“I’m opening a restaurant!” People with the dream of opening their own place love to say that, but too often do not have the right space, the right concept, enough money, or get sucked into a bad lease or partnership which leads to e failure. Even if the above isn’t true, mismanagement, opening for the sport of it, or a change in the business climate without adjustment will lead to an eventual demise.
When you want to have your own restaurant it’s very easy to make poor decisions when faced with the opportunity to have one or move into what is believed to be a better space. I’ve made plenty of rash decisions, especially when it was in reference to something I wanted so badly that my judgement was clouded by desire and dreams. Wanting to oversee your own kitchen or dining room is no different.
I recently read a story about a new restaurant opening in Saratoga and it got me thinking about this topic. It’s something I have thought about many times over the years as well as taking the leap myself. These questions are based on my personal experience, my victories, and my mistakes.
Is the lease favorable and manageable? This is one of the things you need an attorney for. Reading it carefully, and “my buddy is in real estate” doesn’t cut it. Pay someone who can give you solid advice and negotiation points. I once looked at a spot for a sublease and asked the potential sublessor what would happen if she went out of business before her three years remaining were up. No answer. I once was presented with a lease where the landlord wanted me to be responsible for structural repairs and equipment maintenance. I asked if he was willing to have an inspection of the building and appliances and he refused. Bye said I.
Are your partners trustworthy? I don’t mean that you trust them against theft or other wrongdoing (if you’re not already convinced of that, get new partners), but can you trust that they are in it for the same reasons, are they an asset to the business? Are they fully committed to the project? Again, see a lawyer for an agreement. It’s easier to do it before the project than after.
What makes you atypical and does it make sense? How will you stand out from the crowd? “I want to have the best wings in town” does not set you apart, but believe it or not, I’ve heard that more than once when opening restaurants for people. The clown that opened It’s Confidential on Caroline St. thought the best wings in town would be enough of a draw. No experience, no clue. Be serious and honest with yourself, how will you be different or better than what’s available? Being different is good to a point, but you need to be sure that people get your concept and are willing to support it.
Does the area need another restaurant of that type? Mexican, Italian, steak house? Look around and ask yourself if the area you’re looking to open needs another Mexican restaurant, Pub, or Deli. Can the population support your style of restaurant? If there are already 4 other restaurants close buy in a city of 30,000 people doing what you propose, then you may want to rethink your concept. “We’ll be different.” May not be the answer. Italian is the exception. With the success of Cantina on in the middle of Broadway in Saratoga I would be unwilling to open a Mexican restaurant, (no matter how different you think it would be) in location with a poor history and no visibility.
Do you have proven success in restaurant management? No experience is likely to be a sure path to failure. There are exceptions, but I have seen very few people with limited experience be successful.
Can you really cook? Is your food good? Make sure. Cooking Christmas dinner and receiving rave reviews from your family doesn’t add up to success. The restaurant business is not the same as a dinner party for eight. It can be eight at 6:00, and a couple of fours and three deuces at 6:30 followed by a more tables of two, three and four. If you’re going to run the kitchen, make sure you can cook well on a professional level. If not expect to add a chef who will be the highest paid employee on your payroll
Can the labor market support another restaurant? How hard it to hire and retain employees at your current job (assuming you’re working in the restaurant business)? If it’s difficult, what makes you think it’ll be easier when you’re the boss? It likely won’t. The most successful restaurants I’ve ever worked in had more than one long-term employee and limited turnover. It’s not uncommon to have turnover, but I have seen first-hand what rapid employee turnover can cause a business to be either unsuccessful or less successful than it should be.
Does the space have a positive history? What has preceded you? If it was a run of failures, then rethink the location. It just may not be the spot for another restaurant. I’m really referring to the upstairs at 17 Maple in Saratoga where I recently learned that it will become a Mexican restaurant in April. While the run of failed restaurants that have used that address is not a guarantee that the new entity will fail, one must wonder if this is the place to open yet another place.
Who will design and maintain your website and social media outlets? Today’s business climate demands strong online presence. Spend the money on a professionally designed website and have someone very qualified to handle social media. It’s very important to be ahead of the curve on social media and it takes someone with both the time and experience to make it work for you. Don’t leave it to a staff member who will simply post stuff without knowledge of the product, or a good understanding of how social media works, how to create quality photos, how to communicate flawlessly and clearly, and how to present captivating video. Amateur work shows.
Do you have enough capital? The best way to make a small fortune in the restaurant business is to start with a big fortune. Be realistic about expenses, expect the unexpected, and don’t think your projections for income are accurate. Also, don’t expect all the people who say that if you ever opened your own place they’d be there. They won’t. Expect to have zero income for at least six months while still being responsible for paying all the bills. Can you do that? If not, reconsider opening or raise more money.
Are people willing to support your kind of restaurant? I worked at the now closed Chez Nous in Schenectady for eight months, and my efforts to convince the owners that a high-end French restaurant will fail in Schenectady went by the wayside. I contended that a bistro model would allow them to keep the French theme while allowing me to hit a style and price point more appealing to the fine folks of Schenectady, the city I grew up in. Give the people what they want, and if you don’t have what they want, or are unwilling to do be flexible, then don’t open
Does your family support your decision, and will they help support your business? Probably not, and not likely.
Here are some snippets, I’m drinking Bourbon, so I may wander.
Owning a restaurant is more than a full-time job. If you’re unwilling or unable to work long hours almost every day then it’s not for you.
Be wary about hiring family and friends. They may be ok, but too often they will think they have a pass when it comes to being a solid and committed worker.
Have a clear theme, a clear picture of what you want to be, and carry that theme all through everything you do.
Make it clear what you are and carry yourself and your new restaurant with a consistent theme. The decor, the music, the food, the service, the stationary, the uniforms, everything must be consistent
Don’t make your restaurant a party for you and your friends.
Respect an animal’s death.
A host or hostess, either one. Essential. Sometimes it’s the owner, sometimes it’s a warm inviting person. The host, from open to close is so important.
Red wine inspires cooking.
Food cost is overrated.
Don’t take wine too seriously.
Wine is fun.
Find your place
Servers should not have cell phones during service.
Work is not a picnic.
Eat before you come, eat when you get home.
Work. Do whatever needs doing.
Be relevant, as a restaurant and as a chef.
I hope to be a happy old man.
I love cooking for people, people who appreciate cooking.
I would love to have a small restaurant, and I’ll leave it at that.