Opening a restaurant is not for the faint of heart. It requires a substantial investment of money and time, and can be a profoundly stressful experience if you're not prepared. If it's your dream to be a restaurateur, here are some important points to consider.
Look in the Mirror
The success or failure of your start-up rests on your shoulders, so take a hard, unflinching look at yourself. Do you have a history in restaurant management or entrepreneurship? Are you prepared to work longer hours than everyone else in the business and pay everyone else before yourself? Before you take your idea from dream to reality, take one or more of the self-assessment tests for entrepreneurs that are available online.
Create a Good Plan
A detailed business plan lays out your goals and strategy for the next three to five years, including—most importantly—how you plan to differentiate yourself from your competitors. A 2005 study published by the Cornell Hotel & Administration Quarterly found that restaurateurs who could clearly articulate their concept were far more likely to succeed than those who couldn't. Sample business plans are available from the Small Business Administration (SBA) and other sources. Good ones will provide information on "what you didn't know that you didn't know."
The myth that 90 percent of new restaurants fail was thoroughly debunked by the aforementioned study, but lenders are still wary of restaurant start-ups (especially independent ones). You'll usually need a healthy quantity of cash or collateral to secure the financing you need, unless you're blessed with affluent friends or relatives who are willing to support your dream. In either case, you'll need enough operating capital to build out your restaurant, establish credit with suppliers, and finally run your new establishment for at least a year or two until you (ideally) start turning a profit.
Pick a Great Location
Having the right location is not a "silver bullet" that guarantees success, but it's important. It also helps if there are other restaurants nearby to draw diners into your vicinity—your concept should differentiate you from the competition. Look for a location that's populated with (or accessible to) your target demographic, and provides easy access for vehicles or foot traffic as needed. Work backward from your financial projections, and pick a space that has enough room for the tables you'll need and a kitchen large enough to serve them.
Consider Owning vs. Leasing
Your location choice partially depends on whether you intend to buy or lease your space. Owning your space gives you more control, but it also means tying up a big chunk of your capital on the space. Leasing leaves you vulnerable to cost increases along the way, but preserves more of your capital for day-to-day operations. As a rule, your lease payment shouldn't be more than 5 to 8 percent of your revenues. As a start-up, you may be able to negotiate a sliding-scale lease, which guarantees your landlord a modest base rent and an increase over time based on your revenues.
Remember Regulatory Approvals
Opening a restaurant means that you'll have to navigate a number of regulatory approvals. This is not just the restaurant license itself (and liquor license, if you plan to have one), but also any necessary zoning approvals and building permits. You'll need to verify that your plans meet all local building codes, which cover everything from the number of emergency exits to how and where your gas, electricity, and sprinklers are installed. It's important to understand this before you start any physical construction.
Launch Your Plan
Now you'll have to build, staff, and launch your restaurant. It's likely that the building stage will take longer and cost more than you expect, so allow for plenty of wiggle room within your plans. (If you're taking over a space that's already equipped, that helps a lot.) As your opening date starts to get closer, take to social media to build anticipation. It's a good idea to have some form of "soft opening" to test your staff and menu before you open to the general public.
Getting your restaurant up and running is only the starting point. You'll need to devote most of your time to achieving and maintaining profitability, and then managing your restaurant's growth. Start with these tips, and remember that a variety of organizations, including the SBA, Cornell's Center for Hospitality Research, and the National Restaurant Association, have materials and information that can help you succeed.