Seeing as how it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d focus this post on something I truly love: food. More specifically, there’s a burger place in Seattle called Lunchbox Laboratory. You could order up a huge sloppy, delicious concoction of your choosing — beef, “dork” (duck + pork), lamb, “churken” (turkey + chicken), game — adorned with bacon, truffle sauce, gorgonzola cream, you name it, complete with a fries or tots with your choice of salt accompaniments and one of many different milkshake flavors to wash it all down.  It’s the sort of place you could go to for lunch where you’d gorge on a meal and be so full that you wouldn’t (or couldn’t) eat anything else the rest of the day. It’s a pricey excursion (two burgers, shakes and fries would add up to about $45) but totally worth it. Lunchbox Laboratory is considered to be one of Seattle’s best burger places and has graced many culinary magazines’ lists of best burgers nationwide.

So damn good

Or so it used to be. One of my favorite burger joints in town was recently bought by a somewhat craptacular establishment called the Eastlake Bar and Grill, and they decided to move Lunchbox Laboratory’s location from the tiny, hole in the wallish building where it used to reside in Ballard to a larger location in South Lake Union. I initially thought this was both spectacular and dangerous news, as the new location is closer to where I live. However, after checking out the new location’s Yelp listing, I can’t help but feel a bit heartbroken.

old location's Yelp listing

The old (now closed) location’s Yelp listing averaged four stars out of nearly 500 reviews. The new location, on the other hand, isn’t faring nearly as well:

new location's Yelp listing

Thus far the new location has only amassed 37 reviews, but it’s averaging a surprisingly poor 2 1/2 stars, down from its stellar four star rating. What the hell happened? After perusing through the reviews, it’s apparent that the location isn’t the only thing that Lunchbox Laboratory has changed:

  • “…they are no longer getting the kaiser roll from Grand Central Bakery, and are instead using a bread that is so dense it ends up overpowering the burger.”
  • “Looks like the new owners brought in their frozen food tendencies from eastlake bar & grill, etc and ruined a classic..  you would think they would expand options with a bigger space/kitchen but they did just the opposite. “
  • “burger size has gone down considerably while price went up?”
  • “They’ve taken everything that made Lunchbox Laboratory worth going to, waiting in line for, and paying $25 for a meal for, and watered it down to another link in a mediocre burger/bar and grill chain.”
  • “…the selection just isn’t what it was…”

Some reviewers are chastising the folks who left negative reviews for being too “hipster” and bemoaning the changes (I suppose it’s the culinary equivalent of scoffing and saying you loved this band when they were more underground…maybe an “I had this burger on vinyl” approach?), but when you love something and expect it to continue to be that thing you love, you’re understandably upset and disappointed when it’s changed so drastically, you barely recognize it. It’s akin to coming home to your gorgeous, lovely wife from a hard day’s work, only to find that she’s inexplicably gained 120 lbs and grown a bunch of hairy warts over the course of eight hours.

Lunchbox Laboratory’s reasoning for their new shoddy service and product (subpar ingredients, poorly cooked food, smaller portions, no substitutions, severely neutered menu with jacked up prices) is that they’re struggling to properly train their staff, and that once they learn the ropes, they’ll adjust the menu accordingly. This is a hardly an excuse — as a business, you should know that you need to get your ducks in a row before opening or unveiling something new. If you rush into something before you’re ready just so you can rake in some green a week or two early, the extra cash you make won’t be worth the customer dissatisfaction and disappointment (which will hurt your wallet in the long run). They should have re-opened with their staff properly trained and ready to bring the same experience that established the brand and made it so great to begin with.

This is exactly the same thing that happened to Digg when it revamped its site to its now-famous version 4. They rolled out a bunch of changes in an effort to appease publishers, which would have made the site more money, but the radical revamp alienated and outraged its loyal users and drove them away. They learned the hard way that they really shot themselves in the foot and scrambled to restore beloved features that had been cut out of the recent design, but by then the damage was already done — many users abandoned the site and flocked to other communities like Reddit, which is now experiencing record growth.

Put simply, there’s a reason why your loyal customers are loyal. You offer stellar service, a great product, friendly ambiance, a simple design. Whatever it is, it’s working for you, and that’s why your customers love you so much. If you’ve got a user-friendly website that’s highly praised by your users and completely revamp it so it’s overly complicated and technical, you’ve just alienated every single one of them. If you’re a mom and pop store who offered warm, personalized customer service but got bought out by some corporation who switches you over to an automated phone system and thick-accented guys named “Bob,” your customers will wonder where that unique experience went. And if you sell your awesome little burger place to a shitty bar and grill chain and change everything that made your business great so you can make a couple more bucks, your rabid fanbase will shake their heads and say “You’ve changed, man.”

You can scoff and say it’s hipster or douchey to bemoan change, and I won’t argue that some change and growth is good for your business. However, once you start tinkering with the very thing that sets your business apart and makes it great, you’ve embarked on a very slippery slope. You need to really ask yourself the following:

  • How will these changes impact my business?
  • How will they affect my existing customers?
  • How will they affect new/future customers?
  • Is the bottom line worth the drawbacks these changes may bring about?

Basically, will the quality of your product and/or service be negatively impacted by these changes? Is it worth it to cut corners in order to make a bigger profit? If you’re a brand-centric company, it might not be — your reputation for quality and your customer loyalty may be too valuable to compromise. If you’re convinced that your radical changes will bring about a new crop of loyal customers at the expense of your old ones, I suppose that’s a risk you can take. However, ask yourself how often you’re willing to cycle through a new throng of loyal fans every time you’re itching to “reinvent” your business. There’s a reason why Garth Brooks’ alter ego experiment in the 90’s was met with head scratches and puzzled looks. Don’t be the Chris Gaines of your industry.  Your customers don’t want that.

No. Just no.

By Rebecca Kelley

Rebecca Kelley is the Director of Marketing for This or That Media. She also runs Mediocre Athlete, a hobby blog about exercising and training, and My Korean Mom, a blog about her harsh but amusing Korean mother. In her spare time, Rebecca is a freelance blogger for hire, loves food and movies, and trains for marathons and triathlons.

82 thoughts on “Bigger Ain’t Always Better: Why Renovation Can Be Risky”
  1. There are still a lot of people that need to follow this famous saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    There are a lot of people that apparently don’t like Facebook’s changes either. One of the newest complaint I keep hearing is how they don’t like the lightbox that pops up when you click on an image.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Why mess up what’s already working unless it’s to improve the user experience.

    2. I deactivated my Facebook account recently. I can’t seem to keep up with the changes they’re rolling out. I have to check and make sure my privacy settings are still the same each time something changes. It took out the fun out of the experience for me.

    3. At the end of the day, everything is about user experience. Customers will pay no matter how pricey a product or service is as long as it provides a satisfactory experience.

  2. Somebody is missing their big burgers 😉

    p.s — turkey + chicken = churken?! Surely “chickey” would be the way to go? Sounds nicer 🙂

    1. I have a serious craving for burger and milkshake now. I wish I grabbed some before I went home.

    2. If those foods are as good as the photo suggests then I’d willingly pay for the pricey meal.

    3. I don’t care what they’re called as long as they’re good. 🙂 I can’t wait to visit that place.

  3. I feel hungry just looking at those photos. Nice article, Rebecca! Lunchbox Laboratory seems to be in a hurry to expand. Too bad it didn’t work out.

    1. What do they mean by they’re still training their staff? Don’t they have the previous ones on board?

    2. I really enjoyed reading this! I believe it applies to most things in life. Enhance what works and improve on what doesn’t. Don’t go changing just because it seems to be the cool thing to do. Sometimes, what makes you unique is what sets you apart.

    3. This reminds me so much of my favorite family-owned pizza place. It got so popular that it was eventually acquired by a big company. Since then the pizzas and service were never the same.

  4. This post brings up something big… there’s only a handful of guys in the world (among all industries) that really UNDERSTAND what makes something successful.

    And most of the time, those guys have screwed up royally more than anyone else in the room.

    1. You said it. There are a lot of anecdotes to illustrate this, but one of my favorites is from Michael Jordan:
      “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

      Notice he didn’t say “20ish” or “about 25” times. 26 times he missed a game-winning shot. He was keeping track. The failures can be painful, but you have to keep going.

  5. I’ve often wondered what compels successful businesses to mess up a reasonably thriving business. At the end of the day, it’s all about profits. Too bad though that keeping your eyes on profits alone almost always result to bad decisions.

    1. No, actually it’s not about profits. It is about empire building and corporate egos.

      If it was about profits they would not have made senseless, drastic changes that cut into their profits. At the very least they would now be backtracking and trying to win back their loyal customers.

      Instead they have a “Corporate Knows Best” approach. Rather than continuing to cater to the little guys who made the original business so successful and financially attractive, they are emulating the bland banality that made McDonald’s successful. Presumably the thinking is that by following Ray Kroc’s model they will be as profitable.

      Well guess what. McDonalds succeeded by doing something different than what was being done in their day, not by being a copycat of the big players.

      This company, like so many corporate behemoths, appears to be run by beancounters with zero vision. Ditto entrepreneurial spirit. They have no interest in doing anything different, but are content to stay in their ivory towers and shuffle numbers and papers. And worry about declining profits as they look down their noses at, and completely undervalue, the people who actually do the work and serve the customers who create the profits.

      A perfect recipe for failure, that’s for sure.

  6. What a waste. They should have stuck with the old ways and rolled out changes gradually. Sometimes it’s better to let existing customers get used to the little changes first. They can even be a source of quality feedback in the process.

    1. That’s a risk businesses have to take. There’s no way of pleasing every customer’s expectation so it’s best to venture prepared to lose some and work on gaining more.

  7. Any business that doesn’t attempt to understand what customers want is headed for an epic fail. It may be difficult to completely figure out the customer mindset but the effort’s well worth it once the ROI starts coming in.

  8. Great post! It’d be interesting to see what they’d do with all those feedbacks they’re getting from customers.

  9. There’s always a reason why people stick with a product or service. It’s important that businesses figure out what it is and deliver accordingly.

  10. Managing growth is tricky. You don’t want to miss out on the opportunities to expand and generate more revenues. But you don’t want to lose a solid base of customers either. That’s why businesses, online or offline, planning for expansion should cover their bases first before deploying “enhancements”.

  11. The current rating should serve as a wake up call to the restaurant’s management. They better act fast before they lose what remaining loyal customers they still have. Unless of course they’re setting their sights solely on new customers who probably wouldn’t notice the changes.

  12. Whoa! The milkshake looks to die for! I’ll make sure I’ll give it a try along with one of those mouthwatering burgers I saw on their site next time I’m in Seattle.

    1. Nice read! And yes, change is something not to be taken lightly especially if it’s going to impact the entire business. Customers’ opinion and preferences should be taken in to account as well.

  13. They should make sure they provide the same quality and service people have come to expect from the place. Customers who shell out $45 for a meal deserve nothing but the best.

  14. Epic fail. They should see those feedbacks from disappointed customers as opportunities to improve their business.

  15. I’ve always believed that increasing the number of customers is still the best option to expand — not just physically like Lunchbox Laboratory opted for. Either you increase the number of customers you have by reaching new customers with your existing offering or perhaps developing a new product. Sadly, they just went for the big league and failed miserably.

  16. Ideally you will leverage the products or services you currently have to enter a new market or expand the reach in your existing market. Moreover, expanding also means being consistent with your offerings, too. Fail at that and you’ll soon be sorry like Lunchbox Lab did.

    1. Another way to look at this is providing additional customer value – and ultimately building customer loyalty. If you make it easier for customers to buy from you, relative to your competition, then you will continue to win their business. This, of course, assumes your products or services are comparable or superior to your competitors.

  17. The question Lunchbox Laboratory missed is this: Who has a real need for the product or service I’m selling? Does my product meet that need in a manner that either saves money or provides additional value?

  18. Their Peanut Butter Burger has never been the same ever since they moved out of Ballard! It doesn’t taste as savory and rich. I remember the queue lining out the door but it was worth it. Hope they can fix this fiasco as soon as possible.

  19. Nice post! Goes to show that offering less than what customers expected can be bad for business. Hope they do something to address whatever’s pulling down their ratings.

  20. Market research is a prelude to selling. It teaches you a great deal about what you will need to know to effectively reach these new customers such as what to say, how to say it and to whom (or how to keep your products ever popular among loyal patrons). It is clear that the Lunchbox Laboratory people didn’t research quite enough when they went for the expansion.

  21. Is it just me or does anybody else here think that their burgers look like something from the Stone Age? LOL

    1. My husband and I happened to drop by Lunchbox Laboratory when it was still cool a few months back and we ordered something that I will never forget for the rest my life — the Mama’s Monster. It has a 1/2 pound Super Beef (grassfed Ribeye/Sirloin/Prime Rib) patty, Monterrey Jack Cheese, 7 pieces of Maple Bacon, Jalapenos, Sauteed Onions and a housemade Mama Lil’s Goathorn Pepper Sauce served on an organic Essential Baking Company kaiser roll. Still makes my mouth water when I remember it, too. 😛

      1. As for me, I am a fan of the *original* 4 Leaf Clover spread. It is somewhat similar to your favorite except for the American Cheese and a housemade Caesar Mayo to top it off.

  22. Knowledge is power. The wise company will set itself apart from all others by following 10 proven steps to effectively marketing your business during expansion:

    1. Investigate potential markets for entry.
    2. Study the landscape of these markets.
    3. Identify your target audience.
    4. Match your products to the audience.
    5. Control production and distribution costs.
    6. Overcome obstacles through alliances.
    7. Target your communications.
    8. Immerse into the industry.
    9. Create a budget.
    10. Write an action plan.

    1. I guess Lunchbox Laboratory missed out on items 4, 5 and 8. I wish they can fix this whole mess since I’ll be in Seattle in the next few days!

  23. As long as a company has the capability to obtain customers as well as deliver products and services like they did before expansion, they’ll surely fare well enough when they decide to gun for a bigger market. I wish Lunchbox Laboratory the best of luck since they just have to tweak a bit here and there to get their fanbase going again.

  24. This post suddenly just made me very hungry again. Enjoyed reading it, btw. Looking forward to reading more of your interesting articles here, Rebecca!

  25. In your own perspective, Rebecca, what is the best way of expanding a business?

    1. Tom Egelhoff explained it finely in his article I came across the other month: “With growth goes more responsibility. Sometimes employees that were able to handle certain levels of business are overwhelmed by the new load of responsibilities. And so are you as the owner.” I loved how he made it sound like a “with great power comes greater responsibility” proverb.

  26. Increasing the number of units sold is Lunchbox Laboratory’s primary issue. While they may have moved to a bigger place that could do just that, they have failed to nurture the customers’ loyalty.

    1. You may be doing more volume by adding a second and third store and working harder, but with the additional overhead, you may not make any more money. Oftentimes when your business increases in size, the cost per unit falls. This normally results in lower prices, higher profit – or both. You should only consider expanding your business is the economies of scale will allow you to sell your products or services for lower prices or if they allow you to make a profit per item sold.

  27. The decision to extend your business must be a result of thoughtful consideration of various factors these factors include the financial, logistical, and emotional readiness. You should only expand when there are untouched opportunities that will benefit your business. There may be a niche that you want to capture; or a location not serviced even by your competitors. However, expanding operations does not always mean more profit.

  28. Your business will only grow when you come to the conclusion that it can. When you have the realization that the potential is there. If you are in a state of contentment or can not see the possibilities that lay within your company’s future, your business will plateau and it unfortunately will not experience the possible growth. Your thoughts on this, Rebecca?

  29. If your competitors are making changes to their operations, it may mean that they have discovered new, opportunities in the market. If this is true, you can one of do two things: wait and see how the competitor does, or follow the competitor’s lead. On the other hand, Lunchbox Laboratory was a trailblazer until it became a tag along in the industry.

  30. How do you know when the time is right to kick the business into high gear? Or, to use a much overused expression, when to take the business to the “next level?” Are there signs to watch for to let you know when the time is right?

    1. If customers are leaving empty handed or going to your competitor because you are “too busy” then the time has come to do something. What’s your two cents’ worth on this, Jeremy? Best wishes from Tennessee.

  31. Quality is more a dedication to improving your product for your customers and continuously adapting to their needs. The world is a ever changing place, as are people’s fluctuating needs. As long as you continuously listen to your customers and improve your product to satisfy your needs, you’ll be one step ahead of your competition! (Take my advice, Lunchbox Laboratory!)

    1. So if you want your business to succeed, dedicate yourself to improving your product to give your customers more of what they want, and they’ll reward you by coming back and they’ll bring their friend along, too. 😛

  32. An interesting article and quite a common story, especially in the restaurant business.

  33. It sucks when a classic goes down hill. I have noticed in my travels that most hot dog joints that stay open for a long time (some more than 100 years) have the key ingredients you mentioned: “stellar service, a great product, friendly ambiance, a simple design.” The places that fail or otherwise alienate their old clientelle don’t stick with what works.

  34. Does shoemoney actually read the advice given by any of his guest bloggers???

    This site is changed almost weekly – and to be honest, a lot of things i liked disappear, or stuff stops working.

    What happened to the “have your say” button – which was blogged about as being a great way to get people commenting quicker. That’s gone.

    Your rollover social network buttons work great in chrome and ff, but not in IE — as 80% of users are IE – i’d say that needs fixing.

    I liked the rollover shoemoney as well – when you saw the hidden pic. Little details.

    Also – the overall header of previous designs was MUCH nicer. This one is a bit plain.

    I liked it when the blog would tell you your comment had been approved – now it just takes you to the top, and your left thinking – should i post the comment again???

    I know it’s not as dramatic as moving location and doubling prices — and it’s a long way off the version 4 of digg. But it does kind of alienate regular visitors.

  35. Not only renovation in the real world can be risky. It is the same story if you make changes to a website. Sometimes it’s better to start a new business/site/shop as to annoy customers.


    That Garth Brooks picture hammered your point home with some goddamn thunder… BOOM!!!

    I love how you’ve brought to the forefront of my mind the idea that we teach people how to treat us and what they can expect from us and that it’s ALL IMPORTANT to manage people’s expectations accordingly.

    This is a lesson I’ve had to learn firsthand with my site. I could either mute myself by not talking the way I talk all the time, substituting the F bomb for idiot words like “Frack”, “dang” instead of “Damn” or “poopey” instead of the S bomb.

    In this instance I had to err on my personal belief that “There are no dirty words. There are only dirty people.” I had to trust that my messages all come from a place of love and helping you optimize your situation and occasionally it comes with words that land with a different impact than most.

    And while some authorities will read my site, they’re scared s-less to endorse me because they don’t want to rile the moral majority who gladly go out and pay to see people cuss it up on the movie screen, but God forbid, someone cussing while talking about landing page optimization…NO! i WON’T STAND FOR THIS FILTH!

    So, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to do business with people who honor those beliefs and won’t argue about it because they know they’re right and I know I’m right. I just let ’em be and have a ball with the people who are fine with me being me.

    Thanks Rebecca for bringing your important message to the world wide webz!

  37. I know of a burger place in Chicago that did the same thing. You would think that when people expand that they don’t change what was working. Why change suppliers and ingredients?

  38. You know what. I didn’t finish reading eat. Why? Cause this is a hungry inducing blog post! Imma eat now. (maybe continue reading later) lol

  39. I agree change isn’t always good and we need to listen to our custemors, but we can’t be held back just because a few old custemors aren’t willing to change with the rest.

    Maybe the new owners thought the old place wasn’t making enough money and saw that their old although crappier Eastlake Bar and Grill plan worked better. It’s all about giving people what they want and to their knowledge the are doing that.

  40. Yes, comfort zone matters, especially for the blog readers. And that’s why you would always come back to your fat wife at home, than chase that hottie down the street.

    You are just too comfortable with the present.

  41. So, is the picture of the burger from the old location or is that from the new location? It looks totally sinful! You should thank the new owners for making the burgers less yummy, one less burger to clog your heart.

  42. In the restaurant business its here today and gone tomorrow. Bring on the next fab place!

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