So You Want To Open A Restaurant? This Advice Will Give You A Puncher's Chance
Elisha Siegel explores the challenging world of restaurant ownership and finds out it can be a real slugfest.
I used to dream about being a cage fighter (for the record, I’m 5’5’’, 135 pounds and Jewish). I trained hard and tried to eat right. I’d visualize my fights and found the perfect walkout song. I worked through sprains, contusions and cauliflower ear – but in the end I couldn’t make the sacrifice. I hate jogging and love ice cream. And being a comedian I often get theme music anyway, so it’s not a total loss.
Why am I talking about this? Well, combat sports remind me a lot of the restaurant business. The best in the world make it look easy – but what you don’t see are the years of sacrifice behind the success. Sure, there are perks to the food and beverage game, but, like mixed martial arts, you better be prepared to have your head kicked in.
I spoke with area restaurant owners about the challenges of getting a successful restaurant off the ground and making it thrive. What I learned is that they’re labor intensive, expensive and the margins are slim. Rents can be exorbitant, liquor licenses hard to obtain and the employees transient. But it’s rewarding work – as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into.
Dean Baltulonis: Sonny’s Tavern- Dover, NH – Est. 2013
Dean Baltulonis is the co-owner of Sonny’s, and his team recently opened their second location, the Eastern Burger Company in Stratham, NH. Of the owners I spoke with, Baltulonis had the least restaurant experience and admits there was a learning curve.
“I owned my own business for 15 years prior and I understood the dedication, long hours and hard work that comes with owning a business,” he says. “But there were a lot of small details that came to light after opening.”
Baltulonis brought a consultant on in the early days of Sonny’s to help put systems in place – exciting stuff like how to take liquor inventory, navigating the point of sale interface and designating table numbers! “That really helped us build a foundation. As we grow, we alter the systems to fit the growth.”
One difficult issue for Baltulonis and company was how to manage their resources. “A major challenge was getting the doors open before we ran out of money,” he says. “We worked seven days a week for four months straight to finish the build-out. We did the majority of it ourselves.”
Then there is the pesky issue of inspections. “We would miss a small thing here or there and then have to reschedule a week or two down the road,” causing delays to the restaurant’s opening.
For prospective restaurateurs Baltulonis says, “Be prepared to put in a lot of hours at anytime during the day or week. Have a concrete concept and plan in place. Make sure you hire the right chef and learn how to get creative with problem solving.”
Mark Young: Viale – Cambridge, MA – Est. 2014
Mark Young opened Viale in Central Square along with best friend, Chef Greg Reeves. The pair had plenty of restaurant experience going in and felt confident in their ability to run the restaurant’s day-to-day operations. Unlike Baltulonis, Young inherited a turnkey restaurant so the build-out was minimal. But he encountered a major obstacle in municipal red tape.
“We had issues with permitting and licensing more than anything else,” Young says. “A little thing such as changing the lettering on the sign in front of the building required multiple visits to the city offices and trips to downtown Boston to a bonding agency. Who knew?”
For Young, one of the biggest challenges now that he’s open is staffing. He cautions that understaffing can result in negative guest experiences while overstaffing leads to low tip averages that make it hard to retain quality waitstaff.
“Unless you are blessed with very consistent business every day, you are often over or under staffed. You have to juggle between making sure your guests are getting the best quality service and that your staff is making good money.”
Young’s word of advice to would-be restaurateurs, “Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. Be ready for the roller coaster. It’s gonna be a lot of hard work. I truly love the restaurant business, with all its quirks and craziness but it is quite crazy. It can be totally rewarding at times and soul crushing at others. Strap in for the ride and keep your spirits up.”Jason Bond: Bondir, Cambridge, MA – Est. 2010 / Bondir Concord – Concord, MA – Est. 2013
Chef Jason Bond had been working in restaurants for 20 years before opening Bondir, so he went into the endeavor knowing the challenges. “I had worked in every position of a restaurant to learn all of the skills and get real experience in issues that each position deals with,” he says. “What surprised me as an owner was how many of those jobs I now had to do simultaneously.”
Bond also brought up the issue of managing the red tape. “Regulations and code are always difficult for a new restaurateur. I fortunately had an experienced advisor to guide me through. But so much happens that you don’t expect and you just have to work through it and adjust your plans.”
Having one successful property is no guarantee of future prosperity. There are no sure bets in this game and no one’s immune to setbacks. For example, Bond opened Bondir Concord in 2013 but the restaurant was put on the market at the end of the last year. (It will remain open until Bond finds a buyer.) “That's an aspect of the business of which everyone should mindful,” Bond says. “It shows the huge difference that location and the tastes of the local population can make to a restaurant's success.”
Through everything, Bond maintains a level head about the business. “You can’t be everything, so define what you do and just do that for the people who appreciate it. If your goal is to make a lot of money, you may want to re-evaluate. If your goal is to make a positive contribution to your community and to feel good about taking care of others, you may be on the right track.”
Well said, chef. I think that’s a TKO.
Sonny’s Tavern – 328 Central Ave., Dover, NH, 603.343.4332, sonnystaverndover.com
Eastern Burger Company – 157 Portsmouth Ave., Stratham, NH, 603.580.2096, easternburgercompany.com
Viale – 502 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617.576.1900, vialecambridge.com
Bondir – 279A Broadway, Cambridge, 317.661.0009, bondircambridge.com
Bondir Concord – 24 Walden St., Concord, 978.610.6554, bondirconcord.com