The bank manager's always right

There are rules when you run your own business but there are some rules that are more important than others.

For instance, when you run a restaurant it’s pretty important that you’re nice to customers – because their return is rather important to your livelihood. Following strict health and hygiene rules is pretty fundamental because, again, we need our customers to be well enough to come back. And providing a certain quality of food and service because – well, I think I’ve made my point. Customers are pretty important.

But there’s someone who comes before customers, someone without whom most small businesses can’t survive. And it pays to make him think you’re really, really clever and always going to be a great success. So, obviously, it’s essential to make sure you never let the bank manager find out just how incompetent you really are. Unfortunately, I’ve managed it on more than one occasion; and on one particularly excruciating afternoon some years ago.

Just so you know that there’s going to be a happy ending to this tale and not leave you too upset, I’ll point out now that my bank manager at the time had become a good friend, has subsequently taken early retirement and has remained a good friend. But the latter’s certainly down to his understanding nature rather than my abilities.

Soon after starting my first restaurant in Barnard Castle I discovered that, because the immediate geographical market was very small, I had to continuously think of ways to bring customers back frequently rather than rely on new ones. And, as many restaurants do, I hit upon themed “specials” nights. You know the sort of thing, every Thursday evening we’d produce a one-off unique menu; Thai, French, Mexican, Greek, Patagonian. You name it, it seems we had a stab at it.

And that was where we created a bit of a problem for ourselves. Our expertise lay in what we normally did, day-in-day-out. Introducing a different menu every Thursday may have been of great interest to our customers, and I must admit the evenings were very popular, but I was acutely aware that the food was of inconsistent quality. After all, we hardly gave ourselves the chance to practice the dishes and what did a chef from Teesdale know about sand-baked Lebanese goat?

And even though the evenings were very popular and thus resulted in increased takings, because we were managing a one-off menu each week, the waste was shocking and our profitability was embarrassing.

However, that didn’t bother my bank manager. He was a good customer who brought his tolerant taste buds, along with many of his friends and family, to many of these specials. And their lack of profitability was – to use a word – swallowed up in the rest of the month’s trading.

Looking ahead, I’d noticed that July the 4th fell on a Sunday. “Ah”, I thought, “Independence Day celebrations”. So I hired in dozens of American flags, a couple of large gas barbecues and even a country and western singer. I printed thousands of flyers, mailed out to all my customers, kept my eye on the long-range weather forecast and composed a menu largely based on beef burgers.

Come the 4th, the sun was shining for a change and it was a beautiful day. I covered the building in flags, had the country singer warming up and entertaining the whole town from our courtyard, lit the barbecue to waft cooking smells down the road and waited for the customers to flock in.

It really wasn’t the success I was hoping. Because of the unusually good weather after a month or so of rain, it seemed that everybody had stayed at home to barbecue or gone down to the river to picnic. Just two tables turned up. One was a couple who, I think, were lost, maybe foreign and only looking for a cup of tea. They certainly looked confused standing there in the courtyard of a medieval building in the North East of England being serenaded by a cowboy.

And the other table? You’ve probably guessed it – my bank manager with his wife and daughter.

That was it. After all the flags, leaflets, notices, mailshots, effort and more flags, only five people came. There was no hiding it this time. “Haven’t you promoted it Bill?” he asked as I struggled to hold my head up. “Have you told people the correct day?”.

I had only two options but suicide is the coward’s way out. So I went to the pub and got drunk leaving two chefs, a country and western singer and his karaoke machine to entertain my bank manager.

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