Over the years, I have often been approached by people who, having no knowledge of the hospitality industry, tell me how exciting they think it would be to open their own restaurants. I usually respond to those statements by politely suggesting that they really don't have an accurate picture of how difficult our jobs can be. These are usually professional people who spend a lot of time and money dining out. As such, they are already enamored of the idea of being involved in a more intimate way with the business of chefs, sommeliers, cooks and servers. They picture themselves in a dining room surrounded by friends and an adoring public all clamoring for a chance to tell them what a wonderful and satisfying experience they are having.
To be sure, that aspect of our business is quite rewarding. Bringing joy to people's lives by entertaining them with a lovely meal and great service offers a type of immediate gratification seldom realized in other walks of life. So why do I keep telling those folks to abandon the restaurant ownership fantasy and return to earth?
The answer is really quite simple. Unless one has chosen our profession as not merely a job but as a lifetime vocation, the rewards are not commensurate with the amount of devotion to duty that is required to be successful. Long hours, hard work, low pay and stress filled days are not uncommon in the restaurant business. That is not to say that one can never be happy in our industry, but it takes a certain type of individual to fully appreciate what there is to love about what it is we do. Our business is not for the meek and weak kneed, nor is for the part time restaurateur whose primary interest lies in being the most popular kid on the block.
Case in point is our restaurant expansion and relocation. While I have always been pretty good at generating media coverage for my work, I have never approached that work with the intention of figuring out how to make myself more well known or how to win some kind of award or industry recognition. My motivations have always been the joy I find in my job and whether or not the work is interesting and challenging. I have learned that if I stay true to myself that the accolades will come. Unlike Pinky and the Brain, I have no master plan for world domination. Such is the relocation of our restaurant.
I have worked very diligently over the last eight years to bring about an opportunity to create a project that would help us realize all of the various facets of our industry that I find so exhilarating. Not only that, but I have been striving over the last thirty years to contribute to a cultural change in America that more closely resembles the culture of my Italian forebears. Like many other countries, Italy has a very strong food culture that dominates the daily lives of those who live there. As a consequence, the quality and healthfulness of Italian cuisine is almost unparalleled. I have maintained that philosophy in the way that I approach my own cooking. So when the opportunity finally arose for us to be able to create a venue that fully embraced all aspects of that philosophy, we leaped at the chance.
That's the romantic part. The unromantic part is the business side of things because, make no mistake about it, restaurants are first and foremost businesses. Not only that, but they are highly regulated and greatly taxed and assessed.
The first step is to create a business plan narrative that spells out in great detail what is that you are trying to do. Next, a viable location must be found, and the costs associated with it must be established. Designs must be done, and those subsequent costs must be determined. A pro forma projection must be completed and extended for at least three years. A general contractor and/or architect must be hired. Financing must be obtained. That can entail some pretty heavy negotiations and reams of paperwork. Lawyers and accountants love that part. City and municipal regulators, representatives and licensing bureaucrats must be contacted for review and eventual approval of the plans. Those same people will be visited and will visit many times during the process as licenses are granted or denied. Often times, neighborhood organizations must be brought in for feedback or in order to allow them to voice objections or concerns. Once all of that is done, the real fun begins.
Construction is always tricky. There will inevitably be issues that will arise that were previously unknown. It's impossible to see many of these things since they are often times hidden behind walls. Once the walls are opened or torn down, the internal skeleton and infrastructure are fully revealed. In our case, we had major and very costly ventilation problems that needed to be addressed in order to make the building safe and bring it up to code. We were able to take care of most of our issues through our contingency funds that we built into our budget, but we still find ourselves over budget in a few areas even while remaining below budget in others. One thing to remember is that for the most part general contractors, equipment purveyors and architects will not do a very good job of keeping an owner within or below budget. It requires a remarkable amount of of diligence to do so. If the improvements to the property are part of a real estate purchase and are rolled into the mortgage, then the money is dispersed through the title company. The draw on that is done by the contractor. Not having a running balance sheet makes it very difficult to approximate how a project is shaping up if the contractor is not providing an excellent accounting. The faster the track that the project is on, the more difficult it becomes to provide such an accounting. The same is true for a Small Business Association loan that is dispersed through the lender. Suffice it to say, that there is a lot of grey area in a project such as that. It can be quite anxiety provoking.
No one will do a better job than an owner of keeping contractors and subcontractors on schedule. The opening date of a restaurant is only vitally important to the person paying the bills. As I write this, our restaurant has been closed for one month. To me, it seems like one year. That is not to say that our contractor is unconcerned with the time frame, but his investment is not the same as ours. The longer we wait to open, the more ground we lose toward reaching profitability. In addition, our staff cannot easily suffer a long layoff from gainful employment. They are working class folks, and they need a steady paycheck. An owner who trusts in others to keep the well being his or her business the first priority without providing the necessary oversight is probably asking too much. Even then, there will likely be delays in opening. We are delayed by one week for the opening of the restaurant and by at least one month for the opening of our market, and I am a hard and demanding task master.
Once all of that is either done or is moving in the right direction, there are inspections and licensing challenges that can be quite frustrating. The process in St. Paul is much easier for me than it has been in Minneapolis. The oversight and review is fairly well streamlined, but make no mistake about it, it can still be quite cumbersome even for those of us experienced in these things. Without successful health department, fire, electrical, plumbing and building inspections, permanent operating and liquor licenses cannot be issued. A certificate of occupancy must granted in order to open the doors for business. If parking is an issue, that can further complicate matters. In addition, there is usually a waiting period for liquor licenses since they are subject to a notice period for public comment. If sufficient objections are raised, the license can be delayed or denied. That is a death warrant for a restaurant.
While all of that is happening, furniture, fixtures and equipment must be sourced, selected and purchased. There is some negotiation involved along with the solicitation of multiple bids. There will inevitably be delays and out of stocks so one must be prepared for alternative solutions. A point of sale system might be necessary, and that must be chosen, installed and programmed. Ditto for the phone system, internal computer network and online reservation system. Logos, exterior signs and a website must be designed. Menus will be created, product ordered and staff hired and trained. For some locations, something as simple as trash hauling can be quite complicated. There might be needs for valet parking and security systems. Contracting a payroll company is usually a good idea. Computers and other office machines and materials must be purchased and set up. There are many other details such as snow removal, beverage programs and accounting systems that I am sure I am not mentioning.
If all of this sounds daunting, think what it was like for us as we operated one restaurant while opening another. I have been working twelve to fourteen hours a day six to seven days a week on average for the last few months, and I am still feeling the weight of the amount of work left to do. I haven't even started cooking in my new kitchen yet, and opening night is now just one week away.
So you see, owning and operating a restaurant is quite a charming and romantic notion just as long as one doesn't look too closely at the reality. For those of us who have dedicated their lives to this profession and are committed to being the best that we can possibly be, we wouldn't have it any other way.