We have all heard the story of a young chef with a love for food, whose eagerness to share their passion pulls them into the glamorous lifestyle of being a business owner. This romanticized story leaves out the difficult details of starting your own business. Stepping into a market already saturated with large corporate restaurants requires more than a love for food: one must carefully plan every step of the way.
The Food Entrepreneur program at the University of Utah’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute held a panel discussion to bring hopeful entrepreneurs together with restauranteurs who want to share their expertise and help in this planning. Stacey Maxwell, president and CEO of Millcreek Coffee Roasters, and Wendy Evans, co-founder and CEO of DineXpert, joined us for our discussion and gave the following four pieces of advice that will help you in your restaurant endeavors.
1. Start with What You Have
Although it is tempting to postpone the start of your business until you are more prepared, Evans and Maxwell agreed that there is no better time to begin than now. “Start with what you have and do your best with that,” Evans said. You don’t need an exorbitant amount of capital to invest in your business if you are strategic in how you spend your money. Beginning with a minimal menu can help simplify the needs of your restaurant in terms of preparation. As your business begins to grow, you can expand these aspects in a sustainable way, keeping you from beginning overzealously.
A minimal approach can be especially helpful as you plan for your business before its established. Evans recommended that when conceptualizing your restaurant’s menu, you should try and test your product in the most micro way possible. Defining your customer and providing prospective customers with samples can give you useful feedback. “Reach out to businesses that are currently doing what you would like to do, and don’t be afraid to use your city’s health department or economic development department to gather information,” Maxwell recommended.
2. Don’t Expect to Make Money on Day One
One of the most common mistakes that entrepreneurs make is expecting a steady flow of income within the first year of their business’s establishment. Restauranteurs should be prepared for variables and have adequate support systems set up to sustain them while their business is in its early phases. “Great businesses start during hard times; don’t let that deter you,” Evans said. A lot of factors play into a restaurant’s success. Be sure to keep aware of the market in your area and adequately plan for a possible slow start.
Learning to be patient can be difficult for those who are anxious to find stability. Maxwell emphasized the importance of creating a concrete foundation for your restaurant. “Decide who you are, and don’t chase the competition,” she said. It takes time to build a community around your business, consistent high-quality service is what will solidify your business’s image and keep customers engaged. Maxwell spoke from experience when she said, “It’s the long-term relationships that sustain businesses.”
3. Build Your Business with Integrity
Restaurants rely on support from their local network to survive amongst the hundreds of international corporations that serve as competition. Maxwell advised that in building a strong network, entrepreneurs should “have integrity in everything you do.” Take the time to check in on people’s wellness and engage with communities outside your typical reach. Make sure that everyone within all levels of your business, from your suppliers to your customers, are successful and feel taken care of. Initiating genuine conversations with the people that surround your business will create a community based on reciprocal care.
Building good relationships with other small businesses is just as important as your customer service. Evans recommended that you reach out to other local restaurants and befriend them. “Having other business owners that you can relate to and bounce ideas off of can be helpful for you and your business,” she said. Maxwell agreed with her, telling us how Millcreek Coffee Roasters was able to find solutions for problems that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic by communicating with its local competitors. Creating connections with other businesses opens the door for future collaborations and uplifts your public image as a business owner.
4. Curate Your Space
Although it is tempting to hyper-fixate the small details of your restaurant, the atmosphere of your space is just as integral to your business’s identity as your menu or customer service skills. Each restaurant should have a well-defined aesthetic to its décor and menu that matches with its “personality.” Translating the story of how your business began into the physical space of your restaurant serves as its own marketing that will draw people in. Both panelists confirmed that telling their story has helped to humanize their businesses, tying everything within their restaurants back to a central theme.
The space that you lease dictates your customer’s dining experience, so it is tempting to go beyond your budget’s capacity to be impressive. Evans advised us to go against those impulses when she said, “Start small, you can always expand.” You may want to consider alternatives that negate the cost of a physical location additionally. Catering from your home, utilizing your local farmer’s market, or operating as a food truck are all valid ways to start your business. Maxwell urged restaurateurs to “get creative” in their solutions, suggesting sharing space with another restaurant that has complimentary operating hours. Consider your options strategically and don’t be afraid to take unconventional routes when beginning your business.