Secrets of Business from Rainforest Cafe

It’s summertime. Lazy days. Vacations. Time off. The kids are out of school. And only 17 16 15 days before they go back! (But that’s a different story.) I’ve been working part-time while they’re home with me over the summer.

Last Friday, my parents took us all out to lunch at the Rainforest Cafe, and then we all saw The Simpsons Movie. (Worth seeing, BTW, especially if you’re a Simpsons fan.) The Rainforest Cafe is a theme restaurant, owned by Landry’s Restaurants. And there are a number of things they do there that serve as positive object lessons to all small businesses, in every niche.

The Rainforest Cafe website actually kinda sucks. I won’t go into all the dumb things they did there, because I want to focus on all the things they do so well in their stores.

They don’t sell food; they sell an experience.

Naturally, the food is good. After all, it is a restaurant, which I do recommend. I absolutely love their steak. I think they marinade it before grilling. This past Friday, I had a burger– not a quarter-pounder, but a half-pound monster burger, cooked just right. This ain’t fast food, folks.

But the appeal of the restaurant is in the milieu. It’s the experience. That’s what you go there for. Beneath lighting blocked by trees lives a Noah’s Ark of animatronic animals, who occasionally growl, shriek, and trumpet at you. And from time to time, they all go on the rampage at an impending thunderstorm (sans wet). And you will likely witness at least one Chocolate Volcano, with a complement of wait staff clapping and chanting as they serve it.

The take-away: The value you give your customers is far more than just in the product or service that you provide. You can distinguish yourself from your competition by providing value–not products and services–that your competitors don’t provide. The Rainforest Cafe is in the food business. That’s a commodity market. Yet, they can charge so much more than my local supermarket or coffee shop, because they’re providing an experience that is fun and entertaining. I’m not saying every business ought to be fun and entertaining. But I am saying that your customers derive value that is only indirectly related to whatever products and services you provide. There are gazoodles of restaurants, and only one of them is Rainforest Cafe. And there may be gazoodles of businesses providing the same products or services as you, but you can still provide a unique customer value, even in a commodity market.

They know the value of the upsell.

With my kids’ meals, the waitress offered to serve their drinks in a très kewl, battery-powered, colorful, LED-lighted take-home glass… for an additional $5. Normally, I wouldn’t go for something like that, but this was a special occasion. What I would typically go for, and what I did, is cheese on my burger, 99-cents extra. This is the upsell, offering a premium package.

I’m not talking about nickle-and-diming your customers. Most people will notice if you try to charge them for every last little thing, because they’ll become disillusioned trying to figure out how much it costs for all the stuff they feel they should be getting for free. What I am talking about is offering them premium choices. Everyone wants choices. Not everyone will want the premium package, but some of do. And those are the customers who have money burning a hole in their pocket for you. By offering them a premium package, you aren’t taking advantage of them. Rather, you’re providing additional value to them.

They know the value of the cross-sell.

Rainforest Cafe is the only restaurant I know whose exit is a gift shop. An actual, honest-to-goodness gift shop. Where you can get all kinds of Rainforest Cafe branded products and other kewl fun items. I don’t mean a few items at the check-out counter. I mean a large room the size of… well, the size of a gift shop.

How many restaurants end the transaction when a patron pays his bill? Yes, you can usually get a branded mug, or dessert to go. But Rainforest Cafe has made an art out of the restaurant cross-sell, knowing that a person who has recently purchased from you is more likely to purchase something else. Again, not everyone is going to buy something from the gift shop. But most people at least browse through the merchandise on display there. It’s sheer genius!

Again, I’m not saying all businesses need a gift shop. But how many end the transaction as soon as a customer buys? Meanwhile, they know all about the myriad complementary products and services their customers are probably interested in.

Inspiration from other businesses.

I love it when I run across a business like Rainforest Cafe. Because I love to look at what they’re doing different that make it remarkable. Like the gift shop. Many business owners would think something like that is corny, or not appropriate for their business. But just stand back and look at what restaurant patrons do as they leave. They stop and browse the gift shop. Not so corny to them. What does that tell you about what you should be offering your customers?

The truth is that there are few–if any–businesses that are so unique that they can’t discover new secrets by observing what other people do in other niches.

What’s one of your favorite businesses–not in your niche–that you’ve looked to for inspiration?

-TimK