Small Spaces Don’t Cramp Restaurateurs’ Style | Food Newsfeed
Geoffrey Smith

In Seattle, chef Ethan Stowell’s restaurant Mkt. is a model for economies of scale: it seats 25 diners at a time, but only needs to serve 40 people a night to be profitable.

Small Spaces Don’t Cramp Restaurateurs’ Style

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By Kevin Hardy August 2015

The culinary meccas of Rome and Paris don’t have many 200-seat restaurants. Instead, the streets are lined with cozy restaurants and cafés, often with only 40 or 50 seats, “and they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years,” says Ethan Stowell, chef and owner of the nine-concept Ethan Stowell Restaurants.

Now, many Americans are also finding their way into noticeably smaller restaurants, including several of Chef Stowell’s in Seattle. How to Cook a Wolf, a 950-square-foot restaurant, seats 35. The 650-square-foot Mkt. seats 25. Chef Stowell says there are a lot of benefits to running smaller restaurants like How to Cook a Wolf, noting that as a restaurant downsizes, efficiency increases.

Restaurateurs are increasingly finding that as real estate costs in downtowns and bustling metropolises rise, smaller footprints are becoming more attractive. Sometimes, an infill property is all that’s available; other times, owners opt for small spaces because they want to test a concept without the constraints of a large investment, or because a cozy setting lends itself well to the overall dining experience.

“For us to make a profit, we don’t need to do 100 people per night at the restaurant,” Chef Stowell says. “We need to do 40 people at Mkt., which is great. There’s less staff. There’s less inventory because you can’t carry a lot of inventory. There’s no space for that extra cook, that extra busser, that extra server.”

Servers like working in smaller restaurants, which have fewer employees to share tips among, and customers enjoy the environment, Chef Stowell says. At Mkt., there’s little separation between the chef, his assistant in the kitchen, and the patrons filling the tiny dining room.

“The chef is actually plating, cooking every dish,” Chef Stowell says. “It’s almost like a private dinner party.”

But he says it can be difficult for owners to find an appropriate small spot, as most developers want to do deals with operators of big restaurants and most spaces marketed for restaurant use are much too large for a smaller operation. Operators aren’t likely to strike it rich off tiny restaurants, Chef Stowell says, but the lower risk and lower overhead can be a great path into the industry, especially for chefs with little business acumen.

“I think the main spirit of it is that chef/owners and chefs are not business people. They’re chefs, they’re cooks, they’re laborers, they’re artists—but they’re not businessmen,” he says. “You’re not going to ever get rich off [small restaurants]. But you are going to have a pleasant, manageable business. It’s a really nice way to get in.”

Pros and Cons of Small Spaces

Juan Martinez, principal and founder of Profitality, a foodservice industrial engineering and ergonomics consultancy, says there are many advantages to running smaller shops—so long as they’re smartly designed. As real estate costs push operators to move to smaller restaurants, the transition requires a more careful and creative eye on design, especially in the back of the house.

The production line should be designed so that employees are required to move as little as possible, yet they should have enough elbowroom so that they’re not bumping into each other. For many hours during the day, restaurant space goes unused, so Martinez says to err on the side of smaller structures.

“My perspective is that I would rather have a concept that is too small but allows you to drive the desire, sales, and return on investment, compared to a bigger one that requires much higher sales to make the numbers work,” he says. “Some concepts make the mistake of taking the attitude that ‘if you build it, they will come.’ The problem is that if they don’t, bankruptcy can follow quickly.”

Of course, there’s more of a drive to open small restaurants in dense, urban areas. Kevin Sbraga, who owns and operates three Philadelphia restaurants, including the 1,000-square-foot, 46-seat The Fat Ham, says small restaurants will likely continue to grow in popularity in big cities like Philadelphia that have competitive restaurant scenes and tight real estate markets. However, he’s also working on a new restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida, where he says a small restaurant wouldn’t make much sense.

“I don’t think small restaurants are trendy in the sense that they will come and go. I think it’s something that’s here to stay, especially in Philadelphia,” says Sbraga, who won Season 7 of Bravo’s Top Chef. I don’t know that it works in every market. In Jacksonville, everything is big and spacious there. I don’t know that people would enjoy something so tight and intimate.”

The Fat Ham is the smallest of Sbraga’s restaurants. His biggest, Juniper Commons, seats 140 and comprises 5,300 square feet. He sees some advantages in his smaller restaurant: Staff can easily see what’s going on across the front and back of house, and the environment is intimate for diners.

“You’re going to make friends with the table next to you,” Sbraga says. “And honestly there are people who share food with the people next to them who they’ve never met before.”

But The Fat Ham shares challenges common with most restaurants. Its profit margins are smaller. There’s no giant walk-in cooler and less room for dry storage. Ultimately, he says, small restaurants are no easier than large ones. Staffing, for example, runs with little room for error in small restaurants.

“With a smaller restaurant, it’s harder to actually turn tables,” Sbraga says. “Because if someone shows up late it could really throw the game plan off, whereas in a larger restaurant if someone shows up late, it’s a little easier to cover up and move someone here or there.”

Crowded Metropolises

Downtown Memphis’ eighty3 restaurant is small simply because it had no other choice. Gene Kornota, principal of Rebel Hospitality Group, which owns eighty3 and the adjoining Madison Hotel, says the 990-square-foot restaurant was all the space his company could find. The 110-room hotel had no space for a restaurant, so the company purchased an adjoining building to create the restaurant.

“It was all we could get,” Kornota says. “That was the footprint we had.”

The restaurant space was so small that there was no room for a kitchen. The company purchased another adjoining building, which now serves as the back of house. In addition to preparing food for eighty3, the kitchen services 3,000 square feet of meeting space, provides the hotel’s room service, and serves a rooftop lounge—all in about 1,200 square feet.

“When all [aspects] are firing, it’s a challenge. It’s tight,” Kornota says.

That means many spaces serve double duty, like the triple-basin sink, which is used for prepping meat and fish during the day and washing dishes at night.

The 44-seat restaurant—within walking distance of the famous Peabody Hotel and the legendary Blues corridor on Beale Street—is decorated with vivid colors, rusted steel, and graffiti.

“It’s got a very New York sort of feel,” Kornota says. “Memphis hadn’t experienced a restaurant like this before. It has a compact, denser urban feel.”

Despite being on hotel premises, he says the restaurant is a favorite with locals. And he says he prefers operating a restaurant on the smaller scale.

It’s more manageable. And I like it when it feels busy,” he says. “It feels better to me than to have a cavernous space when you’re not busy.”