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Restaurant Success Stories

We revisited four entrepreneurs we profiled in the past to find out more about their recipes for success.

Sheila McCann, 40, founder, House of Bread
Description: Franchisor of minibread bakeries, with 10 franchise locations
Startup costs: $188,000 in 1996
2004 Projected Sales: $250,000 to $750,000 per bakery

Update: Since Entrepreneur featured McCann in November 2000 , her San Luis Obispo, California, business has added seven more franchise bakeries scheduled to open soon in Arizona, California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington.

Being Turned Away: Restaurateurs' biggest challenge, McCann says, is to find a good location as well as property owners willing to rent to startups. When the ex-lawyer opened the first House of Bread, she was competing with bigger, national corporations,so many people didn't believe she could succeed. "When I first started, I was a single woman opening a bakery; and [landlords] were not interested in me," she says.

Selling It: To overcome location obstacles, McCann went as far as baking cookies and bread for the landlords and doing a little self marketing. "I went to the neighboring business owners who had the same landlord," she says. "I pitched the concept to them and asked them to put in a good word for me."

Listening to the Wise: McCann says her business grew because she heeded the advice of older executives who told her, "If you can't sell bread, then forget about making bread." Part of her success, she admits, is investing in anything that helps to sell the product; for example, while her back-office desk cost her $50, she splurged on high-quality wooden shelves in the bakery itself.

Don't Take No for an Answer: Being tenacious was one of the strategies McCann used to break into the business. Her advice for startups? "Don't give up. Be persistent," she says. Also, having the best tasting products with the most expensive ingredients allows her to charge more. "You have to compete on the quality, because [big businesses] can't mass-produce [that]," says McCann. "That's what sets us apart."-Anna Buss

Adam Willner, 39, founder, Zao Noodle Bar
Description: A Pan-Asian restaurant with six corporate-owned locations, which serves an assortment of Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines
Startup Costs: $500,000 in 1996
2004 Sales Projections: $6.3 million

Update: Since Entrepreneur featured Willner in 2001 , his company has moved its headquarters from El Cerrito, California, to San Francisco. And in 2005, Willner plans to open a new location in Portland, Oregon.

Finding Good People: Getting financed and finding the right location were only a few of the many struggles Willner encountered when starting his restaurant. As the business grew, so did the necessity of putting together a qualified staff. Says Willner, "You have to make sure you have the right people for the job."

Planning Ahead: After investing nine months of planning into Zao Noodle Bar and networking within the restaurant industry, Willner thought he had done enough homework to predict future problems. But he found starting a restaurant always includes unanticipated issues. He emphasizes the importance of planning anyway. "You can usually overcome a couple of nuances or a couple of wrinkles, but you can't overcome a lot of them," Willner says. "So having a plan where there are fewer unforeseen challenges is the way to go."

The 101 of the Biz: The basic truth of the restaurant industry, says Willner, is, "You are only as good as your last meal. And there is really no substitute for that."

Zao Says: Restaurateurs should focus on serving their guests, listening to them, and providing them with a product and a great experience, says Willner. "You have to have great passion for the business because there will be problems and challenges, and that passion is what will allow you to overcome them."-Anna Buss

Steele Platt, 45, founder and CEO, Yard House
Description: A restaurant inspired by classic rock 'n' roll, serving an eclectic menu of American fusion cuisine along with one of the world's largest selections of draft beers
Startup Costs: $150,000 in 1995. Platt raised $900,000 without the help of friends or family; the landlord contributed more than $2 million.
2004 Sales Projections: $70 million

Update: Since our profile in February 2004 , Platt is still pushing Yard House to grow beyond its current seven restaurants. He's opening three more stores: one in Glenview, Illinois; one in Rancho Cucamonga, California; and, at the beginning of 2005, one in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Says Platt, "We're positioning ourselves for accelerated growth."

Pulling It Together: The biggest obstacle to starting a restaurant, says Platt, is getting the planets to align-that is, pulling together all the elements, from turning your concept into a working model to cultivating your employee base. There's an extra element as well: "I would say it's 70 percent savvy and 30 percent luck," Platt says. He should know-thanks to his successes with early nightclubs and restaurants, Platt was a millionaire by 26 but lost it all by 31. Today, he's back on top and determined to use the experience he gained to stay there. "I've done it once before where it didn't work, so this time I was lucky enough to have the right people at the right time," says Platt. "Good people make all the difference."

Following Through: The best advice Platt got when he started his restaurant? "Don't take no for an answer. Overcome the obstacles set by others who try to talk you out of it."

Go Swimming: Platt urges aspiring restaurateurs to know their competition. "You have to know who you are up against. The best thing is to make sure you create a unique niche in the industry before you go forward. The last thing you want to do is duplicate something that already exists and try to be better than someone who has five years on you," says Platt. "Don't get in the same swimming pool with the sharks."-Jonathan Riggs

Todd Graves, 32, founder and CEO, Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers
Description: A quick-service restaurant specializing in chicken fingers with a signature sauce and sides
Startup Costs: The startup cost for Graves' original chicken finger restaurant was $140,000 ($90,000 in cash and a $50,000 SBA loan).
2004 Sales Projections: $33 million

Update: Since our profile in November 2003 , Todd Graves recently opened three more company-owned stores in Louisiana to go along with the previous 15. In the next 12 months, he plans to open 10 more company-owned stores in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, as well as his first five franchise stores around the country.

The Last Laugh: Graves says the biggest startup obstacle is financing. "After writing my business plan, buying a cheap suit and borrowing a briefcase, I went to see every bank in town to fund my first chicken finger restaurant," Graves says. They laughed him out the door, telling him that people in southern Louisiana would never support a restaurant serving just chicken fingers. Private investors told him the same thing, but the resistance only made him more passionate about making his dream come true.

He realized he would have to earn the money himself. "I worked four months in refineries in Los Angeles doing turnaround work-seven days a week, 12 hours a day," says Graves. "Then I spent four months in Alaska, commercial fishing for sockeye salmon." His drive paid off, literally. "When I returned home to Baton Rouge, I had my own money and convinced investors to put more into the project. They felt I was truly committed." He was able to secure a small SBA loan and opened his first Raising Cane's.

Focus: The best advice Graves received was, "Concentrate on progress rather than perfection."

The Passion: "Make sure you love the restaurant business. This business is hard work, and you have to love it to be successful," Graves says. "Also, you have to have passion for your organization and a great culture. Anyone can copy another restaurant concept. It happens all the time, but your passion and culture are what set you apart for your crew and customers."-Jonathan Riggs

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