(So You Want to Own a Restaurant – PART II)
Deep in every chef’s heart is/was a desire to open and own a restaurant. I think that I can say this unequivocally even though many chefs may choose to deny it. Why is it so? The data is pretty clear – the odds of failure are far greater than the odds of success – yet chefs continue to yearn for the chance to have their name on the front door. Some may even scoff at the data and claim that they have the formula for success that has eluded so many others. There are others who feel the pull, but lack the courage or craziness to take the leap, and still others who simply acknowledge the desire but are disciplined enough to say “no thanks”. Still – there are those moments when every chef thinks “Is this my chance?”
There are plenty of stories of those who do well, who make their mark and may even create a level of excitement that makes everyone turn their hearts in acknowledgement. Of course this is the case because no one wants to emphasize the ones who crash and burn taking egos, pride, big-eyed young cooks, and bank accounts with them – there are many. My intent is not to dash peoples’ dreams – in fact, this article is really about those dreams and how important and consuming they are.
This is partially my own lament about that dream that gnaws away whenever given the opportunity. It is a testament to those numerous occasions when sitting in a restaurant, walking through a community experiencing a resurgence, or simply reading about the next great thing and thinking – “Just think if I opened a restaurant in that community…” Here I sit at the traditional end of my professional career while still feeling that twinge of excitement about an idea for my own restaurant. How many times did my wife roll her eyes as we sat at a restaurant table while I searched every corner for ways that I would do things differently? Come on – I know you do the same thing if you are a chef.
Maybe it is being an American with that deeply imbedded feeling that entrepreneurship is in everyone’s grasp, maybe it is the fact that, like most chefs, I worked way too many hours over a career for someone else. Maybe it is the fact that every chef I know is an impatient creative person who must have an outlet for expression, an outlet that affords the opportunity to sign that work and know that it is theirs. In any case, the spirit, passion, aching desire, and sometime unfulfilled need scratches at your inner being now and again; those ideas that wake you up in the middle of the night needing a pen and paper to jot down the perfect concept.
In the late sixties the Moody Blues (for those younger than 45 – an exceptional band that redefined how rock music was made) released an album entitled: On the Threshold of a Dream. This monumental recording has remained with me since then as a reminder that those dreams are important, even if they may not result in anything tangible. So, here are my thoughts on why the dreams are important to a chef, how they might make sense and come to fruition, and even a few cautions as to why you might want to dream, but keep your emotions in check.
A SIGNIFICANT DOZEN:
 DREAMS ARE IMPORTANT
The human brain craves an opportunity to create, solve problems, seek the adrenaline that “think of the possibilities” brings, and accomplish goals. When we deny the brain this innate need we start to lose direction and look at our personal situation as a glass half empty. This is brain exercise that tends to energize the body, stimulate positive emotions, and trigger those endorphins that make us feel good. Dreaming about the ideas that we have and the opportunity to take those ideas to fruition is truly the breakfast of champions. Dreams are important.
 EMOTION IN BUSINESS CAN BE DANGEROUS
The first target of our dreams is emotion, excitement, and those all-consuming positive feelings that we crave. As great as it feels to have that “incredible idea” people must understand that emotions sometimes react much faster that analytic reasoning.
 THINK BEFORE YOU LEAP OVER THAT THRESHOLD
Those interested in following their dream of owning a restaurant should take a deep breath first. I am not saying that you should avoid taking the leap, but rather take the time to look at all of the challenges as well as the opportunities. Even if you dismiss the statistics concerning restaurant failure and the meager profit margins associated with the food business, you must at least consider one very simple and ultimately important assessment piece – the cost of your rent or lease should not exceed 6% of your expected yearly sales. If it appears that you cannot meet this threshold then walk away from that site and look for another. Rent or lease can make or break even the best restaurant idea.
 SOMETIMES YOUR GUT FEELINGS ARE RIGHT
Your gut feelings are typically based on your experience or that of others. Sometimes data isn’t enough to drive a proper decision. A good rule of thumb is “If it doesn’t feel right – walk away.” If your gut gives you a “thumbs up”, then step a little closer to the edge of that threshold.
“There is a certain mindset, prevalent in the business world, that cannot deal with or give weight to emotions and intuition. People in fear are afraid of intuition. They think it is witchcraft — and maybe it is, but a powerful and healthy kind of witchcraft that anyone can tap.”
-Liz Ryan – Forbes Magazine
 SOMETIMES YOUR GUT FEELINGS ARE WRONG
Still keep in mind that your gut feelings are based on emotions as well as experience. Listen to your gut, but it is always wise to support it with data whenever possible.
 SOMEONE ELSE’S CUISINE IS NOT YOUR OWN
Every chef has a driving need to put his or her signature on the cuisine of a restaurant. Sometimes this signature is a leap of faith that an owner other than the chef may not be willing to take. Good or bad, this reality chips away at a chef’s independence and innate creativity. The only antidote for this dilemma is becoming an entrepreneur.
 BEING A RESTAURATEUR IS MORE THAN MAKING GREAT FOOD
One of the great gaps in a typical chef’s resume is being able to turn on solid business sense when food creativity is his or her passion. As I have stated in previous articles – restaurants are businesses and unless a chef can build a financially successful business his or her dreams of culinary excellence will be quickly dashed. When that internal need to open a restaurant rises to the surface make sure that someone is involved who possesses the business acumen to support the dream.
 FAILURE IS NOT ALWAYS A BAD THING BUT STILL HARD TO SWALLOW
Those who do take the leap may be successful and sometimes it doesn’t work out. Business failure is only a true failure if the entrepreneur chooses not to learn from the experience. Losing your dream is a tough pill to swallow, but a chef should always keep in mind that many of the greatest successes came from previous failures. Just ask Thomas Edison who supposedly failed at around 1,000 attempts to make the light bulb before he finally made it work.
 SHOULDA, COULDA, DIDN’T
This is one of the most difficult things for a chef to accept. When all of the skills are in place, when the opportunity knocks, when the capital is there to bring a restaurant to fruition and he or she backed away from the opportunity. This decision will likely haunt the chef for years to come. The solution is – if all of the planets are aligned then take the leap.
 INTRAPRENEURSHIP IS A CLOSE SECOND TO ENTREPRENEURSHIP
There is another solution to the Threshold of a Dream – the solution is intrapreneurship. You know that a chef has grabbed the opportunity spoon when he or she refers to the place of work as “My kitchen”. Intrapreneurship is the feeling of owning without the legal assignment of assets, the opportunity to act like an entrepreneur with the support of the actual owner, and the connection between employees, owners, and customers that support your sweat equity as if it meant ownership. This is realization of the dream without the financial liability associated with legal ownership.
 NO REGRETS – JUST DREAMS – LIVING VICARIOUSLY THROUGH OTHERS
As I look back on my career I can’t even count the number of ideas that came from personal dreams of ownership. There was always that twinge of desire to take the leap knowing that if I really made the choice I could probably find the investors to support it. I never did take that leap and although I still have those dreams of ownership I know that my opportunity has passed. I don’t have regrets because I live those dreams now through the efforts of individuals that I helped to train and teach. I thrive on their success and whenever possible offer advice and assistance as they navigate the many challenges that parallel ownership.
 100 IDEAS AND ONE IS BRILLIANT
One statement continues to support my theory that dreams are important and should never be discouraged. A good friend spoke of her husband once by stating that “He has 100 ideas a year and one of them is brilliant”. Ideas can lead to even better ideas and if you throw enough darts at a target eventually one will hit the bulls eye. Dream on, pass through the threshold if everything fits the model of success and through careful thought try and avoid those that are destined to take you down the wrong road.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training