Even when it’s a labor of love, opening that first restaurant isn’t all positive, as Lambrine Macejewski learned when she opened Cocina 214 in Winter Park, Florida. Now, the elegant Tex-Mex restaurant has earned accolades and awards from media, diners, and OpenTable.
Although Macejewski grew up in her father’s restaurant in Dallas, she’s still traumatized from the 2011 opening of Cocina 214 , which inadvertently fell on Cinco de Mayo. “Call us crazy,” Macejewski laughs. “It’s cool now because it’s our anniversary. But it wasn’t cool then.”
Macejewski wanted to launch a Tex-Mex concept because there weren’t any in the market, but she quickly discovered that being unique brings its own set of problems. “Number one,” she says, “how to source the ingredients for the food.”
In the beginning, she wound up shipping everything from Texas—even the chips, because she didn’t want chips that fell apart when customers dipped them in salsa or guacamole. “We researched tons of commissaries down here. It took six months just to find one for the chips.”
The other ingredients—items such as specific peppers or avocados—also took some time to source. And the 200-seat restaurant needed more quantity than initially realized. Given the inventory requirements, her budget was already strained when she discovered that her payroll was inefficient as well. “We knew there was going to be a longer learning curve, but we had to pull workers from Texas. … When 90 percent of your staff has never cooked this type food, you have to figure it out,” she says.
The demographics of Winter Park were also surprising: On paper, the town looks like it would be tourist-driven all year. But, in reality, Winter Park is an affluent Orlando suburb, and in the summer the population vacates. An empty town means vacant restaurant seats, another key point she hadn’t anticipated.
Not every experience was negative, however. Macejewski and her husband, whose background is in construction, knew what to do in terms of the build-out and renovation of an old building, including how to determine electrical and mechanical usage and bring the place up to code. “You can lose half a million dollars if you don’t know what you’re doing,” she says. “It’s a Pandora’s box. Once you jackhammer the floor, you never know what you’re going to find.”
Her advice: “Get quotes from at least three general contractors. Try to get someone who has done restaurants before and knows the power that it takes [to operate a restaurant],” she suggests. “And talk to the city. We made many trips to city [offices] before we started construction. A lot of people don’t think to do that and then find they can’t get their Certificate of Occupancy, and they’ve already signed a lease and are paying rent.” Above all, Macejewski, who is working on a second Cocina 214 location, recommends doing due diligence. Go to commission meetings. Check out what turnover is like in the city. See if the specific neighborhood is pro-development or not. “There’s a system and a schedule,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have and how fast you want it done. There’s a process.”