Two years ago, when Charlie Manwaring decided to move Long Island’s Southold Fish Market a quarter mile down the road, he didn’t even put a sign in the old storefront. He figured his customers would find him.
At the fish market, customer loyalty runs deep. Maybe that’s because many customers have watched Manwaring grow up. He has been working at Southold Fish Market since he just was 12 years old. In 2000, he became the sole owner, and through this entrenchment in his community, he’s familiarized himself not only with his customers, but also with his product suppliers. "There’s not a bayman that I don’t know," he tells me.
Although Manwaring did not rely much on signs or social media to guide customers through his relocation, the move has led him to a larger, much more visible building, which may do more for him than likes or retweets. "Before, I didn’t have road frontage," he tells me, pointing out the window. "Now, everybody who drives past on the way to Greenport goes by this store."
Manwaring is not alone—while many small businesses scramble to use technology to stay ahead of the competition during a move, other successful owners specialize in something that can’t be manufactured or built by Twitter followers: continuity of experience and a personal touch.
After almost a quarter century at the fish market, Manwaring now affectionately refers to his staff as his "kids." Most of them have been with Manwaring for years because, as he puts it, "When you get good kids, you try to keep them." And even if they leave, Manwaring assures me, they can always come back. This is not only comforting for employees in this difficult economy, but it’s also good business; holding on to the same staff presents less of an adjustment for patrons, especially during a move. It also cuts down on training costs.
But for Manwaring, it’s not just about the numbers—"It’s about the customers," he tells me. Many small businesses rely on an intimacy that goes beyond a big box retailer’s email blast, especially when the owner is as hands-on as Manwaring. He’s been known to spend 120 hours a week at the fish market, and his customers come in expecting to see him. That’s part of the reason they shop at his store. Unlike with chain establishments, customers who shop here are not just supporting a business; they’re supporting a person.
That support is frequently transferred online. Although Southold Fish Market doesn’t yet have a Twitter handle, customers—including other North Fork restaurants like First and South—often Instagram photos of just-purchased bass and stuffed lobster rolls or tweet praise for the staff’s friendly service.
Before the current shop was completed, to maintain stability for customers during the in-between period, Manwaring opened a trailer out of which he served fish, a tactic which assured his customers that they need not look elsewhere for quality seafood or a firm handshake. Mark Lang, Assistant Professor of Food Marketing at Saint Joseph’s University, said in an email that the uninterrupted sale of seafood probably helped with customer retention throughout the move. "With any type of change, consumers are suspicious of changes in the quality of products and services offered. Because of this, it is critical to signal to customers and to reinforce for them that the new location offers the same things as the previous location." With Manwaring still at the helm—rattling around the trailer, advising customers on scallop size or blowfish cuts—customers were reminded that the relocation would not alter the product’s quality. Manwaring’s presence assured them of that.
One hundred miles west, in downtown Manhattan, customers at Japonica have come to expect a similar consistency. "Where’s Shingo?" they ask as they walk through the doors of the restaurant. They’re looking for the owner, Shingo Yonezawa, who has been working there since he started as a waiter in 1978. When most people think of a friendly neighborhood eatery, one where locals are greeted by the smiling owner, an upscale sushi restaurant is not likely the first place that comes to mind. But Yonezawa’s gentle demeanor helps to create a relaxed and comforting atmosphere inches away from the hectic city streets.
This summer, though, with a condo development set to take over the building, Japonica is on the move. But instead of trying to tackle a new set of patrons with a forced reinvention in another borough or neighborhood, Yonezawa is moving Japonica one block south, back to its original location. With this transition, Yonezawa plans to focus on his core business imperative, retention, since he estimates that 70% to 75% of his customers are regulars. But rather than retaining customers via an online presence, Yonezawa will continue to greet them in person. Like Manwaring, Yonezawa has little to do with social media. Japonica has no Twitter handle or Facebook page. What Japonica does have is Yonezawa and his tie to the restaurant’s history, something that can’t be manufactured through social media. After all, Japonica has been around longer than Twitter and Facebook combined.
Japonica’s story is a familiar one in this neighborhood; as downtown Manhattan’s real estate prices continue to rise, many small businesses are forced to relocate. Some of these establishments have kept their names (even if the name no longer refers to a present locale, such as downtown stalwarts 2nd Avenue Deli and St. Mark’s Bookshop), which may help retain some customers.
But Yonezawa sees location as an even bigger part of securing customers from decades earlier, particularly those who haven’t yet synced with technology. Instead of hoping that people will Google sushi and end up at his restaurant, Yonezawa, envisioning his past customers, muses, "Maybe they will once again find themselves on this block, and they will look around, and they’ll remember eating at Japonica."
Lang agrees that Yonezawa’s strategy to redirect customers to a familiar location will likely serve Japonica well. "We are hardwired as mammals to scan and interpret our environment through our sense of sight first. We are mostly visual learners and a brand is a very visual thing. If there are not strong links between the branding and designs of the original location and a new location, customers will not be able to i) find the new location or ii) believe that it offers the same products and services."
Perhaps the need to create a visual association between the new and old spaces is why, during my last visit, Yonezawa brought out an intricate model of the new restaurant. He pointed to the architectural parallels with the present restaurant as well as some key departures, including the smaller size. While we were chatting, he recognized a couple two tables away and excused himself, saying, "They’ll want to see it." He was right. The couple fawned over the model, indicating the places where they pictured themselves sitting with bento boxes in the coming months. That kind of interaction is one of the many reasons that customers return to Japonica decade after decade, despite the restaurant’s limited online presence.
This is not to say that an online presence can’t be useful for small businesses. A recent Indiegogo campaign for St. Mark’s Bookshop raised over $50,000 to help the bookstore relocate from 3rd Avenue to East 3rd Street.
And interactive web events like trivia or giveaways can certainly boost visibility while helping to create a platform and a following. Yet, for mom-and-pop businesses such as restaurants and markets that rely more on in-person sales, an owner’s physical presence reassures customers because a present owner is an invested owner.
Although Japonica’s new space will be half the size, the Village’s local families and publishing professionals will still be able to unwind over a bowl of miso soup and a plate of thickly sliced sashimi. They surely won’t mind waiting a bit longer for a table, as they'll be getting the same delicious fare they've had for the last 35 years. Plus, they’ll be greeted by many of the same staff including, of course, Yonezawa.