3 Survival Tips for Being a Culinary Pioneer

illustration courtesy of iris worldwide

How to introduce a new cuisine to a new market

As restaurateurs and restaurant-loving folks, we all have that dream of opening a fresh new concept that takes a community by storm. These dreams enter my head from time to time as I interact with clients who have the same aspirations. Their pitch usually goes a little something like this: “It’s like Chipotle, but we’re going to be making (enter new cuisine idea here).”

Everyone wants to follow in the footsteps of Chipotle. Across all restaurant spaces, their name has become synonymous with changing the game. What's usually overlooked, however, is that the game Chipotle changed was already well-established: the game of Mexican cuisine. It is much harder to bring an unknown to market than it is to adapt an existing concept, but that’s exactly what “Culinary Pioneers” seek to do.

Culinary pioneers look to introduce new cuisines in new markets. Upon first thought, it seems like success is primed for the taking. Upon closer review, however, a cold, hard truth is revealed—this scenario has a better chance of failure than success. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re properly prepared for the trek ahead and avoid common causes of failure, you can be the pioneer you dreamed of becoming.

Failure happens for numerous reasons. There are a few traps I have witnessed that stand out as being more common than others. To avoid hardships and the inevitable failure of your endeavor, keep these lessons in mind.

Understand the true cost of pioneering

The major issue with pioneering a concept is the general lack of knowledge, understanding, and experience the population has with the food you’re bringing to market. It’s not a staple in their diets. It’s not something they crave every day. Therefore, marketing this new cuisine is two-fold. You have to educate them and promote the brand simultaneously.

We all know starting a restaurant is already a costly endeavor where “bootstrapping” is ill-advised if not impossible. To properly pioneer, you will need the budget to educate the population on the offering, and simultaneously promote the new restaurant like you would under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, this is twice as costly as usual restaurant marketing, if not more so.

Take a look at your marketing budget and double it. Then double it again. Chances are, you have severely underestimated how much is necessary to spend on marketing in the first place.

Organize tactics into a series of separate campaigns for promotion, education, and loyalty building. Each campaign should show images of the food, describe it, and convey what makes it as good, or even better than other options.

Think of creative ways to make this new cuisine tantalizing and memorable. You have to create the desire to try something unique for the first time.

Do not overestimate or imagine market demand

We all loved Grandma’s pierogies, or the way our uncle hand-made those bao buns. Despite their nostalgia-stuffed goodness, however, your market may not be interested in them as a dining option. That means that although your special cuisine may be quite scrumptious, it will not fly as a restaurant concept on its own. Pursuing this dream will lead to failure, as the market just isn’t buying the product enough. It’s business 101: supply and demand.

Take an honest look at your offerings, and ask yourself if people will buy it daily. Do some taste tests with people who are objective, or organize a popup restaurant at a weekend festival to see if people will buy what you’re making. Essentially, you have to do whatever it takes to get a real world understanding of whether or not this boat will float. Maintain utter honesty with yourself. If people aren’t buying it, then swallow your pride and reconfigure your dream. Do not open a restaurant with unpopular dishes centered as the primary menu offerings.

Select the proper location

Location reigns supreme—in this instance especially. Don’t forget it. Don’t ignore it. With a new concept that sells an unfamiliar cuisine, location is paramount. Successful restaurants find prime real estate, but new spots rarely can afford it. You need to find a second-generation spot that’s situated in an area that has both commercial and residential traffic. This isn’t a wish-list item. It’s a must-have.

A second-generation location will require less money to build out, freeing up extra capital for marketing and promotion. Even though another concept has already left or failed, it doesn’t mean this space isn’t well-suited for your concept.

Make sure the spot is nestled in an area busy with both commercial and residential traffic. Commercial will support your daytime business with walk-ins, business lunches, and catering. Residential will get you through the evenings when the businesses close for the night. If you choose a location that sways one way or the other, you can bet that it’ll affect the respective day part accordingly.

Finally, parking is everything, unless you are in a place with so much foot traffic that parking would be a hassle. This place is called Manhattan. If you aren’t in Manhattan, you have to have ample parking. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

These three restaurant pioneer killers are very real and happen more often than not. There is no wiggle room. Now is not the time for capitulations. If you are serious about succeeding and being the “next Chipotle,” you’re going to have to keep focused on making sure these mistakes aren’t made. It’ll take a load of chutzpah and a stiff upper lip to keep forging ahead into the great unknown, but if you’re one of the few who has what it takes (money, market demand, and location) you could reach the Pacific, like the true explorer of restaurant frontiers you very well may be.

The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.

Joseph Szala

Meet Joseph Szala, a multitalented brand builder and creative designer for the Atlanta office of iris worldwide. With a broad skillset rooted in design and brand leadership, Joseph brings a powerful blend of award-winning creative, brand strategy expertise, and an unyielding passion for realizing the potential of brands large and small.

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