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Busboys and Poets, keeping the vibe during expansion

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As the new Busboys & Poets rises in the Merriweather District of Downtown Columbia, founder and CEO Andy Shallal offered a surprising admission.

“I never really planned for expansion,” said Shallal. “I really only planned operating a sole location. It just grew organically from there.”

That’s noteworthy – because the eighth and ninth locations of Washington, D.C.-based restaurant and cultural melting pot are slated to open in Maryland this year with the other in Baltimore’s Charles Village.

While that kind of growth this admirable in the risky restaurant market, it also can lead to a new hurdle: keeping that groovy vibe that led to the initial success as the company expands.

That Feel

Founder & CEO Andy Shallal. Photo by Emily Calkins.

Shallal said that he’s shied away from rapidly expanding for that reason. “We’ve been methodical about doing so, because you can end up losing the elements that made it successful. You have to have that foundation first and we try to create that atmosphere with everything we do.”

How does Busboys & Poets, which started in 2005, do it? “We’re constantly reconstituting ourselves to come up with more effective ways to maintain that vibe,” Shallal said. “It’s the programming we offer for the authors and writers we present, addressing current issues and politics, the poetry we offer, the books that we sell,” he said, adding that the company has its own music channel on a streaming service that his daughter programs “to make sure it’s eclectic.”

The company hires from non-traditional restaurant sources, which include an art curator, a poetry director and a director for its documentary film series. “It isn’t like we just have a poet show up and start reading,” he said.

Shallal also knows that different stores in different markets have different requirements, especially in a diverse market like Columbia. “That store is more of an experiment, really,” he said. At 10,000 square feet with special rooms, “It will be our largest location and will offer more varied programming, with more live music, and social and business events.”

The Same Old

On the other hand, there are still plenty of companies that have succeeded with what Shallal and others see as the “cookie cutter” approach.

“I always think in terms of TGI Fridays (which has several area locations) and how all of the art in the earlier locations represented something to someone,” he said, “but then Fridays turned into a business. You may still find a broken oar in your nearby location that means something to the locals instead of six broken oars someone at corporate bought on Amazon. That can work, too, but a location loses that local appeal and illustrates that, at some point, there was a divergence from the original idea.”

Fridays’ approach reminds Carol Spieckerman, founder of the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail strategy firm Spieckerman Retail, of Whole Foods, which has area locations in Downtown Columbia and in Annapolis Towne Centre.

“Whole Foods has a value around individual stores resonating with local communities. However, the more stores that a company opens, and the more unique each lo-cation is, the more complex it is to execute that approach,” she said.

Spieckerman pointed out that retailers’ desire to scale concepts quickly can blunt localization. “I think one reason Whole Foods has struggled is because the company stopped putting that kind of effort into their stores. Whole Foods is a cautionary tale of scale vs. localization.”

And many retailers “are obsessed with localization,” she said, “but the problem is that you have to decide to what degree you’re going to localize store design elements and product and brand selection.” Spieckerman thinks that Busboys & Poets may be at an inflection point in that regard. “Retailers that cut corners on localization and shift to standardization risk becoming just another store or watering hole,” she said.

Added Spieckerman, “If you build too many locations for a retail concept, it can reach a perceived saturation point. Not every concept is destined to become a big chain.”

That’s not a concern of Shallal or of Greg Fitchitt, president, Columbia for The Howard Hughes Corp., who thinks Busboys & Poets is the perfect fit for Downtown Columbia.

“Busboys & Poets creates a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide, in service of building community and inspiring positive social change,” said Fitchitt. “As we create the new neighborhood of the Merriweather District, I can’t imagine a better anchor than Busboys, a place where the new residents, workers, entrepreneurs and visitors will all gather and convene over great food, drink, art and culture.”

Be Consistent

Mark Millman, president and CEO of Millman Search Group in Owings Mills, Md., said the key to expansions large and small centers around one word: “Consistency, so when people go from one location to another, they’ll know what to expect. The best surprise is no surprise. It takes a considerable amount of training and development as well as hiring the right people to maintain that vibe, and to uphold the guidelines and standards from the original locations that made it successful.”

He said, “If you go to McDonald’s in Baltimore or Las Vegas, you know what you’re getting.”

That’s what Shallal is working toward for his customers. “Even today, I show up in my locations about once a week to make comments and suggestions,” he said.
Still, he maintains that he really doesn’t have a long-term strategic plan.

“Maybe that’s part of the charm of the place. I want to feel it out. If by the end of the year and all is humming and I find another market, then why not?” he said, “But I don’t have the outlook of having a plan for the next three-to-five years. Expansion outside the region isn’t impossible, but if we do it, we’d think in terms of starting a new company.”

By Mark R. Smith | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | April 2020 Issue 

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