How to open your own restaurant: part 2

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Other 21st August 2019

Opening a restaurant is tough. Anyone who has done it will tell you that. But what happens once you're open? How do you set your business up for the long haul? 

We asked industry veterans Simon Bonwick, Richard Johns, Michel Roux Jr and Sat Bains how they've managed to keep their restaurants open for as long as they have - and what they've learnt along the way. 

Simon Bonwick, The Crown at Burchetts Green, Maidenhead

Simon Bonwick Chris Orange
Photo credit: Chris Orange

1) Make sure you're ready

When he opened his first restaurant, Simon Bonwick said he was "completely naive."

"I was fully cheffed up and not ready to be a landlord. So at eight o'clock the barrel needed changing downstairs and the customers were waiting for the dinner rush. I go and change a barrel of beer and I didn't know what I was doing." 

His ingenuity lasted longer than you'd expect: when he opened The Crown seven years ago - without telling his wife, because he'd given up a highly-paid job to do it - he said he still hadn't the faintest idea of how to run a successful business. 

"I thought I had all my bases covered on my first night. I stood there alone in the pub with 50p in the till thinking - c'mon, where's all the customers then. And of course no-one came in for about three weeks," he laughed. 

The Crown

2) The front of house will become your affair 

While as a chef, he could stand in the kitchen minding his own business, when he became a landlord he had to become "all things to all people," he said, including overseeing the front of house team. 

"When you're under pressure in your kitchen cooking, you have to be prepared to leap out the front and back them up, be there for them, support them, show them what they need to do, because you've got all the knowledge and all the information." 

"With your chef head on, it's very very difficult to adjust initially. It's like swimming in the deep end if you can't swim."

 

3) Be prepared for the extremities of different situations 

"Having high emotional intelligence is a pre-requisite" to owning a business, Simon explained. "You might even need to deliver a baby."

He laughed, but he wasn't joking. 

As a landlord, you will inevitably encounter "acts of extreme love and extreme violence," he said. 

An example of the former was a customer who lunched at the pub weekly with his family for five years. "They would spend a few hours at the table, they'd be nice, they were civilised and they were great." 

One day, they left a gift and a note on the table.

"I didn't remember but I'd helped this guy out years and years ago with food that wasn't mine to give in a kitchen, he came to the back door and I fed him and watered him."

"That was an act of extreme love to me," he said.  

At the other end of the spectrum, the chef recalled a time where his stress levels had reached an all-time high. 

He said: "I was so paranoid and out of my depth, I thought everyone coming through the back door in a white van was a drug dealer or a traveller - and I ran out with - I've got a baseball bat which I call Slugger Joe and I raced out and started swiping the  this guy's ankles. 'I'm only here to deliver the wine,' he said. Poor guy." 

Simon Bonwick & son Chris Orange
Simon Bonwick and his son Dean

3) Learn from your mistakes, but don't regret them 

The chef said he's made some questionable choices over the years, but he wouldn't do anything differently given the chance. 

"I'm not saying I don't learn from my mistakes, it's just a lot more fun being a bit of an idiot. Bit naive. It certainly keeps the blood running."

"You get up in the morning, you pull one sock on, you pull the other sock on and you think: 'is this my reality, is this what I want' and I think: 'Yeah."

4) Don't do it with no money 

In a spirit of 'do what I do not what I say', the chef advises anyone wishing to open their own restaurant to set money aside to make it work. 

"I've done it with no money and on a shoestring it's a killer - but then I like it like that. I'm different to other people," he chuckled. 

4) Be patient

To be successful, Simon said: "chefs need to learn patience." 

"The bricks and mortar of these pubs aren't going anywhere. They're there. They're solid. They're in our countryside. These black and white, timber-framed sturdy places are there already, they've been there for hundreds of years before you were as old as the hills. They're there, waiting to be taken and serviced and given character and personality. And so there's no rush." 

4) Don't be afraid to do things differently 

When he opened The Crown, Simon ran it like a traditional pub - but found that he wasn't doing the barrelage to sustain the business. 

"My son [Dean] came on board and said: 'what is going on? You're not very well, you're not really making any money, you need to do this the way you want to do it to get the enjoyment and love out of it.' So we turned the traditional pub business model that every landlord gets given and knows how to do on its head."

And so the chef made a drastic decision.

"On Mondays and Tuesdays we knew we were quiet so we shut. Unheard of. People said: 'What are you doing, how can you.' Yeah, well, cut the losses. Be there for business, when the business isn't there, don't be there. That's how  you run up costs and you might as well put all your money in a bucket, run down the Thames and chuck it in."

5) Keep it real

To be a chef landlord, you have to show up mentally and emotionally every single day, at the risk of losing sight of what you need to do, the chef explained. "You can't pretend." 

"It's a very real thing, you've got to stay real to do it otherwise you get lost in the idea of it and the ideology of it. It's only fun when you get up and you're ready. Don't roll over. Don't lie down. Pull your socks up. March or die, everyday. Good foreign legion thing." 

Richard Johns, The Hovingham Inn, York 

 

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1) Having investors is (almost) inevitable 

Sadly, there's no set path to becoming a restaurant owner, explained Richard, and it's harder than ever to take that first step without external funding. 

"The old traditional route of going to a bank and asking for a wad of cash," he said, is long since gone.

"Getting bank finance - even for us - is nearby impossible. They're so risk averse to the industry that you've just got no chance." 

While some chefs, such as Gary Usher, who Richard said "seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to crowdfunding" can go it alone, this is rarely an option. 

The alternative is to seek private equity, which can have its pitfalls, but means you have the extra support you might need to keep the business afloat. 

"I don't think it's an easy proposition at all, that's why you've really got to think long and hard - it's not just a romantic notion about opening your own business. It is really really hard and it becomes your life." 

2) If you can test your concept beforehand, do it

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Circumstances have changed radically since the chef and his wife Lindsey opened their first restaurant, Artisan. That is something chefs must adapt to.

A manifestation of modern times, when customer whims are ever-changing and competition in the industry is fierce, pop-ups can be a great way of "testing the waters," as the chef put it. 

"I think it's a great idea because it allows chefs to test their target audience - has it got legs and can they upgrade it out of that into a full-blown restaurant. I think if I was doing it over again twenty years ago that's exactly what I would do." 

3) Weigh out whether or not this is what you really want 

While many chefs see owning their own restaurant as the ultimate end game, everyone isn't cut from the same cloth. 

"I don't think it suits everyone," he said. "You might well be better staying in a salaried position."

In a statement that recalls Jamie Oliver's woes, he said: "some people are great chefs but they're crap business people," and  that can be the death of a restaurant (or indeed, several). 

4) If you want to last, you have to put the graft in

  

At the risk of sounding cliche, he said the main reason for their continuing success is that he and his wife are "ultra-passionate" about what they do. 

"We live and breathe food and cooking and that's all we do. Our whole life revolves around our work and our business." 

The only way to survive the bad times as well as the good - which Artisan did, making it through the last recession "pretty unscathed" - is constant, relentless hard work. 

"If you've got it in you, you can go a long way but it's like everything in life, you've got to be willing to make sacrifices - which we've done to no end," he said. 

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5) Keep learning 

Whatever you do, according to the chef, you won't survive without a constant drive to improve. 

"I've been cooking for over twenty years but I'm always wanting to learn, I'm always wanting to talk to other chefs. We eat out where we can and read all the time. I'm always looking for that next little idea and that's what excites me still about cooking, is that you never ever stop learning. You can get inspiration from anywhere."

"The biggest killer of a restaurant or a chef is when they sit on their laurels and start living on the past."

"If I was ever in that position where I woke up one day and thought: 'right, we've had in now' then that'll be the time to finish, but hopefully that's not going to happen anytime soon." 

Michel Roux Jr., Le Gavroche, London

Michel Roux Jr Le Gavroche   credit Issy Croker (2)

1) Accept that your responsibilities will grow a hundredfold 

Just because you're the boss doesn't mean you can put your feet up and delegate everything to your staff. In fact, quite the opposite, you're going to need to have a hand in every pot, said Michel Roux Jr., who took over Le Gavroche from his father in 1991. 

"It's your name on the door and that really does make an incredible difference in pressure - and obviously you have to be able to deal with that pressure." 

2) Always look forward, don't look back

It's important not to fear mistakes, as, he said: "mistakes are what make you stronger." 

Michel Roux Jr Le Gavroche   credit Issy Croker (4)
Caption

"I think if you can have the mindset of saying - look, I'm going to make a few mistakes on the way but the most important thing is to be stronger for making those mistakes." 

3) Cook for your customers, don't chase stars

As a rule of thumb, Michel Roux Jr. believes chefs shouldn't seek accolades above everything. Instead, they should cook the food they believe in.

"Don't cook what you think your customers want and don't cook what you think critics want." 

4) Cook real food 

For Michel Roux Jr., too many restaurants serve food he calls "overworked, too pretty and too complex." 

He said: "You ask chefs - very high profile chefs, for example - what do they like eating and they'll tell you the most simple of food, great ingredients, simple, down to earth food. Is that what they actually present to their customers? 9 times out of 10, no."

 

"I think chefs should really take a good look at themselves. What do they want to cook - what floats their boat, what do they like eating."

"Ultimately the majority of chefs will tell you the same thing - we love simple food and we love great ingredients - well, stick to that," he said.  

5) Start small 

Though he took the reigns when Le Gavroche was well established, the chef said he remembers when his father moved to Mayfair on a shoestring budget. 

"We didn't get the most expensive, made to measure stove. No. It was one of the cheapest stoves around. Likewise in some of the equipment. It wasn't the most expensive equipment, it was the equipment that we could afford," he said. 

"There's no shame in buying a cheaper stove or even buying second hand equipment to start you off. Absolutely no shame whatsoever."

6) Don't give up 

However hard it may be to get a business off the ground, the chef encourages anyone who thinks they have it in them to do it. 

"I think that it's wonderful, young chefs that take the plunge and go for it. It's not easy, it really really isn't easy to get finance and backing for a restaurant nowadays, but it is possible." 

"Do not be disheartened."

Sat Bains, Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms, Nottingham 

 

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Photo credit: Pal Hansen

1) Take on investors if you have to, but have an exit plan

When Sat Bains took over  his Nottingham restaurant in 2004, after half a decade working for the previous landlords, he saw it as an opportunity. "I'd spent five years under some other person taking all the glory for the hard work, so I said let's do it." 

He decided to hire an accountant as a business partner, but only in the short term, mostly because of an inherent distrust for anyone he sees as having an ulterior motive. 

He said: "What they do - they baffle you with numbers and make themselves sound indispensable but they are the most full of s**t people I've ever met. The talent is in the f**king kitchen. You can employ accountants to look at your books and you can employ someone who'll give you guidance, but you don't need them as business partners."

"They bring f**k all to the party apart from taking the profits that you've worked for."

2) Don't shy away from bartering with your suppliers 

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Photo credit: Pal Hansen

 

The son of a Sikh shop owner, the chef said his Punjabi heritage taught him the power of "wheeling and dealing." As he sees it, there's no shame in bartering with your suppliers. 

"Every single supplier I've beaten down, not because I'm a cheapskate, because I know there's room for manoeuvre. Why the f**k should I pay £25 a kilo for something when I can get it for 15? Then at least I've asked. And because I've asked, I might get it for 22." 

"We're all in business, we should be bartering. It's a skill and a craft, and it's not about, 'oh, pay the going rate.' Pay the going rate for what? If you don't ask, you don't get." 

3) Keep investing in your business - but set your priorities straight 

The chef said he and his wife Amanda are "very much investors," spending £60,000 a year on maintaining the restaurant and its rooms. 

One thing he refuses to skimp on - and something he thinks private backers always see as a second thought - is kitchen equipment. He bought a bespoke stove in 2007 for £22,000, which is still pristine, he said: "because we look after it." 

The couple spent another £20,000 on their chef's kitchen - partly because the bank refused to lend them the money for it - but repaid it back into the business in  six months, "because of the revenue generation - the demand - was so great." 

Aware that inheriting an already-equipped restaurant isn't a chance everyone has, he added: "If you can't afford it, go for long leases, go for service contracts, do it so you can spread the cost out." 

4) Treat your team and your tradesmen with the respect they deserve

Sat Bains in one of several high-profile chefs to have introduced a four-day working week at his restaurant - and for good reason, he said: "We give them world-class food to eat, we give them three consecutive days off, we give them six weeks off a year. We're not doing that to be the leaders in the industry, we're doing that to be absolutely brilliant employers to employ brilliant people that want to be brilliant when they get here." 

The chef admits to being strict with his team, but ultimately, his advice to anyone who wants to run a good restaurant is this: "Just be f**king nice. Just don't be a dick. Treat everyone half decently."

"Don't get me wrong, I'm notorious for being hard and that's my tradition because it's my trade of being a chef and producing brilliant chefs," he added.

"But I'm still f**king nice. I'm still decent with them. I'm still authentic and genuine. I'm not stabbing anyone in the back, I'm trying to be very upfront and hopefully teaching them lessons." 

Another rule the chef introduced at the restaurant is to always make sure that contractors visiting the restaurant are always offered a drink. This may not seem like much, he explained, but it can mean the difference between being able to rely on them in times of need or not. 

"It's not a lot to offer but guess what  - these guys remember that s**t. So when they get that emergency phone call, they're like: 'no f**k that, they're c**ts there' - because they're not interested, because you treated them s**t." 

5) If you set high expectations, you're going to have to keep raising that bar 

While having a successful restaurant bears its fruits, having two Michelin stars means you have to continuously raise your standards. 

"The way to stay abreast with that is - you've got to do research, you've got to travel but you've also got to keep pushing. The day you stop pushing, you may as well hang up your apron because this industry is not about a short term thing. It's about long term goals. And it's how long you want to keep that fire in your belly of pushing some of the best food you can possibly cook and serve," he said. 

Chefs, we hope this two-part guide on how to open your own restaurant was helpful. We'd love to hear your thoughts, good or bad, and if you'd like to see more of this kind of content on The Staff Canteen,  please, leave your feedback in the comments!

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Other 21st August 2019

How to open your own restaurant: part 2

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