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Tiny homes, tiny cottages, tiny living—tiny is big these days. Small and intimate is quickly replacing big box chain dining as diners seek better experiences for their bucks. The benefits? Patrons say they assume food will be better in a more intimate restaurant, that more attention will be paid to guests, and that the ingredients will be sourced locally. There is also the assumption that slighter restaurants don’t have as much money to market themselves, so a busy petite café usually signifies a proven hotspot.

But, at the same time, chefs who long to leave a lesser service footprint worry that a miniature business model will result in equally miniature revenue. Not so, say the experts and chefs who have gone tiny and never looked back.

Eddie Navarrette, hospitality permit expert and chief consultant of FE Design and Consulting
Eddie Navarrette, hospitality permit expert and chief consultant of FE Design and Consulting

Eddie Navarrette, hospitality permit expert and chief consultant of FE Design and Consulting, is a fixture on the Los Angeles restaurant and bar scene for his expertise in working with food entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes, including Sqirl, n/naka, Eggslut and others. He says benefits range from financial to the change in atmosphere.

“To begin with, sitting fewer guests in a smaller space means not having to have as many servers, so that’s changing the playing field for operators,” says Navarrette. “The start-up cost between building code requirements and construction are much lower in a smaller space, but a small restaurant also means making food and operators more accessible.”

Navarrette also credits the popularity of tiny restaurants with the rise of farm-to-table and other such monikers that illustrate picturesque settings with an overflowing bounty of market ingredients.

“The start-up cost between building code requirements and construction are much lower in a smaller space, but a small restaurant also means making food and operators more accessible.” – Eddie Navarrette

 

“Smaller eateries are more in the European style of cooking and implies more fresh cuisine and a wholesome sustainable local concept as opposed to being a destination,” says Navarrette. “And a smaller space means more connectivity for pedestrian traffic coming in from the sidewalk that feels like a neighborhood place.”

Chef Mark McDonald, owner and proprietor of Old Vine Café
Chef Mark McDonald, owner and proprietor of Old Vine Café

Chef Mark McDonald, owner and proprietor of Old Vine Café located at The Camp retail and entertainment center in Orange County, California, made the choice to cap his restaurant at about 50 seats. Even with the size of his business, which also hosts regular culinary tours to Italy, McDonald is an entirely hands-on chef leading a restaurant that serves three meals a day.

“Opening this business remains a dream come true and enjoying my work, while being able to lead my tours in Italy a few times a year is all of the balance that I need,” says McDonald. “Because we are a smaller, independent restaurant with a strong focus on a casual, welcoming atmosphere and friendly service, we have created a sense of community with our clients.”

Small restaurants that have stayed the most successful have several things in common: staying power, consistency and dependability. Where Old Vine Café was once one of the only chef-driven concepts when McDonald opened 11 years ago, there are now many.

“Given that this concept was pushing the limits a bit back then, it was both welcomed as a refreshing change and met with criticism as many believed this area was not capable of being a culinary destination,” says McDonald. “The biggest challenge as a mature small restaurant is remaining relevant after all of these years, but I am proud of not straying from the original concept and staying true to the quality of the product that has kept Old Vine Café going for all of this time.”

“Because we are a smaller, independent restaurant with a strong focus on a casual, welcoming atmosphere and friendly service, we have created a sense of community with our clients.” – Mark McDonald

 

McDonald says it would be disingenuous to suggest that the business hasn’t tested his patience and stamina. But he does share a critical piece of advice when it comes to how he finds balance.

“Over the course of time, the workload does not necessarily get easier, but coping with it, and learning from one’s mistakes over the years makes it easier to balance it all out,” he says.

Lil' Gem, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan
Lil’ Gem, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan

On the Lower East Side of Manhattan at Lil’ Gem,  chef/owner Melissa O’Donnell likes operating a small restaurant because it allows her to be involved in both the front- and back-of-house experiences.

“The menus and food are mine, but so are the wine list and the ambiance. Instead of feeling like I am running a straight business, I feel like I am inviting people into my home and taking care of them,” says O’Donnell.  “I get a more personal experience of the happiness that providing a good meal in a good environment can give people.”

Running a small restaurant is every bit as demanding in many ways than running a larger restaurant, O’Donnell says. Sure, she gets to be more creative control over the business as a whole, but she also has fewer helpers.

“Guests have responded very well because they like the intimate, casual environment, plus the small staff and open kitchen help to create a place where people feel welcome and at home.” – Melissa O’Donnell

 

“Small restaurants cannot afford a full-time general manager, sous chef or other support staff the way that a larger restaurant can, so it is really your baby when it’s small,” she says. “It is difficult to get attention in a competitive restaurant environment when you are a small restaurant because you often don’t have the bells and whistles of larger restaurants, or the money for marketing and PR, so for that reason it can make it difficult to get seen in this environment.”

There are as many operational challenges as there are benefits to going tiny, O’Donnell says, whether that involves service staff, management or support.

“Running a small restaurant is every bit as demanding in many ways than running a larger restaurant.”

“If a dishwasher calls out, there may not be anyone to replace them, and the same goes for management and support staff, while larger restaurants can offer better salaries and fuller employment opportunities. For example, it can be difficult to find a bookkeeper willing to work a few hours a week,” says O’Donnell.

But at the end of the day, it’s all about the guests. And they sing her praises.

“Guests have responded very well because they like the intimate, casual environment, plus the small staff and open kitchen help to create a place where people feel welcome and at home,” says O’Donnell. “In New York City that is becoming a more unique experience and people seem to really like it.”

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Kelly Merritt has been specializing in freelance culinary travel writing since 1999. Her work has appeared in Southern Living, Forbes Travel, Plate Magazine, OpenTable, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, South Magazine and Florida Weekly. She is the author of "The Everything Family Guide to Budget Travel" (Simon and Schuster) and the novel "FLIGHT" about the adventures of fictitious travel writer Kate Carrington. In her career Kelly has written about many famous faces including Oscar de la Renta, Larry King, Tim Tebow, Kenny Chesney, Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard, design superstar Colin Cowie, celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and bestselling authors Heather Graham, Kathy Reichs and Sandra Brown, among numerous others. Kelly curates a partial collection of her articles which number in the thousands at PotluckLife.com along with her author website, KellyMerrittBooks.com.