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Common Foodsense: Write a Memoir or Open a Restaurant?

Two of the grand misconceptions about the human race are that everyone should write a memoir and that anyone can own a restaurant. We don’t need to spend a lot of time exploring the former; a few simple questions can take care of it: Where, most often, are you sitting when you are presented with someone’s life story? (On a barstool.) Why are you interested? (I’m not. The schlub bought me a drink, and I’m just being polite.) And finally—would you pay your own money to hear this? (Are you serious?)

Now, as to restaurants. Hospitality lifers have a sort of weary contempt for the enthusiasm of well-meaning amateurs. The business is hard enough when you know what you’re doing; the million details of day-to-day function take place in the shadow of ominous, teetering metaphorical boulders, which might, depending on the season, be fire, flood, new road construction or a cook who didn’t wash his hands. If a rock doesn’t fall, that’s just good luck. Do your work, pay your insurance, light little candles, and hope for the best.

And so, when yet another enterprise is begun by someone who was told too often what great food he makes and that he should start a restaurant, we dip into our bucket of schadenfreude and have a glass or two as we watch the proceedings. It usually doesn’t take long.

Still, a few of these credulous fools survive and thrive, throwing salt in the wounds of the rest of us, and probably saving the job of some particularly intuitive (or particularly lucky) banker. The question then becomes: What determines who is right for the business, and who isn’t? Is there a profile we can build?

I have probably been infected by this customer-centric profile-building twaddle that I have been reading too much about. Everybody does this with customers, to a degree. Some will look for characteristics of different age groups (one more article telling me about millennials and their preference for organic honey and I’m going to shriek. What is “organic honey” anyway? Does someone stand by the hive telling the bees which field to go to?) Some will look at income levels, education levels, intolerance levels (the curmudgeon demographic is expanding rapidly). My company was hired by Buffalo Wild Wings about 20 years ago to develop “girlfriend food,” of all things. A typical customer was a young man in a ball cap who could eat 3 pounds of onion rings without gaining an ounce. However, if he and a similar young man brought their dates, and the ladies complained that there was nothing on the menu for them to eat, the restaurant would lose the whole four-top. This happened often enough that it became a problem profile, and we got a job out of it.

It seems likely that small-business lenders would have a profile or two of their potential clients. This set of characteristics is likely to succeed, this set indicates a guy who will take his first positive cash-flow and blow it at the track. And these characteristics are subtle, and frequently misunderstood. One virtue we all extol is the willingness to work hard, but I’m here to tell you that this is overrated. I find that strategic laziness is a better indicator of success. Look for the most efficient way to do things so you can keep your tee time.

Good with numbers? Yeah, that’s nice, but the numbers you’re talking about are pretty basic arithmetic; you’re not deriving three laws of motion from observed phenomena. And your accountant will be doing most of the crunching—strategic laziness, remember?—while you translate what the numbers tell you into a snow-shoveling decision or a new brand of beef base.

Makes great food? Please. Lots of people make great food. Some of them I would no more trust with a restaurant than I would trust a toddler with a hand grenade. Your banker wants you to make great contributions to margin, not to cuisine. She doesn’t want to hear about your love for Iberian ham unless you can translate it into mortgage payments.

What I have found most effective among my clients and my colleagues is a curious mixture of empathy and objectivity. The empathy underpins the hospitality business, really; it’s the desire to find what makes people happy and sell it to them in a manner that keeps them happy. And the objectivity keeps it from getting out of hand. Yes, we want to please you; no, we will not bankrupt ourselves to do so. It is lovely to offer reservations, but if my check average is $300 and I only have 40 seats, there will be a charge if you no-show.

And it applies to the staff, as well. The boss needs to care about the staff, even the ones who have to be fired. The staff needs to care about the customers, even when they’re a bit boorish. And the boss needs to care about the staff enough to 86 the boors who boor too hard, and not to worry about lost business. After all, you can always make it up on the sales of the memoir. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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