What I learned from Opening a Restaurant and Building the Brand
Updated: Aug 16, 2019
It was 2007 and the growing North Dallas community of Frisco, Texas was lacking in unique restaurant establishments. There were plenty of chains and a few small restaurants but the dining scene was missing innovative concepts and if you wanted to enjoy delicious unique cuisine or even a good steakhouse you needed to travel north to Plano or even further to Addison. My husband at the time was a few years out of culinary school and working his way around some pretty big name restaurants in Plano and Uptown. His dream was to own a restaurant, my dream was to start a business we could build together and to create a concept that was new and different to the area. So I worked for several months on a business plan. We presented it to our parents who both had the means to invest with us in this venture. After looking over my business plan and hearing our ideas, my parents took the leap of faith and invested with us in the restaurant. Fast forward a couple of years and we had hired a broker, secured a location, partnered with a family friend as our contractor, and designed a beautiful six thousand square foot restaurant. It was exciting, we picked every design aspect from the smallest to biggest, it was going to be beautiful and like nothing else available in Frisco. We hired a well-known Dallas chef and began working on menu design. We met with wine sales reps and tasted some pretty amazing wine as we built our unique wine menu. We quickly discovered that it was going to take quite a bit longer than we anticipated to build out the restaurant. This was partly because of our timing coinciding with the housing market crashing in 2008 and the permitting process with the City of Frisco. There were many delays, but we finally got there, and opened our doors in 2010 on August Friday the 13th. We branded our restaurant and coined our menu as an upscale-casual American cuisine restaurant with a twist. It was exciting to see the restaurant full of people eager to try our concept. As with any new restaurant we had our hiccups in the beginning and made menu and staff adjustments as needed. We went through four Executive chefs over the eight and a half years we were open and several menu changes. However, we settled in after the first few years with a chef and a menu that we publicized as offering something for everyone. We designed the restaurant with a huge bar and lounge area with an adjacent covered patio, we had a private wine room, an open kitchen with a red brick wood burning oven as the center piece where diners could watch the chef in action, and we had a large private dining room that quickly became a place for many business lunches and dinners, as well as a sought after place to celebrate many special occasions.
I have started a marketing consulting company, and I spend a lot of time thinking about and researching building a brand and telling its story. Designing the restaurant and creating the brand was my favorite part of the whole process, and I learned a lot along the way. Owning a restaurant is not for everyone, but I meet people all the time that tell me it’s their dream. As we closed our doors after eight and a half years, a friend and mentor of mine suggested that I write about what I learned from opening the restaurant and building the brand. So, I reflected on the experience, the knowledge I gained, the people I met and the many memories we experienced together. The restaurant was like a family and will forever be a part of me.
1. No one position is more important than the other
This may be the most important lesson you can learn in any industry. Treat dishwashers and chefs with the same respect. While some positions may receive more credit, be more visible and rank higher, behind every job and every success is an entire team making it possible. This is true in every business. Actions have a domino effect, and everyone is part of a chain, if one person falls off the entire team can fail. Realizing that everyone is equally crucial to the success of your restaurant and treating them that way, will not only lead to a strong and consequently successful business, but will also build morality. When hiring people you will learn that it’s not only important to hire someone that is qualified, you need to find someone that is a good fit with your entire team and someone that believes in you and wants to contribute to your success and the morale of the restaurant family you have built. If you hire someone that is just in it for themselves, to make money and get out of there as quickly as possible, or who acts as if they are above someone else, it’s time to set them free. Building a team that cares about and respects each other is essential in your success. I had employees with me for years, some even the entire time we were open. Making a point to thank and appreciate every person on your team is an important lesson that extends well beyond the walls of a restaurant. We treated everyone with equal respect and we quickly learned that the people we worked with were like family, I knew intimate details about their lives and invested time in really getting to know them, and I feel blessed to have worked with some incredible people that I now consider good friends.
2. No two days are ever the same
We quickly learned that things go wrong, people make mistakes, and no two days are ever the same. The restaurant industry is constantly moving, there are so many things to be done to get the doors open each day and everyone is needed to work as a team to make it happen.
People “no show” in this industry. They just decide to not come to work without any notice and if you are missing a line cook, dishwasher or waiter on a very busy day, the entire restaurant is affected. I had never seen an industry where people are so unreliable. Not all people, but over the course of the life of the restaurant, we had many days where we were understaffed because of someone deciding to just not come to work.
Things stop working or accidents happen at the most inopportune times. We had a shelf of pans just fall off the wall in our open kitchen one night, the extremely loud crash and mess in the middle of a very busy dinner was quite the scene. We consistently had a plumbing issue because of how the building was built and so it never failed that our bathrooms would back up on nights that the restaurant was at its busiest. Not having working bathrooms with a hundred people in the building is not fun. Computers shut down, POS systems stop working, coolers go out, dishwashers malfunction, fire alarms go off for no reason, full trays of glasses get dropped, people slip and fall, cooks severely cut or burn themselves and need to be rushed to the emergency room, and the list goes on. We even had a cook electrocute himself one time, he was okay, but it was very scary. As the years went by and the building got older, my days were met with more and more issues that needed to be addressed.
Restaurants are busy, constantly moving places and that can be exciting and frustrating as truly no two days are ever the same, and you must learn to roll with the punches.
3. You Can’t Please Everyone and Can’t let Criticism Discourage You
This realization is stark and glaring when you work in the food industry, but equally applicable to any other business. Everyone’s palate and expectations are different. Our slogan was, “One Place for Every Taste.” We tried every day to live up to that by designing a restaurant with different dining spaces to meet the needs of those that wanted a quiet place to talk at the same time someone across the restaurant was enjoying a lively crowded atmosphere and we created a menu that had a wide variety of cuisine and price points. But even with our true desire to make everyone happy, there is always someone that is not. I learned that while we live in an era of mass personalization and must be willing to accommodate modifications to everything, it’s also important to maintain brand identity. So while it is very important in the restaurant industry to put the customer first and to listen to their desires and try to meet them, it’s equally important to have your own unique flavor, to maintain the concept and identity you built. You will hear from everyone on what you ought to do or how you could do something better, but if you listen to everyone you will quickly lose your unique restaurant identity, and the dream you envisioned when you created the concept.
While it is important to listen to criticism and learn from it, it is equally important to not let it defeat you. Unfortunately, people are more likely to write a review about something that made them unhappy then they are to take the time to rave about their positive experience. Promptly addressing the online reviews and in store complaints in a professional manner will build customer loyalty and often bring those unhappy people back in for another visit. It’s easy to get offended or even respond defensively but you will quickly lose customer’s respect. The saying, “the customer is always right,” may not be true but you still must swallow your pride and pretend it is a fact.
You can’t please everyone, but you still should try.
4. Roll Up Your Sleeves
Opening a restaurant is hard work, period. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and jump in whenever and wherever you are needed. No job is beneath you when it’s your establishment. I found myself bartending, waiting tables, bussing tables, expediting, washing dishes, moving furniture, and the list goes on. If you are not willing to do anything and everything it takes to have a successful shift at your own restaurant, then you will not survive. We always had a staff that was pretty willing to help wherever they were needed and you must exemplify that in order to create a team that has that same mentality. Lead by example and realize that the restaurant industry is a 24/7 job, you will be fielding issues even when it’s not open; being willing to step up and in whenever or however is crucial to a successful restaurant.
5. Private Dining Rooms and Catering are Big Money Makers
One of the best things we did, and it was almost on accident was build a private dining room. We were in the design stages of the building when our landlord told us that there was room for a thousand square feet more and they would probably put a small storefront on the back of our building unless we wanted to add that space. Thankfully, we all agreed that was a great idea. Our private dining room was consistently reserved and could seat large groups of almost seventy people. Over the years we saw countless corporate events, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, holiday parties, etc. Sharing in some of the biggest events in people’s lives was rewarding and exciting. Private events can be a lot of work and a lot of fun; if you have the space for it, you will consistently have someone in need. We also had a smaller private wine room which was a coveted space in our restaurant. We were willing to reserve all areas of the restaurant and eventually started doing off premise catering. Private dining rooms are a great source of revenue but also require a trained staff and a diligent and detail-oriented catering manager. I was thankful my chef and staff were great at executing some pretty amazing events, no matter how big or small, they came together and always worked hard to make things perfect for our customers.
6. Building Brand Awareness and Loyalty is Critical to the Success of any Business
My background is in marketing so creating the business plan and building the brand was something I absolutely loved doing. Over the course of ten years, we marketed the restaurant everywhere from print, tv/radio, email, social media, google ads, hospitality sites, to sponsorships and local events. I learned a lot over the years as the opportunities to market continually changed and improved. And even though the overall concept of our restaurant never changed we were often introducing new menus and promoting new chefs. Understanding the importance of who our customers were and how to reach them and continually remind them to revisit was crucial to the growth and success of the restaurant. This was a challenge at times because of our location and as the years went by more and more restaurants opened and the competition to stay relevant and prevalent top of mind became increasingly important. Staying creative and responsive is essential in sustaining brand awareness and loyalty.
Understanding the emotive and rational needs of our customers and knowing where and when to reach them, kept our restaurant popular for many years. We built a brand focused on keeping our customers happy and offering something for everyone. It can be easy to “sell” your brand as the best around, but unless you understand what your customer wants and focus on their needs, they aren’t buying. I learned so much over the years about the importance of marketing and fell in love with the process, but I also learned not all marketing is equal and knowing and understanding what works for your brand can save you a lot of time and money. I see so many companies spending thousands of dollars in places that their ROI can never be profitable. This is where knowing who your customer is and who they can potentially be is essential in understanding where to spend your marketing budget. The days of mass marketing are long gone and were truly never effective. I was approached almost daily by companies seeking my marketing dollars and promising big return on my investment; however, I was not an easy sell and understood that many of these media outlets were not always a good fit and often a huge waste of money.
Targeted marketing geared toward your customer’s needs, drives brand awareness and loyalty, and digital marketing is becoming far more targeted then ever before.
No one ever said owning a restaurant would be easy, in fact many people discouraged us from taking such a huge risk. Owning and managing a restaurant is a lot of work, some days are very rewarding while others are quite discouraging. The industry is constantly changing, and the competition can be fierce, this is not a business for the faint of heart. However, if it’s your passion and something you are willing to work at daily, it can be the ride of a lifetime. As I am once again building a new brand and my own marketing consulting business, I know the experiences I learned from the restaurant business will follow me throughout the rest of my career and life. I will forever be grateful for the lessons learned, the people I met, and the memories we shared.
If you are considering opening a restaurant or need help with branding and marketing your current restaurant or business, I would love to hear how I might be able to help you.