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Turning the Tables on Failure

By Karen E. Klein Q: My family owns a bar and grill in Auburn, Ala., a college town, When we opened for business back in 2001, the bar seemed like the perfect draw for our targeted audience of African Americans between the ages of 25 and 45. It offered good food, a full bar, great music, and camaraderie. But its start was unsuccessful and my parents decided to shutter the establishment while we went back to the business plan, regrouped, and made plans to reopen. We'll be back in business this month, having added 1,000 square feet of space, refocused the menu to better serve the tastes of the target market, and made plans to add staff. Our problem is that we have little to no money to purchase local radio ads to let people know about our grand reopening. Will a couple of newspaper ads be enough? What can you suggest? -- A.M., Louisville, Ky.

A: If you have reexamined your business plan, determined where you went wrong the first time, and come up with some fixes for the problems you encountered in 2001, you're on the right track. Doesn't that new business plan include some funds for media advertising? How else do you think potential customers are going to know about you?

If your location is strong -- on a busy thoroughfare, say -- you may be able to get away with advertising your reopening on the cheap, perhaps by doing little more than hanging a big banner out front, announcing the date, and inviting folks to come on by. Also, you might be able to supplement that with some inexpensive ads in the college newspaper or on the campus radio station, if there is one. Here's another idea: Think about offering introductory coupons for a free drink or a dew dollars off the check.

MEAT AND POTATOES. If your location isn't great, a banner won't do much good. In this case, you'll need to narrowly identify your target audience (students? local residents? professors and college staff?) and come up with an affordable medium for advertising or publicity that will specifically target that audience.

Do you have a mailing list of customers from the bar's earlier incarnation? If so, you might cull through it to determine how many addresses would still be valid -- eliminating those who were students back in 2001 and are likely to have left town, for example. Then, send out a postcard letting old customers know you're back in business and would love to see trying the new menu.

A good way to get some free publicity is to let your local radio station and/or newspaper know you're reopening and invite them to send a reviewer out (you might want to wait until some of the kinks are worked out of the kitchen first) or perhaps, in the case of radio or local television, ask them to do some broadcasting from your location during football season.

Raymond Coen, a Los Angeles-based food- and restaurant-industry consultant, advises you not to worry too much if you can't afford a big advertising blitz. "It's usually best to open 'soft,' without spending a lot, to see how much business there is," Coen says. "After all, if it's a good opening without advertising, you've saved money. And if it's a poor opening, you know you have to spend the money. Also, too strong an opening, when the staff's not yet up to speed, can lead to disaster." Good luck!

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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