The Five Worst Reasons to Open a Restaurant
Oh, the fun you'll have!
Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning that he's on to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!
Let's make one thing perfectly clear. Owning a restaurant is a lot like owning a car or a house. You're gonna say you own it, but in fact, you're probably just making the payments. More importantly, at least at the outset, your shop will own you just as much as you supposedly own it. That is a fact.
The funny thing about the following list is that these reasons are also some of the best to get in The Biz, thus spins the schizophrenic nature of our industry.
1. Because You Like to Cook
This may or may not be an automatic death sentence, but it's a lousy way to start off. Lots of folks like cooking in the quiet confines of their residential kitchens, building some fun finger-foody stuff or grilling for friends and/or family. But the reality of life in a commercial setting can be a real slap in the face for those that are unprepared. Just the pressure of opening day can break even the hardiest of souls, much less the never-ending grind of prepping, ordering, supervising your crew and wrapping things up at the end of the night.
The good news is that in recent years most good chefs still enjoy cooking at home, using it as an extension of their own shop for development and personal expression. I remember 20 years ago I could count on one hand the number of restaurateurs I knew who really enjoyed a bit of home chefery but thankfully this trend seems to have swung the other way.
2. Because You Like People
All photos by Dave Mau, if you already haven't got the drift...
Now, I'm not saying you're going to start to hate everyone but believe me: after a stretch, you are going to really start to appreciate a quiet evening at home cocktailing it with just a few of your closest friends. In some ways being in The Biz is akin to being a stripper or car salesman, but hopefully slightly less disingenuous. To a certain extent you are there to glad handle folks, tell them things they want to hear and take their money. Not in a bad, skeezy sense but people go out to be social and that is just your job, like it or not. There is a reason they call it the "hospitality" industry: we get paid to be hospitable. Part of that is answering lots of rhetorical questions like "How ya' doing?" and not letting on when your dog died, house is in foreclosure or you just lost your lead guy/gal on the line.
3. Because You Think it Will be Fun
The good news is our industry is brimming with frivolity. The employee demographic is generally young and hip, which makes for fun in itself. Also people want to go out, have a good time and rarely do they show up hell-bent on intentionally acting like self-entitled jerks (except in Corona Del Mar). You will also share amazing moments hosting your friends/family members for birthdays, weddings and all the other events that make our lives so special. But all that mirth is paid for (quite literally) with an endless stream of blood, sweat and tears. Just keep the happy moments in the front of your mind and it will seem like you are having considerably more fun than you actually are.
4. Because You Think You Will Have a Flexible Schedule
Oh, you're gonna have a flexible schedule alright! The flexibility of your schedule will vary between working the line, handling your staff, getting your conditional use permit modified, dealing with vendors, scheduling your fire suppression system inspection, keeping your eyes open for the health department, updating your POS terminals and on and on and on. The first restaurant I ever opened I specifically remember walking in the back door the afternoon of our hard open and consciously resigning myself to the fact that I wouldn't see the light of day for a year. It turned out to be largely true. It's gotten even worse in the past ten years with access to more technology. And heaven forbid you live close to the shop 'cuz, even if you are lucky enough to break away for a moment, you're gonna be headed back to solve some otherwise insignificant problem.
5. Because You Think You'll Make a Fortune
Big secret--a really properly run restaurant runs on a 10% profit margin, although there is some debate and it might be even lower. No joke. That is why people from the real estate and banking worlds sometimes don't last as investors (especially in small shops)--they are used to a much higher return. They might hang on for a while if they are looking to find a place to slam some money away from the IRS (better taking a loss than giving it to them), but they generally aren't around for very long. It's even worse if you have multiple primary partners, and then that 10 percent starts looking more like 5 or 3 percent depending on the break.
Don't even get me started on if you have some douche bag investor(s) leaning on you to get their monthly nut (and possibly showing up with a bunch of buddies expecting to get everything comped). And whatever capitol your think you might need, forget it. You're going to need twice as much and plan on spending twice as long as you think to open. Now, this isn't always true (I've seen some truly startling exceptions!) but I've also seen a tragic amount of potential restaurateurs who were unprepared for the fiscal realities and bled out all their operating capitol trying to open up. It's like watching someone with a gambling addiction: they are always hoping for a positive turn of events to swing them into the black and, sadly, it oftentimes gets beyond the point of no return.
If I sound like I'm slamming The Biz or being negative or discouraging I apologize, it's not my intention. I say it all the time and I'll say it again: our industry is a magical one, one that's vibrant, exciting, truly one of a kind. It's way better than living the Dilbert/cubicle-dweller lifestyle and once you get it in your bones you are done for, nothing else will ever, ever do. Period. What I am trying to do here is give some realistic expectations about what's going to happen and how to deal with it. Opening your own joint is definitely a "hope for the best/plan for the worst" situation and, much like the best laid of wartime battle plans, I guarantee what you think is going to happen won't and what you think won't, in fact, will. Prepare yourself: you have been warned.
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