For those with a passion for food, opening a restaurant is the ultimate entrepreneurial dream. Perhaps you’ve already envisioned it: You start off in a tiny space with a couple of tables and a small kitchen. Before you know it, your eatery has become a beloved local dining establishment with a line out the door every weekend.
Running a restaurant is certainly rewarding, but it’s no easy task. Like any startup venture, restaurant ownership takes a lot of hard work, unwavering dedication and a willingness to overcome the obstacles you’re sure to come up against along the way. Six industry veterans shared their tips for navigating the business and launching a successful restaurant.
Do your homework
In any industry, doing your due diligence before starting up is critical for success. This is especially true for the restaurant business, where simply knowing good food isn’t enough. Even if you have worked in a restaurant, there are still many legal, managerial and marketing lessons to be learned.
One area that many would-be restaurateurs overlook is local licensing and health-department regulations. Michele Stumpe, a Georgia-based attorney specializing in alcohol licensing and hospitality litigation, stressed the importance of knowing the legal policies in your restaurant’s location, especially since state (and even county) laws can vary. Aspiring restaurateurs planning a launch should factor in the time various permitting and inspection processes will take, Stumpe advised. Costanzo Astarita ran into this issue when opening his Atlanta restaurant Baraonda in December 2000.
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“The first couple of months were hard,” Astarita said. “We didn’t have a liquor license, and opening when everyone was busy for the holidays proved very challenging. We scraped through until Valentine’s Day, when we received our license and got a review published in the local paper. We had a great weekend, and the restaurant finally took off.”
Location is everything
You might have an incredible concept, a well-trained staff and the best menu, but without a good location, your restaurant is doomed to fail. In the 30 years she’s been in business, Paola Bottero moved her Manhattan eatery three times before settling on her current location. Marco Pipolo, owner and executive chef of Marcony Ristorante in New York City has learned valuable lessons from each of the five restaurants he’s owned, but one of the most important is that location can make or break your business.
Daniel Shemtob, owner of Los Angeles-based TLT Food, got his start in the industry with his mobile restaurant called The Lime Truck. While lower inventory costs and the ability to move around mean a much lower risk when starting a food truck, location can still present an issue.
“On our first day, [my co-founder and I] were in the middle of nowhere — we didn’t have propane to cook, and the truck wouldn’t start,” said Shemtob, who recalled having to hotwire the truck and wait for someone to come help them. “Then, there are other factors, like traffic,” he added.
Experience helps tremendously
Getting your bearings in the restaurant industry as a first-timer can be difficult. If you don’t have any previous experience in the business yourself, it’s important to partner with or hire someone who does.
When Astarita started his restaurant, he and his partner had worked on both the food preparation and management sides of the industry, but he didn’t know much about commercial leases.
“I wish I had understood how to negotiate them when I started,” he said. “I think that any new restaurateur who is unfamiliar with commercial leases should hire a lawyer who specializes in that field.”
Tony Doyle, owner of HK Hospitality Group, has worked in restaurants since age 12 and has opened several successful restaurants, but he still had a lot to learn when he opened his first establishment.
“There were a lot of things I’d never dealt with before — employees, payroll, taxes, bank-account management, etc.,” Doyle said. “You need to get a general knowledge of the working of the business before you start. There are a lot of issues that people don’t see.”
While being consistent in food quality and service is important for success, the restaurant business is far from static.
“I have found over the years that you constantly need to be updating, renovating and evolving with the ever-changing taste of the public to be successful,” Pipolo said.
Shemtob agreed, noting that his menu is constantly changing to allow for newer, more innovative dishes. When you come up with your concept and menu, it should be flexible enough to adapt when your customers ask for something new.
Learn from your mistakes
According to a recent Ohio State University study, more than half of all restaurants fail within the first three years. If your venture does fail, assess what went wrong and try again, keeping those things in mind. When Highlands Restaurant Group co-owner Donal Brophy and his business partners founded their most recent restaurant, Whitehall Bar + Kitchen (New York City), they used the lessons they learned when one of their restaurants was forced to close in 2011.
“We learned so much from the closing of our restaurant, Mary Queen of Scots,” Brophy told BusinessNewsDaily. “The food must be spot-on from the beginning. The layout and flow of the space needs to work during a high-volume atmosphere. Most importantly, we learned how important it is to communicate well amongst the partners. It was such a tough time for all of us, but we made it through and opened Whitehall, which has been a massive success.”
There’s more to success than great food
Everyone knows that a successful restaurant needs to serve impeccable food, but there are so many other factors that contribute to the success of your venture. If there’s one thing Bottero wishes she knew when she started out, it’s that creating a loyal following is difficult and takes time, even if your menu is top-notch.
“Customers make the place,” she told BusinessNewsDaily. “You have to earn their trust by making sure they’re taken care of and providing the best service possible. In today’s market, you also can’t succeed without social media. Good food is important, but so is good technology.”