Eighty-sixed in the Restaurant Biz

 

When the Korean War had ended and The Air Force wished me goodbye and good luck, I returned to Minneapolis and civilian life with an open play book. Actually I had a couple of job offers upon my return to Minnesota. One was to go to work for a local advertising agency. The other was from a friend of the family who owned a printing business. Though I elected to take a job in California, I stayed in contact with those people. Nothing to lose. “Don’t burn any bridges” my mother used to say more times than I can remember.

In fact, when I was fired from my ‘big’ low-paying job at the ad agency in Beverly Hills, I actually did give the idea of returning to Minneapolis some thought. However, I had a wife, two kids, a house and a mortgage, etc. etc. Out of the question.

The best thing that I acquired in my two years with the agency was my friendship with Burt Harris. We had become great pals and he and his wife Shirley had more or less adopted our family.

Realizing my desire to get something started on my own, possibly a small advertising agency, he offered me the use of his extra office where I officially opened my first solo venture, Geoffrey M. Nathanson and Associates (“Associates to come, obviously) with one client, Fad Nylon Stockings.

Geoff Nate’s first client

Well I wouldn’t exactly say I was on my way, because my commissions with Fad seldom exceeded $200 a month. So I was grateful to receive a call from Elliott Hoffman, the printer back in Minneapolis who had offered me a job before I moved west. He had a ‘proposition’.

“We’re starting a new business,” said Elliott. “We’re calling it C.A.R. short for ‘Certified Associated Restaurants’. The Eleven Western states are open. Are you interested?

I had no idea what he was talking about, but ‘Eleven Western States’ worth of anything sounded like a pretty big deal to me.

“What’s it pay?” I asked.

The competition

“Well… that’s something we can talk about,” replied Elliott. “How soon can you get back here to Minneapolis? All I can say is that we think it can be as big as ‘Triple A’ (American Automobile Club) or ‘Duncan Hines’. “

In those days if you saw a AAA sign in front of a restaurant or motel you knew it was recommended by the American Automobile Association. Duncan Hines, publisher of a popular travel guide, was another big endorsement in the ‘hospitality’ business.

The competition

Well… I had nothing to lose, other than the price of a round-trip coach ticket on Northwest. Though I still had no idea of what the job entailed, the ‘Eleven Western States’ sounded impressive. At least someone thought I had something to offer. I was flattered.

Hoffman was an established Twin Cities company which specialized in commercial printing, everything from posters to mail order circulars. Certified Associated Restaurants was Elliott’s brainchild. It was designed to be a service to motorists, similar to that provided by AAA. However, C.A.R. would cater to the traveling family in search of a family oriented restaurant conveniently located on a highway where customers could be assured of quality food and service at reasonable rates.

Each restaurant would be granted an exclusive franchise for its particular territory which could encompass a small town or, in larger communities a protected radius. This was in the days before the proliferation of freeways when most highways often passed through the center of town.

My job was to recruit and train salesmen to call on prospective restaurant owner franchisees. The cost of a franchise was $36.00 down and $36.00 a month. For that they would receive an outdoor sign, an initial supply of napkins, placemats, table tents, window banners and menu inserts, all of which of course were printed by Hoffman. The restaurant would “enjoy” a prominent listing in the C.A.R. Directory which he would display next to his restaurant’s cash register.

As for my qualifications for the job, I must admit that my sales experience to that date had been limited to hawking Eskimo Pies and caramel apples at the Minnesota State Fair.

There was however, one problem with Elliott’s offer. Apart from providing me with a franchise sales training manual and all the sales materials I needed, there was no salary involved. My income was to be in the form of overrides on the monthly fees and printing reorders generated from my ‘exclusive’ territory. I was to be responsible for my own ordinary out-of-pocket expenses. Reimbursement for extraordinary expenses required pre-approval from the home office.

I flew back to Minneapolis and went through a brief two-day training program with one other regional manager-to-be, I was given a suitcase full of training materials and sent back to Los Angeles with orders to begin recruiting salesmen and start calling on prospective restaurant franchisees.

Ambassador Hotel

Prestige hotel

Pumped up and primed to hit the trail running, I placed an ad for salesmen in the LA Times immediately upon my return. The ad invited interested parties to attend a meeting at the Ambassador Hotel, in a hall I had booked for the occasion. The cost of the meeting hall was considered a “reimbursable expense”, one of the few I might add.

About 25 people showed up. We served coffee and pastries (at my expense). I was delighted to see that some of the attendees actually evidenced interest, completed brief resumes and agreed to show up for training the following Saturday at my little office in Beverly Hills.

Seven of those men actually did make it that Saturday and five stayed for the training course. Lunch was provided again at my expense. Each man was furnished a copy of the sales manual, brochures, promotional materials and a receipt pad. Each was assigned a territory in Southern California and instructed to return to my office the following Saturday for a sales meeting to evaluate their progress. All a salesman was expected to do to close a sale was to get the restaurant owner to sign the C.A.R. franchise document and write a check in the amount of $36.00 payable to Certified Associated Restaurants which would cover the restaurant’s first month’s membership. The $36.00 would in turn be remitted back to the salesman in the form of his ‘initial commission’. In addition, the salesman could expect to earn an override of 10% of all future income CAR receives from his customer’s franchise fees and the printed materials he purchased.

Prestige hotel

Excited about my new business and anxious to move forward, I ran an ad in the San Francisco Examiner and booked a meeting room for the following week at the Fairmont Hotel in that city. I made a similar pitch to about twenty men including my brother Gary who was staying in that city with some buddies and out of work at the time.

Nine of those attendees left resumes and agreed to take my indoctrination course at the hotel the following day. Much to my disappointment only my brother and one other recruit showed up for that training session. The new recruit’s only real sales experience was limited to selling squash balls in the bay area for Dunlop, who he said would not mind if he took on another line.

I returned to Los Angeles and my first scheduled sales meeting with my Southern California team. I had ordered corned beef sandwiches for lunch, at my expense of course. The meeting was scheduled for nine and by ten only one of my five salesmen showed up. He reported that unfortunately because of an illness in the family he had only two days to commit to C.A.R. and as happens, his own ‘CAR’ was having transmission problems, so all he could do was apologize and wish me well. “He left his sales reports which indicated that in one day he had made two calls and received two rejections. Reasons given: “Owner not interested” and “Owner selling business.” We had corned beef sandwiches for dinner that night at my in-laws’.

As for Northern California, I got a call from the squash ball salesman after what was supposed to be his fifth day on the road. He had sold a franchise to a diner in Walnut Creek and would send the contract and the check the next day. However, he decided to take a job in his brother’s carpet store. He was sorry, but said he would mail back his manual and the other sales materials.

Anderson pea soup

Buellton’s famous

A few days later, I heard from my brother. He had made a sale, Anderson’s Pea Soup in Beulton, and was on his way down to Los Angeles and hoped to pitch a few other C.A.R. prospects on the drive down. He made a few stops with no takers. Nevertheless, he was enthusiastic about C.A.R. and would like to try his luck again here in Southern California. I complimented my brother on his sale and told him he could write his own ticket, because the territory was wide open.

To say I was disappointed was an understatement. Where had I gone wrong? To make matters worse, I got a call a few days later from the Minneapolis office relative to the sale made by the squash ball salesman up North. The new franchisee’s check had bounced. I asked to talk with Elliott Hoffman who called me back later that day with a pep talk.

“Don’t be discouraged. Salesmen in other parts of the country are “knocking em dead,” reassured Elliott. “Maybe you’re recruiting the wrong sales people. Don’t give up! It’s a great product! Can’t miss! Give it a few more weeks. As for the bounced check; those things happen. He should have pre-qualified the guy. Go get ‘em. Call me back next week.”

It’s not easy to get an executive fired up with a phone call, but Elliott had convinced me that I should give it another try, especially since, as he maintained, sales in other territories were going “like wildfire”. I came to the conclusion that the problem must be me. How could I possibly recruit and train people to sell a product I had never tried to sell myself. I decided therefore to table my salesmen recruiting plans for a week or so, hit the road solo and “knock em dead”.

Ted's

Santa Monica breakthrough

My first call was to ‘Ted’s Grill at the Beach’ in Santa Monica. Now Ted’s was not exactly on the highway, but he was only a block off which was close enough. I made my pitch. It was an easy sale. Ted signed the agreement and gave me a check for $36.00. The whole meeting lasted less than twenty minutes. Of course the fact that my wife and I were regular dinner guests at Ted’s might have helped.

MoonShadows

Malibu’s first score

My next stop was at “Moon Shadows” up the highway. The sale there took a little longer, however the owner signed up when I showed her Ted’s check, and I promised not to offer the franchise to the Sea Lion, her competition three miles up the coast.

How about that! Two pitches, two sales. I was on a roll. I was primed for a major sales trip the next week, an overnight in the direction of Palm Springs where my parents were vacationing. There were no freeways going east at that time, so my plan was to head out on Route 60 through Riverside and circle back on Route 66 through Pomona.

The trip on the way out was tough. A couple of good prospects were already hooked up with AAA or ‘Duncan Hines’; and another on Highway 60 in Ontario was selling his business. However I hit it big in Riverside where I landed a popular family restaurant whose big competition was the ‘Riverside Inn’ which already had every important endorsement available.

Grandma's

An easy sale

I spent the night with my folks in Palm Springs. We had dinner at the Racquet Club (Wouldn’t qualify for C.A.R.) I got an early start the next day and headed west on Route 66. My first stop was ‘Gramma’s’ in Banning. I pitched her chubby granddaughter who I think was more interested in me than she was in C.A.R. Nevertheless I closed the sale.

I had asked the granddaughter at ‘Gramma’s’ if she could recommend a restaurant in Beaumont, the next town down the highway. Big mistake.

“Oh there’s nothing in Beaumont… certainly not of the quality you are looking for,” said my new customer. Obviously, she didn’t want any competition next door.

She recommended a place in Calimesa a good 20 miles away. I’ve forgotten the restaurant’s name, but the owner was an easy sell. I found out later that he had his place on the market and felt the C.A.R. thing would be a plus. Also, seeing Gramma’s check didn’t hurt.

There was a perfect Scandinavian restaurant outside of Redlands, but the number 10 freeway was supposed to be coming right through their place, and they didn’t know where they were going to wind up.

Lee's chinese restaurant

My Chinese score

San Bernardino was a problem. There were no highways passing through the center of town. I had to settle for a Chinese restaurant owned by a very nice man named Chef Lee whose name, for some reason, I have never forgotten. The menu was not exactly profile C.A.R., but then again, a lot of families were there at the time having lunch. Chef Lee figured my deal might bring in some tourist business. He wrote a check.

My next stop was in Colton at a hamburger place. The owner never heard of the Chinese restaurant in San Bernardino, but when I showed him my checks from Grandma’s and the place in Calimesa it was a done-deal.

Like San Bernardino, the business district in Pomona is not really on a highway. In fact it sits between the 60 and the 66. I tried my luck at a few restaurants downtown. Either the owners were away or busy or were already hooked up with the competition. They probably wouldn’t really have matched my profile anyway.

Geoff Nate’s last pitch

My last pitch was at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank on Riverside Drive. Believe it or not I actually cornered Bob Wian himself. We were not far from his original hamburger stand in Glendale that he opened in 1937. We sat down in a booth together and in forty minutes over a malt and one of his famous ‘Double Burgers’, he taught me the restaurant business.

Bob explained that most of the restaurants I was trying to franchise were owner operated, which was good because they were the men who made the decisions. “However,” he added, “more than likely the owner works full time at his restaurant. His is a tough job. He often puts in 18 hour days. He has a terrible time keeping his help especially in the kitchen. Bus boys and dish washers come and go, and his chefs are always putting the arm on him for more money. Sometimes the owner himself is the chef and probably doesn’t have the time to listen to a sales pitch unless you catch him at closing when he’s too tired to write a check. It’s a tough business.”

Bob Wian ..Bob's Big Boy founder

Advice from a wise Wian

I thanked Bob and reached for my pocket and my wallet. He waved it away of course, wished me luck and headed for the cashier to check the day’s receipts. Bob Wian sold his chain of 600 ‘Big Boy’ restaurant franchises to the Marriott Hotel Corporation in 1967 for $7,000,000. All it took was a lot of hard work and twenty years.

In my office the next morning I drafted a letter to Elliott Hoffmann in which I explained my financial situation, the importance of earning a steady income, staying current on my mortgage and feeding my family. I sent him the checks I had collected the past few days and wished him and C.A.R. well.

EPILOGUE:

I think that Elliott Hoffman and his associates reached the same conclusion. Other would-be franchise salesmen must have experienced results similar to my own. Bob Wian’s caveat was validated.

I never heard another word about C.A.R. or ever saw a C.A.R. sign in front of a restaurant anywhere. Nor do I think any of the people to whom I sold franchises ever received anything from C.A.R., including a refund of their franchise fees. To this date, chicken that I am, I have never set foot in any of those restaurants I called on, sale or no sale. ‘Caveat Emptor’… ‘Let the buyer beware.’ I still live with the guilt.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: