RESTAURANT REALITY CHECKIntroduction

If you are thinking of opening a restaurant and have begun your research, you will have discovered websites, books, blogs, templates, check lists, plans, forms, and promises of everything else you need for success. Websites peddling “fill in the blank” business plans and A through Z packages will tempt you with time sensitive offers and act now inducements. But wait! There’s more!

There always is. Naturally, most of the available material is spun with a positive slant. Who would try to sell doom and gloom to entrepreneurs revved up to realize their dreams? Go for it, you will be told, and here is how to do it. By all means, read everything you can get your hands on, glean the useful, incorporate the sensible and learn from the experience of others.

A bulletproof plan guaranteeing your success is not what is promised here, because that does not exist. The process of putting together a restaurant is too dynamic and complex to fit a particular template. There are too many variables, some you can control and some you can’t, that will have a bearing on whether your effort is a resounding success, abject failure or something in between.

What I present here is different. I promise raw insight into the business from the perspective of a small operator who has experienced the trials and tribulations associated with the building of two F&B (Food and Beverage) projects from scratch. This is not a comprehensive step-by-step, “how to” manual. You will not find every spreadsheet and form needed for operations. Instead, you will find tangible information on a wide variety of issues, from off the beaten track marketing concepts, to deep thoughts about equipment maintenance and kitchen design, to the joys (yes, I’m being sarcastic) of managing staff. I will provide more detailed information when I consider the subject matter of critical importance (such as the importance of a proper hood) and when I have a high degree of confidence that the information I present, borders on the absolute. Importantly, I will also share with you a more personal (read emotional) perspective that will give you a peek beyond the sheeny façade you may associate with restaurant ownership.

My experiences are particular and your journey may be easier, harder, shorter or longer. But the start-up roller coaster can be a rough ride and this glimpse into bits of my story should provide you with useful context as you continue to explore and perhaps commit to this not for the meek at heart, but potentially rewarding enterprise. Lest you get the impression that I am just raining on your parade, my hopes are that through the “reality check” I impart, you will be better equipped to deal with the many challenges that lie ahead, and create an F&B business you find both fulfilling and enriching.

WHY A RESTAURANT?

You love food. The Food Channel® is your porn. Gordon Ramsey’s belligerence turns you on. Or you’ve been told that your linguine with white clam sauce (you toss in finely chopped cilantro and splash a few drops of fresh lime juice just before serving) is like none they have ever tasted. Perhaps it was your fusion meld of shitake mushrooms, sliced Fuji apples and baked Roquefort cheese, sprinkled with freshly ground nutmeg that prompted (not just once), “Oh, this is lovely, you should open a restaurant.” Maybe your significant other is turned on by your ability to whip up a tasty meal even when the fridge is bare. Whatever. But if you are suddenly serious about getting into the restaurant business because of your perceived (or real) aptitude with food on a residential level … don’t. Or do … but unless you are primed for a dramatically different and difficult experience, you will be in for a rude awakening.

I am not saying that a passion for food is not relevant to your desire to open restaurant. It absolutely is. You are going to be so immersed in facets of the commercial food business you did not know existed (like the unique stink of grease traps) that you had better have some appreciation for the culinary arts. If you are creating your concept from scratch, which is the focus of this book, you had also better have some sort of a palate and be able to direct and critique the output of your commercial kitchen. But running a professional kitchen is nothing like cooking up a swanky meal for friends, even if you can handle large gatherings by yourself, with confidence and poise.

There is admittedly something “sexy” about the restaurant business. The creation and appreciation of food, after all, relies on all the senses. Sound, garlic and onions crackling in the pan; sight, the tip of an asparagus breaching a creamy vinaigrette next to crispy, mixed greens and quartered, cherry tomatoes; smell, the trigger of memories you forgot existed; touch, the feel of the blade as it melts through the pink of lamb; taste, the orgasm of your face when all is just right. Cookbooks are not one of the most highly profitable genres for nothing. Look at how much food is posted on social media. We love food. And if there is a side business celebrities routinely dabble in, it is the restaurant business. It’s a compelling picture, and those that manage to pull it off can amass small (or large) fortunes. But behind the dazzle, the reality is demanding, difficult and risky. For every success story, there are a disproportionate number of failures, some catastrophic and others that wilt in a slow tortured spiral into non-existence.

My experience in the F&B industry evolved through the creation, from scratch, of first a bar and lounge and then a Mexican restaurant. I gave birth, an appropriate metaphor, to the first concept in 2002, and the second one in 2007, and ran both for over six years. So what is your idea? Are you thinking upscale? Casual? Small, large, Japanese, Italian, fusion? Full-service, self-service? How long have you had this idea? Do you dream about it? Have you been doodling logos? Is it your concept? Are you considering a franchise?

JUMPING ON THE BRANDWAGON

While much of what I discuss applies equally to franchised F&B operations, this book is geared towards individuals that are burning with the desire to bring to reality their own concept. This is not to suggest that developing your own restaurant is the better way to go. Going the franchise route is often the safer bet. Unless you have an established track record in the industry, working with a franchisor provides you with more certainty than a concept built from scratch. You, the franchisee, are leveraging the brand, a tried and true concept, and a lot of hard information and operational infrastructure. These are assets that you, as an independent operator, would have to acquire and develop from the ground up. You are, for a fee (this usually includes an initial up front franchise fee topped off by monthly royalty payments and an obligation to purchase franchisor supplied items) investing in a concept that has been figured out and is backed by lots of training, operational support, and a successful track record. Do not underestimate the cost of building your brand. Building a brand is extremely expensive, takes time, and requires skill, patience and persistence. For many, jumping on the brand wagon may be the easier and preferred route.

Assuming a good quality franchise, your start up and growing pains should be mitigated because the concept is cookie cutter ready to go and understood. The menu (barring a few items that may be tailored specifically for the territory you operate in, if corporate approves) is set, the color of the carpet, the treatment of light, the FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment), the look and feel of the place, are all standardized and specified. No agonizing over what colors to paint the walls, what kind of china to choose or what to call your restaurant. You won’t have to research kitchen equipment or figure out how to layout your kitchen. It’s already been figured out.

The operational infrastructure is essentially plug in and play, literally and figuratively, so you won’t have to program your cash register. The franchisor will specify a preprogrammed system that is ready to go. Some franchisors may even have proprietary systems that give 24/7 web access to your operations, so that corporate can make sure that you are selling enough Gooey Chewy Doos™, or whatever else is on the menu. Large franchisors also enter into blanket licensing agreements with music distributors (deep pockets do not want to be sued) and will have rules on what music can be played. This may not include your favorite band. The uniforms, logos, portion sizes, plating, all of this and more, will be specified. There are also the “universities,” where your future managers, assistant managers, cooks and other members of your team, will be required to attend six to twelve week programs, to be programmed. And that is fine. Banks are more likely to grant financing, especially to an F&B newbie, if said newbie has convinced a recognized franchisor to grant him or her a franchise. That said, any development, whether home grown or not, is going to require attention and sweat equity.

Operating a franchise is not always a slam-dunk. You must have the right concept, in the right place, at the right time, and under the right terms. Further, if you turn out to be a crappy operator, it won’t matter how good the franchise is. Good franchisors will be protective of their brands and keep close tabs on their franchisees. If the brand suffers at the hands of an operator, his or her franchise will be pulled. Nonetheless, there is a better chance, though no guarantee, of succeeding with a franchise.

Going the franchise route never crossed my mind. For one, today’s large franchised concepts are too deeply plugged into the industrial food supply. Large franchises cater to the masses by default. I’m not interested in propagating food developed in corporate kitchens where the end product is usually high fat, high salt content, driven by the “when in doubt, add bacon” mentality, and where “cooking” consists of shoving precooked meals into rows of microwaves. Why does the “homemade” clam chowder at your local franchise taste the same here as it does in Moscow or New York? Because it came out of the same can.

Of course, the standardization of your operation is important. Customers are not coming to your restaurant to be surprised by how their favorite dish is being prepared on a given day. Providing a consistent product and experience is a constant battle and one that you must win. Something as simple as the way you want the silverware set on the table may remain so elusive that you may be tempted to give up the fight. Don’t. Train, train, train. Pound, pound, pound, the information into those bunker-encased heads until everybody gets it. The dice size of your red onions makes a difference. A sauce can be too creamy. Meats can be over cooked. A hot sauce can be too hot. Having it your way is going to require constant vigilance. Taste your product, check the bathrooms, look into the depths of your refers and chillers, probe every corner and facet of your operation to demonstrate that you care and will not tolerate indifference.

Depending on location, the menu, the volumes used, and the availability of a reliable supply, restaurant operators often have no choice but to plug into mainstream distributors. It was no different for me, but as an independent, I was able to take small steps in what I consider to be the right direction. We were initially ordering cilantro that was being shipped over large distances and arriving in poor shape until we discovered that local farmers could provide us with a consistent supply of culantro. Culantro? You mean cilantro. No, Culantro. It’s a large and long leaf that is a close relative of cilantro. It gives off a fragrance and flavor that is very similar and yet different to cilantro. The added bonus to this story is that we shared this relationship with our local paper and they ran a nice story (complete with pictures) about a local restaurant teaming up with a local farmer. That was great free publicity!

Our farmer also provided us with organically grown, local bonnie peppers for our hot sauces. These tiny red peppers, rated high on the Scolville scale, were delicious toasted and crushed in our homemade hot sauce. The hot sauce in a franchised operation is not going to be made fresh. It will come out of a can or bottle. This difference may or may not impress you or your customers but it is the difference between you and someone else (a corporation) making a decision. This admittedly represents only a very small dent in the system, but it felt good to be supporting a local farmer and to have the flexibility to make choices important to me without approval from corporate headquarters.

We also chose not to serve bottled water because of concerns for the plastic waste generated. There is something perverse about the price of bottled water being three times more than the price of gas. Corporate may, or may not be receptive to your conscientiousness. My bet is that if it is a revenue producing PLU (Price Lookup Unit), then on the menu it will stay. These are small pushes in the right direction, but every little bit counts.

I am drawn, perhaps naively, and at my peril, to the build it from scratch approach. It is the development of the concept, and the realization of one’s ideas, that make all the work worthwhile. I opened a restaurant because it was born in my grey matter, not in someone else’s. It was my vision and I would be the one to turn it into reality. Independent operators love the creative aspect of setting up their restaurants. You will not hear many say that they enjoy operations. In fact, running the joint is difficult and not always fun. So to skip the whole adrenalin charged, creative side of the development, and jump right into operations seems a little raw to me. Sure, it may be easier, and others may make more money than I ever will. But will you have really created anything?

Admittedly, that sounds a little pretentious, and from the perspective of someone who suffered growing pains and a stressful slogs, even ridiculous. Create, great. But you also need to survive. Still, the truth of the matter is that the desire to create my own concept was/is for me the source of all the energy it takes to build a concept from scratch. You are going to need that flame burning bright and strong if you don’t want it extinguished by the winds of reality that will surely blow your way.

Look, if operating a franchise is the route you want to take, that is fine. Just understand that you will have to forgo creative control and pledge allegiance to your corporate masters. In return, you get a system that has been figured out and should work. That is going to be okay for some of you. For others, you believe in your ideas and are driven by the challenge of converting these into reality. Now you need to execute on your ideas.

THIS BOOK IS COMPLETE AND READY FOR REPRESENTATION