19+ Candid Lessons From Running a Restaurant
One of the best thing about the food industry is its community. As a chef or restaurateur, you’re likely to find people in the industry who are willing to offer a helping hand or some really valuable advice.
But, when you’ve been in this industry long enough you’ll know that free time isn’t something you have much of. For most individuals in the restaurant industry, most of your time is spent inside the restaurant you run or work in, so finding the time to connect can be difficult.
So, to save you some time, we did a quick round of speed-dating on your behalf.
We asked several industry professionals what piece of advice they would give to a new, aspiring or veteran industry professional. Here’s what they had to say:
Do it because you love it.
Never open a restaurant because you don’t like your boss. If you’re looking to open a restaurant, you have to be ready to commit to super long hours, you must accept that you’ll fail sometimes, and you have to stay positive. Things aren’t always going to go the way you want them to, but that’s okay. Don’t give up on your passion or your dream. You need to stay motivated and consistently put in the work to get your restaurant to where you want it to be.
-Mandy Kan (Owner and Executive Chef, Dessert Lady)
Adapt. Adapt. Adapt.
Adaptability is key. You’re going to be thrown into different situations daily, and you should be able to adapt. Also, being aware of the resources you have is huge. You can’t come into this role with an “I can’t do it” attitude, you have to at least try to solve your problem first. There are going to be days when maybe you run out of ingredients or your delivery is delayed, but building up your ability to adapt to these situations and problem solve will help you succeed as an owner, chef, manager, or really any role in this industry.
-Ryan Zoldy (Kitchen Manager, Buna’s Kitchen)
The grass is only greener if you think it is.
Be humble and do it because you love it. There’s going to be downsides to every job, but if you dwell on the things that get you down, it’ll create a toxic being inside you. Especially in the hospitality industry, people create cocktails and dishes because they love to create. So don’t lose sight of that.
-Simon Ho (Partner, Spirit of York Distillery Co.)
Do it now, and do it on your own!
In my experience I have had many people come to me and say “Sameer, I’m thinking of opening a coffee shop in a couple of years..” in which case my belief is that it is a dream of theirs that will unlikely come to fruition because they are not ready to pull the trigger immediately!
Small shops are best started by one individual. The work is not worth sharing profits. If for example after the 1st year the gross profit was 60k, that basically means that the individual worked 90 hours a week for that amount. If that amount is split between 2 or more people, then the decision to go into this business with another person wasn’t the best idea.
-Sameer Mohamed (Owner, Fahrenheit Coffee)
Make the best of what you have.
Find a strong team who understands what teamwork is. You can’t always be a hero and work on your own, you have to create a team. That’s one of the things in a kitchen and as a chef that you’re looking for in your team.
Also, make the best of nothing. Maybe you have a team that’s not the strongest in the teamwork department, but you should make the best of it and work to improve your team. Keep an open mind and be patient.
-Styven Bonilla (Sr. Sous Chef, Dessert Lady)
Manage your time. Set goals.
We all know that the restaurant industry demands long hours. It’s important to lay out your day ahead of time so that you don’t miss out on precious hours. Manage your day and leave a few hours for yourself. Use those hours at the gym, visit a friend for a coffee, or even spend extra time with your family.
Lay out responsibilities so when you aren’t at the restaurant you can have peace of mind. If you manage your time well but don’t have someone holding down the fort it will cause more issues.
-Jonathan Mishaev (General Manager, Elm Tree Restaurant)
Put your staff before everything else.
It’s not easy. Be honest, pay your bills, be nice to your suppliers, and the most important piece of advice I have is to put your staff before everything else. When you run a restaurant as small as ours, you need to be passionate and so do your employees. Passion trumps everything, so don’t get into this business if you’re not passionate about it.
-Grace An (Owner, Buna’s Kitchen)
Get your permits ASAP.
If you’re planning on opening a space, chances are you’ve already worked in or ran one for a considerable amount of time; you already have a feel for how things should flow. But, based on our experience being first-time owners, I would say get on those permits ASAP. Licensing takes forever. The day that you signed the lease for the space is the day that you should get on those permits. Make sure you have a good contractor too.
-David Brocklehurst (Owner, Function Bar)
Go travel. Work in as many kitchens as possible.
If you're a young chef and have the opportunity, go travel and cook in kitchens around the world. That's something that I never did and to this day I kind of regret. Try to work in as many kitchens as possible and really try and hone in on specific skills.
-Jimmy Fu (Executive Chef, Harbord House)
It’s not personal - it’s just cooking.
"Don’t take everything to heart. It’s a hard job, with long hours, and the only way you’ll be able to get through it every day is if you don’t sweat the small stuff. Take everything with a grain of salt and keep pushing on. It’s not personal - it’s just cooking.”
-Samantha Medeiros (Sous, La Palma)
Trust your people.
“To answer the question I would say believe in and trust your people, they are the ones who actively promote your vision. So, surrounding yourself with the best is not just a saying it’s a fact.”
-Greg Plester (Consultant and Legend, Core Hospitality)
Find yourself a mentor that pushes you to be better.
“Gain the experience needed! It’s not the glamorous role it has been made out to be. Work every single position you possibly can in all types of establishments, learn from the mistakes of other restaurants owners, find a mentor, ask questions. I worked for my mentor for almost 3 years before I opened my first cocktail bar, I made a bunch of mistakes and learned how to fix them or, more importantly, I learnt how to be honest about them. I learnt absolutely everything I could from that business —and I became a major force in its success.
Now that I have moved on to open my own spot, guess who is my biggest supporter? He is, and his partners—my mentors.
Guess which suppliers I reached out to who have bent over backwards to get me going? The ones I have been loyal to, the ones I grew with.
Never forget where you come from. Stay humble - loyal - and creative to yourself, especially the brand you have created and the people you have hired to represent it. Never forget who got you there. And then teach others to do the same, spread the knowledge and support others in their success.”
-Jessica Simmiss (Partner, Melrose on Adelaide)
Build a good relationship with your landlord.
“At first, I thought that opening a restaurant would be really easy. Just put money into it and open your doors. But it’s actually really hard. You go through so many hurdles day by day. From my experience, I would say build a good relationship with your landlord. I’m really thankful for the relationship that I’ve built with mine and it’s really helped ease some of the challenges that I have to face as a restaurateur.”
-Gopikrishna Chebrolu (Owner, Bombay Roti)
Nothing beats the power of a one on one connection.
“While teamwork is an important element of your vision’s success, and grouping your employees together has advantages in building that “team mentality”, nothing beats one on one attention when it comes to building your teams motivation. I have seen and experienced through my time in the food service sector that taking a moment to speak to an individual and building a personal connection can make him or her feel truly appreciated, and as a result motivate them to be better.
Also, in order to really compete in this competitive space, you need to continue to be creative. Always try to come up with your own twist in your creations!”
-Muralitharan Thamba (Owner and Executive Head Chef, The Spicy Kitchen Catering)
Things you should think about before opening your doors.
“Familiarize yourself with all of the backend stuff. People in this industry don’t talk about it too much so it’s hard to know what that could include. This could be things like setting up an inventory system, this will help you find your sweet spot of spending 25-30% on food cost.
Also, test out your POS before launch, run through scenarios with your employees to get them familiarized with the tech, but also to run into potential roadblocks they may encounter, like excluding certain ingredients, what a lot of customers might add, etc. and make that easy to do for your FoH staff. A lot of this will be built over time though but it’s good to at least play around with it first.”
-Paula Poirier (Co-Owner, Function Bar)
Take the time to understand your customers.
“As entrepreneurs, we often have a sharp image of what we think our offering should look like. In my experience, this is not always what customers want. My advice is two-fold, first, before building anything, reach out to your potential customers to understand what they really need to validate your value proposition. Secondly, keep your ears peeled for your customers’ feedback and don’t let your ego stand in the way of revising your offering accordingly.”
-Yehia Elkhouly (Co-Founder & COO Parachute Coffee)
Respect everyone and be fair to your staff.
“Mise en place” (loosely translates to “everything in its place”) is one of the first lessons in culinary schools and, a constant practice throughout a chefs career. This is the art of preparation and , my biggest advice to anyone starting their own business.
This industry is a battlefield, prepare yourself with the tools to be successful. Are you going to be a full service restaurant? Great, hire and train well before your grand opening. Make sure to respect everyone and be fair to your staff! This will incentivize them into becoming brand ambassadors; helping to generate growth. Be a sponge prior to opening your own place, learn from those that have done it before.”
-Maciek Labecki (Owner, Catering by Maciek)
Make sure your staff work with with you, not for you.
Always be open for change and try your best to keep your cool. There are so many valuable traits from the many people you will work with in the restaurant industry, so never be ignorant. With the stress levels in a restaurant fluctuating often, you may need to incorporate the ideas and suggestions from your employees. The best leaders can handle the stress calm and collectively, while using the input of their co-workers. Make sure they work with you, not for you!
-Kurt MacMillan (VP, Operations & Finance, The Bombshelter Pub, Federation of Students, University of Waterloo)
Be bold and unafraid.
"Don't be afraid to be a little crazy; this industry requires intense passion. Cooking is like a dog, it can sense emotions. If you're scared or nervous, your dish will feel it, but if you are bold and unafraid... That's a different story. In order to be successful in this World, you need to love it more than anything. It has to become your air; oh and be prepared to stop sleeping."
-Zhara Mian (Executive Chef, Sunlight Catering)
Have a piece of advice or an experience you’d like to share? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org!