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Running Your Business:
Time Goes By
By Miriam Silverberg

I don't know about you, but I am frequently overcome by nostalgia. I am nostalgic for places I went to and things I did and foods I ate as a child. My parents started taking me to fine restaurants when I was about five.

A few years ago a friend give a restaurateur my name. The restaurateur called me and we met. I was thrilled to be working with her restaurant which was a very elegant Continental place. It had been in business since the 40s. The first time I went in for dinner it was a Saturday evening. The dining room was fixed up like an indoor garden, just dripping charm. The atmosphere was serene, the service attentive and the chairs, empty. There was no one there.

I opened the menu and was immediately transported back to my childhood. Among the appetizers was celery remoulade. When was the last time you saw celery remoulade? The Kennedy Administration? I ordered it and, of course, I loved it but as I say, I like being nostalgic. Among the entrees was Boeuf Wellington. I thought it had been removed from all menus by proclamation during the Truman Administration. For dessert there were a number of choices...Peach Melba, strawberries flambe and the specialty of the house which turned out to be Bisquit Tortoni.

By this time I realized why the place was so empty. I was dining in a time machine. I asked my client to join me and she asked what I thought. I told her that I loved it and why, but the reason I loved it was also the reason she wasn't doing any business.

I asked to speak to the chef and she said that wasn't possible. The chef was from the Philippines, spoke with a pronounced accent and was almost pathologically shy and didn't like meeting people.

All right, my client was personable and well-spoken. She would do fine when food writers wanted to meet someone from the restaurant. No, actually she wouldn't. For various reasons she didn't want to be interviewed, either.

Have you ever tried to interview a plate of Dover Sole? It's not very talkative. I explained to her that perhaps she might want to consider changing her menu and updating it slightly, at least to the Reagan Administration. She didn't like that idea because it had been done just this way since it opened back in the 40s. Explaining that the world had changed since then and she hadn't made no impression.

The place hadn't been reviewed or written about since the 50s, but those reviews were wonderful and were now all lovingly reprinted and displayed all over the restaurant. In the ladies room was a reprint of an article in a gossip column, the author of which, even I, nostalgia buff that I am, had forgotten about. I brought people in and, depending on their age, their reaction ranged from "Oh, I remember this, I didn't think anyone was doing this anymore," to "This is weird."

Yes, it was weird. You had the feeling that the restaurant, and everything in it, had been carefully preserved in amber. Unfortunately, all its charm, attentive service and good food couldn't save it. Time had passed it by and customers no longer wanted that atmosphere or that food. So, because it wouldn't, or couldn't change, it went out of business a few months thereafter.

Don't let that happen to you. Don't fall in love with your menu or your decor and refuse to change. One of my clients has changed with great results. After being open for eight years and doing very well, they revamped their menu and the decor, making everything much more informal, going from big-deal to trattoria. The reaction has been quite enthusiastic.

Always remember to be flexible. A concept that was successful ten yeas ago may not work today. You must force yourself to change with the times.


Miriam Silverberg is the founder and owner of a boutique public relations agency in New York City. Listed in Who's Who of American Women, she is a panelist on Mary- mount Manhattan College's annual day-long seminar on writing and publicity. She has represented some of the top restaurants in New York. She can be contacted by e-mail at silverbergm@mindspring.com




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