By Juergen Kneifel Herald Columnist
Small business owners will be the first to admit that their ability to adapt to dynamic changes in the market is a function of survival.
To remain competitive requires even more foresight by these owners; to be successful they’ll need to create opportunity rather than respond to market pressures. Therein we see that “adapt or die” applies both in a proactive and reactive business strategy.
There’s no better industry to showcase the challenges of small business ownership than food service and restaurants. This happens to be the industry where more businesses fail in the first three years than any other. Sadly, there are many food service failures that can be blamed on the owners’ inability to adapt.
When students ask me what I think about opening a restaurant, lunch wagon or deli, my first knee-jerk suggestion is “just say no!” I’ll typically follow with questions about how many years of industry experience they have and seek to understand how their dreams may be different than the dreams of all those who’ve tried and failed before.
At the suggestion of a colleague, I visited with a recent Everett startup that seems to be bucking the trend and is establishing quite a following.
Craving Cajun opened on Everett’s Colby Avenue in January. Owners Calvin and Cynthia Bowens, a retired Navy couple, served at Naval Station Everett and decided to call this area home after serving their country.
Their kitchen experience is impressive: Cynthia spent 20 years preparing meals for sailors while Calvin clocked in 21 years. They both took on jobs locally in food service for several years while Cynthia attended school at Everett Community College and then Columbia College in Marysville.
In 2007, they launched a mobile kitchen that catered special events and festivals. The business was as much a “test balloon” as it was a business concept that could grow and expand.
Craving Cajun won best in class awards at several competitions and also earned rave reviews from customers and food critics. The Bowens continued refining their menus along the way and determined that it was time for something new.
“We were very successful preparing Cajun selections at these events. But we were lacking a commercial kitchen, which made for a lot of extra work. Our dream was to open a niche restaurant with unique selections,” Calvin said.
But running a mobile unit and cooking at special events and festivals is much different than running a restaurant. It’s also different from preparing meals for Navy staff, being the executive chef at a retirement community or managing a chain restaurant. This becomes your brand, your reputation and your livelihood.
I visited the restaurant recently as a “secret shopper” to get a sense of the food quality and the experience. And while I’m not a Cajun junkie, their blackened shrimp jambalaya was the best I’ve ever eaten. And the service was very personable.
I wanted to capture this entrepreneurial couple’s take on “adapt or die” in terms of their experience and provide a peek into their lessons learned.
Establish a home base: “We moved from a mobile operation into a fixed location which provides a great base of operations,” Calvin said.
It may have been difficult to grow or expand their operation based on the limiting factors of a roving business. It’s also difficult to gain a loyal following and customer base when you are literally a moving target.
Keep learning and doing: “We had experience in the kitchen but little understanding of business,” Cynthia said.
She returned to school and earned two- and four-year degrees in business that prepared her.
“We never stop trying new recipes in the kitchen,” Calvin added. “You’re always testing and trying new selections through daily specials to see what may catch on with customers.”
Scan the environment, listen to customers: “When we opened the restaurant, we knew we could cook. We didn’t know much about waiting tables,” Calvin said.
Reviews on Yelp and other sites confirmed that success wasn’t in the recipes alone but also good service.
“We had to adapt our service experience for customers or we wouldn’t survive,” Calvin said.
This was a major lesson learned.
Get out of the kitchen: Upon my visit to Craving Cajun, the wait staff was very attentive and professional. But even more impressive to me was when the chef stepped out of the kitchen to meet and greet customers to ask how they enjoyed the meal. Cynthia also made sure to introduce other Cajun selections that may be of interest for future visits.
I extend kudos to this entrepreneurial couple for learning these lessons and adapting so well to their business environment. As a veteran-owned business in a Navy town, my guess is that they’ll continue to grow and flourish. They’ve discovered that it takes more than great food to build a loyal following. And word of mouth recommendations has really propelled this startup.
Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the Everett Community College business program. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
2915 Colby Ave., Everett 425-374-2983 www.cravingcajunfood.com
Hours: Noon to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; noon to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday; noon to 6 p.m., Sunday.