In our search for tips and insight for retail success, we work with many local restauranteurs. In talking to more than 50 small restaurant owners, we’ve found consistent feedback about what works, and what does not work. If you’re thinking about starting your own restaurant, even as a franchise, keep these four elements in mind.
1. Do Your Research
We met recently with a prospective tenant who had a very high end concept for a creperie – a great concept, for which the owners had spent lots of time working out the interiors and the menu. They also planned to use morning foot traffic to supplement sales with coffee to pedestrians headed to the commuter train. In their minds, this was “easy cash,” and would add to the bottom line. The problem? Commuters don’t walk past this spot. Sandwiched between 2 national coffee shop leaders, the foot traffic actually comes one street away from this shop. The solution? Talk to people in the community, or better yet, stand in front of the spot at the time you anticipate your busy times and count people (in this case, do they already have a coffee cup?). Knowing the quirks of your customer traits — and your location — makes for a stronger plan and better chance of success.
2. Make a Plan
Speaking of plans… We’ve approached this topic in many posts over the last 2 years. And still, we have lots of lease applications with a “business plan is in my head.” There are no certificates or degrees required to open a retail store, so the experience and vision of owners is on a wide range. But the better prepared you are for costs, customers, concept branding and crisis, the more easily the process will flow for you. If you’re doing a build-out, will you need permits (hint: VERY likely)? Will you need a license to open? Can you put up signage in advance? Can your vendors access your space at the time they desire, based on the shopping center guidelines? How do you do background checks on servers and staff (is it even necessary)? Not having enough sales is also directly related to planning. Again, with financial software you can figure out exactly how much business you will need every month to break even and you can pretty quickly determine if you can get there or not. Not planning your business model is leaving your success to fate. You don’t have to. Take the time to consider all these questions and many more to help avoid surprises. We’ve got a list of questions in the “Business Tools” dropdown, to get you started. After you arrive at a pro forma that demonstrates a profit, that’s the time to think interior décor.
3. Get a Mentor
Many, many successful franchisees and local owners are happy to share their experience to help a fellow restauranteur. It may cost you a cup of coffee, but the more folks you talk to, the more you’ll be able to pull together a strong plan, and have insight about what you need to know before opening your doors. From solid partnership agreements, to legal support reading agreements and leases, to finding the best vendors and sources for specific items, most restaurant folks are willing to help. But don’t stop there. Get involved with the local restaurant association, join your Chamber of Commerce, and if you’re looking to bounce ideas off experts in the field who are NOT your competition, check out your local S.C.O.R.E. or SBDC groups. Networking with like-minded entrepreneurs will give you a “virtual board of directors” who you can trust and access.
4. Pick a Spot
Actually, pick the right spot, to benefit your concept and help your business thrive. 5 or 10 years is a very long time if you aren’t getting the right customer traffic, so fine tune your restaurant concept and identify characteristics about your customer before trying to find the ideal location. If your concept targets college students, you won’t want to be in the center of young families. If your café caters to seniors, avoid the hipster hang outs. Cheap rent is appealing, but not if it is not in the right space. You can adjust many things once opening (décor, menu, staff) but it’s not easy nor inexpensive to move. Do it right the first time and the rent will fall into place with your estimate of demographics and number of visits each day to reach your target number. Just going by the rent numbers leaves everything else to chance.
5. Start Small
Almost all of successful restauranteurs we spoke with touted their abbreviated menus – by design. These owners had very specific visions of being the best at their craft, and they focused on a smaller menu that could develop as they met customers and got feedback. In the case of restaurant entrepreneurs, bigger is not usually better. More menu choices may appeal to more customers, but that’s difficult to achieve while maintaining your identity and first vision, as well as making it more difficult to create outstanding dishes, great customer service and unique dining experiences. Plus, if some items aren’t popular, there’s a problem of spoilage, food waste, inventory control, and staff confusion. Of course there are exceptions to this tip, but knowing your market and understanding what they want can lead you to 10 great dishes more successfully than 20 plates that distract from what you’re good at. It’s much easier to grow than to shrink.
Opening a successful restaurant is not a matter of having a magic touch. There’s always a bit of luck involved. But if you do the planning, use common sense, avoid the obvious mistakes and keep at it despite the obstacles you encounter, you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labors like some of our outstanding shopping center restaurants!
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