How does one learn the ropes of running a restaraunt?
March 12, 2015 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Mrs. Karaage and I are avid foodies and cooks. We are also white collar DINKs in the DC area that has never worked in a restaraunt a day of our lives. We daydream quite a bit of running a diner/cafe, in particular highlighting dishes that we both love and rarely see around here. I am also fully aware that this is a daydream that results in bankruptcies and broken families.

My question pertains to how to fully investigate the viability of our plan and learn the basics to see if we're cut out for such an endeavor. I want to ensure this is something I want to do and that it's something I can do.

I have read Kitchen Confidential and seen the statistics and watched the failing-family-business-restaraunt tv shows. I know generally why it's a bad and risky idea and that i'm not a special snowflake that will automatically be the 1 out of 90 that makes it every year. I'm not looking for reasons for why not to do it. I'm looking for how one does it. I want to investigate the level of resources it's going to take to get something like this up and running to see if we're in a position to take a shot at it. I also want to plan appropriately so I'm not just jumping into it on a lark. Referrals to resources on these basics are welcome.

How does one like myself get experience doing this? How do people who have similar backgrounds as me get into this (because I've seen examples in DC!) If it means playing cook in a kitchen for a few months, how does one even get hired without a cooking background?

Below are typical questions I'm interested in - not necessarily to be answered here but that i would like resources on learning more about:
When people open restaraunts, what is a typical procedure? How do they get the loans, determine a viable business plan, select sites, run staff, design the restaurant space, determine menus, work with suppliers, get health certifications, navigate the city permitting process etc.? How much cash reserves to restaurant owners start with? Are there classes or books I can take to learn these sort of things?
posted by Karaage to Work & Money (27 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Many colleges have courses in food service management. That would be a good place to start.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:43 AM on March 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

Yes indeed, especially community colleges with a culinary track. My friend in the industry took one called "quantity purchasing," for example.
posted by Melismata at 10:48 AM on March 12, 2015

Best answer: Yes, hi, my boyfriend is a sous-chef and has been working in the restaurant industry for nearly a decade.

I recommend working in a restaurant before you even think about doing this. It's such a rough business, as you know. You can most definitely get a job cooking with zero experience. You do not need to go to culinary school. My boyfriend is the sous chef at a prestigious Boston fine dining restaurant and they hire people with no experience all the time. There's a huge turnover in restaurants, and usually restaurants are always looking for people with a good attitude that will be reliable.

Go to the DC craigslist and search for fine dining restaurants looking for line cooks or prep cooks. I recommend fine dining because at those restaurants you will tend to get a better idea of how kitchens are run in a classic way (like what you see on TV or read in the books). Diners or small scale hole in the wall restaurants will not teach you the fundamentals of running a kitchen in the same way. If the restaurant is interested in you they'll ask you to come in to "stage" for a day (where you work without getting paid), and to see if you fit in. Even with no experience, come in, do exactly what they tell you to do, ask good questions, have a good attitude - you will probably get a job offered if they're just looking for entry level help. Attitude is the most important thing. You'll learn the skills quickly.

As an example, my boyfriend's restaurant currently has a paid seasonal cook that comes in every once in a while and helps out at the restaurant. This person has never cooked before and came in to "learn more about restaurants and cooking". So yes, this is not uncommon at all. They highly appreciate having the extra help. They do not put the same expectations on those people as they do on experienced line cooks or other experienced members.

Your hours will suck, the work will be hard, and you will never have time to see friends. But if you want to learn about cooking and running restaurants, this is a good way to go about it.

Also my boyfriend is from the DC area and worked in restaurants there for a few years, so feel free to PM me if you have more specific questions.
posted by carmel at 10:56 AM on March 12, 2015 [23 favorites]

Best answer: I realize that you think these are the first questions. But they are not.

The first questions are:
  • Can I handle 14 consecutive 18 hour days in a restaurant?
  • Can I handle being screamed at by line cooks/bartenders/suppliers/coked out customers?
  • Can I handle being the line cook/bartender when either (or both) call out sick and nobody else can cover?
  • Can I handle stanching the flow of water flooding the kitchen when the ice machine breaks while someone fumbles around to find the water shut off valve?
  • Can I handle smelling like the restaurant all the time?
  • Can I handle missing all of the important events in my loved ones lives for the next 3-15 years?
  • Can I handle being sued by former employees after I fire them, whether with or without cause?
  • Can I handle having a lawyer on retainer for all the various people who might (will) sue me?
  • Can I handle never ever again calling short term work as a cook "playing cook?"
  • Can I handle continuing to manage hot pans while your hands are covered with weeping sores from previous burns?
  • Can I handle working through colds and flus and every other illness that might befall me?
  • Can I handle being called sweet cheeks and every other derogatory term? (This kind of verbal abuse is meted out in lots of restaurants and not just to women.)
Some of these questions can be answered by going to work in restaurants. I suggest starting as a bar back or bartender if you have any of the skills necessary. Listen to everything. Get a mentor.

The trouble with this path is that most people need to keep a high earning job for a few years to save for their restaurant dream. No matter how big a loan you can get for startup, you will absolutely bleed money for the first year or two, maybe longer. So you'll need to be working nights at the restaurant for experience and information, and days for real money.

You will save lots of money by never having time to go to the movies. You will spend lots on having to send your laundry out, or some other expense like takeout food that seems ridiculous but you just don't have the time or energy to keep up.
posted by bilabial at 11:05 AM on March 12, 2015 [34 favorites]

I will suggest you look for a small scale, low risk entry method. Do not assume you have to "go big or go home" just because it involves food.

I put this info together last July because I found the story behind this place interesting and couldn't find a good, solid write up in any one place: This Tiny Burrito Shop has Legs

IIRC, three friends kept saying "we should start a burrito place together" and then one day they did. They started it as weekends only and delivery only. It eventually became full time and a full service restaurant.

I toss that out there as a potential model for you to be inspired by that it doesn't necessarily need to start as big bucks and big commitments. I can't think of any names off the top of my head, but I know they are not the only food-based business that had very humble beginnings and became successful. I recall seeing an interview with a guy who was making tofu in a pot on his stove and selling that and when restaurants wanted to order it in bulk, he suddenly needed access to a commercial kitchen and all kinds of expansion.

I can't think of other specific examples, but I know that these are not isolated examples. I suggest you keep your eye out for more such examples, see what practical lessons you can take away from them, and see if you can't find a more manageable entry point for the market, one that doesn't look like crazy amounts of potentially life-ruining levels of risk.

Referrals to resources on these basics are welcome

Your local chamber of commerce may be a source for free classes for small business owners and potential small business owners. They may also be a place to start asking some of your other questions and get referred to other local information sources, like where to apply for a business license, whether or not you need a business bank account, where to look for restaurant specific resources and so on.

Also, check out resources like the Small Business Administration.
posted by Michele in California at 11:10 AM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

The owner of a restaurant I used to work at, whose family owns several (all successful) told me once that basically you need to have (or have access to) about a million dollars in cold hard cash for your first year open. Some of that may come from cash flow, sure.

Seconding: you want to go to a college with a culinary school and take whatever they call their culinary management program. It'll teach you all about purchasing and costing and whatnot.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:14 AM on March 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

As others have said, the only way to get answers for your questions is to immerse yourself in restaurant culture. My partner and I have both worked for independently-owned restaurants and there were generally a couple of different types of restaurant owners. Type 1 was the person with too much money who really wanted to own a restaurant, even though they had no idea what that entailed (all of these types had prior experience running businesses too). Type 2 were people with lots of experience owning and operating restaurants and bars. Out of all the Type 1 owners we have worked for, every single one went out of business and all of the Type 2s are still running thriving restaurants and bars. I really think you need to get in there and experience it firsthand.

I once worked with a line cook who was a retired investment banker. This woman and her husband probably had enough money for two or three retirements but she just really wanted to learn how to cook in a fine dining restaurant, so she went to the local community college and did the culinary arts program. She did not need the money but she busted her ass as much as anybody I have ever worked with, took advice graciously, and turned out a great product. And quite frankly, she had to work twice as hard as the guy surviving on $10/hr to prove herself to the rest of the staff. And she did! I lost track of her after that job, but I'm guessing with her business savvy and culinary training, she might have become a successful restaurant owner. You can totally get a restaurant job with no experience. Why not give it a try for a few months part-time and see what it's like? Good luck.
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:23 AM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wash dishes BOH and bus tables FOH, for at least 6 months. Absorb everything you can.

If you still want to do it after really putting the time and doing the dirty work, you might be ready for the investment of taking courses in hospitality and/or culinary school. I am totally totally serious. I am in my 2nd pass at my own restaurant business, and I am only just now getting everything right after 20 years+ off and on in the industry. I did go to culinary school (even a one year accelerated program is just fine for your purposes if you don't plan to cook, but you must be able to fire an unstable kitchen worker and sub-in during service) and I absolutely suggest either you or your spouse do the same. You can not rely on others to cook and develop recipes for you if this is to be your business.

If you manage your business relationships right (you won't at first, more on that below) you won't end up with unstable drama BOH or FOH in the first place. Learning to weed out that potential trouble is not a skill you develop overnight, which is why I recommend bussing tables and washing dishes. You probably did not think I was serious about that suggestion, but I am. Pick a failing restaurant before culinary school and courses you take, pick a successful restaurant to work in after completing coursework in the hospitality field. Ultimately there are no replacements for first-hand experience.

It's the physicality and the personalities (your own and others) that you have to watch out for. It's hard to do it right and have a civilized lifestyle. The industry attracts egoists, flakes, and adrenaline junkies. And lots of liars and thieves! Being professional and organized cuts through 75% of that. In the end, it is really ALL about having the best relationships with the best types of people in each category that is possible - with your partner/spouse, suppliers, customers, employees, competitors. Weed out the rejects, avoid compromises, have your guard set very very high against charmers in any category. Get marriage counseling before you start a business so that you and your spouse have a great tool kit for communicating when things are tough (HINT: it's the food industry, every day is challenging.)

And you will get dirty. A lot. Your shoes will smell bad. You will have separate hampers for regular clothes vs. work clothes. Your spouse will stink sometimes, too, and not in a sexy way. So that's fun for your marriage.

If all of that sounds appealing....

Come on in! The water's fine!!
posted by jbenben at 11:24 AM on March 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

Some friends have found success running an underground by-emailed-newsletter-invite-only 5-course dinner and cocktail club in their apartment. It usually books up for the 8-12 people within a half-hour of posting.
posted by FiveSecondRule at 11:29 AM on March 12, 2015 [13 favorites]

Perhaps test the waters with catering?

It would give you insight into licensing and safety, commercial resources like kitchen rental, supply and sourcing, budgeting money and calculating output, without the additional entanglement of maintaining a commercial establishment.

You could put a toe in very gently with unpaid and casual projects ... dinner party for 20! Noshes for a friend's art opening! and you would learn things about scaling, what's popular, whether you are even a person who is hands-on in the kitchen or a stronger in logistics. A slight bump in size could mean managing employees and deligation.

For your couch potato moments, watch alot of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. If you can get past all the Guy Fieri, you will see incedible cooks making delicious food with often modest means. The cooking segments are edited to be compact so you can pick up alot of technique in a short amount of time. The cook is not always the owner, so those relationships are interesting to see as well.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 11:35 AM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Get a food prep license and rent a licensed commercial kitchen every weekend. Make delicious reheatable meals with your spouse and sell them to friends, coworkers, folks at the farmers market, any nearby large office building where workers probably don't have time to cook. If you fail... it's a fun hobby that won't bankrupt you. If you succeed, you have a brand name and a revenue spreadsheet that you can take to the bank when you ask for a loan.
posted by miyabo at 11:36 AM on March 12, 2015 [9 favorites]

Hospitality Management is the generic degree program track that would cover some of this. George Mason has a program under sport, recreation and tourism. You might look into their classes if you're in the VA area and can qualify for resident tuition.
posted by phearlez at 11:40 AM on March 12, 2015

If you go the route miyabo mentions you should look at Union Kitchen and their resources. People With A Dream is their target market and they've helped several local operations move to the next level.
posted by phearlez at 11:42 AM on March 12, 2015

Oh and many of the new trendy breweries/taprooms don't have any food, at least around here. Sometimes they just put up menus for the nearest pizza place. If it were me, I'd try to develop a relationship with one -- make the food at a rented kitchen, and serve it at a brewery.
posted by miyabo at 11:50 AM on March 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

The owner of a restaurant I used to work at, whose family owns several (all successful) told me once that basically you need to have (or have access to) about a million dollars in cold hard cash for your first year open.

As an owner of a small restaurant (approx. 3k sq ft), I confirm. Between us several owners, it was seven figures to start up. Rent, construction/renovation, payroll et cetera. So, the answer to "how one does it" is have $1 million. Do you and your wife have $1 million? If so, is it your only $1 million?

Unless the answers to those questions will surprise me, you probably want to take Michele in California's advice and start small. Catering might also be a good way because you will have much less overhead. Near my office, I've seen a small lunch place that started out as a 10-foot-wide takeout counter expand several times its size with what appears to be a thriving business with a line every day, so something small can grow. Maybe a food truck is also an option.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:02 PM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Food trucks are popular in the DC area these days, and several brick and mortar businesses have gotten their start that way (Pupatella and District Taco come to mind, off the top of my head.)
posted by gudrun at 12:08 PM on March 12, 2015

My parents got into the restaurant business without any prior experience by buying an existing business. There was a period of overlap with the prior owner trained my parents on the specifics of that restaurant, and over time they made it their own. My dad mostly cooked, my mom mostly handled the register, and they usually had a one or two employees to help. It was satisfying and profitable; you don't have to start with a 30-person operation built from the ground up.

Can I handle 14 consecutive 18 hour days in a restaurant?

I would amend this to also ask if you and Mrs. Karaage think you work these kinds of hours together. My parents rarely spent time apart; this worked for them but not every couple is suited for this, especially over the long haul.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:03 PM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

You and the the mister should connect with anyone and everyone who would talk to you at any of DC's culinary incubators.
posted by evoque at 1:31 PM on March 12, 2015

A small thing, but I think relevant: Tyson Ho's been writing a column for Serious Eats with an insider's take on his experiences with opening his own BBQ joint in Brooklyn. He goes into great detail on some of the unexpected (and expected) obstacles he's run into, might give you a few ideas for things you might need to consider.
posted by maggiepolitt at 1:38 PM on March 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

One last idea: open a restaurant at your house with You could do it tomorrow at zero risk to try out your ideas. If you don't have a suitable space in your home, you can do it at any random event space (college buildings, church basements, etc).
posted by miyabo at 2:19 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The most important thing is money. A lot of money. Really, even more, probably three or four times what you think is a lot. It's great if you have more money coming from somewhere that isn't the food business too, because you're going to go through a lot of money just starting your business.

Here are some random thoughts from me, with a failed food business under my belt (but plans for another one once I clear my debts!):

1) No-one will tell you the truth about any aspect of your business. Agents and suppliers want nothing from you but money, and will generally say anything to you to keep the money flowing from you, to them.
2) Things that "no-one else is doing" aren't always a great idea. Some places and times have very fixed trends, and going against them will destroy you.
3) Do a lot of research about where you want to open, demographics will give you a pretty good idea if your great idea will fly or not.
4) Your local authorities will have a lot of useful information on starting and running a small business, and who you need to get certification from.
5) If it were me, I would keep my day job, hire a small commercial kitchen one or two days or night a week, and make the thing you love to make and sell it either at a market, or direct to people, or through a retailer. You will find out a number of things in a very low risk way: does anyone want what you make? Can you keep on top of your paperwork?

Food businesses are so, so fun to plan, and frankly addictive to run. Good luck! Drop me memail if you like.
posted by mythical anthropomorphic amphibian at 4:09 PM on March 12, 2015

A good friend of mine, who is also a foodie, white-collar computer lackey, and had an interest in the restaurant business, got an unpaid job working as a line cook in a recently-opened high-end Philadelphia restaurant just by making the offer on Craigslist. I think the owner thought he was a bit crazy, but wasn't going to turn down free help, and gave him a shot. He committed to working one or two half-shifts per week (I think one busy night and one slow night) for about six months or so, and in return not only did he learn how to cook—like, restaurant-style cook, which is very different than what most of us home-cook dilettantes do in our kitchens—but also made friends with the owner and manager and other staff just by virtue of being unafraid to do scut work, and learned a lot about the restaurant business.

He has said that after it, he knows everything he would need to open his own restaurant, including most importantly that he absolutely doesn't want to. So, valuable skills and lessons learned, all for a hell of a lot less money than going to cooking school would have.

I'd imagine that quite a few restaurants, especially ones that are new and struggling, might be willing to take you up on something like that, the problem would just be convincing them that you were serious and earnest and weren't going to flake out.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:59 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is a great thread with so many good answers.

I'm a FOH guy mostly, third generation in the biz, waited my first table in 1993.

A million sounds about right. One of the best owners I worked for, when asked why we did things a certain way or in reaction to staff complaining or questioning some aspect of his operation, would say something like "If you don't like it, raise three million dollars, go open your own restaurant, and do it any way you want." That was in midtown NYC, so a million almost anywhere else is probably what you would need.

Nthing: long hours, crazy humans, poor health (you'll be around fatty food, booze, and stress all the time) and just when you've seen it all...a busboy lets off a tear gas canister, or the basement floods, or brown water comes pouring out of the ceiling, or the chef quits, or what have you.

There is a knack for making every person who walks into your restaurant feel special, even if they are just coming in to ask for directions. You'll need that knack. There is also a way to get a guest who has had rude service, an overcooked steak, and an accidental overcharge leave your place thinking "wow, those folks really know what they are doing and give a shit, I'm going to tell all my friends and associates to go there." You'll need that as well.

posted by vrakatar at 6:24 PM on March 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Get a job waiting tables, you will see it from the customer's perspective and you'll see how the back of the house runs, that will be because you will have to keep them both happy. If you can hold up doing that for 6 months you'll have a better idea of how a restaurant works and how much energy and tolerance you have for all the crazy things that happen in a restaurant.
posted by starfish at 7:57 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some friends have found success running an underground by-emailed-newsletter-invite-only 5-course dinner and cocktail club in their apartment. It usually books up for the 8-12 people within a half-hour of posting.

Based on your description, this could be the perfect fit and a great entryway into the field (building up a customer base while your at it).
posted by Toddles at 8:38 PM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd like to second vrakatar's point about "a busboy lets off a tear gas canister, or the basement floods, or brown water comes pouring out of the ceiling, or the chef quits, or what have you".

It really is *always* something that's not necessarily related to food or guests, and you have to be able to deal with that. So I think it would be rather valuable to see if you can get in on the management side of things, not just cooking/serving.

I work in operations and accounting at an established fine dining restaurant, and I swear, there are some runs where you can't even believe everything that's going wrong. One week last year (just days before our busiest day of the year) the POS system went down for 3 days, our main phone line stopped working, the water heater started making a foghorn sound that could be heard in the dining room, a chef went AWOL, the entire neighborhood lost power for six hours - starting 45 minutes before I needed to deliver payroll electronically, and the meat locker suddenly stopped cooling it's $5000 worth of beef, pork and lamb. Throw in a surprise visit from the health inspector at 5:30 that Friday night, and I think you've got a good picture of things.

If you open your own place, a lot of your time and attention would be spent dealing with these kinds of things, so you might try to get a taste of that during your research.
posted by jenmakes at 11:57 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

4) Your local authorities will have a lot of useful information on starting and running a small business, and who you need to get certification from.

And however long they tell you it will take to get your inspection approvals and occupancy permits - it's going to be way longer than that. And that's pertinent to our area, as that's the experience of the people I know who have done facility expediting in getting places open in Arlington and DC proper.

See also, how much money you'll need.
posted by phearlez at 10:15 AM on March 13, 2015

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