People have definite views about owning restaurants; divided into two camps: those who would never touch one with a bargepole, and others for whom the idea of being le patron is a lifelong dream. I have set up 7 restaurant or cafe premises from scratch, and all of them ultimately profitable, but often travelling a bumpy road on the way. You have to sign up to long term expensive high street leases, shell out for costly fixtures and fittings back and front of house, either from savings or bank loans and then enter into contractual obligations with staff you employ. All this with the risk that you might not get enough customers to repay your investment. Why then do it?
There is something about the restaurant business which is compelling. Pride of ownership of course (but that has never particularly motivated me). Or maybe some mad belief in yourself that you know how it should be done, and to have an outlet for your creative food skills. The latter was definitely what started me off, in my mid-twenties. Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson were my mentors; dinner parties at the Shield house featuring mutton marinaded to taste like venison from the former, and walnut and lemon tarts from the latter. But what about those aspiring restaurateurs who aren’t foodies? Who know what they like when they eat out, and feel there is a gap in the market? Well, luckily there are enough of those to keep consultants like me in business.
When I started my consultancy practice, I was surprised to find that most of my competitors come from a corporate background, and hadn’t ever owned their own businesses. How could they possibly understand what it feels like to be the owner where the head chef has just fallen out with the sous chef on a busy Saturday night and walked out? Or the depressing experience of toiling every day with insufficient takings, even to service the overdraft? My byline is that I spend the client’s money as if it was my own. And I couldn’t envisage having a different approach. I charge fairly for the experience they are getting, but what they actually get is more than that. I worry for them, like a parent, because I’ve been on their side of the fence. While they are imagining glamorous openings, and alcohol-fuelled nights pouring the cash into the tills, I am also thinking of cramped kitchens with chefs under stress who can’t or won’t deliver the menus.
There has to be a balance. And I have to remind myself that it is not my business. All I can do is pass on my advice and hope they listen, and not be too much of a killjoy. Too much pessimism and no one would ever start anything, and the world would be a sorrier place.The fallback is, there is always someone out there who will buy it off you, if the lease is sound and the business is half-way good. Someone who thinks he or she can do it better. And so it goes on.