Closed market’s valediction ironically explains its failure

There are few things more annoying than people blaming their failures on others.  There are few things more ironically humorous than watching a clueless person publicly scold people and in the process reveal his or her own ignorance.  And since examples of both at the same time come along so rarely, we have to take a good look at the Boston Herald’s report on the closing of Don Otto’s Market, a niche food market in Boston’s South End, where the management briefly posted a tirade against its customers for failing to buy what the owners demanded:

The manager of Don Otto’s – a recently shuttered food market in the South End – is blaming neighborhood patrons for its untimely demise, cooking up an angry message to fair-weather fans of the Tremont Street eatery.

“Don Otto’s Market wants to say we had few customers that understood customer loyalty and its importance to our business,” a message on its Web site reads, later adding: “If you came in only for baguettes, the occasional piece of cheese, the occasional dinner . . . you can not tell yourself you were a supporter of our market.”

The scalding remonstrance was written by Erin McLaughlin, 28, who ran the shop and is engaged to the owner, Michael Otto, 31.

“It was quite frank,” she acknowledged yesterday. “People don’t understand their purchases make a difference, and that by buying something that wasn’t exactly what you want, it gets you closer to what you want. It’s an investment.”

Actually, it was more revealing than McLaughlin realizes.  Perhaps she has spent too much time in Barney Frank’s district (he was a customer), but businesses don’t succeed by telling customers what they should want to buy.  Customers have this annoying tendency to know how they want to spend their own money, and businesses succeed by adapting to demand, not demanding that customers adapt to the owner’s own tastes in supply.  And if people wanted to “invest” in Don Otto’s, they would have bought stock in it rather than food they don’t want at prices that discouraged sales.

In a way, though, this is an allegory of elitism in general.  McLaughlin couldn’t pass laws to make sure that people could only buy her $28-per-pound steak, but she certainly sounds as if she would have done so if given the opportunity.  Her contempt for her customers is not dissimilar to the contempt shown by those in political office who pass laws barring restaurants from using saturated fats in their cooking, who ban Happy Meals, and who overhaul entire economic sectors because they believe people can’t make their own choices.

It looks as though McLaughlin at least learned that blaming customers for not surrendering to her diktats in the name of “investment” makes for bad public relations.  The valediction has disappeared from the website, replaced by a simple notice that Don Otto’s is closed.

Update: It looks as though arrogance really was the business plan, and it only took six months to fail.  Lee Doren sent over a Boston Globe story from May reporting on the new ownership and its goals:

Prepared foods include duck leg confit and a popular veggie lasagna. Otto and Lundberg are continuing to smoke bacon in house. All of the meats sold at the shop are local; prices are high but Otto says customers are coming in regularly with weekly meat orders that top $400.

Otto’s mission is to help shift people’s thinking about what food should cost, especially non-manufactured, non-processed foods. Although pricey eggs may not be for everyone, salsa, made in nearby Jamaica Plain, is a bit more accessible for the everyday shopper. The same goes for a jar of cider jelly from Springfield, Vt., that Lundberg has incorporated into pork dishes.

Eggs, from free-range chickens, are $8.50 a dozen. When asked whether people will balk at the cost, Otto shrugs and explains these chickens’ laying routine. “Their lay cycles rely on the sun, not on artificial lamps that distort production,’’ he says.

And customers’ shopping habits rely on how much things cost in relation to value as they perceive it, a lesson Otto learned the hard way.  There is nothing wrong with trying a business model and failing; that’s how innovation works.  But it’s beyond arrogant to blame customers for not paying exorbitant amounts of money for items they didn’t perceive as valuable just to support a failing business model.

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Jazz Shaw 5:01 PM on March 22, 2023