Sesame Seeds and the Race to the Bottom

This story came up today while talking to my brother about the declining quality of their day care center. I can't remember where I first heard the story so you get my version of it, complete with profane language. Please escort your 9-year-old away from my blog and enjoy.

The burgers at Bob's Burger Barn taste like shit. There, I said it. I happen to know Bob and he's a great guy. But his burgers taste like shit. But it wasn't always this way. Growing up my family used to go to the Burger Barn every Sunday night. It was like a ritual, as religious and proper as church in the morning. The food was good, the prices were fair, and the people were like family. Bob's Burger Barn was a franchise with locations from here to Kansas, but the location in my hometown was one of the first and you still felt like you were eating at a local joint when you walked in. At least you used to. A few years ago Bob partnered with a Marketing firm to help him expand nationwide. With food costs rising along with all the costs of running a business he needed help trying to scale the Burger Barn and this company could help. "You have 423 restaurants in operation right now Bob. That allows you the opportunity to make small changes resulting in large gains." "But I don't want to make drastic changes." "Oh sure sure, we get that. No, we're thinking much smaller. Let's start with the bun. You're currently using a large sesame seed bun for all of the burgers on your line. We've done some market research and believe there is a unique opportunity to save a lot of money on the cost of bun manufacturing by removing just a few sesame seeds. You see with burger sales of $750 a day multiplied by your large network of restaurants, removing as few as 10 sesame seeds would yield you a savings of $23,500 over the course of the next 5 years. And no one will even notice." "$23,500? Wow, that sure would help with payroll, food costs, and my operational budget. 10 seeds doesn't seem like anything, let's do it." "Low-hanging fruit, Bob. Low-hanging fruit." And so they proceeded to make incremental changes to their line. Invisible to the naked eye. Perhaps they lost a customer or two in the process, but those were only the die-hard foodies. And meanwhile Bob was saving tens of thousands of dollars! Did you know you can remove over half the seeds on a sesame seed bun and strategically arrange the remaining seeds and almost nobody would notice? Focus groups confirmed this. Given the cost of sesame seed production rising it was a good time to cut back, and the extra savings helped Bob open new stores on the west coast. "Bob, let's be honest. Have you ever tasted a sesame seed? You haven't. They have no taste. They are useless glitter on a functional bun and it's costing you. The other burger joints got rid of sesame seeds years ago. Too expensive, no value-add, low-hanging fruit. We can purchase buns from larger manufacturers without sesame seeds and increase production ten fold." "I don't know, I thought people liked the buns." "They love them Bob, but they don't notice the seeds. Trust us, it's a tough business and we need to cut costs and save money to drive sales. No one wants to pay $5 for a fucking burger that has glitter on it. Ditch the seeds and we can sell them for $1.50 and you'll have lines out the building." It had been a long time since Bob had seen lines form for his burgers. True, he had expanded with the help of the firm, but it seemed like more people ate at the Burger Barn back home years ago than these stores he was opening each week across the nation. Maybe a drastic price cut was the way to go, and really it was only sesame seeds. It made sense. "Let's do it." And so the Burger Barn no longer carried sesame seed buns. They "saved" a ton of money by switching to a seedless bun. It seemed harmless enough. Focus groups had never been able to tell a difference and they swore they'd buy the burger regardless of whether it had seeds or not. But it wasn't about the seeds. In a race to the bottom Bob allowed himself to be convinced that small changes had little impact on his product. As the firm convinced him month after month to remove more sesame seeds he was left with stores unable to sell his food and wondering what happened. The burgers taste like shit not just because they don't have sesame seeds anymore, but because the seeds were just one of many areas where Bob sacrificed quality in a race to produce a cheap product that could be reproduced on massive scale. When you have something of value that you believe in, stop trying to surgically remove everything that makes that thing so great. When you're willing to invest in quality, and truly pour your heart into something without making cuts, people will line up around the block to get that.