Singing the Blues Business

I’ve made many mistakes in my business career, but somehow I managed to cram a large number of them into a venture I started over 20 years ago. I established a blues and dining club called, “Café New Orleans” in Sarasota, Fla. The idea grew on me and became an obsession following several business trips to Louisiana, where I fell in love with the culture of that state.

On one level my partners and I succeeded spectacularly. We had a tremendous amount of fun and we had many happy customers. We fried great beignets liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar and even visitors from New Orleans told us that we served exceptional shrimp creole, jambalaya, Cajun catfish, po’ boys and chicory-laced café au lait. Some folks told us the food and the music was as good as anything you could get in the French Quarter and we were always packed on Friday and Saturday nights.

The only trouble was we had not done our market research. We picked the wrong location. There were more restaurants in Sarasota competing for the tourist business than in any other city in America, with the exception of one. In addition, the tourist season was a lot shorter than the economic development folks would have you believe. For six weeks we would be packed every day, but off season there were way too many choices and for most of the year our takings were below our costs Monday through Thursday.

In the off season, which was June, July, August, September and most of October, even the local residents fled north. Two additional mistakes compounded our problems. We set up on St. Armand’s Key, which was one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the country. The rent and the taxes were sky high. Another mistake was the size of the place. On Fridays and Saturdays it was, to say the least, disappointing to see potential customers standing in line unable to get in because we had only 24 tables. It was not big enough to justify employing shift managers so a small team had to work incredibly long hours and we therefore had a high turnover of employees.

There were a few other things that went wrong, including four robberies which were not adequately covered by our insurance. In the end we had one last great Sunday when a jazz band played to a packed house and I insisted that the last tune they played was, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I closed the place down, sold off my house to pay off the debt and walked away from the business with nothing. Or at least that is what I thought at the time.

In fact I had learned many valuable lessons that were to help me later in my entrepreneurial career: Do your market research, understand the competition, make sure you get your cost structure right to support your revenue projections, work out how you can scale your business.

If you want to avoid some of the mistakes I made I would strongly urge you to sign up for “FastTrac to the Future,” an event that is taking place on June 24, 2009 at the Community Arts Auditorium on the Campus of Wayne State University. You can sign up by going to

Randal Charlton is executive director of TechTown in Detroit. He can be reached at [email protected].