As millions of Ukrainians are fleeing their country, I am reminded of my own journey from my native Turkey to Europe and on to America and how difficult it is to build a business from scratch in an unfamiliar place. An entrepreneurial spirit, a community-minded philosophy and a desire to make every guest feel special are central to achieving success as an immigrant, especially in the notoriously difficult restaurant industry.
Start with a Community-Minded Philosophy
At the heart of my company’s appeal is our ability to deliver a welcoming neighborhood restaurant with first-class hospitality, day in and day out. When we opened our first location of HOBNOB Neighborhood Tavern, we developed a reputation as a dependable spot for well-executed tavern fare with Southern flair. But more than our great food or having one of the largest bourbon selections in the Southeast was our commitment to providing an inviting hangout for the community with exemplary customer service. That is what made our first restaurant a community fixture and led to the company’s rapid growth.
To develop a community restaurant, restaurateurs must first get to know their communities. This requires visiting tables and attending community events to establish relationships. When your general manager is seen as the mayor of the town, you’ve done something correctly.
Ways to form a connection with and give back to the restaurant’s surrounding community:
- Support the best interests of the neighborhood by keeping the community’s needs and demographics in mind and integrating the area’s culture into menus and weekly events
- Accommodate the needs of nearby businesses—for example, offer a lunch catering menu for neighboring office buildings
- Create a convivial vibe with live music, daily specials and charity fundraisers
Offer Unconditional Hospitality
If there’s anything our industry has learned from the setbacks of 2020, it’s that we must ensure and expect guests to have an enjoyable experience whether they are dining in, picking up takeout or ordering delivery. The most successful restaurants help guests celebrate whatever it is that they have going on in their lives at that time.
Finding great people to employ is the most important component of being able to offer unconditional hospitality. There is nothing more rewarding as a restaurant owner than to hear guests say how much they love the staff.
Good companies attract good employees, so interviews should go both ways. I like to treat staff training as a trial period for both the new employee and the restaurant itself. An organized training program and a detailed employee handbook are crucial in setting up staff members for success. Now that health insurance and 401Ks are finally becoming standard in the restaurant industry, it also is important to offer employees a competitive benefits package.
Since 2020, so many restaurants have had to pivot to takeout and delivery services; however, extending hospitality for these transactions takes extra thought, and regular menus must be optimized accordingly. It is important to recognize what dishes will hold up after being transported in boxes or plastic containers and not sell items that won’t travel well or cannot be ready on time. Quality to-go wares and nice-looking bags are essential for presentation. Most importantly, the ordering process should be easy and efficient for the customer.
Never Lose That Entrepreneurial Spirit
The secret to thriving during difficult times is a combination of a willingness to take chances and providing a product that customers need or want.
The most authentic way for immigrants to build a restaurant is by starting with who they are and what they know. For me, that was Mediterranean cuisine, but I had to incorporate it in my own unique way. The more that restaurateurs can open themselves up to learning and embracing American culture while also adding their own customs to the rich tapestry of this country, the better.
There is a reason why so many people come to the United States, and immigrants must never forget the greatness of this country. It takes hard work and honesty, but the rest comes with time and patience. Having faith is essential because immigrants must fight harder to make their mark on the American dining scene. Communication is key and I found it very hard not being able to speak my native language, but charm and authenticity can break through language barriers.
Atlanta restaurateur Sean Yeremyan is the owner of Big Table Restaurants, which is comprised of two unique dining concepts: HOBNOB Neighborhood Tavern (with four Atlanta-area locations) and Cattle Shed Wine & Steak Bar, along with Big Table Events & Catering. Big Table Restaurants is the top fastest-growing hospitality company in metro Atlanta for 2022 and No. 13 on the overall Atlanta Business Chronicle Pacesetter list. As one of the state’s most accomplished business leaders, Yeremyan was named a 2022 Georgia Titan 100 honoree for his exceptional leadership, vision and passion.