Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

Po-Boy Views: Restaurants 101 or The Right Stuff

March 19, 2021
By: Phil LaMancusa

As we all know (or should), there is the fear of 50 percent of New Orleans restaurants closing mostly forever because of the pandemic (nola.com). That gives you, my optimistic entrepreneur in a fit of spontaneous enthusiasm, the chance to exercise an innate inclination to open your very own bistro, trattoria, café, joint, beer garden, boite, or gourmangerie. The word from your culinary visionary, advisor, and all-around restaurant consultant (me) is "consider."

Just because you make a dynamite Bolognese, tarte Tatin, or vegan seitan Bourguignon or have the inside track to the next-greatest raging collective culinary epiphany doesn't mean that you'll be able to make a go where/when others have failed—statistically, about 60 percent in the first year and 70 to 85 percent in the first five years (cnbc.com). Unless. Unless you are a wizard with mathematics, have money to invest while expecting little chance of return, and are willing to give up your life and free time for the more-than-foreseeable future, you're in for a major heartbreak, my friend. Consider.

Purchasing a defunct restaurant is logistically sane because the location is mentally ingrained in eaters' consciousness, especially considering that the three most important considerations of opening any restaurant are generally location, location, and location. If it is in an average or so-so location, you'll spend about $2,500 per seat to purchase (40 seats = $100,000), if you're lucky. This will not include the rent. This is where you walk into a place and tell the previous owner, "Look, I'll give you a hundred grand to turn it over to me." For a functioning restaurant, you'll pay more, or usually the equivalent of a year's profits. Purchasing something existing and believing that you can make it better is called a "blue-sky" investment. If you look at taking an empty space and turning it into your dream eatery, figure on $5,000 a seat for the location, not counting your rent.

Rent. Consider your rent will be 5 percent of your income. If your rent is $7,500 a month, you'll have to take in $150,000 a month (I speak from professional knowledge, experience, and failure in this field). Get a long lease with an option and beware of the "triple net," which is when you also pay the upkeep, maintenance, and insurance on the property, aside from the business. Don't forget to register the lease at City Hall to cement it in legally.

As you peruse your space, after learning the rent, count your tables and seats. Let's get back to those 40 seats. To maintain that $150,000-a-month income, each seat will need to bring in $3,750 a month—we're talking real estate here. Here's where mathematics becomes mind-blowing. Dinner only? Lunch and dinner? Take out and/or delivery? Six days a week or seven? Weekend brunch? Menu prices, average check, liquor license, counter service? How much are you willing to spend on labor, food cost, and ambiance?

Next, identify your customers. Who are they, where are they coming from, what do they want, and how much are they willing to spend? Will you consider media presence, advertising, billboards, and/or sending out flyers? How will you get customers to notice you? Celebrity chef, two-for-ones, happy hour, catering, early-bird dinners, live music, free beer and hand jobs?

Hiring and training staff—this is a real challenge. First, decide how many you need. Do you have a manager? Hire one you're sure that you can tell what to do and not the other way around. Your dream should have but one boss: you. Right or wrong, it's you who will take it in the shorts should you go down the tubes. Get someone you can bounce your ideas off of who can advise you when it's time to get back in the box. Encourage input, but retain veto power. You may want to avoid hiring relatives. Hire only the malleable and career-minded, no one too young (immature) or too old (may know too much). I know it's not fair, but reality sucks. Get the young, eager, and full of body fluids; you're building a team here. If the culinary business wanted experience and wisdom, I would be employed out there. Obviously, hiring veteran service workers is something that the industry as a whole shuns, so it must be a tenet or something.

Pay people fairly and reward loyalty. Consistently treat everyone, from lowest to highest, with respect, and let all know that you expect their best. Lead by example, don't micromanage, be firm and sensitive, and, most of all, don't flaunt your position. Learn to do everyone's job—yes, even the dishwasher. Create passion. Be careful of what you say at all times and how you say it; you're an example, so be a righteous one.

Get a good office staff or at least a qualified accountant to keep track of all the pennies. Learn to read the numbers; numbers don't lie. Remember that volume covers a lot of sins, and things will look good when you're busy. You'll tend to count the dollars and forget the pennies, but beware: let pennies slip and dollars follow.

Always have a resident maniac on duty and a nag in the office, keep eyes on everything all the time, insist on accountability from anyone involved in anything, listen to staff unrest
with mindfulness.

I've worked in food service all my life and believed that I would until my last breath, and when I hear of another closing, it's like a death in the family. I'm looking forward to eateries roaring back after this is over. New Orleans has an appetite for life and needs to be fed. Hopefully rents will be reasonable so that you can forge ahead and be part of the wave of maniacs, who, against all odds, will take us to the next level. I'm counting on you and that monster spaghetti sauce.

Sign Up!

FOR THE INSIDE SCOOP ON DINING, MUSIC, ENTERTAINMENT, THE ARTS & MORE!