Amid the current wave of powerhouse restaurant groups debuting one multimillion-dollar buildout after the next, it’s easy to forget that much of the restaurant industry is still made up of those ragtag owner-operated spots launched with a few bucks and a dream. But through the right combination of patience and luck, bootstrapping can still pave the way to profitability and lay the foundation for a loyal following.
With the coinciding phenomena of the Great Recession and rise of real-time social sharing platforms, the explosion of food trucks now seems all but inevitable. One of the earliest entrants on Seattle’s scene, Skillet Street Food, started in 2007 with Chef Josh Henderson slinging reimagined diner classics out of a $3,000 vintage Airstream trailer.
“[Skillet] was sort of self-funded at the beginning but not for long,” says Gregory Petrillo, board member and adviser, who was one of the original investors, in 2009. He now owns over half of Skillet. “All the retrofitting to put a kitchen in the Airstream was done with friends and Scotch tape. Josh [Henderson] found someone to provide $15,000 for early expenses.”
Divulging its weekly whereabouts via an online newsletter, the brand quickly gained a following and garnered national attention from the likes of Time and Bon Appetit magazines. But the street food business—often operating amid a culture of skating outside the rules—wouldn’t become profitable for a few years. Even now, Petrillo says it’s not hugely profitable being mobile.
“Our growth has come from converting the street food business to much more of a catering operation, which accounts for over 80 percent of our revenues,” he says.
Still, the owners saw an opportunity to leverage the truck’s notoriety into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Because they didn’t anticipate opening multiple locations, Petrillo and Henderson set the diner up as a separate entity from the food truck. Adding the street food and catering business has presented a whole different set of challenges, however, such as a lack of systems to address common expenses like the website, public relations, and IT.
“If we had to do it all over again, knowing that we would create a small chainlet, we would have probably created a holding company that was set up to receive multiple operating entities,” Petrillo says.
Hoping to instead build a business on his own terms, Paul Fehribach, chef/owner of coastal Southern restaurant Big Jones in Chicago, relied on a loan, disciplined budgeting, and plenty of patience as he gained experience working in the restaurant industry.
“I opened my own restaurant at age 40, which many would consider late, but I was able to do it with a 20 percent down payment on a [Small Business Administration] loan from the savings of my partner and myself,” he says. “It’s taken a long time, but … I’ve been able to do everything on my own terms and execute a vision that isn’t clouded by a team of investors demanding better returns or input on operations.”
With opening costs totaling about $300,000, their subsequent shoestring budget meant they had to defer several investments, including Fehribach’s dream kitchen, which is finally becoming a reality. “Ten years later, we are doing a comprehensive kitchen renovation and will finally have the kitchen I have always wanted to work in,” he says.
Then again, a well-timed early investment can also secure a restaurant’s longer-term viability, as was the case for Table, Donkey and Stick, also in Chicago. Owner Matt Sussman opened the Alpine cuisine–focused concept in 2012 as the second generation to tasting menu restaurant Bonsoiree.
Sussman kept his full-time consulting job while opening the restaurant in partnership with majority owner Shin Thompson and a $40,000 capital investment mainly from holdover investments.
About a year in, Sussman made the crucial decision to invest $65,000 more to add a bar—and not just because of the potential revenue from bar sales.
The bar immediately started drawing more walk-in traffic, and “we pretty quickly started getting the numbers we needed to break even and be reasonably profitable,” Sussman says. “The bar was the piece we needed to give us the coherence we needed. If you don’t really resonate in a way that makes sense to enough people, it’s hard to be viable.”