How to Open a Restaurant

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Open a Restaurant
Open a Restaurant

Ask a restaurant consultant about opening a restaurant and you're likely to get a succinct answer: "Don't!" The failure rate is high, the costs can soar out of control and the hours are brutal. If you remain convinced that you are the next Alice Waters or Wolfgang Puck, put on your toque, brush up on your knife skills and forge ahead.

Clarify your concept and put all the proposed details--from decor to dessert choices--in writing. If you can't write about them, they need more thought.

Investigate the regulatory requirements, both city and state. Prepare for a plethora of paperwork, including byzantine building codes with regulations covering everything from kitchen exhaust systems to interior finish requirements.

Find an ideal location. Do a demographic study of the surrounding area. Research the amount of foot traffic and the availability of easy parking. Then negotiate a lease you can afford.

Plan your menu early in the game. Kitchen layout and equipment purchases depend on it. Reduce your equipment costs either by purchasing used equipment or leasing new.

Find the funds. Write a detailed business plan and consider forming a small private corporation or starting a limited partnership. However much money you think you need, raise more. Many restaurant consultants blame the high rate of new restaurant failures on undercapitalization.

Allocate the available space. Remember that in addition to dining and kitchen areas you'll need room for dishwashing, storage, bathrooms and administrative work.

Plan the layout for the dining area. Remember to balance your desire for the maximum number of seats with your future customers' desire to shun tables crammed into awkward corners. Also avoid locating tables in the middle of the room like woebegone little islands. "Nestle tables--particularly two-tops--against low divider walls or other architectural features," advises restaurant owner and designer Pat Kuleto.

Keep the kitchen layout focused on efficient, safe food preparation. Ensure that there is sufficient light and ventilation, as well as enough space so that cooks, servers and dishwashers are not bumping into one another at the busiest times.

Don't neglect the graphics. From the exterior signage to the look of the menus, graphic design plays an important part in a restaurant's overall look.

Pay attention to lighting design. Focus dramatic light onto the tables to highlight the food, and complement it with glowing atmospheric light to make the customers look good.

Research and develop the menu. Taste-test the recipes repeatedly until the kitchen can achieve consistency. Remember that the food also has to look good on the plate. Plot out your menu pricing strategy. Have the final menu proofread before sending it to the printer.

Decide whether to offer full bar service. Apply for a wine and/or liquor license.

Investigate insurance needs thoroughly. Restaurants are simmering stockpots of potential accidents--from fires to floods to food poisoning and a hundred other potential horrors. The National Restaurant Association (restaurant.org) is an outstanding resource for insurance-related information.

Select and train the staff. Look for enthusiasm as well as experience. Allow ample training time before the restaurant opens. Remember that the person running the front of the house is as important as the person running the kitchen, and great service is as important a factor in winning customer loyalty as great food.

Set up a bookkeeping and accounting system. Establish control over the meal checks. There are dozens of scams that dishonest servers and cashiers can pull; get some expert advice on how to prevent them.

Designate a core of trusted employees to supervise storage areas carefully. Stress that they must check in all deliveries and audit the food inventory frequently.

Pass your opening inspection by a food safety specialist with your local health department, along with a plumbing inspection. You'll receive a permit to operate, which will be reviewed yearly.

Open your doors and welcome hungry diners.

Tips & Warnings

  • Plan an advertising and public-relations campaign that begins even before the restaurant opens. Contact the food editor of the local newspaper about doing a "great new restaurant coming soon" story. See 372 Publicize an Event.
  • Read books on planning, designing and securing investment for restaurants. Take a class at a university's hotel administration school. Read Restaurant Business magazine (restaurantbiz.com) for strategies and resources.
  • You'll need to provide your local health department with a list of menu items, as well as how they are prepared, cooking times, refrigeration temperatures and more.
  • Decide on the restaurant's overall look. Beware of trendy, contrived design. Patrons may enjoy it for the first visit or two, but then can tire of it quickly. Go for warmth over edginess.
  • Be cautious about making coupon offers. They often have a low success rate for generating repeat customers.

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