The Ingredients of Restaurant Success

You love food, but it takes more than that to start a restaurant. Here's what you need to write your own recipe for success.

For more information, see Entrepreneur magazine's step-by-step startup guide #1400, Restaurant and 5 Other Food Businesses, available or by calling toll-free at (800) 421-2300.

From poultry to pirogi, steak to grits, Americans are hungry for good food and unique dining experiences. The National Restaurant Association says that in 2005 (the latest year for which statistics are available), the average household expenditure for restaurant food was $1,054 per person, or $2,634 per household. And considering the 300 millionth American was born in late 2006, it's clear there will be plenty of customers both today and in the future. That makes owning a restaurant a good business opportunity for aspiring food-service entrepreneurs, even during economic slowdowns and when consumer prices are rising.

"Food dollars spent outside the grocery store are higher now than ever," says former restaurant consultant Kenny Lao, 30, co-owner of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in New York City, an eatery with 2006 sales of $1.3 million. "So if you have a strong concept and have your execution and operation strategies down pat, any time is a good time to open a restaurant--even now."

The Cornell University School of Hotel Administration confirms that the most successful restaurateurs have a clear concept and the ability to implement it consistently, as well as the determination to succeed and the flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions (including economic downturns). At stake is an estimated $537 billion in industry sales projected for 2007--and your chances of success are better than you might think. A survey commissioned by Restaurant Startup & Growth magazine suggests that the failure rate for independent restaurants is 23 percent--a far cry from the 90 percent that has been the conventional and largely unsubstantiated figure exchanged in business circles and famously emphasized on the reality show The Restaurant. That's significantly lower than the failure rate for all new businesses--only 50 percent remain operating after four years--so you have reason to be optimistic.

The key to success is service, says Randy Smith, president of Bottomline Hospitality Group in Scottsdale, Arizona, a restaurant corporation projecting $6.2 million in sales for 2007. "This is really a wonderful time to go into business," says Smith, 33. "One survey I saw said that more than 70 percent of respondents believed service was the number-one reason they frequent and return to a restaurant, even if the food isn't quite what it should be. If you can master the service and commit to selling good food, you have a good chance of success."

Here's how you can slice off a tasty piece of the restaurant profit pie.

Do Some Time
There's a lot more to running a restaurant than schmoozing with your clientele and testing new recipes. That's why industry experts advise working in a food-service environment first to learn the rhythm of the business and experience its inner workings. Any restaurant experience can be valuable, provided you spend enough time learning the ropes.

"It's imperative to have hands-on experience in the many departments that make up a restaurant," says Pete Hanning, 37, vice president and co-owner of The Red Door in Seattle, which had 2006 sales of just under $3 million. "I started in the restaurant industry at 15 as a dishwasher and learned by working fine dining, restaurant/bars and pizza places. You can't quantify the amount of overall experience you need to succeed, but it's hard to understand all the facets of the business unless you've worked them."

In addition to this hands-on experience, you should surround yourself with people who understand the industry, from seasoned servers to an experienced operations person. A restaurant consultant can also be very helpful--but expensive, too. So you may want to turn to your local SCORE office, which provides expert business counseling on small-business issues at no charge. If they don't have a former restaurant executive within their ranks, they may be able to refer you to someone who can answer your questions and dispense a little gratis advice.

Do Your Homework
Before you start planning menus, you also need to write a viable business plan. This recipe for success must outline your plans, goals and strategies in detail. It should include a detailed description of your concept (i.e., Indian, continental or sports-themed); a description of your proposed menu and pricing; a description of your target market and the marketing you'll do to reach it; a discussion of staffing and how you'll train and retain employees; and the pi�ce de r�sistance--an in-depth discussion of your financing, from startup funding and monthly cash flow to long-term income and expense forecasting.

"It's way more romantic to think you can open a restaurant by the seat of your pants, but in reality, planning goes a long way," says Michael Curcio, 29, owner of Pyrogrill in Jupiter, Florida, with projected 2007 sales of $2.2 million. "A business plan takes a ton of guesswork out of the startup process and is a good guide for getting your place off the ground. Make sure the plan is fluid and adaptable to market conditions and challenges."

Ray Sidhom, co-owner of Four Food Studio and Cocktail Salon in Long Island, New York, with 2007 sales projections of $5.7 million, is one savvy owner who reviews his plan frequently. "We have so many details to watch, from the food and liquor to staffing costs," says Sidhom, 41. "If they're not where they should be, the business suffers. So we look at the intricacies of the business plan often and use analysts who do projections and models."

A good business plan will also be useful when seeking financing, but it's more common for aspiring restaurateurs to rely on personal savings and funds from friends, relatives and outside investors rather than bank loans.

So how much do you need? "This is such a capital-intensive business that it's easy to underestimate the amount you need," Smith says. "Don't even think about starting with less than $100,000 in cash for a bargain-basement opening, or you won't get even remotely started on the right path."

The amount also depends on your location and the local cost of living. In pricey New York state, for instance, Sidhom says you'd better have $2 million for a restaurant with 200 seats if you hope to generate $1 million in sales.

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This article was originally published in the March 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Main Ingredients.

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