Legends Beget Fame
Memphis Downtowner is one of those free publications you read standing up with a BLT and a milk shake at Front Street Deli.
A recent issue had a really interesting feature story about a dive that Esquire says is the second coolest bar in America and Playboy names one of America’s 15 greatest bars. It’s the now world-famous Earnestine & Hazel’s on South Main in Memphis, of course.
As I read, I couldn’t help but think what a terrific example Earnestine & Hazel’s is of a primary element that makes great retail success.
Earnestine & Hazel’s is the epitome of differentiation. It's successful because it’s different. That reminded me of how hard most retailers try to be pretty much like their competitors.
Most retailers in every category do everything they can to keep from being too different. If an entrepreneur opens a hamburger place, he doesn’t want to be too different from what he thinks people expect from a hamburger place. If she opens an ice cream scoop shop, she doesn’t want to be too different from Baskin-Robbins.
Earnestine & Hazel’s is in a hundred-year-old building on South Main. Owner Russell George fosters the ideas that his jukebox is haunted (it turns itself on at odd times), and the building supposedly was home to a brothel. He gives tours of the upstairs rooms. Memphis Downtowner quotes George, “It’s just a beer joint with a real good burger and a jukebox.”
Because the joint began life funky, it attracted musicians, local and otherwise. In its pretentious efforts to be unpretentious it’s been a magnet for some of the famous, such as Otis Redding. As a location for nine motion pictures it’s attracted filmmakers, actors, and actresses. Francis Ford Coppola and Natalie Portman hung out at E&H.
Hundred-year-old ex-whorehouse, jukebox that plays when it feels like it, hangout of the famous, immortalized in national magazines — that's the stuff of legends. A legend is what George has created at Earnestine & Hazel’s to sell beer and hamburgers.
McDonald’s began life with a major difference, an edible 15-cent hamburger. Baskin-Robbins made a name with 31 different ice cream flavors. The Rendezvous doesn’t just have great barbecue. It’s in a basement. The basement’s in an alley.
The Rendezvous is different.
Retail can flourish with differentiation of almost anything that is important to consumers. Location, menu, a single signature item, merchandise, brand name. A Sarasota restaurant simply advertised America’s best apple pie, and it was really good. Best? Who’s to argue?
Then there’s Lambert’s, a place on the road to St. Louis that buys billboards to advertise “Throwed rolls.” Some customer probably asked a waitress to throw him another roll. She did, and thereby began a custom that became a legend that made the place famous.
Differentiation certainly is not restricted to restaurants. Any retail business can be made different from the others in its category. Of course, if you have the lowest price and the best location, you don’t have to be different.