Toronto Life makes great art. The magazine’s signature is to troll its own readership with memoirs of privileged fools who drag their families to the brink of financial ruin through impulsive business decisions.
In the recently published story, hobby cook Robert Maxwell recounts how he abandoned his cushy office job to open a restaurant, losing his family’s home and savings along the way.
To me, the piece does a great public service. I regularly meet and hear from people who want to leave the safety of their boring jobs to enter the chaotic, competitive, high-risk restaurant world, believing their passion will overcome their lack of experience. And now I no longer need to lecture them. I can just hand them Maxwell’s memoir, as if it were a doctor’s pamphlet titled “So, you’re thinking of starting a restaurant?”
Maxwell acknowledges his mistakes, which are legion:
- He thought he could start a restaurant with $60,000
- He blew off opportunities to learn about the industry he was entering
- He expected diners to come to his out-of-the-way restaurant as if here were some sort of celebrity chef
- He day-drank
- He took pills
- He spent his pension money
- He spent his friend’s money
- He spent his mother-in-law’s money
- He sold his family’s house
- He took a vacation
- He sunk, all told, $170,000 into a restaurant, having gained no understanding of how owning a restaurant works
Still, despite the cautionary tale, despite the odds, people are still going to open restaurants. So rather than continue to finger-wag at Maxwell (who at least had the courage to share his embarrassing story), I’d like to share some positive, constructive advice to first-time restaurateurs, from people who have seen and done it all.
Hospitality training consultant
To start, see if you can get a job washing dishes, or as a bar-back in a good restaurant. Don't apply for a head bartender, lead barista, or front-of-house management position. When you get your own place, you'll be washing dishes, hauling crap up from the basement, and taking the garbage out. Get used to it. Working an entry-level position is worth its weight in gold. You'll learn from everyone.
Former general manager of Essen, in Toronto
Take a business class or two. Make friends with someone with a successful restaurant. Work for them and learn what made them successful, what they struggled with, and what was just freak luck. Do not do it alone. Build a team you can trust.
Former owner of Dee’s Harvest Table, in Newcastle
I had a little restaurant with a great reputation in a small town, but after five years, I realized it would never do more than break even. Know when you’re fighting a losing battle. Closing a business is only a failure if you didn't learn anything from it. There are a few things I would do differently if I were to start up again. Don't try to please everyone. Stick to the business you envisioned. This is advice I got from a successful business owner and ended up ignoring. Big mistake. Staffing will be your biggest issue. Don't keep staff because “they will do for now.” A bad staff member that you keep around can do more damage to your business than you will ever know.
It is very important not to rush the opening. After many delays in construction and licensing, it can be tempting to rush open the doors — but the proper invested time and resources for set-up, training, dry runs, and mock services will help ensure that initial word of mouth is positive.
Owner of AAA Bar, in Toronto
If you are planning on just building it and handing it over to someone else to run, you might as well just burn your money. You have to be hands-on. Every day, every hour, every hire, every decision. It is your money in the game. Most of your employees don’t care. They will leave at the drop of a hat and may rob you blind if they see the opportunity. Know how to cook the menu, serve the tables, fix the draft machine. Know the electrical panel, the point-of-sale system. Some days you may have to do everything. Keep investment as low as possible. Do things yourself. Buy used if it makes sense. Same with rent: pick an area that is up-and-coming with lower rents. Call in favours. Ask questions. Don’t hire staff because of what they look like; Hire for personality. Hire people you can talk to for half an hour and not be bored. Hire staff that people can imagine to be their sister or brother.
Owner of That’s Italian Ristorante, in Woodbridge
Always try to learn something new; it never hurts to ask for help. I've been working at my father's place since I was 10 years old and currently own two places of my own. The biggest challenges to opening a restaurant (and keeping it going) are: (1) Capital. You need a lot of money to keep the place going. Don't expect anything from banks. Personal savings and/or family have been my saviours. (2) Learn each and every position in your place. People come and go. You may need to roll up your sleeves and assume everyone's role on multiple occasions. (3) Don't expect a lineup of people when you first open. It will take a number of years to build up your business. There will be days when you feel like giving up and walking away. You'll have to weather the storm. Surround yourself with good friends and staff.
Owner of Grilltime, in Toronto
Biggest mistake is being undercapitalized. Biggest reason for success is a clearly defined and realistic plan.
Former owner of The Beech Tree, in Toronto
Passion can be like wearing blinders and can be contagious. Passion alone is not enough to open and operate a successful business. I have learned the hard way that some endeavours are best left to professionals. It is a lesson I will carry with me the rest of my life. I hope my article serves as a warning to others who are about to recklessly dive head-first into something of which they have no experience or knowledge.
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