I have seen successful start-up restaurants and I have seen the remains of those who thought they could do things in their own way. For starters I will use the Mexican taco place down the street from my house. They started simple and first sold their tacos out of a small food cart hauled around by an old Ford F150. The money they made from that stand went into renovating a building during that project their taco cart was parked in the parking lot still raising money for their project. While this seems smart and the best way to do things it also took them three years to reach their goal. It may have taken time but everything is paid for and everything they make from this point on is profit with no payment to be made to the bank. Equipment and gear were purchased second or third hand from auctions and other outlets at a fraction of the cost if it was new. Let somebody else pay those prices, you know, the poor bastards that have no idea what they are doing. Construction and labor were all DIY with flooring and walls all done by friends and family. There is no secret to how to build your own establishment, it takes hard work and time, two things people don’t want to invest in anymore, instead seeking the easy way out.
Then you have people starting a restaurant with money. The fact they have cash to burn can be the biggest obstacle they will face. There is a brewery downtown that decided years ago that they would extend their establishment and add a restaurant to their building. This place was famous for beer not food and while one could argue that its only natural for them to expand into other things, I would like to point out it is very difficult to make a profit from serving food. Making beer and serving alcohol is the best money maker one can hope for and if you are looking to make more money with that kind of establishment than maybe you should expand the types of drinks you serve.
All the classic mistakes were made with this expansion. Over 3 million dollars was spent on the kitchen alone. For some reason a person with a limitless credit card thought the whole thing should be new. This was also done backwards, installing the kitchen and design then hiring the chef who would be working it. Nobody during this process had experience running a kitchen and yet they were picking the spots to put the stove, fryer, prep station, oven and so on. The flow of the kitchen and the type of food you will be serving are key to having a functioning kitchen.
Next came the hiring of the chef. There were two options in the end. One was a guy who worked for a company who toured the country selling kitchen supplies and showing new businesses how to prepare their meals. This guy had skills that were learned over time. Next you had a guy from California who had a habit of rubbing his noise while sniffing and thought he was the greatest thing on the planet. The daughter of the brewery’s owner thought he was pretty hot herself so you can guess as to who they hired. The coke addict lasted less than a year when they finally realized he had no idea what the hell he was doing. Money started to leak from the business like the Titanic cruising along after hitting the iceberg, the only difference is that they didn’t notice they hit anything and it was self-sabotage.
After 3 million dollars spent, a coke addict was hired for the kitchen, piss poor food was decided to be served, and an inexperienced crew roamed the kitchen the final nail was put into the coffin. Hopcat, a piss poor business with bad service, but for some reason loved by all, moved in across the street. It was game over for the brewery that had everything to offer in that small section of town.
I couldn’t tell you what they were thinking. When the brewery first started it was small, functioning out of a kitchen and serving one keg at a time. The owner used one cooking pot per batch and worked on recipes over the years. He gradually expanded and slowly over time the business grew to epic proportions. This was the Mexican taco cart but with beer. He had done things right the first time but somewhere along the way from the three divorces, national distribution, car collection, or maybe the coke habit, things started to go downhill and he forgot where he had come from. I have heard this story before, hell I lived it in a past life. You start working for a company and everything is going great. They have good benefits, they pay well, treat people with respect and then over time things start to disappear. The benefits are trimmed back, raises are no longer given, vacations are no longer approved and when you say something you are told “be thankful you have a job.” There is a strange business model that everyone follows to their own destruction, expand like a virus until you are dead.
Now why would a brewery with a stunning reputation decide to expand into the less lucrative restaurant industry? Greed. Their books topped off and while they were making more money than they could spend, there was the appeal of making more. Lessons had been learned long ago on how to do these things without going bankrupt and yet if you throw in a bunch of money people think they know better than the time-tested methods of yesterday. People were fired, benefits lost and the curtesy of a “I’m sorry” never came to mind. Lives were ruined and those on high, the captains of industry that knew better, didn’t think twice about it.
I talked before about a tribe, the group of people who work together with one goal in mind. If you want a functioning kitchen you better have a good tribe in place who is willing to work together through thick and thin. Serve the best food, on time, presented the same way and do it again. If there is anyone in the kitchen who can’t follow this model get rid of them. When I kicked Opie out of the kitchen it was because he was fucking things up for the rest of us. We could pump out a thousand perfect sandwiches and that one douchebag could ruin everything for everyone. This kind of self-destruction can be unstoppable from the top. You could have the best crew, the best ingredients and then some snot nosed kid steps in and think he knows better, add in some drug addiction and shit goes down hill fast.
So, you want to start a business, one that serves food? Start small, don’t invest your retirement account into something you have never done before. You know those tamale ladies who are pedaling their food behind closed doors, start out like that. Make sure there is a market for what you want to serve. If you have to take out a loan do it with the understanding that you might have to file bankruptcy. Set a number in your head for how much debt you can accrue before calling it quits. You can lose other people’s money but it’s a double whammy to lose your business and your savings. Try to build your business with your profits and don’t quit your day job until you are making enough to pay yourself. Buy everything second hand or install furniture and equipment by yourself. Have standards of quality over quantity. Do not over expand.
There is an Italian sausage place in town that has been successful for over a decade now. The man started out making the sausage at home and then bought a food cart for local events. He has a tiny car and bought a place on the business loop where he spends his time making sausage. He has the one building, still uses the cart and is doing very well for himself. He didn’t put up several diners across the city in the hopes of making more money, he had his goal in mind, reached it and now has the security of knowing that he is the one guy in town that people go to for his style of food.
People tend to make things more complicated then they need to be. As long as civilization has been around people have made a living from serving food. People have to eat and most of the time they aren’t able to cook for themselves. This industry wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t profitable and to make more out of it than it is turns it into something that it shouldn’t be. Serve good food, be consistent, and repeat. If you get this down people will come back. Hell, even McDonald’s figure this one out.