Richard Johns: owning a restaurant isn't for everyone

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th September 2019

Do you dream of owning a restaurant? Do you understand what that entails? 

While being a chef comes with its difficulties, becoming a proprietor is a mighty step up, for which, according to Richard Johns, the chef owner of The Hovingham Inn, not everyone is cut out. 

We asked the chef what you should consider before taking the leap, here's what he said: 

This feature appeared as part of a series about how to open your own restaurant.

Other chefs include

Pip Lacey , Hicce

Emily Roux, Caractère

Tommy Banks, Roots

Tommy Heaney, Heaney's

Scott Smith, Fhior

Simon Bonwick, The Crown

Stay tuned for more!

Identify your market

First of all, location, explained Richard, "is key" to a restaurant's success. He and his wife Lindsey learnt this the hard way with Rascills, which he said wouldn't have stayed open for as long as it did  if they hadn't had the experience they have. 

Secondly, you need to be offering a product that your customer wants. 

"It's not all just about what you want to do," he said. 

"When we started our first restaurant, Artisan, we were some of the first in our area to introduce a tasting menu. We've come full circle from that now because what we've seen - certainly over the last six years - is that customers have moved away from it."

"The chefs that we know that aren't particularly well-known but are just maintaining this: 'we want to do a tasting menu at all costs' and it's like: well why, you're just absolutely crucifying yourself for nothing."

"If you're not doing any business - you think well why are you doing it, is it just for the sake of trying to capture Michelin stars or what is it? It's crazy."

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." 

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." 

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). 

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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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." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th September 2019

Richard Johns: owning a restaurant isn't for everyone