What happened when I decided to learn how to open a restaurant

In 2001 my girlfriend1 and I decided that we wanted to open a restaurant. I had been a server in a neighborhood Chinese restaurant2, a busser at a health food restaurant, and a Starbucks barista. So, not much restaurant experience, but we loved food and cooking and the idea of having our own business. We were young and we knew we could figure it out.

I got a job at a local restaurant that I liked and figured I’d learn from the inside. I confidently told the owner that I expected I’d have my own restaurant in 2-3 years. She was kind enough to not laugh in my face3

We started collecting recipes, opened a business bank account at our credit union, registered for a DBA and domain name. We bought and read a lot of books, ate at a lot of restaurants (we called it market research), and sort of wrote a business plan. We did a lot of things to plan our restaurant, but really we had no idea what we were doing.

I had no idea then what makes a restaurant profitable. I had no idea what is the right amount to spend on linen, or plates, or takeout containers, or building maintenance. I had no idea how to engineer a menu to produce a profit. I had no idea if our concept would work, or even really how to define success. I had no idea how much it would cost to open a restaurant.

I started Restaurant Launcher because it’s what I wish I had then. It’s based on my 20+ years working in and on restaurants. We never did open our restaurant4, but I’ve helped a lot of other people open theirs. I’ve learned a lot in the process about what makes a restaurant work and how much it costs to open and operate one. The most important thing that the successful ones do is to create a sound financial plan as the first step.

I’ve seen so many great restaurants fail because they didn’t have a financial plan. Having amazing food is not enough, having amazing service is not enough. You have to live and breathe the numbers, and make that part work, or all the great food and service won’t be able to keep your doors open.

Restaurant Builder Lite is a great (and free!) starting point for anyone who has been dreaming about opening a restaurant and wondering if their idea might work. I recommend that you use it as part of your brainstorming and concept development process. You can get useful numbers and insight to tell you if your all-day muffin top joint or late-night al pastor taco stand can turn a profit.

Restaurant Builder Pro is in the Launch Lab. It is an experimental playground for future restaurateurs to develop and fine-tune a restaurant concept. You can see what happens to your financial plan if you raise lunch prices by $1, or start serving brunch on Sunday, or go for that ultra high end aesthetic, or DIY everything to get the doors open ASAP. You can try it free for 7 days to see if it works for what you’re trying to do. If you’re having trouble, send an email or use the chatbox to ask a question. I’m here to help you succeed, it’s literally my job now so don’t be shy about asking.

I’m excited to help you make your dream restaurant a reality. It’s work, and it will likely take you longer than you expect, but it can be incredibly rewarding. There are many paths to success, and that’s part of what makes it fun and challenging. Whatever you do, start with the financial plan and make sure that you build a restaurant that will make enough of a profit to keep you going. That’s the foundation for your future success. 

1 She’s my wife now, which is awesome. I wish there was an English word that meant “my wife/husband/partner but before when they weren’t my wife/husband/partner but I still knew them and we did this thing together.” Do other languages have this?
2 This is where I first learned what “86” and “in the weeds” meant to restaurant people. Also this was literally in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. I got to wait on him once, he was very kind and I couldn’t stop smiling all day.
3 I learned so much from Julie Stanley at Food Dance Cafe. She practiced open-book management and had weekly staff meetings to review the restaurant’s finances. Julie is the Midwest’s Alice Hoffman and was committed to local and seasonal before everyone else was doing it. I didn’t learn until later how incredibly rare and wonderful this place was.
4 It was going to be Halo Halo International Kitchen, a Filipino-American-Global fusion restaurant with low prices and thrift store decor. It probably wouldn’t have worked in the market we were in. I still think it would’ve been cool though.