Staff were cheerful, instructive and professional. The food was well prepared. The owner-chef had spent about six years visiting relatives in several northern Italian cities and had worked up a unique menu. In fact, the experience brought to life a bit of Italian history and culture, along with good food.
Did my town need another Italian restaurant? If you'd asked me a few weeks ago, I'd have said no. Now my reply is an emphatic yes.
Most new businesses soon go bust - and while the owners have probably mortgaged their homes to the hilt, most that fail deserve their fate. But some start-ups thrive. What separates the winners and losers?
1) Signature. First question for prospective business owners is this: in 25 words or less, how is your concept notably different from others, whether it's a plumbing company or software house? If you can't succinctly explain how you're special to the customer on the street, you're headed for trouble.
2) Soul. The enterprise should make prospective customers say "Wow," or something like it. That is, it should grab, surprise - for example, feature an amazing guarantee, a stupendous service or extraordinary vehicles. If you start a cab fleet in a northern city, soul might be an unrelenting commitment to spotless cabs (inside and out), despite winter slush that makes competitors' hacks look like motorised mud-balls.
3) Passion. The life of an entrepreneur is sometimes exhilarating and almost always exhausting. Only unbridled enthusiasm is likely to see you through 17-hour days (month after month) and the painful mistakes that are part and parcel of the start-up process.
4) Details. While the overall scheme must be an attention getter, only superb execution wins the day. At the restaurant I visited, the menu gives the genealogy of every dish; the furniture comes from the region that inspired the restaurant; guests are invited to tour the kitchen and chat with the chef; recipes are given on request (with no missing ingredients); and the washrooms live up to the rest of the experience.
5) Culture. Corporate culture sounds like the province of a big corporation. Guess again. Culture counts, even for a one-principal consultancy supported by a part-time administrative assistant. The spirit, energy and professionalism of that part-timer sets the tone for the service you offer. The upshot is that most things the "big guys" do apply to you. Spend time sharing your vision with that part-time assistant, so that she or he gets it and transmits it to customers and vendors in a host of tiny ways. Consider profit-sharing today, not tomorrow. A weekly or biweekly "What's up?" lunch is a must if you have even one employee.
6) Community. A friend started an estate agency a few years ago. By the time she'd added her second employee, she was a pillar of her community of 35,000 people. No rule says that only the local banker or car dealer should organise a campaign to raise funds for a library programme or send the local school band on a well-deserved trip. Participating in community affairs, giving time more than money, is good business from the start. It gets your name around, adds to your distinctiveness and, best of all, makes you an attractive employer (the key to long-term success).
7) Meticulous books. A ninth-grader should be able to understand your books. But those same books must paint a clear, timely and accurate picture of how your business is working. Better yet, your bookkeeper or financial adviser should share your vision - and be buddies with the local banker. His or her credibility, more than yours, will get you that line of credit that will (bet on it) be necessary at some point - for instance, when an ice storm knocks out power to the restaurant for six days and $6,000 worth of inventory rots before your eyes.
8) A friend. Business partner or spouse, you desperately need someone to counsel with - someone you trust, who gives you support, but not flattery.
9) Perseverance. For Sam Walton (Wal-Mart) and Anita Roddick (Body Shop), the path to success was marked by their early mistakes.
There are a million things to learn about running a business. No matter how many books you read, or how many colleagues you consult, you will do most of your learning the hard way.
The key word, of course, is learning. Walton and Roddick learned from early pratfalls, made one adjustment after the other, and eventually came up with a winning formula.
10) Good luck. Believe me, this will help!