Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sunday Random - You don't really want to open up a restaurant.

I work in kitchens. I never "wanted to be a chef" and I don't want to ever own my own restaurant. I just cook to make a living because I like it well enough, I have the... Resilience it takes to survive in kitchens, and it pays the bills. Usually. I have no huge romantic notions about food. I agree that it's a good way to show love and it can be enriching etc. but any restaurant that touts being part of "social change" is one I am going to be VERY apprehensive of.

It seems that I am a minority of people who feel this way, if the way people start gushing about how they're "such foodies"* and how one day they're going to open their own place. Ah, The Dreamers. That person who's retirement plan is to open a small restaurant that will do everything from scratch and to order and use organic and local everything! Or who wants to open a Wizard of Oz themed bar called "The Emerald city" where everything is green except for the floor (which is naturally yellow). Or a vegan/gluten free/raw/nut free/soy free super allergy friendly place**! Or they're going to start a cake decorating business and do wedding cakes! These people LOVE telling me about their plan and "Hey maybe you can help me open it when the time comes!"

The fact that you're asking me knowing absolutely nothing about my professional background beyond "food" means that you are fucked and can't afford what it would take to get me to sign onto a doomed venture such as yours.

You know why 60% of all restaurants close within the first few years? The Dreamers. These people have never worked in a kitchen/cafe/bar/bakery, but think that they understand the business well enough to open one. You don't. I'm sorry, but you just don't. So pull up a chair, it's time for some hard truths.

Stop and think about this. You want to open shop in a competitive, high stress industry that you've never worked in. That would be like saying "I'm going to open a pet salon because I own a dog." and if you can't see what that is also a bad idea, then stop reading. I'm not going to get through to you. What do you expect a kitchen to be like? A bunch of people shooting the shit, calmly and effortlessly pumping out three course meals? I like to think such a place is real. It's like unicorns. I really want it to be real, but I struggle to put any real faith in it.

Maybe you're serious enough that you want to go to culinary school. Awesome! Don't start there. The people who start in culinary schools are the ones who struggle to find decent work after because they come out with an ego and are smug smarmy jerk-faces. That the kitchen will then brutalize until you become a real person or so good that it's worth putting up with your insufferable face. I say this as someone who started with school and THEN hit the work force. Work in kitchens for a few years first (which you might need to do for peanuts or free to start) and if you're not traumatized from it, then hit culinary school.

"I don't plan to run it myself! I'll hire a chef!" you might get lucky with who you hire, it's true. However you don't know your asshole from your thumb when it comes to kitchens, and cooking on a large scale, let alone chefs. How are you going to hire someone who's good if you don't even know what that looks like? "They made delicious food!" sure, but how do they balance food costs and handle staff? Plus, if something happens, you're going to have to jump in. How do you plan to do that if you just hire someone?

Now, how do you feel about sleep? Or going out on evenings and weekends? "But I'll be the owner! I don't NEED to come in when I don't have to!". If you think that, you're imaginary restaurant is going to fail. Most of the kitchens I've worked at, even the successful, well established and well run ones, the owners were in. A lot. More then anyone else. THAT is what made them good. I worked in one bakery where the owner was CONSTANTLY bringing in his kids and basically forcing his staff to baby sit the youngest.*** The other two were old enough that he tried to put them to work. The middle child was pretty good about it, but the eldest... That's a post for another day. Still, his whole family was dragged into it, and his staff had front row tickets to the show of his marriage falling apart. Another gig I had, the owner had a cot in the basement. He'd come in at 5am, and leave at 8pm. Sometimes later. He'd nap in the basement in the afternoon if he could. If you're not willing to put in 80+ hours a week, especially for those first few months/years... Then don't even bother.

"Okay, well, I'll just partner up with a chef for the ownership! I'll supply the capital and run the front of house, and they'll run the kitchen! A partner would help make the work easier!" No, they won't. Well, they might. Still, there are a lot of stories of one partner forcing the other to buy them out because there was no way that shit was going to work. Make sure you can hold the fort down yourself if you need to, and make sure you know the person you're going to partner up with really well, and how they work/manage money before hand.

How do you feel about trying to manage staff in an industry that is known as a last refuge for the unemployable and flaky? I don't support or approve the "screaming at your staff until they cry"**** method a lot of chefs employ, but I understand why some just default to it. If you are not a patient, flexible person who rolls exceptionally well with the punches, this might not be the retirement plan you want.

I don't know how my industry got as romanticized as it is. It's been going on since before the Food Network, but trust me. It isn't romantic. It's hard, gritty, long, stressful, unstable work. There are good points to the industry. There is a reason people do it, and are passionate about it and love it. As I said, I LIKE my industry. It's likely a Stockholm sort of thing, but I do. Honest, I really do. There's an energy and pacing to it that I've never seen anywhere else, and there's some really amazing people in it among all the flaky assholes. I don't want to burst people's bubbles, or try to scare them off. Kitchens are a strange and magical places. However you shouldn't expect unicorns and happy fairies in this land. Expect sexist***** imps, violent poltergeists, ROUS, and incredibly cranky dragons. It's an epic journey, but it's a hard one that isn't for the faint of heart.

Or, TL;DR - If you work at an office and get miffed by a waitress being rude to you, just don't bother. The cooks are worse. 

*If you call yourself a foodie I hate you at least a little. Sorry.
** All I can think of that this place would make is veggie platters and hummus.
*** I could write REAMS about this place. I can't go into the neighborhood it's in without feeling physically ill.
**** Yes this is a thing. I once worked with a guy who would amp the brutal up if you started to cry because he felt it was manipulative and the person was just trying to get out of being in trouble. He had to think pretty highly of you to back off because you started crying. Other times he would quite deliberately make people cry to drive a point home. Despite this, he remains one of my favorite bosses. Consider that long and hard.
***** I could have sued a former work place for sexual harassment and won. There's also just the usual background noise of kitchens (another post for another day) which is incredibly misogynistic.


  1. Actually, hummus is made out of chickpeas, which is a legume, which is the same family as soy beans and peanuts. As food allergies are often spread throughout a family, many people allergic to soy and peanuts (such as myself) are also allergic to chickpeas (such as myself). Sorry, Erika, but it's off the menu at the hypothetical vegan/gluten free/raw/nut free/soy free super allergy friendly place too.

    Veggie platters. That's about it, and it *might* be pushing it.


  2. Sadly, even if you have good recipes, not knowing what you're doing will doom your restaurant. I briefly worked at a sandwich and salad shop which had tasty food, but had been opened by someone who had no idea at all how to run a restaurant. (Hell, he hired me despite the fact that my only prior food work was in fast food. And that was more food work than some of the other staff.) I got tired of putting in 12 hour days because I was one of the few reliable people, and eventually ran away to a job that offered benefits and raises.

    If the owner had been able to keep staff (raises might have helped) and deal with the fact that the produce deliverer kept delivering rotten produce (do you really have to accept delivery of rotten produce???) and such, he'd have had a success. Eventually.

    1. You absolutely do not have to accept an order if there's something wrong with it. If you don't say anything to the supplier they'll keep unloading their rotten shit on you because they need to get rid of it and know they can.

    2. I _knew_ that couldn't be right. Yep, sunk by lack of knowledge, because that's exactly what happened. The produce supplier kept offloading rotten shit and he kept buying replacement stuff at the grocery stores so that we could serve food.

  3. I don't know how my industry got as romanticized as it is.

    My theory: Lots of people enjoy cooking food and serving it to guests, in their homes. A substantial portion of those enjoy it so much they wish they could do it as their job. A further subset of that portion fail to realize that any activity changes drastically when it goes from "fun hobby" to "business that needs to turn a profit", or else do realize it but think cooking/serving food will somehow be an exception to that rule.

    This article chronicling the writer's failed attempt to start up a cozy little coffee shop pretty much makes the same point - "The small cafe connects to the fantasy of throwing a perpetual dinner party" - and indeed, the writer and spouse were complete Dreamers, making all the mistakes you're warning about here.