According to the National Restaurant Association, almost half of all adults have worked in the restaurant industry throughout the course of their lives, and 46 percent of restaurant employees say they would one day like to own their restaurant.
The restaurant industry nationwide is comprised of more than one million restaurants, representing $799 billion in sales and 10 percent of the overall U.S. workforce. It is one of the country’s primary economic engines, providing nearly 14.7 million jobs. By 2027, the number of jobs in the restaurant industry is expected to grow by 1.6 million.
One million restaurants and growing—these figures are staggering, and perhaps daunting to restaurateurs both seasoned and new. Inevitably, growth brings healthy competition to the market space, and more competition engenders the need to create a compelling dining experience that will resonate with consumers for the long term.
How can one begin laying the groundwork for success and longevity in this dynamic industry? It is safe to say that in this day and age, your grandmother’s famous cheesecake recipe alone is not enough. Here are a few tips, or ingredients, to consider as you pursue the next big idea for a restaurant concept.
1. Have a Good Idea, Plan for It, and Test It
Your restaurant concept should be defined by what you’re good at—nothing more, nothing less. It’s easy to get carried away with the romance of a concept, but a solid operator must be a business-minded creative who finds the intersection of artistry and financial responsibility.
Before creating menus, making interior design decisions, and selecting artwork or furniture comes serious business planning that will lay the foundation for success.
First, create a robust business plan that outlines your capital needs and projects your costs and earnings over the next several years. I always heed the rule to overestimate your capital needs and open with money in the bank to cover your operating costs for at least six months, if not longer.
If you know others in the industry, test your idea out at an existing restaurant as a menu special and see how the guests receive it. Why is your pizza different from the pizza next door? How is your hamburger better than the one down the street? Be ready to define your concept and what makes it stand above the rest. And then, make sure there’s a demand for what it is you’re good at.
2. Be Able to Sell, and Know What You’re Selling
When raising capital, be ready to capture the attention of an investor and fully explain your idea in sixty seconds or less. In those sixty seconds, be completely passionate about your concept, committed to it, and laser focused. When you’re selling, prepare your investors and partners for the future and establish your credibility by not sugarcoating the idea. Always be realistic with goals, and then over deliver.
3. Have a Good Support Team
Fasten your seatbelt because opening a restaurant will never go according to plan; more people are willing to go to the dentist everyday than invest in a restaurant idea. You’ll need a good support system to keep you sane and on track as you’re pitching your idea uphill.
It’s crucial to surround yourself with experts who can help navigate the complexities. Align yourself with a knowledgeable and experienced realtor, accountant, attorney, and insurance broker who will provide counsel and ensure that critical bases are covered. Your state restaurant association may also prove to be a valuable resource when it comes to understanding permitting and legislative issues faced by the industry.
Proper planning, even for the unknown, is essential to not just the success of your first year, but also for the long term. There are defining moments during the business-planning phase where you have to sit down with your team and the experts with whom you’ve surrounded yourself to answer the tough questions of “What if there’s a fire? What if a guest claims to have food poisoning? What if someone slips and falls on the job?”
There’s no such thing as being over prepared.
4. Market Yourself Smartly
Set aside a budget that allows you to begin marketing your restaurant several months prior to opening and on an ongoing basis thereafter.
It takes time to build traction via both traditional and social media channels, so it’s not advised to wait until you open before seeking marketing and PR support, whether in-house or external. A strong marketing partner can help shape your brand story and pull out the components that will guide the spotlight. The goal is to generate a smart campaign that will lead to editorial placements and consumer demandprior to your opening, which will also give the restaurant invaluable inertia for continued press exposure in the months that follow.
Social media is also must when it comes to reaching a new generation of diners. Familiarize yourself with major platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and appoint a member of your team who can champion these consumer-facing channels in concert with your marketing or PR partner.
5. Train Yourself and Your Team
Those who have come before you are the best teachers. Before you open your own business, gain experience by working in other restaurants in both front- and back-of-house positions. This time will help you gain an understanding of what you will seek from your own employees, as well as glean best practices. Make sure you have equal passion and focus on food, design, service, and hospitality. It’s not enough in this competitive landscape to excel at just one of them.
When it comes to your own team, learn how to love teaching and training, and invest the time in education. Your staff must be well trained and able to answer a customer’s question about food, taste, and ingredients. Make sure they understand your vision of customer service.
One thing many first time operators fail to do is allocate enough time and money for practice before opening their doors. Implement dry runs, where you simulate being open. If you aren't satisfied with the execution of both front and back of house, schedule more dry runs. Setting these standards is paramount.
Seasoned operators will often joke that when becoming a restaurateur, one also takes on the role of carpenter, repair expert, prep cook, bookkeeper, mentor, and leader. The hours are long, but the rewards are great with the opportunity to make a difference in your business and in your employees’ lives.
6. Empower Your Team
A restaurant must provide more than well-prepared, quality food and value to be successful. The team and culture in place will also define your restaurant.
Front-of-house employees who interact directly with your guests are one of the keys to customer satisfaction. Always take the time to hire outgoing, personable, quality staff that will represent your brand well. You only have one opportunity to make a first impression, and your staff is on the front line.
As owner and operator, you can’t be at all tables at all times, or back in the kitchen expediting every plate. While it can be difficult to let go, staff empowerment is key to building a unified team that truly cares about the guest experience.
It is inevitable that operational issues will arise. From time to time reservations will run late, service may be slow, and meals may be undercooked or overcooked. Empower your management team to solve problems on the spot so that customers feel cared for and leave happy. When an issue arises, you want a customer to walk away and tell friends, “I had a problem, but that restaurant went out of its way to solve it.”
7. Embrace Change
The restaurant industry continually and very quickly evolves in legislative policy, culinary trends, how diners source news and information, what today’s consumers expect from their dining experience, hiring practices, employee expectations, and more. The most successful restaurateurs are flexible, open-minded, and willing to adapt. Seek opportunities to address the gaps as you spot them in the market, and fill those voids with flair. Just because you own a restaurant doesn’t mean you’re not working for someone—you’re working for your guests and even for your employees, and you will need to adapt as their needs change.
Most importantly, the answer is almost always yes. It’s up to you to hear the question.