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Male restaurant manager writing on clipboard conducting staff training

If you ask any given chef or restaurant owner about their experience opening their first business, they’re likely to compare it to childbirth: It’s an undeniable labor of love…and sometimes just as painful. They’ll also tell you that, much like rearing actual, human children, seeing a fledgling restaurant grow and prosper is incredibly fulfilling. But while countless memoirs and articles have been written on the subject, there’s no official handbook to being successful first-time restaurant parent. We tapped chefs, small business owners and restaurateurs from around the country to dish about what they wish they’d known before opening their doors. (Spoiler alert: they’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.)

Katharine Gottfried, co-owner of YoBo Cantina Fresca in Charleston, South Carolina

Katharine Gottfried

I wish I had known…

“That I was going to spend the first year constantly wondering if we had made a mistake and if we were going to make it. I think I asked my partner, ‘Are we going to have to close?’ every other day for the first year.”

“That the restaurant biz is 24/7, it doesn’t matter the hours your store keeps. You field problems, even when you’re closed.”

“That I was going to spend the first couple months basically living in the store and two years married to the business. 86 my social life!”

“That I was about to become a mother to my entire staff, teaching them lessons in responsibility, loaning money and offering life advice! I had no idea the role and level of responsibility I was taking on.”

“How much my patience and trust were going to be tested. And broken.”

“That opening a second location is not like making a cookie cutter of your first.  New location, new clientele, new staff—a whole new animal! I equate the stores to children; each one is unique.”

“How happy this choice was going to make me. I wish I had done it a year sooner!  Even though the restaurant business is a risk and a never-ending stream of problems (nothing surprises me anymore), it has been so worth it for me. I feel like we have made such an impact on our community. I feel a great sense of pride to be able to make others in Charleston happy through the business my partner and I have created.”

Will Gilson, chef/co-owner at Puritan & Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Will Gilson

I wish I had known…

“To have enough money reserved to be able to wait to open the doors to the public. Our construction took so long and had so many financial ‘surprises’ that when we finally received our occupancy, it was a mad dash to get guests in the door to make sure we would have enough money to pay our staff. We were in such need of getting open for cash flow that we didn’t have enough time to make sure we were happy with what we were putting in front of paying customers. It just didn’t feel like we could get our feet under us.”

“To never underestimate the value of private dining. We opened five years ago and assumed that people wanted to be in a bustling, hip restaurant, and be a part of the scene. As we rounded the corner of one-year, people wanted a place where it was quiet and personal. We had to build a private room next door after about three years. I think we left close to $1 million in revenue on the table by not having a private room those first 3 years.”

“That people actually hate communal tables and chef counters! One year in we got rid of our communal tables that were the centerpiece of our restaurant. We couldn’t give the seats away on a busy night. Our chef counter with six seats is the most under-reserved part of the restaurant. The things that chefs like and think are cool are not always what the public thinks are cool.”

“That good staff is expensive. I grew up in the restaurant world where you paid people just above minimum wage, gave them good training, and worked the hell out of them. That lasted about six months. It took me about three years to learn that to get and retain good people you had to pay them more, work them less, and give them a path forward. Finding out how to pay for that was the hardest shift we had to do.”

“That your restaurant will never be quiet enough, bright enough, fast enough, fun enough, etc., to please everyone. Pleasing every guests’ need is near impossible. Everything that makes one segment happy will isolate another. Some guests want a quiet place where they can have a conversation at a whisper and they are next to a table of six that are celebrating with champagne and tequila. It’s difficult in one room to please all different types of people. If I had my time-traveling DeLorean, I would go back and draft a design that was compartmentalized so we could accommodate all types of experiences and guest needs.”

Thomas Nguyen, co-founder of Peli Peli in Houston, Texas

I wish I had known…

“That sometimes people are just not the right fit for your company.  I used to think that if I let someone go that something had to be wrong with them or me, and as a result, spent too much time employing those with bad seeds or people who were just not mature enough.”

Lindzi Shanks and Kat Connor, co-founders of XO Marshmallow in Chicago, Illinois

Lindzi Shanks and Kat Connor

We wish we had known…

“That your work is now your number one. We can’t think of how many times we’ve both had to sacrifice our personal life for our professional one. Your cafe becomes your baby, your husband, your best friend…everything. Because it requires that much of your attention. We both joke around that we feel like we’ve become bad dog moms because we don’t get to see our fur babies as much. When you’re starting out, prepare to be at your cafe all the time.”

“About taxes! We wish we would have thought more about the yucky dark hole that is taxes. We wish we would have known more about the details that go into taxes for our industry and state. Or at the very least thought to hire someone to do it.”

“To build your squad. We always knew that having good people was important, but I’m not sure we realized how important. Let’s just say that #squadgoals is very real, and it’s important to build your work tribe the same way you do with your friends. It’s not enough to get someone who is qualified. You need to find someone that believes in you and your vision in order to grow together.”

“That Pinterest isn’t real life. I mean, you’d think this would be obvious, but it’s really not. From designing our cafe with Instagram in mind, to trying to create dishes that looks picture-Pinterest perfect…it doesn’t always work out that way. You also can’t pin your way to success. It’s not enough to create a beautiful board that looks like all the things you want, you have to go out and get it.”

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Tenney Flynn, chef/partner of GW Fins in New Orleans, Louisiana

I wish I had known…

“That I wasn’t going to get a day off for six months—and also that we were going to make it! Operating in the red is unbelievably stressful.

Kristin Canty, owner of Woods Hill Table in Concord, Massachusetts

Kristin Canty

I wish I had known…

“That I would get no sleep. Running a restaurant is hard enough but I’ve got a restaurant and a farm. To ensure that I would be offering guests the same organic, sustainable ingredients that I had long shared with my family to the entire community, I spent hours researching and finding purveyors that aligned with my goal and mission. This is in addition to the many hours I drive to and from our farm—the Farm at Woods Hill in Bath, New Hampshire—where I spend entire days meeting and walking the farm with my team to ensure that it is producing the product I strive to serve our restaurant guests.”

“How hard it is to get staff. It’s well documented how difficult it has been for Boston restaurants to hire positions for both front- and back-of-house. As a restaurant located 40 minutes outside of the city, it has been even tougher!”

“I wish I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to change the restaurant culture completely. I had to change my mindset and approach also, and then I could see changes in the culture at my restaurant too. We (my staff and I) met each other in the middle.”

Andrew Miller, creative director of Good Fortune in Chicago, Illinois

I wish I had known…

“That no matter how prepared you think you are, it’s never enough. You will always be finishing right at the buzzer.”

“I wish we could’ve anticipated how little time we actually would have to put all of the finishing touches in place. In our case we found ourselves putting metaphysical duct tape on everything. It’s stuff that you don’t necessarily think of but have such an impact … Art placement, candles which impart a specific smell in the space that people remember, the playlist that you create, which can end up being just as important as the wine list or something more obvious.”

“I think we learned that when you have an idea, and it gets birthed into the universe, you have to execute on it no matter how minute parts can be. If you say it you have to do it. When I was a kid, I had a little sign on my desk that said ‘You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.’ Amen to that.”

Shore Gregory, partner at Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34 in Boston, MA and Les Sablons in Cambridge, MA

Shore Gregory
Photo Credit- Emily Hagen

I wish I had known…

“To get cash for the banks! We served our first guest a beer and when we went to make change, there was none. Fortunately, a very grateful friend and neighboring restaurant owner lent us a few hundred bucks for night one. Now, whenever we open a restaurant, it’s always a joke that I need to run to the bank to make sure we have cash for opening night! I wish I knew you needed to have cash to make change.”

David Friedman, founder of Epic Burger in Chicago, IL

I wish I had known…

“That everything takes longer and costs more than you think.”

“That fortitude and perseverance are the most valuable traits. You can hire for anything else.”

“[It’s crucial to] understand the true purpose of you company. If it’s to make money you will probably fail.”

“To trust my gut.”

“That bad news never gets better with age.” 

“To be a perfectionist.”

“That asking once rarely works.”

Gerber Group partners, Armani Café in New York, NY

We wish we had known…

“How heavy a big wheel of Parmesan cheese is! In 1996, Gerber Group was set to open the Armani Café in New York City. Mr. Armani was coming to inspect the restaurant, along with his new store, Emporio Armani. On the big day of Mr. Armani’s visit, with our entire team lined up at the bottom of the stairs to welcome him, a giant wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese was delivered to the restaurant. During delivery, the gigantic cheese wheel falls off the hand truck, and rolls down the Italian marble stairs, shattering each step, and in grand finale, busted through a sheetrock wall! It was the quietest moment any of us had ever heard. We now all know a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano weighs approximately 88.18 pounds and can roll as fast as 15.5 mph.”

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Alexandra is an entertainment, culture and lifestyle writer and native New Yorker who somehow ended up spending the better part of her 20s in Boston without adopting any kind of Bahston accent. She also does not care one bit about the Sox. Or any sports at all, ever. She’s not embarrassed to admit that her favorite “meal” is a tub of movie theater popcorn and is a little embarrassed to admit that she has been known to microwave her eggs. She is a big fan of beer—writing about it or drinking it.
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