Twenty years ago, Dave Query started Big Red F Restaurant Group in Boulder, Colorado. He recently served up a few of the lessons he’s learned along the way for the Restaurant Owners Uncorked video series, covering topics from business structure to the “gut check” he's done every day since he opened the doors of his first restaurant.
Consider your business structure. “Don’t get caught up with majority ownership early on. We went to a group of people and offered them an investment into this business, and not a payout. Not, 'Here’s your money, here’s your interest, thanks for getting involved.' I wanted them to be involved for the long term, so I gave them a little more up front, but then after they received back their original investment with interest, then their ownership was cut by half or at some other rate. I think people are often way too caught up with, 'I’ve gotta keep control. I’ve gotta have 100 percent of this.' You can write an operating agreement to spell out anything that you want, as long as everybody signs off on it. When you want to have it all, you miss lots of opportunities because investors want to have a little control at first. So until you’ve proven yourself and the business has proven itself, it’s OK to put other people in a better position from a financial standpoint.”
Humility wins. “One of the things I've learned that's helped me be successful is shutting my mouth. You just gotta shut up and listen. If you've got really smart people that you're working with, you hired them for a reason. They're on your team with intention. You gotta just be quiet, and listen. You see these guys [who] are all about the ego of what they are doing. As chefs have become celebrities, and mixologists have become celebrities, the customers and the employees get tired of that ego. Ego is a killer. Humility wins in the long term every time.”
Control costs with transparency. “Controlling costs in the restaurant business is a big challenge. There are just a million ways to lose money in this business, and you could lose it every day. Our challenge is to figure out the baseline of what works for us, and then we keep pinching those things down. We make our managers very much a part of the process, so there's full transparency. The GM, AGM, Chef, Sous Chef, [and] Bar Manager all know exactly what our restaurants are doing. They know how well we're doing, or what our particular challenges may be in a particular month. Their bonuses are based on our success. We've set targets for them to achieve, so they are finely aware and critically attuned to where we are financially at all times, and that's a great part of our success.”
Embrace competition. “Competition is always great for any restaurant. Burger King followed McDonald’s around the country for two decades, loading up right next to them because they wanted to create that synergy. We’re in the Pearl Street Mall here in Boulder and there’s a ton of restaurants down here. When more restaurants come, it brings more people down, but it also raises the bar for all of us. We’re very challenged right now, enthusiastically challenged, to raise our game because there are three or four restaurants in town that are raising the bar. Big time. For instance, when somebody down the street puts together a great wine program, they are educating our customers. The challenge is that the customer comes in here with a higher knowledge than they used to have about wine. And the benefit is that the customer comes in here with a higher knowledge than they used to have about wine…so our opportunity is to take advantage of that. Every time a competitor comes into town and has a certain strength, you as a rival business have to take advantage of that. If you don’t rise to the occasion, you’re going to lose those newly educated customers.”
Do a daily gut check. “In business you’ve got to constantly do your gut check. How are we doing? Are we doing what we’re saying we’re doing? Or are we just talking a lot of smack and meanwhile [have] gotten off track of what our original goals were? I’m gut checking every day, and I think that’s part of our success. I’m still convinced, 18 years later, that this thing could all fall apart. There was a time 15 years ago when we were as good as it got in this town, or at least right there at the top. Now there’s so much good competition. So many talented chefs. So many smart operators. Plus the population is so much smarter now. Twenty years ago you saw Julia Child at three in the morning on PBS. Now you’ve got phone apps where you can watch somebody break down a whole cow. You’ve got 50 food channels on 24/7. You’ve got all this information coming at you. Your customers are coming in so much smarter than they were 15 years ago. So much more food knowledge, wine knowledge, spirit knowledge…even general service knowledge. They’re not easily fooled. And I don’t think 15 years ago we were fooling our customers, but there was just a whole different expectation and knowledge base of restaurant customers in America then than there is today. Our customers are really, really intelligent. And that’s not just in Boulder. That’s anywhere in America.”
The small things are big things. “Customers gravitate towards businesses they feel good about supporting. You have to let your customers know you’re conscious of what you’re doing; you’re trying to do a good thing; you’re not leaving a huge footprint. For instance, you make your back alley look as good as your front door, so that when a customer walks down that back alley once a month, they notice you are hosing it down so that they don’t step over a beer bottle or a lemon slice or anything. Every effort you make to impress upon your customers what you’re trying to do and how you’re walking through the world makes a big impression, because they’re watching.”