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The Counter Service at Yo' Mama's Is Just As Unique As Its Name. Here's Why People Come Back for the Experience as Much as the Food. Learn how the owner of Yo' Mama's manages business operations and online reviews to balance her needs with those of her customers.

By Emily Washcovick

Key Takeaways

  • Be strategic when finding your niche in your community. Research competitors to understand their shortcomings, and target your offerings to specific customer segments.
  • Learn which reviews to focus your energy on, like those that include feedback you can act upon to improve your offerings.
  • Engage customers as soon as they walk in the door, and ask how you can help them. The more personal and seamless a customer experience feels, the more likely that person is to return and form a relationship with your business.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Courtesy of Yo' Mama's

The environment at Yo' Mama's, a comfort food restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, is just what it sounds like: a warm space that makes customers feel at home. Owned and operated by Crystal Peterson and her family, the establishment wins over customers through its quick and engaging counter service.

Crystal and her mom got their start selling food at jazz festivals in Florida back in 2011. When they moved into a brick-and-mortar in 2014, Crystal developed her unique business model through market research.

"I actually [ate] at every single restaurant I could think of that could be comparable to [mine] and [looked] at what was missing," she revealed. "Was it the customer service aspect? Was it the portion size? Was it the flavor?"

What she found was that counter service is a win for both the owner and the customer. When guests aren't waiting thirty minutes to order their food, Crystal doesn't have to stress about turning tables and can provide the quality customer service that is so crucial to success.

It's also important to understand your customer base. Crystal's restaurant tends to draw in travelers and workers looking for a bite to eat during their mid-day break. Because of this, she aims to create a "getaway" space where customers can relax in the middle of a busy day and enjoy a delicious meal without worrying about long wait times.

Yo' Mama's regulars, like Yelp Elite Delia S., love the way Crystal and her staff approach customer service, greeting customers at the counter and walking them through the menu.

"I remember the interpersonal contact that this restaurant does on a consistent basis," Delia said. "The vibe I got was, 'We're excited you're here. We appreciate your business, and we also want to make this an establishment where you will continue to visit and tell other people about it.'"

Key to Yo' Mama's top-tier service is Crystal's involvement in the business's day-to-day operations. She knows that morale starts from the top and makes an effort to be at the restaurant as often as she can, engaging with her staff and customers.

"What I've known is that workers work better when the owner's in the building," she said. "You get a better product, so the customer is more satisfied."

Crystal has also made her business a hit by focusing on a niche. Her gluten-free menu attracts people who can't satisfy their dietary needs at just any restaurant, and it also creates an element of surprise and delight for customers who don't come in looking for gluten-free food and still enjoy their meal.

This focus on accommodating dietary restrictions has helped Yo' Mama's create a strong community where every diner feels included.

"I've literally had customers that have come in and cried because their kid has never been able to eat in a restaurant because they are gluten intolerant. And they [can] actually sit there and enjoy a meal with them instead of having to bring a snack in for them to eat or get[ting] food from another restaurant [to] bring to them."

Building this kind of welcoming and accessible space for the local community aids Crystal's ultimate goal as a business owner to support the local economy. She emphasized that if you and your neighbors don't spend your money where you live, nobody else will, especially if everyone commutes to larger cities or towns.

"You have to be a citizen, and [being] a citizen equates to using your money right by your house instead of going to the other side of town," she said.

Spending money at Black-owned businesses, who are often hindered by stereotypes, is especially important. Delia makes an effort not only to visit local Black-owned businesses but shout them out on Yelp whenever she can, letting people know that these spots are for everyone to visit and enjoy.

"Oftentimes in restaurants, I don't think the playing field is fair. As a Yelp Elite, I am more drawn to trying as many of the smaller, often Black-owned restaurants that our city has to offer because there's such a large Black community—but that doesn't mean that only Black people are eating Black food. Restaurants are spaces that have the ability to traverse across class, race, region. You go into Yo' Mama's, and you see a diversity of people there gathering around this comfort food."

Delia also makes sure all her reviews are thoughtful, filling gaps on Yelp Pages by uploading missing photos of dishes and menus and choosing not to post about negative experiences unless she has valuable tips for owners or other guests.

Crystal brings this same level of intentionality to her review responses as an owner. She has found that some consumers only review a business when they want to express frustration or have expectations that Crystal can't satisfy, like an issue with her pricing. She chooses not to let these customers bring down her energy or service-focused mindset. By managing her emotions in the face of backlash, Crystal is able to engage with customers in a more productive way.

"Some [customers] are coming in looking to lose. Some of the problems that people have don't even include me. So if I can control my emotions to change your emotions, then maybe we can win this and you can actually enjoy the experience."

In addition to an inviting restaurant atmosphere, Yo' Mama's believes in:

  • Understanding your customers and your role in the business community. Gain an edge by researching your competitors and thinking about how you can fill gaps in their offerings.
  • Restaurants as a space for diverse, inclusive community. Accommodating the needs of all your customers, including those with dietary restrictions, can help everyone who enters your space feel seen and welcome.
  • Being flexible in the face of chaos. Navigate unexpected business obstacles by keeping the well-being of your customers and staff at the forefront.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Crystal and Delia, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora and Soundcloud.

Editorial contributions by Callie Morgan and Kristi Lindahl

Emily Washcovick

Small Business Expert at Yelp

As Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily is meticulously focused on helping local business owners succeed and grow. Her expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management, and all things digital marketing. Through speaking engagements and thought leadership, Emily shares industry insights that entrepreneurs in any business category can leverage for the growth and well-being of their businesses. She is also the host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, where each episode features conversations with a business owner and a reviewer about the story and lessons behind their interactions.

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