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How to Start a Restaurant

October 1, 2009
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/73384

Editor's note: This article was excerpted from our Restaurant start-up guide, available from Entrepreneur Bookstore.

As increasing numbers of consumers want to dine out or take prepared food home, the number of food-service operations has skyrocketed from 155,000 about 30 years ago to nearly 900,000 today. But there's still room in the market for your food-service business.

Shifting demographics and changing lifestyles are driving the surge in food-service businesses. Busy consumers don't have the time or inclination to cook. They want the flavor of fresh bread without the hassle of baking. They want tasty, nutritious meals without dishes to wash. In fact, the rise in popularity of to-go operations underscores some clear trends in the food-service industry. More and more singles, working parents and elderly people are demanding greater convenience when it comes to buying their meals.

Though the future looks bright for the food-service industry overall, there are no guarantees in this business. Even the most successful operators will tell you this isn't a "get rich quick" industry. It's more like a "work hard and make a living" industry.

A hard reality is that many restaurants fail during their first year, frequently due to a lack of planning. But that doesn't mean your food-service business has to be an extremely complex operation. In fact, the more streamlined you can make it, the better your chances for success. Robert V. Owens, owner of RV's Seafood Restaurant, a casual seafood restaurant in Nags Head, North Carolina, observes, "The restaurant business is a simple business that people make complicated." His formula for success is quality food, good service and great people--an approach that's worked for him for nearly a quarter century.

To help you get started, we've compiled this thorough, but easy-to-digest, guide to starting your own food business. Whether your dream is to open a traditional American diner, a New York-style pizzeria, a Chinese buffet, a deli for busy lunch-goers or a local coffeehouse/hang-out spot, start your business research here.

Target Markets

No single food-service operation has universal appeal. This is a fact that many newer entrepreneurs have trouble accepting, but the reality is that you will never capture 100 percent of the market. When you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. So focus on the 5 or 10 percent of the market that you can get, and forget about the rest.

With that said, who is eating at restaurants? Let's look at the main market categories of food-service business customers:

How to Start a Restaurant

Restaurant Service Styles

Restaurants are classified into three primary categories: quick-service, midscale and upscale. Quick-service restaurants are also known as fast-food restaurants. These establishments offer limited menus of items that are prepared quickly and sold for a relatively low price. In addition to very casual dining areas, they typically offer drive-thru windows and take-out service.

When people think of fast-food restaurants, they often think of hamburgers and french fries, but establishments in this category also serve chicken, hot dogs, sandwiches, pizza, seafood and ethnic foods.

Midscale restaurants, as the name implies, occupy the middle ground between quick-service and upscale restaurants. They offer full meals but charge prices that customers perceive as providing good value. Midscale restaurants offer a range of limited- and full-service options. In a full-service restaurant, patrons place and receive their orders at their tables; in a limited-service operation, patrons order their food at a counter and then receive their meals at their tables. Many limited-service restaurants offer salad bars and buffets.

Upscale restaurants offer full table service and do not necessarily promote their meals as offering great value; instead, they focus on the quality of their cuisine and the ambience of their facilities. Fine-dining establishments are at the highest end of the upscale restaurant category and charge the highest prices.

Selecting a Food Concept

Restaurant patrons want to be delighted with their dining experience, but they don't necessarily want to be surprised. If you're anticipating a family-style steakhouse (based on the name or the décor of the establishment), but you find yourself in a more formal environment with a bewildering--and pricey--gourmet menu, the surprise may keep you from enjoying the restaurant. Concepts give restaurateurs a way to let patrons know in advance what to expect and also to provide some structure for their operation. Here are some of the more popular restaurant concepts:

How to Start a Restaurant

Carving Your Niche

Before you can begin any serious business planning, you must first decide what specific segment of the food-service industry you want to enter. While there are many commonalities among the various types of food-service businesses, there are also many differences. And while there is much overlap in the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful, your own personality and preferences will dictate whether you choose to open a commercial bakery, a coffee cart, a fine-dining restaurant or another type of operation. Then, once you have decided what business best suits you, you must figure out the niche you'll occupy in the marketplace.

For example, are you an early riser, or do you prefer to stay up late and sleep late? If you like--or at least don't mind--getting up before dawn, your niche may be a bakery or a casual breakfast-and-lunch operation. Night owls are going to be drawn to the hours required for bar-and-grill types of restaurants, fine-dining establishments and even pizzerias.

Do you like dealing with the public, or are you happier in the kitchen? If you're a people person, choose a food-service business that gives you plenty of opportunity to connect with your customers. If you're not especially gregarious, you'll probably lean more toward a commercial type of business, perhaps a bakery or even a catering service, where you can deal more with operational issues than with people.

Some other types of questions to ask yourself include, Do you have a passion for a particular type of cuisine? Do you enjoy a predictable routine, or do you prefer something different every day? Are you willing to deal with the additional responsibilities and liabilities that come with serving alcoholic beverages?

As you do this self-analysis, think about your ideal day. If you could be doing exactly what you wanted to do, what would it be?

Once you've decided on the best niche for you as an individual, it's time to determine if you can develop a niche in the market for your food-service business.

Working in a Restaurant
Dealing graciously with customers and playing the role of elegant host are only part of a restaurateur's many duties. Food-service business operators spend most of their time developing menus; ordering inventory and supplies; managing personnel; creating and implementing marketing campaigns; making sure their operation is in compliance with a myriad of local, state and federal regulations; completing a wide range of paperwork; and performing other administrative chores. Certainly the financial opportunities are there--as are the fun aspects of the business--but starting, running and growing a food-service business is also hard work.

Regardless of the type of food-service business you intend to start, the best way to learn the ropes is to work for a similar operation for a while before striking out on your own. Doing so will give you significant insight into the realities and logistics of the business.

Successful restaurateurs agree that the best preparation for owning a restaurant is to work in someone else's first. Think of it as getting paid to be educated. Certainly you should read books and take courses, but you should also plan to work in a restaurant for at least a few years doing as many different jobs as possible. And if you're not actually doing the job, pay attention to the person who is--you may find yourself doing it when your own restaurant is unexpectedly shorthanded.

Ideally, you should work in a restaurant similar to the type you want to open. You may find you don't like the business. Or you may find you're more suited to a different type of operation than you originally thought. Hopefully, you'll discover you're in exactly the right place.

"As I started working in restaurants, I realized this was my passion," says Scott Redler, co-owner and founder of Timberline Steakhouse & Grill in Wichita, Kansas. Redler, 42, got his first restaurant job at 15, opened a Chinese fast-food restaurant at 26 that failed in eight months, and now has five successful steakhouses. He also opened two Freddy's Frozen Custard restaurants. "When you have a busy restaurant and you're watching everything happen as it should," he says, "it's a wonderful feeling of satisfaction."

How to Start a Restaurant

Writing a Business Plan

Armed with practical experience, you're ready to put together your business plan--the most critical element of your restaurant. Map out everything on paper before you buy the first spoon or crack the first egg. According to industry expert Rich Melman, chair of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., a Chicago-based company that owns, manages and consults with restaurants throughout the country, 80 percent of what will make your restaurant a success will take place before you ever open the doors.

When you're writing a business plan you should include: a clear definition of your concept; a description of your market; your menu and pricing; detailed financial information, including data on your startup capital (amount and sources) and your long-term income and expense forecasts; a marketing plan; employee hiring, training and retention programs; and detailed plans that outline how you'll deal with the challenges restaurateurs face every day. Including an exit plan in your strategy is also a good idea.

Funding Your Business
How much money you need to start depends on the type of business, the facility, how much equipment you need, whether you buy new or used, your inventory, marketing, and necessary operating capital (the amount of cash you need on hand to carry you until your business starts generating cash). It's easy to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars starting a restaurant, but it's not essential. For instance, when Borealis Breads owner Jim Amaral started his first bakery in Maine, he rented a space that had been a commercial bakery and came complete with mixers, benches, ovens and other equipment. He was able to start with just $10,000 he'd borrowed from family and friends, and used that primarily for inventory.

Regardless of how much you need, you will definitely need some cash to start your food-service business started. Here are some suggestions of where to go to raise your startup funds:

 

How to Start a Restaurant

Choosing a Location

Depending on how much money you have to invest in your food-service business and the particular type of business you choose, you can spend anywhere between $30,000 and $1.5 million on a facility.

Not every food-service operation needs to be in a retail location, but for those that do depend on retail traffic, here are some factors to consider when deciding on a location:

Layout
Layout and design are major factors in your restaurant's success. You'll need to take into account the size and layout of the dining room, kitchen space, storage space and office. Typically, restaurants allot 40 to 60 percent of their space to the dining area, approximately 30 percent to the kitchen and prep area, and the remainder to storage and office space.

Much of your dining room design will depend on your concept. It will help you to know that studies indicate that 40 to 50 percent of all sit-down customers arrive in pairs; 30 percent come alone or in parties of three; and 20 percent come in groups of four or more.

To accommodate the different groups of customers, use tables for two that can be pushed together in areas where there is ample floor space. This gives you flexibility in accommodating both small and large parties. Place booths for four to six people along the walls.

Arrange your food production area so that everything is just a few steps away from the cook. Your design should also allow for two or more cooks to be able to work side by side during your busiest hours.

How to Start a Restaurant

Creating a Menu

As you put together a plan for your food-service business, be aware of some of the trends in terms of menu content and design: These factors could--and, in fact, should--influence the type of food-service business you open.

Restaurant operators report that vegetarian items, tortillas, locally grown produce, organic items, fusion dishes (combining two or more ethnic cuisines in one dish or on one plate) and microbrewed or local beers are gaining in popularity. Pita dishes and wraps continue to be in high demand, too, as an easy-to-consume alternative to sandwiches. You will also see a strong demand for bagels, espresso and specialty coffees, and "real meals," which are typically an entree with a side order. Consumers are also eating more chicken, seafood and beef dishes than they have in recent years. At the same time, people expect to see meatless alternatives on the menu. Consumers are also demanding "comfort food"--the dishes that take them back to their childhoods, when mothers baked from scratch, and meat and potatoes were at the center of each plate.

Menus are also showing a number of ethnic dishes and spice-infused offerings. It's not surprising to find Thai, Vietnamese, Creole, Tuscan and even classic French cuisines on the same menu and even the same plate.

At the same time, be sure to keep the kids in mind as you plan your selections. If families are a key part of your target market, you'll want a range of four or five items in smaller portions that youngsters will enjoy. If you serve snack items as well as entrees, note that kids are choosing healthier snacks more often than they did a few years ago, thanks to concerned parents. For example, while salty snacks remain popular, yogurt is the fastest growing snack food based on consumption frequency among kids under 13. Fruit cups and applesauce cups are also growing in popularity among children and teens. While most restaurants still offer fixed kids' meals, you might consider allowing your young diners to choose among a selection of nutritious options.

Though menu variety has increased over the years, menus themselves are growing shorter. Busy consumers don't want to read a lengthy menu before dinner; dining out is a recreational activity, so they're in the restaurant to relax. Keep your number of items in check and menu descriptions simple and straightforward, providing customers with a variety of choices in a concise format. Your menu should also indicate what dishes can be prepared to meet special dietary requirements. Items low in fat, sodium and cholesterol should also be marked as such.

Safety Regulations
Though we don't think of food service as heavily regulated an industry as something like medical services or public utilities, the reality is that many aspects of your operation are strictly regulated and subject to inspection. Fail to meet regulations, and you could be subject to fines or get shut down by authorities. And if the violations involve tainted food, you could be responsible for your patrons' illnesses and even death. Issues such as sanitation and fire safety are critical. You must provide a safe environment in which your employees can work and your guests can dine, follow the laws of your state on sales of alcohol and tobacco products, and handle tax issues, including sales, beverage, payroll and more.

Most regulatory agencies will work with new operators to let them know what they must do to meet the necessary legal requirements. Your state's general information office can direct you to all the agencies you'll need to be concerned with.

How to Start a Restaurant

Hiring Employees

One of the biggest challenges businesses in all industries face is a lack of qualified labor. As the food-service industry in general continues to grow and thrive, the demand for workers in an already-diminished labor pool is also increasing. Finding qualified workers and rising labor costs are two key concerns for food-service business owners.

The first step in developing a comprehensive HR program is to decide exactly what you want someone to do. The job description doesn't have to be as formal as one you might expect from a large corporation, but it needs to clearly outline the job's duties and responsibilities. It should also list any special skills or other required credentials, such as a valid driver's license and clean driving record for someone who is going to make deliveries for you.

Next, you need to establish a pay scale. You should do research to find out what the pay rates are in your area. You'll want to establish a minimum and maximum rate for each position. You'll pay more even at the start for better qualified and more experienced workers. Of course, the pay scale will be affected by whether or not the position is one that is regularly tipped.

Every prospective employee should fill out an application--even if it's someone you already know, and even if that person hsa submitted a detailed resume. A resume is not a signed, sworn statement acknowledging that you can fire the person if he or she lies about his or her background; the application, which includes a truth affidavit, is. The application will also help you verify the applicants' resumes, so you should compare the two and make sure the information is consistent.

Here are some tips to help you find and keep great people:

There are several categories of personnel in the restaurant business: manager, cooks, servers, busboys, dishwashers, hosts and bartenders. When your restaurant is still new, some employees' duties may cross over from one category to another. For example, your manager may double as the host, and servers may also bus tables. Be sure to hire people who are willing to be flexible in their duties. Your payroll costs, including your own salary and that of your managers, should be about 24 to 35 percent of your total gross sales.

To get the quality of manager you want, you'll have to pay well. Depending on your location, expect to pay a seasoned manager $30,000 to $40,000 a year, plus a percentage of sales. An entry-level manager will earn $22,000 to $26,000 but won't have the skills of a more experienced candidate. If you can't offer a high salary, work out a profit-sharing arrangement-it's an excellent way to hire good people and motivate them to build a successful restaurant. Hire your manager at least a month before you open so he or she can help you set up your restaurant.

Salaries for chefs and cooks vary according to their experience and your menu. Chefs command salaries significantly higher than cooks, averaging $600 to $700 a week. You may also find chefs who are willing to work under profit-sharing plans. If you have a fairly complex menu that requires a cook with lots of experience, you may have to pay anywhere from $400 to $500 a week. You can pay part-time cooks on an hourly basis; check around for the going rate in your area.

Because servers in most establishments earn a good portion of their income from tips, they're usually paid minimum wage or just slightly more. When your restaurant is new, you may want to hire only experienced servers so you don't have to provide extensive training. As you become established, however, you should develop training systems to help both new, inexperienced employees and veteran servers understand your philosophy and the image you want to project.

How to Start a Restaurant

Marketing and Promotions

Every business needs a marketing plan, and your food-service business is no exception. But even as you consider various marketing vehicles, keep this in mind: Research conducted by the National Restaurant Association reveals that word-of-mouth is still the best method of advertising. More than four out of five consumers are likely to choose a table-service restaurant they haven't patronized before on the basis of a recommendation from a family member or friend. So make the foundation of your marketing program an absolutely dazzling dining experience that customers will want to talk about and repeat.

Ask every new customer how they found out about you, and make a note of this information so you know how well your various marketing efforts are working. You can then decide to increase certain programs and eliminate those that aren't working.

A key question for restaurant owners is this: Do your marketing materials--menus, signs, table tents, ads and other items--send an accurate message about who you are and what you do?

The first step in creating a complete marketing package is to know your market, and it's not enough to gather demographic information once. Markets change, and food-service businesses that don't change their marketing strategies with population shifts are missing out on a lot of opportunities.

Next, step back and take a look at each element in your facility. Everything from the parking lot to the interior decor to the printed items contributes to your marketing message--and each should be an accurate reflection of what that message is.

One cheap and easy way to promote your food-service business is by giving away gift certificates--such as dinner for two, coffee and bagels for 10, or a free pizza. Call local radio stations that reach the demographics of your target market and ask to speak to their promotions manager. Offer to provide gift certificates or coupons to use as prizes for on-air contests and promotions. Your company name and location will be announced several times on the air during the contest, providing you with valuable free exposure, and it's always possible that the winner will become a paying customer.

You can also donate coupons and gift certificates to be used as door prizes at professional meetings or for nonprofit organizations to use as raffle prizes. Just be sure every coupon or gift certificate clearly identifies your business name, location, hours of operation and any restrictions on the prize.

Some other promotional methods you can try include local event or sporting team sponsorships, discount coupon books, frequent-dining clubs, menu promotions and contests.

Restaurant Startup Resources

How to Start a Restaurant