Though they traffic in gourmet food, white tablecloths, candlelight and fresh flowers, Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff-Gray, founders of Equinox restaurant, know the not-so-glamorous side of the restaurant business well. Located just one block away from the White House, their Washington, DC, establishment has attracted some of the most powerful people in the world. Still, the biggest challenge wasn't the pressure of pleasing the VIP clientele-it was the fact that the couple was expecting a baby during the startup phase. "There was no manual out there for how to do it. We did everything by gut instinct. We made a lot of mistakes, and we [did] a lot of things right," says Ellen, laughing. "We're partners, we're best friends and we're married; so it became a 24/7 conversation, this restaurant-and then there was that baby."
Todd and Ellen, both 39, met when Ellen worked as a sales rep for a local food company and sold to the restaurant where Todd was working as an executive chef. Romance blossomed between the pair, as did a plan to open their own restaurant in 1999. Equinox became a truly family endeavor when their son, Harrison, was born. "I was hostessing and running the floor with Harrison strapped to me," says Ellen. "We incorporated him into every facet-we didn't separate the restaurant from the family. The family is the restaurant."
According to Todd and Ellen, customers really enjoyed seeing their youngster around and liked the whole family vibe they exuded-while maintaining their elegant ambience. "There was no time to be a dowdy mom. We cater to very high-end clientele here. Every lobbyist, congressman, senator, lawyer, lawmaker and [ambassador] from all over the world dines here on a regular basis," says Ellen. "You can't be like 'I've been awake all night, and my son has the croup.' No. You have to be in the power suit with the heels-the whole nine yards."
Though image is key to their success, the behind-the-scenes side is just as important. Todd's name is on the marquee, and he creates the award-winning gourmet dishes with his staff. Still, he admits it's generally not so glamorous. "Yeah, you have your moments when you're in the dining room shaking the hands of people that make the world go round," says Todd. "But within the same minute, someone's yanking on you telling you the toilet's broken, there's a leak in the kitchen, somebody quit. I mean, it has its moments, but running a business in a restaurant environment is total insanity."
Don Chapelle, founder of restaurant consulting service Culinary Matters in North Andover, Massachusetts, agrees. "It's not glamorous at all," he says. "The owner has to be an owner/operator and pick up all the pieces that fall when things go wrong."
Still, weathering the challenges can reap great rewards. Equinox has seen sales hit about $2.8 million to $3 million annually, and it's just the beginning. Todd and Ellen are expanding into the hotel restaurant business-they've joined with Sheila Johnson, formerly of African-American entertainment company BET Inc., who employed them to help create the culinary side of her Salamander Inn & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, a collaboration Todd says is a second venture. He says proudly, "I'm watching our company grow and expand, and watching us provide opportunities for our staff in the long term."
- Get energized. Prepare physically and mentally to work 12- to 15-hour days, seven days a week-at least for the first year.
- Solidify your concept. "Make sure that for whatever geographic or demographic location, that it fits-that you're able to execute," says Chapelle. Make certain there's value built into your concept.
- Get a good location. But be realistic about what you can afford. Don't get saddled into lease payments that are too expensive. Chapelle suggests budgeting no more than 5 percent of your gross sales.
- Train your gang. Focus heavily on staff training, as service will make or break your establishment. "I train employees for half an hour on how to answer a phone," notes Chapelle. "It's the most important thing that [aspiring restaurant owners] overlook."
- Get ready to compete. Independent operators can compete with the big restaurant chains by offering better-quality food and service. Make that your mission.
For more tips and information on starting a restaurant, check out Entrepreneur magazine's Start-Up Guide #1400, How to Start a Restaurant and Five Other Food Businesses.