We all have that one signature dish we make that wows our friends and family and provides, for a moment at least, a culinary bravado that gets us thinking we could make a restaurant work. If you are more than a one-trick pony and can actually cook up good meals on a regular basis, the accolades and restaurant suggestions will come from others, pumping up your culinary ego even more and stoking that restaurant fantasy. I fancy myself a decent cook, and have a decent track record of planning and cooking for groups ranging from small dinner parties to large scale events, and count chefs and restaurateurs as good friends, and I’m still hesitant to think I would want the stress of a day-to-day restaurant operation.
That said, give me my culinary dream team in the kitchen, a great location, and investors who have money to back the venture, and I’d give it some serious thought. Until then, my taste of running a restaurant happens once a month at the GRUEL dinner and concert I host at the Encinitas American Legion. I’ll touch more on that later though.
I’ve written about and interviewed over 300 chefs and restaurant owners over the past few years, some of whom are thriving and plenty who are not around anymore. I’ve developed a sense for what’s going to work, what is doomed, and those that are what I call “hobby restaurants” that don’t really need to make money. Not so fond of those. One of my best friends took the plunge and opened his own place 12 years ago after many years managing restaurants. If anyone was prepared, it was him. Since then, it’s been a roller coaster ride but he has managed to make it work. I asked him recently to share some advice and detail what some of his biggest headaches have been in opening and running a restaurant.
His first cautionary words were to be prepared to work as hard as you have in your life. There are a ton of moving parts that go into opening a restaurant and it is definitely not a 9-5 job. Concept, equipment, design, menu development, staffing, securing vendor relationships, negotiating a favorable lease, building a buzz around the joint…those are just a few of the initial steps. A solid concept is key and if you plan on jumping on a trend, that trend is probably already on a downward trajectory and there is a good chance you will be screwed from the start. Case in point, the burger joint fallout that has already begun to happen in San Diego.
If you do manage to get the restaurant open, one of the biggest headaches I’ve heard from just about every owner is hiring and maintaining quality, trustworthy staff. While there are certain high-end establishments where decent careers are had as a server, those are the exception to the rule. Many of us have picked up a restaurant job at some point in our lives and it’s usually to help supplement education or make extra money during a transition period. It’s hardly a situation that builds employee loyalty. Several owner friends have had scenarios of employee’s skimming money and theft. And if you ever plan to take a day off, a competent, trustworthy manager is essential. Assuming the rest of your restaurant ship is sailing smoothly, having someone in place to run the show to enable you to take a day off or a vacation is a key part of the restaurant ownership equation.
I could really write an entire book with chapters devoted to each of the above mentioned topics but I think you get my point. And don’t get me wrong, I would love to team up with one of the many talented chefs I know and bring culinary pleasure to folks on a nightly basis and that may even happen someday. Until then, I’ve figured out a way to play restaurant owner and chef for a night then return to my reality of writing about and interviewing chefs and owners. My dabble in the restaurant world is called GRUEL and it’s a dinner and concert I host on occasion at the American Legion in Encinitas. They have a sweet commercial range and a nice size kitchen that is perfect for me to whip up one of my specialties, book a fun band, and entertain 60-80 people on a Friday night. I love the thrill of planning the menu, booking the band, prepping the meal, then feeding and entertaining a nice size crowd. Then I go back to my day job. I have one coming up Friday, May 9 and have booked local favorite The Blue Moonies as the musical guests. If you are interested in attending, RSVP at www.lick-the-plate.com/gruel.