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How Relationships can Build Business Longevity Rudy's Bakery in Queens has been open since the 1930s. 40 years ago, Toni Binati and her uncle bought it and kept many of the recipes alive. Toni admits it hasn't always been easy, and change has been inevitable.

By Emily Washcovick

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Rudy’s Bakery

Behind the Review host and Yelp's Small Business Expert, Emily Washcovick, shares a look at this week's episode of the podcast.

When walking into Rudy's Bakery in Queens, New York, it's not uncommon to hear owner Toni Binanti call out to her customers by name. Over the last 40 years she's been in charge of the business, she has learned that the key to customer service as a small bakery is knowing your customers.

"When you walk into Rudy's, my goal is to make everybody feel at home," said Toni. "It doesn't matter who it is that walks through my door. We try to welcome everybody by name. If I don't remember their name, I'll remember what they bought. I'll remember what they have, what they want."

Rudy's has been a staple of the Ridgewood area for over 90 years, and it's become a frequent stop for Queens Community Manager and Yelp reviewer Samantha C. Aside from the delicious seasonal treats like Nutella tarts, banana pudding and passion fruit and lemon cups, one of the reasons Samantha keeps coming back to Rudy's is that personalized touch that Toni gives to customers.

"When I come, Toni will be like, "Hey, so-and-so I got your coffee ready in two seconds,'" said Samantha. "She'll hear my voice from the back. And she'll be like, "Hi, Samantha!'"

"I'll turn the oven on before she's walking in," said Toni. "I know she's gonna get a toasted, buttered bagel, and I'll turn the oven on and start the cappuccino machine."

Beyond personalizing customer service, Toni's philosophy about running a successful bakery extends to three major tenets:

  1. Welcome every customer who walks in. "Whether they get a cup of coffee or they're gonna buy a thousand dollars worth of merchandise, you say, "hello.'"
  2. Be on time.
  3. The customer is not always right. "If there's anybody who will tell the customer they are wrong, it's gonna be me. When I tell them that, it means they were a hundred percent wrong. Because even if they're 90% wrong, I don't tell them. But when they get to hundred, I have to let them know, "I'm sorry. You were wrong and I won't be settling.'"

That last point might be somewhat shocking at face value. But what Toni is really getting at is her pride in the baked goods she makes by making sure that she can lead her customers to flavor combinations—and an experience with her business—that everyone will love. Samantha shared an interesting story about how Toni helped to guide her when looking for a birthday cake.

"I ordered my son's first birthday cake from Toni," Samantha said. "We were doing a Cookie Monster cake. And she asked me what I wanted inside. And I was like, "Can we do chocolate cake with cookie dough?' And she goes, "No, Sam, that's too much. Too much, too rich.' Toni is honest and great. And she'll steer you in the right direction when it comes to ordering custom cakes."

"I do it because I could have said, "Yes, yes, Sam,'" said Toni. "But I'm like, you're feeding forty people. Forty people are not gonna like the cookie dough. I know that. I think she would have regretted it. The cookie dough cake is an amazing cake, but she should have it when she comes in here for a date with her husband or with a friend. But not for forty people."

It's more important to Toni that her customers enjoy her food and return than it is to make a few extra bucks on each order.

Toni said, "People will look at me and say, "You know, you could have just made double the amount of money if you made what they wanted. Why not just do it?' And I'm like, I want them to come out and be happy. I want them to come back."

Even so, Toni and Samantha agree that it's impossible to please every customer.

"I've looked at reviews, and I've used them," said Toni. "I try to look at them positively. [I've gotten reviews] about a cake—the way it was presented, the way it was put in a box. Maybe it doesn't taste right. And I'm like, okay, let's look at it. Let's taste it. Maybe it was the way they said. And I try to correct that."

Toni's reaction to negative reviews is in service of her broader philosophy on her business and the importance of building meaningful connections with her customers. Ultimately, Samantha believes that reviews—even those that can at first seem negative—are critically important to a business's success.

"I think reviews are important to support local businesses," Samantha said. "Years ago it was just word of mouth. Social media is just heightened word of mouth in my eyes. So when you are sharing positive reviews about places that you love, it's the best way to support your local business."

Toni's passion for creating connections with her customers is founded on these principles:

  • Create an environment that's friendly and as personalized as possible. Make an effort to get to know your customers, especially your regulars, and their preferences.
  • Don't be afraid of giving your opinion. Customers rely on your expertise, and while it's tempting to agree with their request, your true, honest opinion may ultimately guide them better.
  • Take reviews to heart, but don't dwell on them. Negative reviews can help you make tangible improvements to your business. Address them and move on.

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

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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