Eating at a great restaurant is like encountering sirens at sea: though thoroughly beguiling, a magnificent dining experience can make you do foolish things. Legions of enthusiastic food lovers have crashed their budget on the rocks with an impossibly expensive bottle of esoteric wine or overspent on a tasting menu they couldn’t afford. Bewitching cooking methods have influenced kitchen renovations, spurred the rise in molecular gastronomy tool kits for amateurs and inflated the enrollment rates at culinary schools. Though risky, these are but mere dalliances with danger when compared to overnight restaurant openings and food truck roll outs.
The siren song of flawless service and impeccable food can lull the smartest of men and reasonable of women into a dream state where restaurant ownership seems like a good and easy choice. A well-run restaurant has the power to hypnotize mere mortals and make them empty their bank account and mortgage their home for the promise of serving their three favorite dishes in a well-designed dining room.
Listen to me very carefully. Resist the temptation. Ignore the symphony of wouldn’t it be wonderful and at my restaurant we’d do things like this, only better.
It takes a very special person—the kind of person who loves the roller coaster rush of not knowing what’s going to happen next, enjoys making very little money, loves people, is calm under pressure, thrives in chaos, thinks a twelve-hour workday six days a week is reasonable, and feels more comfortable taking care of others than themselves—to survive the life of a restaurant owner. You’ll have to do plenty of unexpected things–things like plunge a toilet, shop for vegetables at midnight, wash dishes in an expensive suit, bus tables, dust chandeliers at 2 in the morning, eat scraps from a cold plate of food because that’s all you have time for, and so many other things that will shock you. Someone will no show for work, something will break, customers will be disappointed (even if you’re doing a great job), and there will always be some kind of a personality conflict occurring—no matter how hard you try–somewhere between the front door of the dining room and the employee exit out the back of the kitchen.
Perhaps the siren song of restaurant ownership has made you fearless. Understood. Influential restaurants and great dining experiences can carry a powerful tune. But before you swim towards the cliffs of restaurant ownership, I suggest you follow this simple six-step plan to determine your fortitude as an owner/operator.
Step one—Thursday Dinner party
Organize and throw a large dinner party for your friends and family. Invite twenty people. Cook everything if you can. Have someone help you if you must. If that doesn’t break you, then clean up, go shopping, and get ready for step two.
Step two—Friday Dinner party
Invite twenty-five people over for dinner the next night. Go shopping. Prep the dishes. Cook. Serve the food. Make sure everyone eats at the same time and doesn’t have to wait too long between courses. Clean up. Get sleep. Get ready for step three.
Step three—Saturday Night Dinner Party
The next day, invite 25 people to come over for a dinner party. Tell a few of those people they’re more than welcome to bring a friend, just to see how you do if more people than expected show up. Go shopping. Prep. Cook. Serve. When serving, let your dinner party guests that you are happy to allow simple modifications to your menu like sauce on the side kinds of stuff. See how that goes for you. Clean up. Get some sleep. Get ready for step four.
Step four—Sunday Brunch
Wake up early on Sunday, go shopping and cook a large brunch for twenty of your closest friends. Serve fresh juice, coffee, tea, and mimosas. Make sure no one’s glass goes empty for long. Clean up. Ask for feedback from you guests. Get some sleep. Get ready for step five.
Step Five—Return to your regular job on Monday
You can not call in sick or come in late. Begin planning for another dinner party weekend. This time plan for starting on Wednesday.
Step Six—Repeat steps one through five.
If you can make through one full rotation of this cycle without losing a close friendship, your job, sanity, or love for making and serving food, then I think there may be a chance you could have what it takes to run and own a restaurant.
Passing this test doesn’t mean you’ll be successful as a restaurant owner. It proves you have the fortitude to make it through half a week of running a small restaurant. There’s a cavern of difference between restaurant owners and successful restaurateurs. Most restaurateurs make very little money (think pennies on every dollar). Most new restaurants shut down within the first twelve months or lose money after several years. Even though restaurants are one of the largest private-sector businesses in America, the food service industry is one of the least profitable trades around.
Successful restaurants make the dangerous stuff look easy. To be in the food service industry you must face a beautiful war of food and service. The only way to succeed is to love the fight and enjoy swimming against an unending tide of challenges. If you do, you’re in for a wonderful and difficult journey.
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