How to open your own restaurant: part 1

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th August 2019

Most chefs have thought about opening their own restaurant.

Your name above the door, the freedom of being your own boss - it carries an air of romance. 

But do you really know what you're signing up for? What does it take to open a successful restaurant? 

We asked some of the country's best chef patrons - Tommy Heaney, Pip Lacey, Emily Roux, Tommy Banks and Scott Smith - for their advice: what to bear in mind, things you might not consider and how to hold on to a shred of sanity when it feels like everything is going t**ts up. 

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Tommy Heaney, Heaney's, Cardiff 

Heaney's (5)

1) Patience is a virtue

When you open a restaurant, Tommy Heaney said, "you come across things you've never had to worry about before."

Because he and his partner chose not to get investors, they did most of the work themselves - and  soon discovered how time consuming  opening a restaurant can be. 

In fact, he said, "everything takes time; down to the tills, your card machines, your menu design, cocktail lists.

"There probably aren't a lot of chefs that've written a cocktail list in their life, but I have." 

2) If you don't like paperwork, this is not for you 

From risk assessments,  EHO compliance forms and contracts, the chef said  he had to fill in "a s**ton" of paperwork.

"As a chef you were gonna just help with the finer details, then you start having to actually write contracts and that's very  different."

Heaney's restaurant 2

3) When you think you've spent all you can spend, there'll be more things to buy

With no backers, small costs can add up. When he realised just how much he needed to spend, Tommy Heaney turned to Kickstarter, raising £40,000 to get the restaurant open. 

"You go underneath things and you think: 'alright - what's left to go? Air conditioning?' then you realise air conditioning's like fifteen grand," he laughed.

4) Accept that you will get stressed - and you will p*** people off

Especially at the design stage, the chef explained, the pressure hit high levels. "It was a f***ing nightmare." 

"The stress of going in in the morning and thinking: 'well why aren't I here or why haven't they done this -  you find yourself starting to do too much, just kind of running about chasing people and upsetting people."

5 ) Know that you can find help in unexpected places 

When it came to putting together a business plan, Tommy, who admits to not being very organised, sought help from fellow chefs - namely, Ollie Dabbous and Tom Brown - who had opened restaurants themselves. 

"The thing is," he said, " it's an amazing industry to be in and there are so many people out there that have done it and experienced it and are more than happy to talk you through it and help you." 

6) Despite all the hardships, you won't regret it 

By no means was opening Heaney's easy, the chef said.

"But I wouldn't change it for anything. As much as I considered investment, and as hard as it was at the time, I'm glad I've done it. At the end of the day if I want to go out and spend 4 grand on a piece of equipment, that's a decision I'm able to make." 

"Like I said, the sleepless nights aren't great but it's worth it." 

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Pip Lacey, Hicce, London

Pip Lacey
1) Prepare for an emotional rollercoaster

When you think of opening a restaurant, you may think of soft launches, putting together a team and marketing yourself - none of this was daunting for Pip Lacey, the joint chef owner of Hicce in London. 

What she and her partner Gordy McIntyre found most difficult were the interim stages - looking for investors and trying to find a property -  as it meant months of uncertainty and lots of disappointments. 

"That was the hardest thing," she said.

"Getting up in the morning and going: 'okay, we had investment, we had a property yesterday and now that's all gone. That was the most emotional, heart wrenching, brain-f***ing kind of thing. That was the struggle."

Once they'd secured their site and the funding, "the next struggle was getting it over the line. The negotiations literally made me and Gordy sick, it was horrendous."

Hicce

2) Stress management will benefit you, your team and your business 

Before, she admits, she was quite an impatient, short-fused person, but opening Hicce taught her to relax - "which is nice, because you'd think it'd be the opposite, that it would make me really f****g crazy." 

"You've just got to get used to the hiccups -  not just accept them, but get used to them and learn how to deal with them. I think that's really the biggest learning curve," she said.

"Waiting on things to be delivered like furniture and plates' - I ordered plates weeks ago, they're still not here. So it's like: 'they'll come when they come, I can't hurry that process up because hurrying that process isn't going to make them come quicker.'" 

3) You're nothing without a business plan 

To attract investment, you have to back yourself up with numbers. Even Pip's mentor, Angela Hartnett, only agreed to pitch in  on the basis of a solid business plan. 

The chef said that finding a location for the restaurant helped too, as it gave them "a tangible thing to say to someone: 'look, this is the site, this is the dream' - rather than just a drawing on a piece of paper." 

4) Learn how to pitch and negotiate - and don't back down 

When you're looking for investors, the chef explained, you have to get your name out there.

From pop-ups, social media and angel investment pitches to asking friends of friends, Pip and Gordy did as much as they could bear. "It's a bit like selling your soul," she joked. 

Despite having found the ideal investors, the chef regrets having "rolled over" on certain things. 

"Just because you want things so badly, sometimes you just go: 'yeah okay, we'll do that, we'll pay that' and then afterwards you're like 'f**k's sake, we didn't have to pay that.'"

Another important thing to learn once you've found backers, she said, is to stand your ground; and a hefty helping of self-belief comes in handy. 

"You have to have some conviction in the end - without crossing over to arrogance - otherwise why are you doing it."

4) Having a business partner could well see you through 

Now that they're settled in, she said, the day-to-day at Hicce is the same as running any other restaurant - but "no way in hell" would she have done it on her own. 

"For something this size, you need that compadre person, that other person to bounce off and to pick you up." 

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Scott Smith, Fhior, Edinburgh 

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1) No advice will prepare you for what's to come

Now on his third restaurant launch, the chef owner of Fhior, Scott Smith, said his most valuable lessons were learnt on the job. 

"You're always told things by friends or mentors who've run restaurants before."

"I got a lot of advice from them - a lot of things which really helped prepare me for what I was getting in for - but once you're in it there are so many variables that are going to be unique to your business."

2) Building a strong team is key 

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The variance between how successful each of his and his wife's restaurants openings have been, he said, was down to the people they surrounded themselves with. 

"You're not able to do it all yourself. You need to be able to delegate it to people who're capable of taking on quite large and stressful workloads and able to execute that." 

2) If you can afford to, go it without investors

 

Though having backers might feel safer, the chef said he learned the hard way with the now defunct Norn that it is worth fronting your own (or your bank's) money if you can. 

"Sometimes you get lucky and investors want to create something interesting and want to follow your vision. A huge amount of the time of course, it's called an investment because they want a return and they don't have the same long term view you might have."

"If you have a strong belief in what you want to create, put your money where your mouth is."

3) Define your vision - and check your numbers add up

Just because you have the opportunity to open a restaurant doesn't mean it's the right time.

Before you propel yourself into what might be one of the hardest things you'll ever do, he said: "know what it is that you want to achieve, go over your numbers again and again to make sure that what you want to achieve is achievable financially because that can be a real shock to the system when you realise the dream you had won't actually work." 

4) Make sure there's a market for it

 

With competition as rife as it is, "the biggest thing is to research your market," he said.

Location is less important than one would think, but "if your market is quite already saturated, I'd be really careful of whether you're actually going to open the doors." 

5) Let the world know you're there 

While chefs can get away with just posting a few snaps on their Instagram, new restaurant owners should invest "a huge part of [their] budget in their marketing strategy."

"Essentially, you're marketing yourself as if you're opening every week because otherwise somebody else becomes the new kid on the block and you find yourself becoming forgotten very soon." 

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Tommy Banks, Roots, York 

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1) Sound testing

When Tommy Banks set out to open Roots, he thought he had planned things thoroughly. “But until you actually get open, you don't realise what you've forgotten,” he laughed. 

Too busy getting everything ready, from the food, the service and getting all the equipment in place, it was only when they opened that they realised the acoustics were "deafening." 

“We were like 'Oh God, this is not actually a nice place to sit because it's so loud.”

2) Accept that plans might change 

Whereas “an unbelievable amount of things can go wrong in those first weeks," the chef said, as long as you can keep on top of them, "you've just got to roll with it and get things right.”

AHW ROOTS JULY EXTERIORS 5

What's more, flexibility and a willingness to rethink things was what landed them their dream location: " a great big beautiful old Victorian building - like really beautiful but absolutely massive,  available as a freehold."

This meant twice as many covers – and twice as many staff.

"A lot of people would decide the concept and then find the ideal place for it, but we adapted because it was too good an opportunity to turn down.”

3) Use your contacts - and let people help you

Out of concern that he would start hearing from the press before he'd made any firm decisions, the chef wanted to keep his property search on the low-down. 

Thankfully, things didn't go to plan - and word got around. 

"The good thing that came out of that was that people started offering us their restaurants, their sites or their properties that might not have necessarily been on the market.”

3) Fix a deadline – and stick to it

Whilst in an ideal world, the chef said,  you would take your time and spend a long time over soft openings and getting it right, "sometimes you have to put a deadline on it," because every day you're not open is money spent you're not making back. 

4) Prepare for a long to-do list 

From speaking to the council, to suppliers, organising insurance and recruiting his team of forty-plus, the chef said: "The ticklist we had was just ridiculous." 

In the first few days, the chef said he can't remember finishing before 3am - or starting after 6am. 

"After about four nights of doing it I was sat outside - in fact I was  laid down on the street outside the restaurant - looking up and thinking: ' what have we done.'"

 5) Having one restaurant helps to get a second one

Though you might expect that it would make things more stressful, Tommy said having The Black Swan came in handy, as it meant they could employ most of the staff for Roots and train them up. 

“I think we doubled the population of Oldstead - it's only a tiny village - we had so many staff it was like ridiculous," he laughed.

 6) Invest in your people

Whereas most restaurants tend to turn over a lot of staff within the first months of opening, Tommy is a firm believer in giving new recruits a fair crack of the whip.

"I think it's just as hard for the staff when you open your restaurant as it is for you,” he said. 

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Emily Roux, Caractère, London 

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Emily Roux and Diego Ferrari

are the joint chef owners of Caractère

1) Prepare to wear lots of different hats 

Whereas as an employee, you have "a set role and not that much more is asked of you," said chef Emily Roux, when you're in your own business, many things become your responsibility.

"From plumbing to electricity,  cooking,  waiting,  answering the phone and doing various jobs," you have to do it all.  

2) Be patient - and use your time to think through the finer details 

For Emily and her husband Diego Ferrari, it took almost two years from concept to actually opening the restaurant as it involved visiting different sites, dealing with solicitors, architects, building and design contractors. 

However, the chefs saw this as a blessing in disguise and instead of losing patience they decided to spend the time fine tuning things: "not only the menu and the wine list but also the cutlery, the crockery and all the little details."

3) Get your core elements in place

Caractere

To make sure they had the best team when they opened, the couple made sure to give key positions to people they knew they could trust. 

"Be it in the kitchen or in the room that we knew beforehand and worked with beforehand - we had a solid team opening up which really helped," she said.  

4) Make sure someone's got your back 

Going it alone might seem tempting, but having someone to bounce off can make all the difference.

"Being with my husband was just an immense help. Having somebody to question all the time - and somebody who's always got your back as well to say: 'are we doing this correctly, is this the right move, should we have done this,'" she said.

"To have somebody by your side to cheer you up and to help you is amazing."

5) Crack on 

What  final piece of advice would she give to anyone wishing to open their own restaurant?

"I would say go for it."

"Lots of preparation is needed, lots of thinking and sitting down and getting your ducks in a row before going full-steam ahead, but definitely do it." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th August 2019

How to open your own restaurant: part 1