King Street Pilot: May I See the Whine List?

Intellectual powerhouses at KitKat showing love to the community. Maybe time to update the website, boys!

Maybe I’m missing something here. How, exactly does the King Street Pilot affect the restaurant business? There are many times I have considered driving into Toronto to dine out or to see a show, and one of the reasons why I think about sticking with my car is because the GO trains are already packed.

Packed! There is always a game on. The Raptors, the Jays, the Maple Leafs, Toronto FC. When there is no game, there is a concert. Big name concerts. Yes, Toronto, we are world class when it comes to the touring superstars. And outside of the mega-acts, there are hundreds of clubs, pubs, and restaurants all offering a great time.

I don’t know if Mr. Ford or Mr. Mammoliti has ever taken an inbound GO train at 6:00 on a Friday or Saturday night, but they are always full. We are a sports and entertainment city. These are people coming in from the ‘burbs to spend their money in the Toronto core. This is not a city that rolls up its sidewalks at 5:00. Not everyone who works in Toronto drives home to huddle in some bedroom community until the Monday morning commute.

OK, so I choose to drive in. Well, guess what, the inbound roads are also packed. Commuting into T.O. along the Parkway or the QEW at 6:00 p.m. is as bad as doing it at 6:00 a.m. Face it. Thousands of people want to get into the city to have fun.

So let’s say I choose to drive in and I want to go to a restaurant in the Theatre district. Maybe I should call ahead to make a reservation? OK, well now the restaurant knows I’m interested. “But wait,” I say, “can you guarantee that I can park directly outside the restaurant?” Of course not. It has always been impossible to park on any downtown city street. That’s why we have parking lots! That’s why GreenP exists! If I want to go downtown, I pull out my app and look for a place to park. There will always be places to park. Even when every outdoor lot turns into a skyscraping condo, there will always be parking spaces in the basement.

So let’s say I haven’t decided where to eat. I want to chance it. This is where the King Street restaurateurs may base part of their argument. “If people can’t drive by, they won’t see us. They won’t stop to get out and buy from us.” Well, welcome to the 21st century, Mr. KitKat and Mr. Fred’s Not Here. Most people don’t make dining decisions on a drive-by. They choose based on one of three items:

  • Proximity/convenience. There are dozens of parking lots within a block or two of every King Street restaurant. Easy, convenient and easily findable on an app.
  • Reputation/recommendation. If your food and service are great, people will talk.
  • Social media/apps. Most consumers use their phones for everything, and that includes deciding where to go and eat. Along with great food and service, a restaurant today needs a top-tier website – mobile friendly and filled with detail to attract new customers. That’s the new version of the drive-by, spontaneous choice. People will search for you, and they will find you.

Hey! Here’s another idea. Instead of giving your city and your customers the finger, why not do promotion instead. Something like “Welcome to the King Street Pilot. Here’s a $5 discount or a free appetizer! Come back! Tell your friends!”

The restaurant business is tough, no question. Rents are high, and margins are thin. Competition is fierce. But success does not come from whining. It comes from innovating; moving with the times;  delivering consistently pleasing customer experience all the way along the journey, from the first notion of “where shall we go out to eat tonight” all the way through to the time the meal becomes a pleasant memory and the subject of a recommendation to friends.

Captain John’s. The vodka martini was actually vermouth soup. My bad for ordering an exotic cocktail.

There was once a restaurant called Captain John’s that sat at the foot of Yonge Street. Anyone who ever dined there knows its only redeeming culinary value was that it was a ship (kind of). For decades it used that novelty alone to lure tourists in from neighboring hotels. They would never come back. But that was OK. Until, of course, the restaurant got towed away for non-payment of taxes. If that’s what the King Street restaurateurs want to do, sucker in the tourists for a one-off, then perhaps they should flip the bird at the new high-rise hotels that surround them, each of which has its own inbuilt entertainment section to keep those people close.

To the smart guys who think that an extended middle finger will win back customers, I suggest you look at your business model instead. If you are an attractive place to eat, people will show up regardless how they get there.

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