6 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Opening a Restaurant

Beata Grace Beatty

Beata is a Florida-based freelance writer. When she’s not researching and pitching story ideas, she’s reading, walking on the beach, fiddling with home projects, and keeping up with her two daughters.

Your friends and colleagues cannot get enough of your sweet and savory pastries. You have your grandmother’s top-secret recipes locked and loaded. You’ve dreamed and planned… and now you are ready to quit your day job, secure that loan, rent the perfect space (or purchase that food truck), and start opening a restaurant. Take one more deep breath and listen to what these successful restaurant owners and managers have to say about what they wish they’d known before opening a restaurant.

Group of friends enjoying wine at a hip restaurant.

1. Let go of your expectations

Matt McClellan, Owner of Tour De Pizza in  St. Petersburg, Florida, stresses the importance of being prepared but knowing that things won’t always go your way. This is the ultimate DIY endeavor.

“You have put it together yourself, and you’re gonna get frustrated; you’re going to become upset at times; you’re going to want to walk away and quit,” he says.

You have a vision of a welcoming space, happy customers, and mouth-watering food. McClellan says, “Your final product might not be exactly what you envisioned.” Embrace this reality and carry on.

Even when you get a chance to expand and open a second or third location, there will always be issues you don’t anticipate. E. Noel Cruz, Chef and Managing Partner of award-winning Ichicoro Ane, Ichicoro Ramen, and Ichicoro Imoto says, “Every opening is a do-over where you fix all the previous issues and encounter a whole slew of new ones.”

2. Learn to negotiate, compromise, and be flexible

These skills translate into every aspect of the business – from negotiating your lease and constructing the perfect atmosphere to the art of dealing with employees and vendors. When opening a restaurant, you’ll inevitably face customers who have specific requests or who may be dissatisfied. As an owner and operator, you have to be ready to work with everyone.

Jean Totti, Owner of WEPA! Cocina de Puerto Rico in St. Petersburg, Florida agrees about the importance of fluidity. He says it’s important to be prepared and have a plan but also to adjust when needed. “Know what you want your staff to be like, have a clear image of your restaurant space, and be able to adapt, anticipate your customers’ experience, and be present at all times.”

3. Respect your people

Be prepared to hustle. Every successful owner who is in the trenches works hard. They don’t ask their employees to do work they are not ready, or able, to do themselves.

People are everything, and to succeed, you have to be able to attract (and keep!) the right people. That means building a strong culture from the very beginning, providing great training, and making sure your managers are actively engaging with and nurturing employees.

Happy employees equal happy customers. Happy customers turn into a loyal and supportive community. Whether your people love or hate you, your business’ reputation will already precede you.

4. Don’t rush into a partnership

McClellan says that going into business with someone else can be tricky. Partnerships provide funding, ideas, and human resources, and it’s nice to have multiple people sharing the burden of the hard work, but in his experience, the honeymoon can quickly end.

He adds that when there are too many people in the mix, it’s tough making timely and tough decisions. “People have different values. When you are dealing with money, and leases and commitments, and long-term decisions…it’s hard for everyone to get on the same page on which direction that business should go.”

Before you go into a “marriage” with your business partner, make sure you are a good fit for each other. Get everything in writing and clearly define responsibilities and expectations.

5. Work where you want to live

You hear location, location, location, and that’s true on a business level, but it’s also true on a personal level. You’ve quit your day job, and now, you are banking on your restaurant being a success.

This is your dream, and McClellan recommends when opening a restaurant, that you locate it in a place you love where you can plant roots, have a support system, and enjoy the fruits of your hard work. He says it goes a long way to establishing a rounded and fulfilled life.

If you love the community your business is part of and participate in its events and happenings, you will create an organic loyal following.

6. Learn how to make a plan for everything

Although our professionals stress the unknowns of restaurant ownership, they also say you can never plan enough. From information technology and point-of-sale systems to equipment and supplies, it’s all important. Totti says, “Provisions and purchases are more complex than they seem at first, watch out for the pitfalls of sourcing out your needs to too many providers.”

“Every component of the restaurant, for example, location, space, approach, image, and staff,” says Tottie, “has a purpose, and it all needs to make financial sense.”

Cruz stresses that there are things you can’t know before you get into the business. For example, he didn’t know how long it takes to go from idea to reality.  On a practical note, he says, “You can never have enough storage, and you can never have enough parking.”

While these tips are meant to keep you level-headed, dreaming big is the first step. These entrepreneurs encourage others to pursue their ambitions of owning a business. “Everyone else has a better way of doing what you’ve done, but they’ve never had the guts to do it,” says Cruz.

As important as your remodel and smokin’ menu is, it’s crucial to remember the intangible elements of restaurant ownership — hard work, flexibility, managing relationships, and balancing work and life. Not so surprisingly, these elements are universal keys to any successful business or organization, not just opening a restaurant.

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