Ups, Downs, Ins and Outs: How to Ride the Rollercoaster of Running a Restaurant
You’ve been on your feet all day. You’re exhausted and hungry. But table two just sent a dish back for being cold, and table 15 says there’s a mistake in their order. Also, one of the ovens went out today.
It may sound like everything is going wrong at once, but it’s just a typical day in the restaurant industry. Running a restaurant can be an absolute roller coaster.
The biggest key to not just surviving, but thriving in such a difficult setting? It’s knowing what you’re in for and adequately preparing for the many times when it feels like everything is going wrong. You have to embrace the chaos and always be prepared.
Expect there to be ups and downs, just like in any job. But also become familiar with Murphy’s Law, because Murphy lives in the kitchen — everything that can go wrong in a restaurant, will.
Here are some challenges that most restaurant owners or managers are going to encounter at some point, and ways to overcome them.
Challenge #1: Margins can be razor-thin
It’s no secret that it’s tough to break even in the restaurant industry. If you’re opening up a new eatery, you can expect it to be years before you’re even breaking even, let alone making a profit. According to Quinn McKenna, who sits on the board of the California Restaurant Association, a well-run restaurant may only clear around 5 percent of its profits after all the bills are paid. That means if your restaurant makes $1 million in sales (seemingly a huge amount), you’re only clearing $50,000. If that needs to be split among multiple partners, no one is making a livable profit off of your restaurant.
The solution: Careful planning, bookkeeping and saving
Before you even consider opening a restaurant as a money-making venture, you need to have a solid business plan for how you’re going to make it profitable. Throughout the entire process, you need to be carefully assessing your bookkeeping and looking for ways to maximize your profits while keeping costs low. This could involve things like choosing the right vendors for your supplies and ingredients or tweaking your menu to feature dishes that yield the highest profit margins.
Challenge #2: Running a restaurant can consume your life
Restaurants require hours that the average person might consider insane. Running a restaurant can mean being on the floor until 2 a.m. or even later, only to return well before noon to ensure everything is getting properly prepped for the next service. If you’re not putting in those hours yourself, you’re going to have to pay someone else to do it, and that kind of dedication won’t come cheap. It’s no wonder the restaurant industry experiences high rates of turnover and burnout — very few professional fields require dedication on this level.
The solution: You just have to know what you’re getting into
Short of hiring an excellent manager to take over for you on the floor, there’s not much you can do about the hours. Anyone who wants to get into the restaurant industry has to be realistic, and prepared to put the work in, as exhausting as it may be. Focus on the positives: You’re living out your dream by opening your own restaurant. You’re providing a service that truly makes people happy. And you’re forging relationships with your customers. There’s a lot that makes the long hours and hard work worth it.
Challenge #3: It’s physically exhausting
Ask any chef, server, food runner, bartender — really anyone who works in a restaurant. The job is physically tough. It requires you to be on your feet and moving for hours and hours at a time. It’s not uncommon for servers to log upwards of 23,000 steps in a single day — that’s around 10 miles, in case you were wondering. Walking 10 miles in a day is enough to tire anyone out, but to do it multiple times a week, every time you work a shift? That kind of physical toll adds up.
The solution: You have to stay in shape and take care of yourself
Walking that much is enough to whip anyone into decent cardiovascular shape, but working out regularly before opening a restaurant is going to make it a lot easier to deal with those first few weeks of wear and tear on your body. Being in good, strong physical shape will make the demands of restaurant life so much easier to take in stride. Additionally, take care of yourself when you’re sore and worn out. Take regular breaks to rest your feet. Work in some time to stretch at work. Invest in a foam roller or a couple massages to help ease any muscle soreness. And don’t spend your days off on the couch — your body will feel better if you get some light exercise in even if the restaurant is closed.
Challenge #4: You have to wear a lot of hats
The life of a new restaurant owner or manager can change not only from day to day, but from moment to moment. In the morning you may be in the kitchen to help with prep work, then in the bathroom scrubbing toilets. In the afternoon you may be seating guests to fill in for a host who called off last minute. And in the evening, you may be putting out fires (hopefully only the metaphorical kind) during the dinner service while working on next week’s staff schedule and trying to squeeze in some accounting. Exhausted just thinking about it all? That’s because it is exhausting (refer back to challenges #2 and #3).
The solution: Get some experience under your belt
Someone who is brand new to the restaurant industry has no business opening or running a restaurant. To excel in that role, you need experience, and lots of it. Ideally, one should work in every role at a restaurant, from dishwasher to chef, host to bartender, before becoming an owner or manager. Even if you’ve never “officially” held each job in the restaurant, it’s a good idea to try to spend a few days working in each position. It’ll make you a better manager, since you’ll have an on-the-ground understanding of the duties and challenges facing each of your employees.
So is running a restaurant going to be easy? Absolutely not. But is it going to be rewarding? It certainly can be. The key is just to prepare yourself as much as possible for the realities that come with the job. It’s a dream job for many, but it’s going to take more hard work than you can ever imagine to pull it off. Good luck!