Sunday, November 25, 2018

Why American Biz Rejects Chowhoundishness

Me: Why is there no super-competent wine bar in the Finger Lakes, where you can go try glasses of the best stuff, without needing to trek around to far-flung tasting rooms?

Local Wine Expert Friend: The best-selling Fingerlakes wine is Haslitt Red Cat, which is sweet hybrid swill. It would take a leap of faith for someone to open a top-notch wine bar.

He's right, and, unfortunately, this sort of thinking is seen everywhere. I first noticed it back in high school, when I went to the beach with friends who had good taste in music but chose to blast awful pop on the portable radio because “girls don’t like Frank Zappa”. We could have tractor-beamed every cool Zappa-loving girl on the beach and enjoyed an awesome summer, but instead we drew marginal bored attention from boring normals (while afflicting ourselves). It made not a bit of sense to me. Why aim for every single girl? We're smarter than orangutans!

It drives me crazy to see this thinking in nearly all business markets. It's tautological: they proffer only crap, because low-quality's the norm. I.e. they give consumers what they want, and what consumers want is what they give them. To me, it seems obvious that while 80% will indeed gladly accept crap, the 20% who care about quality - not just richy-rich snobs, but any folks who eschew the most well-trodden consumer pathways - also constitute a worthy (and scalable) market.

No. American business - even small business - usually ignores that 20%. One doesn’t need 80% of a town's population as patrons; 20% would do nicely. Yet most everyone chases the 80%, and this is why quality is so lumpy and chowhounding, even at this late date, still feels so against-the-grain.

I certainly understand why most aim for the 80%. But given that capitalism abhors a vacuum, I can't understand why the opportunity created by this neglect is so seldom pursued. Three hypotheses, none of them hopeful:

1. Statistical naiveté (i.e. "80% is more than 20%, and who doesn't want 'more'?").

2. It's harder to traffic in quality...and harder to please the intrinsically hard-to-please. You must really know your stuff, and keep up. You can't just blithely phone in an order for X pallets of commoditized widgets, ala The Sims. When "the product" is more than a bland variable, business complexity is substantially increased.

3. The notion that "better" might be preferred on the merits, rather than via luxury cache, is relatively new, and capitalism, which is far more laggy than Adam Smith anticipated, has not yet processed this new norm. For example, Danny Meyer's 1985 brainstorm of opening an everyday-ish cafe that happened to be way better quality than usual - and the success which ensued for Union Square Cafe - still has not been fully absorbed by the restaurant industry (or even by Meyer himself).


PZ said...

JL, I don't know the Finger Lakes very well, or its wines, but I do know that when I'm at the bar at the Sherwood Inn in Skaneateles, which isn't that often, I feel like I'm in Napa or Sonoma; high-end Finger Lakes wines and high-end Californias on the list, drunk informally. .

Jim Leff said...

I wanna go

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