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Sandwich Shop Seeks Elusive Link to Success

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.

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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.

Once Johnson acknowledged that he was unlikely to convert people who don’t eat sausage, Phibbs had him reconsider his current advertising choices. He advised Johnson to drop his ads in the local shopper. Haute Links’ target audience of local businessmen and men who live in the affluent neighborhoods nearby probably aren’t reading it. Phibbs cautioned Johnson and other business owners against choosing an advertising vehicle based on who walks in the door to sell them an ad. A better demographic fit for Haute Links might be the South County Business Digest or OC Metro, the consultant said.

He also suggested that Haute Links drop all current discounts, including coupons distributed in mass mailings and on door hangers.

“That’s the oldest, tiredest trick used in retail,” Phibbs said. In his opinion, customers lured by free or discounted food are likely to come back only when they get a new coupon. That’s not the kind of long-term relationship a business needs to survive, Phibbs said.

Discounts or giveaways should be used to reward current customers and to encourage them to bring in friends with, say, two-for-one specials, he said.

Building relationships with his target market should be Johnson’s main focus, Phibbs said. But it doesn’t have to be expensive. Be creative and “outsmart” the competition, he told Johnson. To do that, he suggested the owner begin to create an internal mailing list of customers and renew efforts to attract workers from companies in the business park where Haute Links is located.

Johnson also needs to get out from behind the counter and start talking to customers, the consultant said. Find out why customers came in, how often they eat there, what they like or dislike about the experience, what the business can do to improve. The point is, don’t assume you know what the customers want, Phibbs said. Ask them. It’s an opportunity to create a valuable relationship that can result in more than the sale of a sandwich.

A chat with a new customer, a top executive at a nearby company, gave Johnson a valuable tip on how to get his business in for a tasting at a large gated business complex in Orange County.

Phibbs encouraged him to ask customers for contacts at their companies, specifically the names of people who could approve a tasting in the company cafeteria or an outdoor sausage barbecue in the company parking lot. Free or low-cost tastings are a tactic companies such as ice cream vendor Ben & Jerry’s use to expose customers to their products.

And don’t overlook seemingly small steps in the bid to attract customers, including printing the logo and phone number on napkins, cups and paper bags used at the tastings and in the shops, Phibbs said.

“Don’t consider it a cost. It’s an investment in marketing,” said Phibbs, who would like to see the business boost its spending on marketing to at least 10% of sales from the current 6%.

Keeping the shop spotless and pruning out old signs or ragged point-of-sale materials is also a small but vital step in attracting customers that one too many business owners let slide, the consultant said.

Phibbs’ extensive recommendations for Haute Links didn’t always include more work for the business owner. In two areas, the consultant advised Johnson to scale back his business plan: boosting dinner sales and franchising the business.

It’s too soon to try to build the evening business, Phibbs said. (The restaurant is open until 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It closes at 3:30 p.m. on Sundays.)

As far as he’s concerned, Johnson hasn’t begun to scratch the surface when it comes to potential lunch customers for his Trabuco Road shop. The important thing is to stay focused and lead with your strengths, Phibbs told Johnson. For Haute Links, that means building up lunch sales.

Plans to franchise the business are also premature despite at least one failed attempt by a former employee to knock off the concept, the consultant said.

“My philosophy is you don’t [expand] until people are in line beating the door down and saying you’ve got to open a second location,” Phibbs said.

Johnson said that despite his initial skepticism, he has begun to implement Phibbs’ recommendations, which the business owner expects will increase sales by 20% to 30% this year. Johnson had been disillusioned by the generic advice offered by a string of consultants he’d hired in the past.

“They’d say, ‘You’re doing a good job, you just have to do more of it,’ ” Johnson said. “Bob just came in and said, ‘You’re doing it all wrong.’ ”

*

Cyndia Zwahlen can be reached via e-mail at cyndia.zwahlen@latimes.com.

Applications for a Business Make-Over are available online at https://www.latimes/com/bizmakeform or by writing to Karen E. Klein, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

This Week’s Business Make-Over

* Company name: Frankly Foods Inc. a.k.a. Haute Links

* Headquarters: Lake Forest

* Type of business: Gourmet sausage sandwich shop

* Status: S-corporation

* Owners: Bryan and Heidi Johnson

* Founded: 1993

* Start-up funds: $150,000 from two home-equity loans

* 1999 sales: $250,000

* Employees: 1 full-time; 6 part-time

* Customers: Local businesspeople and residents

*

Main Business Problem

Unable to successfully market Haute Links’ sausages as a healthy fast-food choice and to increase customer visits.

*

Goal

To franchise the business.

*

Recommendations

* Quit preaching nutrition; start selling taste.

* Focus on a target market, specifically men ages 22 to 55.

* Lighten up. Use humor to sell what is a fun product.

* Drop discount coupons and ineffective advertising vehicles. Learn how to build customer relationships instead.

* Postpone franchising plans.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Meet the Consultant

Bob Phibbs works most often with independent companies, including specialty retailers, restaurants and hotels, that face competition from large chains. Phibbs, who has been a consultant for the last seven years, is writing a book about success strategies for small businesses. He is based in Long Beach.


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