You just cooked a spectacular holiday meal. You roasted your best turkey yet. You charred Brussels sprouts with some fancy lardons picked up from the specialty butcher shop. You even baked your own dinner rolls from scratch! You’re a hero at the dining table. Someone says off-handedly, “Gee, you should open a restaurant!” This plants a bug inside your brain. It makes you go, hmm. It gnaws at you, and what seemed like a fanciful idea a few weeks ago becomes one that’s not half-bad today. Then you start Googling “How to open a restaurant.” Next thing you know, you’re looking for financial backing.
This isn’t a hypothetical situation, it’s the reality of thousands of would-be chefs each year. Driving around my city, I can’t tell you how many “Coming Soon!” signs pop up on restaurant storefronts, be it a hot dog joint, a taqueria, or a fine-dining restaurant. Most people who open them have aspirations of just making a decent living. Now say you were one of those people. Without ever having met you, I am comfortable with betting a large sum of money that you will not make it. Nothing personal, it’s just that the odds are overwhelmingly against you. The popular metric is: 75% of new restaurants close within 18 months. The hours are awful, the costs are exorbitant, and the whole ordeal strains relationships to their breaking points.
I am the chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago called EL Ideas. Before that, I ran a food truck called the Meatyballs Mobile. I know what it’s like to have grand ambitions and fall on your ass and fail spectacularly. I knew it was going to be a tough go when I launched my businesses. But still, there were so many “unknown unknowns” about opening a restaurant I wish someone would’ve clued me in on, as it would’ve saved me a lot of time and money with my therapist. (On the other hand, it might’ve saved me a lot of heartache if I knew enough to get a therapist before I started out.) Here are some things I feel you should know.
The fastest way to failure is to not have enough start-up capital. Unforeseen costs come from everywhere: Delays in opening. Plumbing and electrical issues. Grease traps and hoods that need to be professionally cleaned. Refrigerators and freezers that break down. Ditto heaters and air conditioners. (Make sure to change filters and schedule regular maintenance.) Build in a contingency fund, because at a restaurant it’s always something, it’s always expensive, and it’s always at a bad time. Have enough money to run the business for six months to a year as if you’d be drawing zero income.
These days, banks are too smart to burn their money in a historically money-losing business venture. This means you’ll likely need private investors. Much like with spouses, you shouldn’t marry someone just because they show interest. Look for a person’s character first and foremost. Unfortunately, there are so few potential investors, the natural instinct is to bunker down with anyone who says they’re willing to commit. Just like in a marriage, you won’t know how strong your relationship is until you go through some trauma together. There are no prenups in business, but have a lawyer-approved operating agreement complete with an exit strategy in case things go wrong.
It also requires leadership skills and a cohesive philosophy. You’ll be handling perishable inventory (you will over- and under-order). You’ll need to schedule and educate a staff. You will wash pots and pans at some point, even if you attach a fancypants “executive chef” title to yourself. You will deal with employees who won’t be as passionate about your business as you are, and you’ll question why they’re not putting in 150%. You will be managing egos and destructive personalities—and that includes yourself. You will be an accountant, a marketer, a therapist, a mediator, a banker, head of customer service... and I’m probably missing a dozen more roles. Having the recipe for the world’s best gumbo is not enough to make it.
Even if you’re running the greatest restaurant in the world, the employee churn will be like a revolving door. This will cause you unimaginable stress. People move on in all careers, but the transient nature in kitchens is, for lack of a better term, surreal. In theory, it’s a great practice to wait for the right fit and check references for all new hires, but your job requirements will more likely state a preference for a warm body. If you’re lucky—and most of us aren’t—you’ll be given notice by your team members when it’s time for them to move on. Otherwise, expect the burden to fall on your shoulders when someone calls in sick or no-shows. There are guests coming that night for dinner, and they don’t give a shit if you’re running on a skeleton crew. Every time the team changes, you’ll have to go through the discipline of teaching someone new, and you’ll start to feel like a broken record. Like a molting snake, new hires and promoted team members take time to fit into their new skin.
You conservatively think 40 people will dine at your restaurant nightly? Most likely it’ll be closer to 10. Related: Scout locations by considering parking in the area, foot traffic, and average income in a one-mile radius. Figure out how many people you’ll need working for you, and about how much that will cost. And don’t forget adding exorbitant labor taxes. In regards to financial projections, pick a number for how many guests you expect to serve on a daily basis (remember: not 40, but closer to 10). Then multiply that number by your projected check average. This number gets you to your projected revenue. Use industry standard percentages to build a mock profit and loss sheet. And don’t forget to include the salary you plan on taking and loan payments out of the net profit too. If there’s anything left, remember the taxman is coming for that.
If you think your workplace is dysfunctional, try a restaurant. If you work in a dining room long enough, you see people from all walks of life. Most are awesome, some are a burden, and a few are purebred assholes. It’s as if the money paid for a meal gives license to treat others as a personal servant for the night. We’re not. At our best we take great pride in putting ourselves on the line to push our art forward. We act like we have thick skin, but it really cuts deep when our sense of nurturing is crushed by emotional toddlers who like to crap on others. It’s humbling and humiliating in a way that you don’t experience in other businesses. Yes, we should be giving diners the best service, and yes, they have a right to speak out. But it chips away at your psyche and emotional well-being over the course of a long career.
Owning a restaurant is not a 9-to-5 job. It’s more of a noon-to-midnight job. Your relationships are going to be tested. Spouses are some of the true unsung heroes of the restaurant industry. The fantasy of marrying a chef so you won’t have to cook is one of the greatest lies ever sold. Not only will spouses likely have to cook their own meals, they’ll likely be eating those meals all alone, too. And since our legs and psyches will feel like wet noodles after having worked our hardest on Friday and Saturday nights, don’t expect us to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for family day on Sunday. I’ve been through two marriages already, and I’m working my ass off so this one succeeds.
Try as I might, I’ve never been able to separate work life from home life. You will always take the stresses of the business home with you. In a way, a restaurant is like a needy child that never grows up and tantrums every time you don’t give it attention. Figure out how to step away, and don’t let guilt consume you when you take a night off. (Please teach me how to do this if you figure it out.) Also consider getting a therapist. And meditate, which is free. You’ll need help reconciling that it was your own fault you chose to open a godforsaken restaurant as a means of earning a living. Because even if it succeeds, you’ll feel like it owns you more than you own it.
All that being said, I wouldn’t trade my career path for any other. For the price of all the hard work, chaotic conditions, and sacrifice of a “normal” life, I get to do something I truly love. Aside from simply being able to turn food into art, it’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment to know you and your team kicked ass and overcame obstacles in the pursuit of making others happy. We not only get to nourish on the gastronomic level, we also get in on a spirit of fun. I have great passion for my job, and I know that’s rare enough not to be spit on. I set my own hours, make a reasonable living, and I’m my own boss. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say EL Ideas supplies me with about as sustainable an existence as I could hope. So success and even happiness is out there to be had if you’re good enough, lucky enough, and resourceful enough. I just don’t want anyone thinking their success in the restaurant business is a foregone conclusion just because they have a signature dish or throw awesome dinner parties.