It’s just business // Lessons in Business: Knowing when it’s time to close the doors

When big companies fail, we always seem to hear about or read an analysis of why from an outside observer – “business experts” and the like – but never really from someone inside the company laying out exactly why the business had to close. It could be that people just don’t want to face their failures. After closing my Tacoma Fresh natural foods convenience store last month, I want to shed some light on the subject for entrepreneurs who may be facing the same crossroads: when to hold ‘em, or when to fold ‘em.

In the beginning months, Tacoma Fresh was doing great. The grand opening was a lot of fun and many friends came out to support my new venture and, in turn, support the employees I hired. As word began spreading, people came in to check it out and, being a convenience store in the health food market, Tacoma Fresh allowed for no real expectations for people to have preconceived notions of what the store was supposed to be. That was a good thing for those with an open mind to what we were trying to do, and a not-so-good thing for those who had it set in their minds what “healthy” means. That was difficult and a real challenge – the nitpickers and naysayers who had negative things to say about the store. I soon realized that a lot of people’s idea of health is somewhat skewed.

I think that with the nature of what was put out there about us being a health food store, everyone assumed that their idea of health was the right way. But when they came in and we didn’t have it to their exact specifications, one of the hallmarks of Tacoma Fresh was that we encouraged customers to tell us what they’d like to see in the store, to give them a stake in having a grab-and-go place to eat well. However, when I ordered it and put it on the shelves they wouldn’t come back to buy it. Frankly, in this case we catered to the customer in a big way and it backfired on us. We lost money.

The grab-and-go, freshly made food proved to be a hit but it became a problem when we would run out of the things to make fresh foods all day. That left some customers unhappy and likely to not return. But serving fresh foods all day wasn’t our goal to begin with. The freshly made foods were just a part of the larger, overall store. We didn’t set out to be a Subway sandwich shop where customers could have it made their way. Tacoma Fresh wasn’t set up for that kind of individual service. We tried different things, like making a seating area that some customers asked for, but that didn’t catch on. Plus, more grocery stores are expanding their selections of natural foods more than they did a year ago, which made for more competition.

Some have said that the business needed a better location, but what does that actually mean? A place with more foot traffic? A place closer to those who wanted a different location? Then I realized that people shop at places like Whole Foods due in part to the prestige of it all – being able to afford the higher-end experience in a multi-million dollar grocery showplace located in nice, shiny neighborhoods. It’s why someone drives a certain brand of car that’s very expensive when they could be driving a mid-priced car. It’s that “experience” they want. So unfortunately the clientele we were trying to cater to could not and would not do their shopping at a small convenience store when they could go elsewhere and have “the experience.”

Despite our best efforts, the numbers weren’t growing. I thought that things would kick into gear, but it didn’t happen. Somewhere along the line I realized that Tacoma Fresh was not catching on and that it would be a poor business decision to stay open. I had to sit down and give some real, serious thought to why I should keep the store open.

I learned a lot during the process of establishing Tacoma Fresh. I learned the market and that the grab-and-go fresh food sold the most, as opposed to pre-packaged items that didn’t move as well. So I made the decision to close Tacoma Fresh and assimilate the employees over to my other business, Smokin’ Willy’s drive-thru convenience store, and brought Tacoma Fresh food there to sell. For those who are upset that Tacoma Fresh is gone, we’ve tried to bring as much as we can into the adjacent building so you don’t have to go very far.

At Smokin’ Willy’s you can get the same best-sellers that were sold at Tacoma Fresh: Caesar salads with house made dressing; Guam style chicken salad and wraps; pesto chicken sandwiches; chicken curry wraps; sub sandwiches with house made sauces; Bulletproof brand coffee; and freshly baked cookies, cakes and cinnamon rolls. We’re handing out samples every day so customers can try before buying.

My focus now is to help Tacoma Fresh food exceed tobacco sales. I’ve knocked off the word “health” because I think it might actually scare some people away but we’re still making things fresh and making it daily.

Now the experiment is this: Can Smokin’ Willy’s sell those Tacoma Fresh food items that sold well in a stand-alone store? Interestingly, there are those who refuse to do business with a smoke shop, but Smokin’ Willy’s is much more than that – it is a drive-through convenience store that sells all sorts of items. The same Tacoma Fresh foods are still being made by the same employees, only at a different location. I am still committed to helping people live healthy lives – that has not changed. The lesson in all of this is that failure is always an option and no one should go into any business without thinking about an exit strategy. If you go into business not thinking that it could fail, that’s just not smart. You should look at every scenario when you go into business: What if it succeeds beyond my wildest dreams? How am I going to keep that momentum going? What if it fails miserably? What’s my exit strategy? Asking – and answering – these types of questions early in the game can save you much heartache later and provide a “Plan B” for your entrepreneurial dreams.

No one can take away the fact that I was passionate about giving the buying public a quick and easy way to get healthy, all-natural foods on the go. Customers who want to support this cause are invited to come to Smokin’ Willy’s on North Point and buy up these foods and keep people employed because that’s what it does – keeps local people employed.