Understanding demographics help Old Town restaurants succeed

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Old Town Lansing has an abundance of local restaurants and owners have to understand the market, said the owner of Meat Southern BBQ, Sean Johnson.

With 19 restaurants in Old Town, each owner had to start from the beginning in gaining their own customers.

Tamiko Richard, owner of JN Press Juice, said she wanted to educate the market about being more health-conscious with what they put in their bodies.

“We (her family) want to be healthy ourselves. You are able to tell more people about it once you start with yourself,” she said.

She said the market was empty in Old Town, making it perfect timing to introduce the benefits of organic, cold-pressed juice.

Richard said the challenges in opening a restaurant is educating the market and introducing the product to them.

She brings in new customers by going to events and sampling products. She said word-of-mouth is always a good thing.

“College students are more prone. We have the older people that are middle-class workers and they definitely (want to) be around a little bit longer. So, they decided to put healthier things in their diet,” she said.

Finding the right location to invest in may be determined by the demographic. She said it depends on the type market and what is missing from the area.

Richard chose Old Town because it is a shopping district where people window-shop more than purchase.

Owning a local business, she said there is more of a one-on-one connection with customers compared to franchises.

“We want to know our customers’ names. We want to know what they like. We want to be more personal with them,” she said.

Prior to owning Meat Southern BBQ, Johnson was working in a different career. He turned his hobby of barbecuing into a restaurant.

Johnson said the first year is tough, financially, for a lot of restaurant owners.

“You do need to make sure that you have your finances in order to be able to survive those lean times,” he said.

He said if owners are not willing to work every day and give up their lives by working a lot of hours, it is not different than trying to succeed in school.

“That’s what I find in a lot of guys (owners) who don’t succeed. Not that they don’t make a good product, they just don’t come into it with the right knowledge of how to run a business,” he said.

Similar to Richard, Johnson did not have a certain demographic in mind.

“It’s one of those kind of things where you don’t really prescribe to one audience. If you try to limit your target audience to one particular market, you’re just going to shortchange yourself in the long run,” he said.

Johnson said there is no great formula in finding the right location to invest in.

“What you have to do is basically understand the demographics of the area you’re in, what people are willing to pay for stuff, how far people are willing to drive for things,” he said.

Johnson chose Old Town over heavier traffic areas such as Downtown Lansing, because customers can visit all hours of the day rather than certain times.

When differentiating themselves from other restaurants, he said Meat knows their competition of chains and wants to be more traditional than the corporate level.

Store manager of Bradly’s Home and Garden, Troy Arient said Old Town businesses support each other in a way where merchants will direct customers to other merchants.

If someone asks where to eat, “we (merchants) can mention Sir Pizza for pizza, Pablo’s for Mexican, Meat for barbecue and Golden Harvest Restaurant for breakfast. Get that kind of conversation going,” he said.

“We’re all retailers, but we don’t see each other as a threat in competition,” he said.