January 31, 2014 Updated: January 31, 2014 at 11:34 pm
In 1993, Ted Vong was a 23-year-old franchisee operating Short Stop Deluxe Burgers in Colorado Springs, then part of a national chain.
When the chain went under a year later, Vong said, he had a choice: Fold the business or go it alone without corporate support.
Faced with a sink-or-swim situation, Vong decided to dive headlong into the water. The electronics major and his wife sunk everything they had into the restaurant, Vong said.
He had experience working at a burger place in college and had managed a Chuck E. Cheese when he was 19. Still, Vong faced stiff competition. Short Stop, at Platte Avenue and Circle Drive, was surrounded by local favorite Conway's Red Top and chains that included the Original Hamburger Stand, Burger King and Wendy's.
After two decades, Short Stop is still standing tall, and next month marks 21 years in business since the chain went bust. Of its nearby competitors, only Wendy's remains.
How does a small, single-location burger place survive in a fiercely competitive industry?
Quality food and competitive prices are vital for any restaurant's success, Vong said. But he said he's also worked hand-in-hand with customers to fine-tune his menu, while developing operating systems tailored for his restaurant. Such strategies have been critical for Short Stop's survival, he said.
"We try not to focus on what the big guys are doing," said Vong, now 45.
Short Stop evokes a 1950s' look and feel. Its menu includes burgers, fries and shakes. The restaurant itself has just two drive-up lanes and a walk-up window. There's no dining room - just a handful of outdoor tables with a dozen seats.
The restaurant building - familiar because of its fire-engine red awnings and trim - stands by itself in a shopping center parking lot at Platte and Circle; Vong owns the building, but leases the land underneath. In addition to the restaurant, he operates three mobile units that travel to games and other events.
Even though Short Stop seems like a throwback, Vong, who's no longer married and runs the restaurant himself, uses 21st century data tracking to manage his business.
Eighty percent of his sales comes from drive-up customers, he said. Because he's so dependent on drive-up traffic, Vong began charting weather conditions years ago to determine on any given day how much business he's likely to have. He loads the weather information into a rolling five-year database, and cross-references the information with his sales for the day. That way, he can look at the day's forecast in the morning and check it against the kind of sales he's had in similar weather conditions. It helps him adjust his staffing and manage his food costs - keys in running a small business.
Another operating strategy: Vong watches pennies, not dollars. For example, he said, he needs to get seven slices out of every tomato. Waste enough tomato slices, and you throw away profits.
"If you watch the pennies, the dollars fall into place," he said. "If you watch the dollars, the pennies and the dimes and the quarters will go out the window."
And while many businesses say they focus on customer service, Vong says he looks at customers almost as partners.
When his food and other expenses go up, he said he tries to absorb the costs and accept a smaller profit margin rather than risk alienating customers.
When customers repeatedly told him they wanted shakes added to the original menu of burgers, fries and soft drinks, Vong followed through. When they wanted hot dogs, Vong conducted taste tests in his parking lot to see if customers preferred Hebrew National or Nathan's Famous Frankfurters. Nathan made the menu.
Not only do you satisfy customers, but their free advice beats the cost of hiring expensive restaurant consultants, he said.
But no business can satisfy everyone; he said shoots for 90 percent.
"If you listen to the customer," Vong said, "they pretty much can tell you what you need in your business to succeed."
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