3 Tips to Starting a Successful Restaurant
Many restaurant employees dream about opening their own businesses, but what I learned from years of working behind the scenes at various food and drink establishments is that it takes more than ambition to succeed. It requires serious work. I could stand behind the bar and tell patrons about my ideas all day, but it’s another thing to go home and put pen to paper.
From scouting locations to coming up with a detailed business plan to managing personnel, I took on several roles since we opened Citizen Public House in Scottsdale in 2011 and The Gladly in central Phoenix in 2013. It’s been a challenging and incredible journey, and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way for other budding restaurateurs looking to start out on their own:
Lesson 1: Ask the Tough Questions
One of the biggest hurdles I faced early on was raising the funds to get our ideas off the ground. The first step is finding someone who believes in your business plan.
My partner, chef Bernie Kantak, and I came up with concepts that were hard to resist, emphasizing great food, impeccable guest service, and innovative cocktails in a stylish yet casual setting. The ideas were just the start, though—a lot of our business success stems from the ability to ask ourselves the hard questions about running a successful company.
Create a firm foundation for your business by starting with a few key questions—and not just those from the U.S. Small Business Association (though they’re a great start). You need to be honest when you ask yourself: Why are you getting into the business? Why does it have to be you who owns the business?
Answering these questions will help you motivate your staff, and keep you grounded throughout your career. We recognized early that our ideas were the start, but a thriving restaurant also requires business savvy, compromise, and a lot of good ole’ grit. We not only built a business plan to match—we also constantly return to this foundation as we continue to grow.
Lesson 2: Find the Secret Sauce
After creating a strong base, the challenge became how to get people to break away from their allegiance to chain restaurants in the region. This meant we needed to take extra steps to sell our ideas, and for us, that differentiator came down to the guest experience.
Anyone can copy our food menu, and anyone can make the same drinks or design a restaurant like ours, but our competitors can't beat us when it comes to guest service. Defining your restaurant’s ‘secret sauce’ stems from passion for and dedication to your projects, not just the sauces themselves.
Lean into your differentiator, and drive your team (and yourself!) to make it successful. What your day-to-day looks like while developing your team’s processes and culture will mean a marathon of sorts—my typical workday doesn’t include a lot of hanging around and shaking people’s hands, as nice as the movies make it out that way—because being successful takes a lot of running around. I describe what I do as ‘everything, every day.’ Whatever issue comes up, I try to resolve it.
Lesson 3: Stay Focused on the Big Stuff
Today we are five years in, and Citizen Public House and The Gladly have a combined total of about 100 employees who work there full-time. With service at the core of our success, we needed to find a way to streamline internal processes so we can stay focused on doing what we do best – great food and a great guest experience.
One area we looked to streamline was managing HR and benefits. If you are not careful, the paperwork can quickly consume a large percentage of your time. We looked into technology solutions and chose an all-in-one HR platform called Zenefits to help us automate time-consuming tasks like employee onboarding, payroll, benefits administration, and compliance (like COBRA). We are able to cut a lot of paperwork and spend more time on getting new employees up to speed on the business and working with existing employees on helping them grow.
These types of services not only save time but also help build a strong employee benefits package to assist with employee retention. For example, most insurance plans require employers to cover a minimum of 50 percent of employee health plans, but we contribute more because we value our team. We want to give the same level of focus on our team, and we believe that manifests in better service to guests because there are a lot of players on our team who want to progress, and I think of it as my responsibly to help them grow.
The Bottom Line
Good service starts with a genuine passion for the business. It can’t be just about the money. For us, we have to be really passionate about a concept and location. We have to be really excited about it, beyond just the potential financial reward at the end.
Having a solid business foundation helps keep you focused on what truly matters. For us, it’s an incredible experience for our Arizona guests and some of the best whiskey cocktails and chopped salads in town.