This article in the LA Times about Sam Wo, a long-established hole-in-the-wall restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown reminded me that sometimes businesses succeed even when conventional wisdom says otherwise. It was interesting to read, and what stood out was the overwhelming response of the loyal customers. The picture shows the line out the door, with people waiting to get in for one last meal before the eatery closes due to health violations (including – gasp – rodent activity).
For Sam Wo to have so many loyal fans despite the fact they it’s known for it’s rudeness and not always sanitary conditions means they must have been doing something right. But what was it?
Sadly I’ve never been to Sam Wo so can only guess. But I do have plenty of fond memories at other hole-in-the-wall spots scattered across the country. As I think about what attracts me to them I realized there was one common theme: Authenticity.
These days, people want something real, something with character. There’s a certain charm to it. Sure, the Olive Garden offers an Italian “experience.” The food, service and atmosphere are consistently good and it’s a safe dining choice. But it isn’t exactly memorable. You can have the same experience at a Olive Garden in Seattle as you could in say, Tampa, Florida. Now I’m certainly not bashing Olive Garden but given the choice, I’d pick an authentic, independent, family-owned Italian restaurant with character any day (though I have to admit Marilyn Hagerty does make a good case for Olive Garden in her review of the Grand Forks, ND location – charming!)
Overlook the Flaws
People say they want convenience, but will then patiently wait two hours for a table at a favorite spot. Or fight traffic and parking downtown to pick up a baby gift at an independently owned retail store, bypassing three Babies-R-Us on the way. When you offer something unique and authentic, customers are loyal and will come back despite the inconvenience or so called “flaws.”
Give Us Character
The cool place where you can write on the walls? The bar that leaves its Christmas lights up all year? The restaurant that displays customers’ drawings on napkins, alongside framed autographs from famous people that have eaten there? The amusement park with a “gum tree.” The biker bar in Missouri famous for bras hanging on the ceiling? Each one has something unique and interesting going for it. Character. A story. A tale to tell. There are little hidden gems all over the world, and when you find one that feels like home you want to hang onto it. Customers want to be a little part of its history, flaws and all.
There’s a chance that Sam Wo might reopen if the owners can bring it back up to code. If not, the locals may be forced to move on to Panda Express for their Chinese fix. The service is good, the food is consistent and there are no roaches or rodents crawling around. But where’s the charm in that?