When Mitt Romney visited Richmond landmark Bill’s Barbecue, going out of business after 82 years, he may not have gotten a pulled pork sandwich. But he did get an earful from Rhoda Elliott, a member of the Richardson family that’s owned Bill’s Barbecue since it opened in 1930.
“Six years ago we started seeing a little ripple in things, and then five years ago it rippled a little more,” she told him,
and then it really hit, and from there things just got rougher and rougher – the taxes, federal regulations. The food regulations themselves cost each independent restaurant thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to comply with, so that was another outlay. The health care, even just the way it was, was out of sight. But the new health care that they were gonna bring in would have put, I would say, 90 percent of mom and pops out of business, which is really all we are. We’re just a small family-owned business.
A new, two-minute web ad released yesterday, pratically wrote itself.
The problem is, when something sounds too good (or too bad) to be true, it usually is.
By either neglecting or choosing to neglect that fact of life, the Romney ad team either let themselves be misled or chose to mislead voters.
Most of the video features Elliott, both voice-over and on camera. After reminiscing about washing dishes as a girl when her daddy opened the restaurant after church on Sundays, she complains
When President Obama took office, there was a lot of hope that things were going to change. Well, he didn’t change anything. There are more people on unemployment, and that’s because the small businesses are failing, because we can’t make it. Things have not changed. The pattern is no different now except for worse than it was four years ago. We can’t stand four more years like it is today.
A press release from the company announcing the closing cited “changing marketing realities and significant costs of upgrading operations.” And therein lies the rest of the story.
Post hoc isn’t necessarily propter hoc
There’s a logical fallacy going back to the Romans (which is why its name is in Latin) called post hoc, propter hoc. This means, “after that, therefore caused by that” and points out that there’s a difference between sequence and causation.
And in the Bill’s Barbecue lament, post hoc reasoning seems to be a major ingredient.
It’s true that with today’s 7.9% unemployment rate, the Obama economy is still, to use a highly technical piece of economists’ jargon, in the toilet.
And it’s true that small businesses, which collectively account for some 90% of the nation’s non-government employment, have been particularly hard hit:
Companies with fewer than 20 employees have actually shed jobs during the economic recovery: The Intuit Small Business Employment Index was 0.9 percent lower in October 2012 than in July 2009. Moreover, since May, the index has moved in the opposite direction from BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics] estimates of overall employment, with Intuit reporting a loss of 10,000 small business jobs in each of the last two months.
The Intuit index provides no evidence that small businesses are hiring more people now than at the beginning of the President’s tenure. While the precipitous decline in the hiring rate during the Great Recession has slowed, it is currently 7.2 percent below what it was at the time of the president’s inauguration, Intuit’s figures show.
But it’s just as true that many of Bill’s Barbecue’s woes were cooked up not in Washington, but in their very own kitchens.
Nostalgia isn’t a marketing plan
The going-out-of business press release cited “changing marketing realities and significant costs of upgrading operations.”
Bill’s Barbecue ignored both until too late.
They relied on nostalgic childhood memories of long-time Richmonders to drive sales. Their menus, their decor and their business model remained frozen in time.
That didn’t go down all that well with customers. Of 17 customer reviews on their Yelp page, for example, nine are decidedly negative:
- “The barbecue does not appear to have been smoked, on site or elsewhere. It tastes like Sysco commercial barbecue. The cole slaw also tastes pre-made. Worst of all, the onion rings were the fake kind made from some kind of batter that’s supposed to taste like onion but doesn’t. The place was disappointing to say the least. If you have to choose, go to the Arby’s across the street. I never plan to go back.”
- ” I appreciate that Bill’s uses their own hot sauce that they bottle. But the quality of the sauce, while good, just didn’t stand out in a memorable way. I have had better pulled pork before, so again not a standout.”
- “Interior has not changed in 50 years…Service is pretty bad – really slow and not the best experience.”
- “The restaurant itself is nothing to speak of, it’s old…”
- “My god… they lost my order (with three other people in line) and then instead of asking me about it they started talking to each other regarding me as if I weren’t even in the room. The woman behind the line was ‘eating’ while preparing food. They only had lime-aid to drink (which was horribad). My Sandwich looked pathetically dried out, small, and a little like someone had been sitting on it. Really bad. I won’t be returning here.”
- “Service is curt, interior is like a What-A-Burger in Paris, TX, circa 1983. ‘Chopped Pork’ is crap; mostly dry and salty, flavorless. Sides are ok, more on par with fast food.”
- “You’re either on your way to a nursing home or rehab if you eat at Bill’s BBQ. I won’t be going back…”
- “Wow…childhood memories can deceive! Today’s Bill’s Barbecue at 5805 West Broad Street looks post-apocalyptic! I can’t comment on the food (others here have) but I can tell you that I drove up, parked, was taken aback by the decrepit look of the exterior, went in, looked around, and left.”
- “Went to the Midlothian location about 1:30 pm on a Friday afternoon. Two girls standing at the counter acted like they didn’t care if they took our our order or not. Girl said my debit card had to be run again, because it did not go through the first time. After checking my online bank statement, I found out it had gone through twice and had to call the home office to correct this error. BBQ was ok, has an odd flavor I could not place, not smoke, just odd. Hush puppies and sauce are ok. Lime ade is over hyped and not that good. Decent for lunch and prices are ok, but I would not eat here again.”
The seeds of self-destruction
While there are plenty of problems from the Obama non-recovery and the increasingly crushing burden of federal regulation, Bill’s Barbecue’s most pressing problems were strictly homemade.
First, there’s the timeline. As one commenter on the Richmond Times Dispatch‘s story about the web ad posted, “I have been going to Bill’s BBQ since the mid ’60s. Sorry to see them go, but give me a break. They have been on the downward spiral for 15 years.”
Then there’s the success of another barbecue place – a relative newcomer opened only 20 years ago – a little ways up The Boulevard from two Bill’s Barbecue locations, the other side of the Bowtie Cinema multiplex.
Obama economy or no, Buz and Ned’s Barbecue has been doing just fine, thank you – partially because they’ve done things to ensure success that Bill’s Barbecue ignored over the decades.
While Bill’s has never seen fit to advertise, for example, Buz and Ned’s has a huge outdoor board right over the restaurant, and they run cinema advertising in the nearby movie theaters, to attract moviegoers who might be hungry after the show.
‘We’ve grown every year while they have been declining every year,” owner Buz Grossberg told the Washington Post.
It’s not just the economy, stupid
So while the economy may still stink after four years of non-recovery, and while excessive federal regulations may make it worse, it’s possible to prosper nonetheless.
All it takes is updating your physical plant every few decades or so, keeping your product and service from deteriorating and actually putting some thinking, time and money into advertising.
Bill’s Barbecue did none of these things. As Elliott accuses Obama in the web ad, they “didn’t change anything…The pattern is no different now except for worse than…years ago.”
Consequently, Bill’s Barbecue and the President of the United States have one thing in common. Both are living in denial about their own self-induced failures and blaming those failures on everyone else.