Thursday, February 18, 2010


Snapshot Demographics: the pursuit of real, street-level intelligence requires the art of patience.

Recently the [FIND] team found itself in Apalachicola, Florida. We were not working, just traveling from one job to the next. In our never-ending pursuit of excellence in dining, we strolled through the grid of streets that makes up downtown Apalach, a four or five block neighborhood with boutiques, restaurants, and antique shops.

We settled on Hole in the Wall Seafood and Raw Bar. It was the restaurant’s first night open, and we sidled up to a long high-top table to share a simply-prepared and delicious low-country shrimp boil and a bowl of homemade gumbo.

It quickly turned into one of those nights. Owners Jeff and Debi Fletcher–the kind of people whose warmth and openness immediately puts you completely at ease–poured us a couple of glasses of complimentary white wine as an anniversary gift. The next thing we knew, they closed the shop, pulled out guitars, and commenced with the serious fun. Before the night was over, we’d come to feel quite at home there, as if we were among old friends, and Debi had even wrapped up to-go dishes of seafood casserole for us, without being asked, in case we got hungry again.

Jeff, the brilliant 50/50 partner in the venture, and I had a long chat about opening restaurants. I asked him about the process…, site selection, figuring out what’s going to work. Jeff told me a story that, well…sure sounded a lot like surveillance.

Jeff sat across the street from the storefront, the one soon to be called Hole in the Wall, for several weeks before they settled on the spot. He simply sat and watched. See, they had already narrowed it down to a few sites, but liked this one best. They still weren’t certain their concept would work. So Jeff sat… and watched. He made note of how many people walked down the street. He kept a log of which nights were heavy with foot traffic. He observed the stores and bars on the street and realized that there was no where in the immediate area that served simple, family style food: a place where a guy returning from a day fly-fishing on the flats could sit and grab a snack while his wife ambles her way through the antique shops; a spot to grab a late night snack after the party down the street. He identified a gap in the market, a need. He was, by virtue of taking the time and patience to sit and watch, better informed than most new restaurateurs.

His willingness to set up surveillance, to document and make note, and to observe human behavior was the key to their making the final decision to dive into the restaurant business. The very backbone of the investigative process applied to a real-world situation.

I spoke a couple of months ago to a marketing guru here in Nashville. We discussed the idea of putting our investigative skills to work for someone looking to open a restaurant. The idea was simple: watch the competition, observe, document, and analyze their clientele. Identify gaps in the market, niches, and unfulfilled needs. Then we could take that information to the client and advise them of our findings. Sure, there are relatively inexpensive demographic profiles available to retail developers, broad-brush tools that offer a socioeconomic picture of a predefined area. Our approach to this type of analysis, however, is called snapshot demographics: a single, focused, clear picture of a specific situation, a more analytical and street-level demographic profile.

Turns out…our brilliant new idea had already been put into practice by an intelligent, well reasoned, restaurateur in Apalachicola.

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