If you're passionate about good food, have some familiarity with financing and enjoy a competitive challenge, starting your own neighborhood eatery could be the perfect meal ticket to a satisfying career. Here's what you need to know to get started.
Decide what kind of restaurant you want to have (i.e., casual dining, upscale, cafeteria, coffee shop, tea room, ethnic, family-friendly, dinner theater). Scope out your competition. If, for example, there are already six Italian restaurants within a five-block radius, the Italian restaurant you want to open will need to have something unique that makes it stand out.
Identify your target clientele (i.e., college students on tight budgets, business people who have only an hour for lunch, morning commuters, romantics who love candlelight). This will then influence the overall color scheme, lighting, placement of tables and variety/complexity/pricing of selections you put on the menu.
Assess your finances with your accountant. In most cases, it's easier and much less expensive to purchase an existing restaurant than it is to build a new one from the ground up. Although you'll probably be doing remodeling to accommodate your culinary vision (i.e., transforming a former Mexican restaurant into one that serves sushi), it's likely that the major appliances, fixtures and furnishings will be part of the sale package.
Write a detailed business plan that addresses the permits and licenses you'll have to have, your projected expenditures for the first 3 years, staffing needs, adherence to city/county building codes, insurance coverage, pricing of menu items and marketing strategies. A business plan is essential if you're going to be borrowing money from a bank to get things rolling. The website of the Small Business Administration (see Resources below) is a good starting point for establishing your restaurant's corporate identity.
Hire exceptional staff who are as passionate about providing great meals and outstanding customer service as you are.
Establish positive relationships with the media and with the businesses that are located close to your new enterprise. Request reviewers to come and dine. Offer discounts for referrals. Throw a quarterly open house and invite civic leaders to come and see what's new on the menu.
Join organizations such as the National Restaurant Association to network with your peers, stay abreast of food service trends, take workshops and learn how to effectively promote yourself. Subscribe to gourmet magazines, visit regional cooking schools to scout talent and familiarize yourself with culinary websites such as Food Down Under to get recipe ideas.
Take cooking classes. Even if you're not going to be donning a chef's cap in your own restaurant, you still need to understand the basics of food preparation and safety to know if your culinary staff is doing a good job. If you're a first-time business owner, you'll also want to take some management courses and PR workshops; these are not only offered at most colleges but also as adult education classes.
Design a professional website that includes information about the restaurant's history, a biography of the owners, sample menus for on-site dining, catering and/or take-out, hours of operation and an easy-to-navigate map on how to get there. As your restaurant starts to grow, encourage frequent diners to submit testimonials about their favorite dishes. Add your website as a link in your signature block on outgoing correspondence.
Treat your chefs and your wait staff with respect. Turnover at restaurants is typically high, so there needs to be enough incentive for them to want to stay loyal to you.
The greatest menu on the planet won't attract a loyal following if the restaurant is located in a dicey neighborhood, lacks convenient parking that is either free or valet, or can't be reached by public transportation. Never negotiate any building purchases or lease arrangements without the review of a lawyer.
- Photo by Christina Hamlett