Remembering the old phone call I had with a stranger in the age of COVID-19

In the age of COVID-19, ALL of us are going through unfamiliar and stressful times…whether the lining up to get into the grocery store, trying to avoid a person while pretending that we are not, getting a doctor’s appointment through a video call (ok that was a positive one)…etc. There have been many weird and unfamiliar things/acts we had to learn and get used to.

Besides learning the new social manners(?), I am also observing the new occurrences around me: virtually empty streets, closed stores, restaurants with take-out only option. It is my recent experience of the restaurants’ take out only option made me think about the time I received the phone call years ago. I remember the story of one distressed restaurant owner who called.

Of course, both of us could not have known what we would go through years later, however, his problem at the time was HUGE for him. Although he wasn’t going through anything like nowsocial distancing, closure of non-essential services, etc-what he faced was an insurmountable problem for him at the time… and he wanted to talk to me.

This was how the conversation went.

“My business is not doing well”

That was exactly how the conversation started when I picked up the phone while I was in the middle of trying to finish one of the many deadlines I was working on at the office.  For a moment, I thought the caller dialled the wrong number, so I started to answer with an automatic “you must have called the wrong number.  This is an architecture office….” reply.  When I was about to hang up, the caller said that he called the right number, and said one of my past clients had given him my contact number.  I was intrigued…..

 

Business and Design

While speaking with this potential client, I learned a few things about the reason for his phone call;  restaurant owner in Toronto, weak business revenue for several years, a question of the physical restaurant set up.

Apparaently many of his customers, as well as the street passers commented that the restaurant is not ideally designed for attracting more people: too dark, too narrow, too little street presence, etc.

There were many “too’s…not in a good way.

My initial reaction to his business bottom line was thinking that he needed a good accountant or even a good business coach (which I could also get some help with), however, it changed quickly once he started talking about his restaurant, the ambience, and also comments from the customers.

It was clear that he was worried about his business state; however,

he was also suspicious about how the building / restaurant interior improvement can make the difference in his business revenue.

 

Design guidelines based on $$$:     

Typically most clients come to our office with a clear vision of what  to improve on the existing building or what they like to see in a new building.

It can be small as deciding how many rooms to have in a house, or how tall the building can go in a certain city within the city height requirements. 

There are many studies and researches go on before the substantial design work starts; in the analogy of writings, it would be like creating a massive “outline” before the writing gets started.

Our office typically starts working from these clients “outlines” (wish list / design guidelines/ etc), and start planning the project around these. 

Image © Mike Riscica via Young Architect

However, with this potential project, our “outlines” were created with more emphasis on monetary value (return) than an aesthetic one.   We started looking at the various factors that might have contributed to a negative impact on his business:

  • number of customers at various times of the day,
  • customers’ lack of reaction (or no reaction) from the street side
  • customers’ confusion of where to go once they enter the restaurant due to two separated restaurant areas

The first time I went out to see the restaurant after the phone conversation, I missed the building entirely!

Huge Open CLOSED Concept

After a good ten minutes of walking past the restaurant, I looked up one of the building addresses and realized I missed it.  With my phone, I started looking at the blue dot on the map, rather than looking for the restaurant!  It was an obvious design item that needs to be corrected fast!

Another obvious glaring problem I saw at the restaurant was that it was not being used well; the biggest open space which can accommodate the large group of people was totally empty most of the time, and the owner said space was being rented out for a couple of times of a year at the most!  

The restaurant was unsuitable to ATTRACT customers: dark, dull, dingy, etc.

With some minor upgrades (without coming up with huge renovation budget) such as better lighting, bright/ airy interior finishes could completely change the feel of the restaurant.

Also, with the even “bigger” budget, bringing more daylight into the restaurant space by either through different window designs or even introducing the skylight at strategic ceiling locations could make a huge difference in creating the bright and airy restaurant. 

It was unfortunate to see a potentially great entertainment space for the restaurant being completely wasted, and staying empty and definitely not contributing to the revenue.

Good Design equals Good Business  

 After sitting down with the owner and trying their favourite dishes, it was clear that the food was not the problem!  In fact, it was one of the great meals I had in  a long time….however, I was not sure if I would come back with friends to have a happy hour.

Conveying those feelings (mine, probably the most customers) to the owner in a detailed manner was an absolutely necessary step in guiding him with the right future decision. He was definitely more open to the suggestions and even started contemplating the “bigger” renovation to overhaul his restaurant.

Final Thoughts

When I look back on all the difficult times I went through, I have to admit that there were some valuable lessons I learned from them even if I did not know the reasons for them at the time. Of course, it does not make it easier going through those difficult times like what we are ALL going through.

I suspect whatever lessons we get from this daunting time of our life, we won’t be ready for the next challenges…I am not being pessimistic (ok a little bit.) However, I am certain that we would be better suited to face the next challenge with this experience.

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