What Not to Do When Opening a Restaurant

Originally Published in March Issue of Dispatch Magazine

Illustration by Andy Gerry

The restaurant business is one of the riskiest ventures around, especially in a city like Portland that has reached the saturation point. I’ve worked in them my whole life, and have seen a lot of failures as well as success stories. But don’t rely on my advice alone — I’ve rounded up local food scene veterans to add their two cents.

If this is what you want to do, here are seven basic issues to consider. These barely scratch the surface — don’t get me started on how you’re going to get that grease trap installed in the historic building you purchased on the endangered wildlife preserve.

1. Don’t Confuse The Hell Out Of The Customers

Especially early on, it’s important to make what you’re trying to achieve obvious. Remember, it’s not the customer’s job to research you. If you’re opening an Italian-American restaurant and choose a nautical theme for your motif, you’d better have a concise, easy-to-swallow reason why.

“Sometimes people don’t give a shit that Canarde Press is an amazing historical dish, they just wonder why you’re making sauce in the dining room.” — Erik Desjarlais, former owner, Evangeline, Ladle, and Bandol

2. Do Research And Find A Niche

Before you open your high-end Mediterranean eatery, it would be prudent to check if there are three others like it within a one-mile radius. Is your restaurant really necessary? Think long and hard about it.

“Just because you owned two issues of Art Culinaire and bought an immersion circulator and a squeeze bottle doesn’t mean it’s time to play restaurant.” — Larry Matthews, chef/owner of Back Bay Grill

3. Be Prepared To Cater To People You Hate, Day In And Day Out

Ever been in a crowded room and realize that you despise everyone in it? Imagine that’s the case, except now you have to make them all happy because your livelihood depends on it. We’d all like to picture a dining room full of patrons who are 100 percent behind our concept, and a bar lined with our best friends (paying their tab in full), but it ain’t like that. We also live in an era where anyone with a public library card has a virtual megaphone to trash everything you do.

“The customers love to tell us to buy everything local, right before they get on their computer and bitch about the prices being too high.” — Jay Villani, chef/owner, Local 188, Sonny’s, and Salvage BBQ

4. Think About What Food Costs, And How You Make Money By Selling It

In a perfect world, Farmer Bob would pull his vintage pickup to your back door each day for you to hand-select produce for your important menu. The thing is, these ingredients cost money and aren’t generally available in large quantities. If you want to keep your balance in line, you’d better understand how to incorporate big suppliers like Sysco and U.S. Foods, and buy from them when appropriate. Maybe you don’t need the celery you’re tossing into that stockpot to be organic and farm fresh?

“People only want to pay so much for certain things, and it’s your job to figure out how to feed them well without breaking the bank.” — Greg Mitchell, co-owner, Palace Diner

5. Yes, You Love Throwing Dinner Parties — Do You Want To Throw The Exact Same One Every Day For Years?

Because that’s what it could be like, except your guests will often have no respect for your personal belongings, and sometimes the people you pay to serve food from your kitchen will steal from you.

“… and none of your guests are going to offer to help clean up.” — Mike Keon, co-owner, OTTO Pizza

6. Does The Idea Of Having A Full Bar At Your Disposal 24 Hours A Day Pose Any Concerns For You?

The good news is that if this lifestyle is what you want, you’ve come to the right place! The bad news is, if you can’t handle it, you’re fucked — and so’s your whole staff.

“I’m still waiting for something sexy to happen since I purchased the restaurant.” — Karl Deuben, co-owner, East Ender

7. Do You Love Spending A Lot Of Time At Staples, The Hardware Store, City Hall, And Then Back To Staples Again?

In the restaurant business, every day is a new adventure in the mundane to make sure you fix that toilet seat and have enough paper to print menus. Yes, you can pay someone else to do this, but in the beginning, every penny counts.

“It never hurts if you happen to be both a plumber and an electrician.” — Jay Villani