What were people asking you about?
We had a lot of questions around flow. The biggest thing people were asking was how to lay the front of the space out to maximise efficiency. Most of the people we had this year were pretty experienced, but there were still questions about how many seats can I get into 2,500 square feet, and other questions around codes. Truth is, we have such a short window at this time that we try to send emails out to the pre-registered people asking them to present their questions ahead of time and we encourage them to bring photographs and other materials for examples. And then we always follow up.
What would you advise someone starting from scratch?
I really encourage everybody – and not because I’m a consultant – to get them to draw on experienced people and work as a team. You may be a great chef, but not a great operator, or you may be a great operator, but you don’t know how to cook. I consider the restaurant industry a pie – if you’re a fine-dining restaurant, food could be as much as 50% of the importance of the restaurant, followed by service at 25% and maybe 15% location. I find the reason most restaurants fail is because they are missing pieces of that pie to be a completed unit.
What comes first, the menu or the design?
If your passion is food you need your menu first. If you don’t know what your food is and you design from the kitchen forward it’s almost impossible to design a restaurant. I also find a lot of restaurateurs without a lot of experience listen to their customers too much – some feedback is good but you don’t want to change the essential nature of your brand based on what you think others want. It’s best to just stick to your idea and have the confidence to execute it.
What kind of experience do you need to own a successful restaurant?
If you’re going to own a restaurant you need at least five years of management experience, minimum. If you have a degree in hotel/restaurant management, that can give you an edge but you still need the real world experience. I find the transition between general manager and owner is the hardest there is. I can say that because I sold two of my restaurants to managers and they failed.
What do owners have that managers don’t, and vice versa?
Managers work day-to-day and week-to-week, but a good restaurant owner is working on the long-term projection of the restaurant. They don’t have to worry about who’s on the shift that day; they’re more concerned about promotions, affiliations, networking in the community. I think a lot of general managers get caught up in the day-to-day activity such that when they become owners, they struggle. They don’t teach ownership in school, unfortunately.
Have you ever had to discourage someone from opening a restaurant?
We had a young man come to the Ask the Design Experts booth – he was maybe 28 to 30 years old and had convinced his parents to invest in a restaurant concept. I questioned the capital injection versus his experience. Without saying ‘you shouldn’t do the restaurant outright’, I suggested he needed more experience and that risking a life savings to get into the restaurant industry just wouldn’t be a good idea.
What are some trends you’re seeing in restaurant concepts?
We’re still seeing the burger trend and customisable pizza is a big thing now. But what I’m seeing in my market in Texas is Vietnamese – or pho – getting huge. There’s also a trend toward healthier food and pho is pretty healthy – it’s broth-based and has lots of fresh vegetables and lean meats. It’s also affordable and easy.
What equipment do you see being used more in the near future?
Induction cooking is getting huge. Eventually municipalities – such as California – will insist on it. Induction draws only 10% of the energy and puts no heat out in the room. Also, smart equipment is on the rise. Some of the ovens now have computers in them so they will send signals back to the corporate office to tell you they’re not being cleaned properly. You can also programme new recipes from a remote location.