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February 29, 2012

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

So, you want to open a restaurant?

You absolutely love good food and love dining out. Perhaps you’re preparing for semi-retirement. Maybe you worked in a restaurant when you were younger (or do so now). You have some money saved, or somehow miraculously have a funding source — a backer, a fan, a parent — someone with a fat checkbook who believes in you and your talents. You’re inspired by your culinary experiences and think, “Hey, why not? Let’s open a restaurant!”

We have an amazingly vibrant dining scene in our Metro area, but believe it or not, there isn’t room for everyone to succeed. How do newly opened restaurants achieve that first flush of success? How do they last?

First of all, a new independent restaurant needs great food, a great staff and a chance at grabbing a unique market niche that no one else is filling. It needs an intense opening buzz, which means a great marketing team (expensive). You might need an experienced commercial realtor to search out an optimum location and help negotiate the lease (also expensive). You’ll have to repair or replace faulty equipment. You’ll have to pay a designer to help create a logo and graphics to put on your menu and website (crucial).

If you have all that covered, congratulations! Now you have to build a team to help you run your establishment.

The list of necessary employees is daunting: a chef, his supporting cooks, a front-of-house manager, the service staff, busboys, dishwashers, a crew of hostesses — all of these are positions that are notoriously underpaid. You will have to motivate a team who might take home $150 a week after they pay their rent. You will have to be charming in order to hire them in the first place, then become their therapist, mentor and sounding-board afterward. You will probably not be able to provide them full health insurance without a contribution from their paycheck, which they may not be able to afford, so if someone cuts or burns themselves, you might feel morally on the hook to pay for their care.

You will have to buy the proteins and produce to execute the menu, then store it all properly and logically. Meat and produce prices fluctuate spectacularly on a monthly or even weekly basis: That case of spinach might double in price next week. But you can’t change your menu every week to reflect that. You have to build a cushion into your prices to compensate.

You will need to rent linens. You will have to buy salt and pepper shakers and sugar caddies. If you serve alcohol, you will have to buy a liquor license — but make sure before you choose your space that you’re not too close to another liquor-serving establishment, because that might disqualify you. You’ll need glassware and bar fruit. Swizzle sticks. Beverage napkins with your logo. Flatware. China.

Here’s the really hard thing: You will need the money to run the place with NO profit for at least six months while it gets its feet under it. That means funds to buy food and supplies and pay wages and insurance and rent and marketing services for half a year, without taking in any profits. Otherwise, you’ll likely be doomed.

Finally, you will need to be there at all hours. Realistically, if you serve both lunch and dinner, you’ll need to be there from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day the restaurant is open. That is one grueling schedule. If you’re open five days a week, that means a weekly commitment of 70 hours. If you’re open seven days, that’s upward of 90 hours.

I admire folks who can open a restaurant and make it successful. You should, too. If you’d like to join their ranks, make sure you have every single duck in a perfect row. It’s not easy. Kudos to the successful ones — we have a lot of them in this city. If you’re not in a position to open a restaurant, please patronize one that’s opening and give them all the support you can.

Eat well, readers. This is the fourth anniversary of my column in LEO, so thanks for reading Industry Standard.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of Juleps Catering.