What chefs and restaurateurs can learn from tech entrepreneurs

What do Gordon Ramsay, Scott Conant, and Michael Symon all have in common? Failure. High-profile failures of restaurant ventures by all three prove that, even for celebrity chefs, when it comes to cooking up a business, knife-craft is no match for numerical know-how.

While their Laurier, Faustina, and Parea, respectively, may be big-name flops, A-listers are not alone. Hundreds of lesser-known startup chefs, too, embark on a bright business future that can quickly go soggy. According to a study by Ohio State University, 60 percent of US restaurants fail within the first year, and 80 percent go under in five years.

What accounts for this fail rate? Blind ambition. These days, chefs are revered as culinary creative geniuses—the all-powerful kitchen masters at the helm of the Starship Food. This power dynamic calls out to cooks eager to take greater and greater control.

What happens with chefs-become-entrepreneurs that causes these ventures to fail despite the top billing? While the delights on the dish may smell like a well-run machine, the course in the back room—and the bank account—can be quite different. The truth is that there is a profound gap between the talents for the culinary arts and analytical skills required to keep a business afloat.

Most chefs I have met are guilty of disavowing efficiency at the expense of artistry. There is a chronic trend of them not valuing their own time, with mostly-masochistic chefs typically working intensely for long hours on mindless and repetitive tasks, like recipe execution, all for the glamorous spoils of appearing to be the hardest worker.

This always-on culture leads to tiredness, and that leads chefs to overlook the procedural fundamentals of business because they’re “too busy.” Instead of taking care of these non-cooking tasks, they allow stock, spending, and margin levels to go unobserved until the end of the month, when a rear-view examination is often too late.

You don’t find these kinds of inefficiencies in other businesses. For example, modern tech startup founders seem to have all the cards in their hands. This is because they are constantly searching for procedural efficiencies and have a permanent quest to automate, outsource and analyze whatever can be done to drive revenue. They make use of any data they can get their hands on. This gives them a real-time overview of the health of their “kitchen” and a free hand that can shift the business levers every day of the week.

Restaurateurs should take a leaf out of the entrepreneur cookbook. By valuing their time and optimizing the rest of the business recipe, they can leave more time for fun and artistry, while steering their business away from the rocks. Here’s how:

1. Focus on Your Strengths, Get Help on the Rest

No one is better than a chef at planning menus, operating the kitchen, managing a team, and serving the customer. But when the restaurant owner breathes down your neck about rising food costs, you are out of your comfort zone.

The trick is to manage up. Of course you would like to have up-to-date information about fluctuating ingredient prices, but doing so sounds like a nightmare of spreadsheets and meat-stained invoices. So ask your owner to source the data that will help you help the business.

2. Work Smarter, Not Harder

Don’t be a slave to the oven—your kitchen is not a prison. Get over the image of yourself as a culinary deity and remember that it’s cooler to run a business that runs smoothly long after the dessert has been served.

That means letting go of some of the multitude of tasks you may be stubbornly performing all alone. It means spending your time where you shine. Long hours can harm a business, and over-ordering can torpedo next month’s balance sheet. So don’t be a bull, step back a little.

3. Set up Winning Systems

How do you work smarter? By investing in tools that can automate the boring parts of your job so you can get your life back and your business on track.

These days, business is being transformed by data thinking. Think of every action you undertake as producing data. Apples used this week? Data. Starters ordered last month? Data. Projected cost of arugula stock? Data.

Find a kitchen management system to streamline food preparation, table turnaround and profitability, so you have full, ongoing sight of your kitchen fundamentals.

4. Listen to Your Gut but Still Follow the Numbers

You’re the expert. But are you making the right purchasing decision? As someone who excels in your domain, your body of knowledge guides your restaurant business decision-making – when faced with quick decisions, you will often trust your intuition.

That is only right. But even the best expert can benefit from sense-checking against actual, up-to-the-minute data. If you think you are getting a good deal on Parmesan, validate that belief by consulting a body of cheese price data. Because being proven right is even better than just being right.

Expert Takes, Feature