Small Spaces Don’t Cramp Restaurateurs’ Style

In Seattle, chef Ethan Stowell’s restaurant Mkt. is a model for economies of scale: it seats 25 diners at a time, but only needs to serve 40 people a night to be profitable.
In Seattle, chef Ethan Stowell’s restaurant Mkt. is a model for economies of scale: it seats 25 diners at a time, but only needs to serve 40 people a night to be profitable. Geoffrey Smith

The culinary meccas of Rome and Paris don’t have many 200-seat restaurants. Instead, the streets are lined with cozy restaurants and cafés, often with only 40 or 50 seats, “and they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years,” says Ethan Stowell, chef and owner of the nine-concept Ethan Stowell Restaurants.

Now, many Americans are also finding their way into noticeably smaller restaurants, including several of Chef Stowell’s in Seattle. How to Cook a Wolf, a 950-square-foot restaurant, seats 35. The 650-square-foot Mkt. seats 25. Chef Stowell says there are a lot of benefits to running smaller restaurants like How to Cook a Wolf, noting that as a restaurant downsizes, efficiency increases.

Restaurateurs are increasingly finding that as real estate costs in downtowns and bustling metropolises rise, smaller footprints are becoming more attractive. Sometimes, an infill property is all that’s available; other times, owners opt for small spaces because they want to test a concept without the constraints of a large investment, or because a cozy setting lends itself well to the overall dining experience.

“For us to make a profit, we don’t need to do 100 people per night at the restaurant,” Chef Stowell says. “We need to do 40 people at Mkt., which is great. There’s less staff. There’s less inventory because you can’t carry a lot of inventory. There’s no space for that extra cook, that extra busser, that extra server.”

Servers like working in smaller restaurants, which have fewer employees to share tips among, and customers enjoy the environment, Chef Stowell says. At Mkt., there’s little separation between the chef, his assistant in the kitchen, and the patrons filling the tiny dining room.

“The chef is actually plating, cooking every dish,” Chef Stowell says. “It’s almost like a private dinner party.”

But he says it can be difficult for owners to find an appropriate small spot, as most developers want to do deals with operators of big restaurants and most spaces marketed for restaurant use are much too large for a smaller operation. Operators aren’t likely to strike it rich off tiny restaurants, Chef Stowell says, but the lower risk and lower overhead can be a great path into the industry, especially for chefs with little business acumen.

“I think the main spirit of it is that chef/owners and chefs are not business people. They’re chefs, they’re cooks, they’re laborers, they’re artists—but they’re not businessmen,” he says. “You’re not going to ever get rich off [small restaurants]. But you are going to have a pleasant, manageable business. It’s a really nice way to get in.”

Pros and Cons of Small Spaces

Juan Martinez, principal and founder of Profitality, a foodservice industrial engineering and ergonomics consultancy, says there are many advantages to running smaller shops—so long as they’re smartly designed. As real estate costs push operators to move to smaller restaurants, the transition requires a more careful and creative eye on design, especially in the back of the house.

The production line should be designed so that employees are required to move as little as possible, yet they should have enough elbowroom so that they’re not bumping into each other. For many hours during the day, restaurant space goes unused, so Martinez says to err on the side of smaller structures.

“My perspective is that I would rather have a concept that is too small but allows you to drive the desire, sales, and return on investment, compared to a bigger one that requires much higher sales to make the numbers work,” he says. “Some concepts make the mistake of taking the attitude that ‘if you build it, they will come.’ The problem is that if they don’t, bankruptcy can follow quickly.”


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