Negotiating With A Child In Poverty

Many travellers revel in the back and forth of bartering, they love the feeling of getting the upper hand, or at least getting a great deal. I’m not a fan of haggling, it’s my least favourite part of Asia.

I either want something or I don’t, price is not the key factor for me, even back home, so when prices fall to Asian standards it means even less. “Mister. Mister. You want? One dollar. One dollar for you. Good Price. Mister. Hey. Hello. Mister. One dollar.” Lady, I don’t want a dried lizard on a stick. I’m sure that’s a great deal, but that’s not the issue.

The kids are the worst. The psychology of sales are not complex, and children are smart, plus they have the very real incentive of living in poverty and working in the hot sun for a few bucks a day. Kids get very good at bartering and manipulating, much better than the average tourist, certainly better than me. Or perhaps I can’t find the motivation to grind down a poor street urchin.

I went to the famous ancient temples at Angor Wat. About half way into the first day I decide I should have bought a book about the temples from one of the kids at the gate. The next time I saw a kid with one, I walked up to him, so he had me from the start, and I ended up paying $12 for a book another kid offered me for $1 at the end of the day.

A couple days later we’re wasting away our last evening in town at a street side patio. The guy running the bar is an amusing smart ass. He’s chatty and hanging out on the patio talking with us and flirting with the girls at the next table. He’s also giving a good natured hard time to the child standing on the sidewalk selling books. She’s about 15, pile of books under her arm, and she’s giving it right back to him. She lands a couple witty jabs at the guy that get us and the girls laughing. It’s an impressive display from someone doing battle in a foreign tongue with someone twice her age.

girl_2When they’re done I call her over and we chat for awhile. She asks me, “Where you from?” I tell her Canada, and she rattles off the capital, the population, and the last five Prime Ministers. She stumbles on the last one, and looks a bit sheepish about it, which makes me laugh. “You went one better than I could kid, I wouldn’t worry about it.” She goes to school during the day, teaches English a couple evenings a week, and sells books the rest of the time. She reads all the books she has, she tells me, “I can tell a little story about all the books, that’s how I sell them.”

girl_3In keeping with my shrewd negotiation style I lay it all out for her, “Okay, look. I want to buy a book from you, but I got worked over a couple days ago, and that still stings a bit, so help me out. Let me be happy about this one.” I pick out a collection of stories written by children of the Cambodian Genocide, a little light reading for the train, and we get to a price of five dollars. She starts to tell me how little she makes on the books, and I stop her, “That’s fine, we can do $5. Thanks for the book. It was nice to meet you.”

My wife has been teasing me about the twelve dollar book for a couple days. She says, “I think you got worked again.”

“No, not that time.” I would have given that kid five bucks just for being cool, and I got a book out of it. Negotiating with a child in poverty isn’t always about the price.

A Crisis Of Identity

We walk into a building called the Reggae Mansion, it contains a pub prominently advertising Guinness, called O’Marley’s. The place is entirely staffed by Indians, serves Malaysian food, and plays Top 40 Pop at nightclub levels. Our Server suggests a bottle of the house white wine, the quality of which we can be assured of, because he tells us knowingly that it is German, when the bottle arrives it is labelled Santa Carolina. I can’t stop laughing, what the fuck is going on in this place!

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My Dad The MVP

mvpI learned to skate shortly after I could walk and played hockey well into my teens. I played on a number of teams that won big tournaments but I never took home an award of my own. The fact that my father kept me from winning Most Valuable Player should maybe be a sore point, but I remember it as a time I was really glad he was my Dad.

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Six Degrees of Separation

I’m extremely selective about who I’ll share a plate of Nachos with. It comes down to the degrees of separation between me and other people’s genitals. I’m not a germaphobe, not squeamish about cleanliness, but managing a restaurant changed a few of my behaviours.

Pulled-Pork-NachosMany people don’t wash their hands after they use the bathroom. This is not surprising, but the number of people I’ve observed that move from standing at a urinal, directly to sharing a plate of Nachos, without any intermediate step, came as a shock. A plate of Nachos is one degree of separation from a stranger’s penis, and that’s significantly closer than I want to get to a friend’s penis, let alone a stranger’s. Depending on the guy’s sexual schedule and his shower regime, it’s also one degree from his girlfriend’s vagina. And let’s not be discriminatory about sexual preferences, both girlfriend and vagina are optimistic terms in that sentence.

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Cultivating Complaints

I owned and operated a couple of franchise restaurants for five years. Prior to that I had no experience in the food and beverage industry, I’m a Civil Engineer and software designer, so I approached the business with the perspective of a beginner. One of the benefits of having no experience, and of having scientific training, is a tendency to challenge existing conventions. That’s often where the greatest opportunities are.

Opportunity #1 – Cultivating Complaints

In the Food & Beverage Industry it’s natural to assume that eliminating customer complaints is necessary. It’s expressed in the old adage – The Customer Is Always Right. This is an assumption based on a false premise, that upset people are bad for business. That’s not always the case. When trying to distinguish yourself in a crowded and competitive industry it’s more important to pay attention to another maxim – You Can’t Please Everyone.

There are too many competitors out there. You can’t win by not making enemies, by being everything to everybody. To win in today’s competitive environment, you have to go out and make friends, carve out a specific niche in the market. Even if you lose a few doing so.” – from the marketing classic Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind

The restaurant franchise I joined grew up in the Canadian prairies where they were an “Adult Only” concept. That niche market contributed immensely to their success and profitability. Due to differences in provincial regulations the franchise couldn’t operate the same way in my province, there is no such thing as an “Adult Only” restaurant in British Columbia. We had no choice, some of our customers were going to be children.

Trying to keep true to the adult friendly feel that made the franchise a success I didn’t supply highchairs or booster seats at my restaurant. It’s tough to create a great pub atmosphere when the floor is covered in Gold Fish crackers and Cheerios discarded by an infant in a highchair. It makes a big difference in the feel of a place.

This upset people and generated complaints, so I got pressure from head office to cave in on these policies, but fought hard to keep them in place. Some parents were upset and didn’t come back, while others absolutely loved it! They didn’t want to come out for dinner to a place with highchairs and Cheerios on the floor, because that’s what they had at home, or it was a stage their kids had long outgrown. We developed a large following of families that became loyal regulars, they were a third of our business. They liked coming to an adult oriented place.

I recently sold the restaurant back to the franchise. One of their first actions after taking over operations was eliminating the largest source of complaints; they brought in highchairs and booster seats. Will this reduce the number of Mothers that write angry emails to corporate office? Most definitely. Is it a good business decision? I don’t think so.

It’s difficult to carve out a niche and distinguish yourself from competitors. If you manage to successfully do so the sensible approach is to defend your corner of the market and strengthen your unique position. The folks that are your hardcore supporters, the people that like what you have created, won’t make a fuss when you make changes to appease the complainers, they’ll just find somewhere else to spend their adult time. You’ve watered down your offering and eroded your unique position in the market. Once you give up your niche, it’s gone for good.

The elements of your operation that distinguish you from the place down the street are the things that are going to rub some people the wrong way, whether that be the volume and choice of music, the spiciness of the food, or the sassiness of your Servers. Eliminating complaints requires catering to the average and while that may make your email inbox more friendly it’s not good marketing. If no one is ever pissed off at the way you do things, you’re not trying hard enough.


This is the first in a series of posts I’m working on about opportunities in challenging well worn beliefs in the food and beverage industry. I think the people with experience get it wrong sometimes. It’s good to question conventions. I’ll talk about two more in this series:

Opportunity #2 – Cultivating bad reviews
Opportunity #3 – Fire your customers

Art Of Shaving

A wealthy sucker

I reach out to caress the fabric of a black T-shirt, because how something feels is always the biggest factor in a clothing purchase for me. This is soft and silky, so I move on to the next criteria, I check the price tag. $500. This is a $500 cotton T-shirt. I’m in a high end clothing store with a friend. We start to have a conversation about designer labels, the cost of things, and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to afford a $500 T-shirt.

“What you can afford has got nothing to do with it”, I offer. “I wouldn’t buy a $500 cotton T-shirt because that makes me an idiot.” It doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank, a wealthy sucker is still a sucker. I feel the same way about shaving.

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Heart of a Lion

Look, I’m going to help you out, because it looks like you could use a meal, but I’m also going to give you some advise. I know, I’m a foreigner who’s been in your country a few weeks, what business do I have telling you how to live! I’m going to do it anyway, because it pains me to see you like this.

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Ghost Selfies

It’s a beautiful beach. Clear blue green waves crashing over fine white sand. It’s wonderful to sit, read a book, enjoy a cocktail, then cool yourself off in the water and drip dry in the sun. The beach is full of people but not many of them seem to be sharing my experience.

I’m lounging and watching the waves from a beach bed. There are about thirty people, couples and a few small groups, scattered along the picturesque scene in front of me, and all of them are intent on capturing it. They are either engaged in taking a photo or posing for a photo, all of them are taking pictures of themselves, every single person on the beach.


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This Princess Wears The Pants

JasminneI have three younger sisters. I wanted a brother so bad when I was eight that when my Dad came home from the hospital to announce I had gotten a third sister I burst into tears and the only way he could console me was to take me to work and let me hand out cigars to the guys. I’ve warmed up to her since, in fact she’s getting married and invited me to her bachelorette party.

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