By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST
I see it all the time: people in professions that couldn’t be more different from the restaurant or bar industry, like Wall Street or dentistry, deciding to buy or open a restaurant.
“I think it would be fun,” they say. Whenever I hear that, I cringe. And then I start to piece together how I’m going to intervene and dissuade them as quickly as possible.
Don’t get me wrong. There is tremendous fun in this industry but it doesn’t just happen. For the most part, the general public has no idea the level of work, teamwork, perseverance and challenges that go into a restaurant before you open each day.
If you received an inheritance from your deceased uncle who had distant ties to, say, puzzle master Erno Rubik, and you’re dead set on quitting your engineering job to open a restaurant, let me give you some advice:
Restaurants are stressful.
I’ve known more than one person who left what they felt was a stressful career to open a restaurant, only to have them pine for the days at their old job.
Take famous NYC chef David Chang. He left a life on Wall Street because the stress was getting to him and he opened his first restaurant. A friend of mine who interviewed with him said he was tenser than comedian Lewis Black delivering a punchline. So if you think you were burned out before, hold on to your hat and learn to meditate, ASAP.
Business is fleeting.
The number of restaurants that make big money are so few and far between it would shock you. You can catch lightning in a bottle, have a captive audience due to an incredible location, or have been around so many years that every debt and investor is paid. But even then, it can be gone in the blink of an eye. Never ever take your success for granted.
The numbers are tight.
Know your numbers and pay attention to them. I can’t tell you how many restaurants have amazing food, cocktails and culture, only to close because they weren’t making money. Don’t ever think that just because a restaurant is busy or full that they’re making money. Those two things coincide less often than you might think. Good atmosphere or food may get people in your door, but it’s consistent business that will keep those doors open.
Learn to get handy.
Things break, leak, malfunction and die all the time. Are you going to call a company for service and travel time on Saturday night when a dishwasher breaks down, or instead learn how to check fuses and learn where reset buttons are? Or learn the WD40/duct tape rule?
Cooking is one small part of opening a restaurant.
Just because you are a great cook at home or everyone loves your lasagna doesn’t mean you’re ready to run a kitchen. I know a lot of people who can change the oil in their car but aren’t mechanics. And cooking on demand, day in and day out, is harder than it seems.
Work in a restaurant first.
Many trades and disciplines come with apprenticeships. Doctors, engineers and even culinary schools insist on it as part of their curriculum, and with good reason. Immerse yourself in the industry first and try your hand at working in at least three different restaurants or bars if you really want to open one. Get a job as a cook, server or bartender. Follow a manager around. Interview owners. Whatever you need to do, do it. You need real experience before you jump in.
What’s the best thing that could come from all of this? That you hate the restaurant industry and decide it’s not for you. Why is that the best thing? Because the worst thing that could happen is you discover you hate it after you have already committed to a business lease and invested all your uncle’s inheritance.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.