cooks prepared meals in full view of the diners. The food they served was hearty, delicious, and offered at prices that made dining there not just a treat but a practical choice. The portions were generous, embodying a sense of wholesome satisfaction. This restaurant had become a local favorite, thriving purely on the power of word-of-mouth – a testament to its quality and the fondness it inspired in the community.
Years later, I found myself in an evening course on restaurant management at UCLA, taught by none other than Hans Prager, the culinary wizard behind Lawry's Restaurants. Hans, who had ventured out to create names like Gulliver’s, Five Crowns, and Yankee Tavern in Orange County, posed a question to us all: 'What makes a restaurant successful?' The class buzzed with ideas, but Hans distilled it to one crucial element: consistency.
He painted a scenario where a fabulous dining experience shared with friends could turn into a nightmare on a subsequent visit – poor service, delayed meals, and mixed-up orders. The negative impact of this inconsistency, he explained, is profound; not only would it lead to more widespread negative word-of-mouth, but it would also deter repeat visits. Any promotion or advertising would just spread the bad news faster, hastening the demise.
McDonald's, he pointed out, exemplified success through consistency. Their global footprint was not built on culinary excellence but on the reliability of their offerings – the same experience, whether in the U.S., Russia, or Hong Kong. As Hans said, "Not great food, but you always knew exactly what you'd get, whether it's in Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Moscow."
This principle, I realized, extends beyond the restaurant industry and applies directly to the functioning of all businesses and even Rotary clubs. The strength of a Rotary club lies in its ability to consistently deliver on its promises – to its members, supporters, sponsors, and the community it serves. The waning of membership isn't primarily a consequence of inadequate recruitment strategies, advertising, social media presence, or even public image.
It's fundamentally about the fulfillment, or the lack thereof, of implicit and explicit commitments. People are drawn to the idea of contributing to the welfare of others, and positive word-of-mouth can be a powerful catalyst in this endeavor. However, failing to uphold these implicit promises can repel potential and existing members far more rapidly than any recruitment effort can attract them.
In essence, the story of that little restaurant in Claremont and the insights from Hans Prager offer a profound lesson for any organization committed to service and community building. The key to enduring success and impact lies in consistency – in reliably delivering on the promises we make, thereby fostering trust, loyalty, and a strong, positive reputation.