The art of staying in business often means learning the art of reinventing yourself. It could be that you want to grow or expand or add a new area of expertise. Or you may have found that reinvention was necessary for survival.
Whatever the reason you feel the need to reinvent yourself, your products, or your services, the Princeton Chamber of Commerce has come up with a program to help you. “Spotlight On Your Business: Reinventing & Expanding,” will take place Thursday, June 24, at 3:30 p.m. at Rats Restaurant at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton. The event will be held immediately before the chamber’s monthly Business After Business networking reception. Cost: $60. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.
A new educational development and support program, Spotlight On Your Business is designed to help business owners address the strategic challenges they face throughout the life cycle of their business. Through a series of panel discussions, educational seminars, and peer group reviews, the series will look at strategies successful businesses use to overcome day-to-day business challenges.
The June 24 event is the second in a three-part series focusing on reinventing and expanding your business. Panelists for the seminar are #b#Conrad Druker#/b#, managing partner at the Mercadien Group on Quakerbridge Road, #b#Debbie Schaeffer#/b#, president of Mrs. G. TV & Appliances on Route 1 in Lawrenceville, and #b#Jack Morrison#/b#, president of JM Group, which oversees several restaurants in downtown Princeton.
JM Group began 28 years ago when Jack Morrison opened Nassau Street Seafood & Produce Company in 1982. “I wanted to provide the Princeton community with the freshest food available,” he says. To do that, he got up at 1 a.m. daily to head to the Fulton Street Market in New York City to purchase fresh fish for his store.
At first, the store was strictly retail, but five years later Morrison began his first expansion by adding wholesale services. Two years later, in 1989, he added a catering division.
In 1999 Morrison decided that catering wasn’t enough. He opened a restaurant, the Blue Point Grill at 258 Nassau Street, and in 2006 added a second restaurant, the Witherspoon Grill, at 57 Witherspoon Street. Over the years the restaurants have received excellent reviews and the JM Group has served various heads of state and several New Jersey governors, as well as President Bill Clinton.
But if you think that Morrison is only interested in the food industry, you are wrong. “I’ve always owned my own real estate. That’s how we took over the development of the library plaza area in Princeton.” The final building in that development, 25 Spring Street, a 72,000-square foot building that will house 52 apartments with retail space on the ground level, is opening this week.
Morrison also believes that giving back to the community is important for a business. He was instrumental in bringing a seasonal farmers’ market to downtown Princeton last year. The market will open again this summer, each Thursday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Hinds Plaza, between Princeton Public Library and the Witherspoon Grill. JM Group also is a sponsor of the New Jersey Oyster Bowl, benefiting Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and the Harvest & Music Festival, benefiting the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.
#b#Catalyst for change#/b#. The decision to reinvent a business needs a catalyst, and for Morrison, the catalyst has been changing customer demographics and lifestyles.
“When we first opened the fish market most of my customers were young, with families,” he says. “They were eating at home most nights. But over the years that began to change.
As my customers became empty nesters they were going out to eat more.” This was coupled with an overall trend of families eating out more often throughout the country.
#b#Do your research#/b#. While observing the change was the first step in the decision to open the Blue Point Grill, Morrison stresses that it was only the first of many steps before the new restaurant opened.
“You have to do your research,” he says. “We did two years of research before we opened the restaurant. We created a business plan and we talked with other restaurant owners.”
Luckily for Morrison, he knew plenty of other restaurant owners to talk with. “Going to the Fulton Street Market for years meant I knew people in restaurants all over. I ended up talking to restaurant owners in New York, Boston, Atlanta, Charleston. It’s amazing how many business owners are happy to share what they know with others,” he says.
The research paid off. “Blue Point opened busy,” he says, and its success led him to open Witherspoon Grill in 2006.
#b#Reinvention in a recession#/b#. Even the most successful business has struggled in the economic downturn of the past few years. The restaurant industry has been especially hard hit, but Morrison’s restaurants have weathered by understanding the market and making a few key changes.
“People are still going out to eat, just not as frequently,” he says. “If they used to average going out three times a month, maybe now they’ve cut back to once a month.”
That means that while restaurants often still have a crowd on the weekend, weeknights can be light. The key in this business is having customers on Sunday through Thursday, according to Morrison. You can’t make it as just a weekend business.
Morrison has made sure to always have affordable options on the menu at his restaurants. “We always have meals for $16 or $17. The Witherspoon has blue plate specials and kids meals. I want to be a restaurant where a kid can bring his date and spend under $40 for a good meal and a nice atmosphere,” he says.
That’s why you’ll always find a burger on the menu at the Witherspoon Grill. “You can go there and have a nice atmosphere with white table cloths on the table and still just order a burger and beer.”
Employee buy-in. To make any major change or expansion a success, your employees must believe in it, Morrison stresses. “You have to get them excited about the changes.”
In fact, having employees who were ready to take on more responsibility was one important part in his decision to expand. “I had one employee who was returning to me after finishing college. He was ready for more.”
He now has several employees who have been with him for many years, including his general manager, who has been with him for 18 years. “Expanding has been a great opportunity for us all. We started with two employees and now we have 120,” he says. “We all had to jump on the success wagon.”
Treat your employees like family, he adds. “We all thrive on the success of the dishwasher.”
#b#What has he learned#/b#? One great question for any seminar on reinventing is “What would you do differently?” Morrison answers that easily.
“It took me a long time to understand that I didn’t have to be there every minute,” he says. He calls it the Power of X — finding excellent, loyal employees who will look after things at one location while you are in another. “Find great young people who will are excited and will treat your business like it’s their own.”