8 Restaurant Operators Share Their Best Advice for New Owners

“Opening a restaurant is easy,” said no one ever. 

The checklist for what it takes to launch a successful restaurant is seemingly limitless, including everything from crafting a strong concept and business plan to finding the right location to hiring a competent team to designing a profitable menu and beyond. There’s plenty to juggle, and as a first-, or even third-, fourth- or fifth-time operator, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. 

But you’re in this for a reason. Likely you have a passion for the industry and a desire to create experiences for others. Maybe you’re confident that you have something to offer that’s better or different than what already exists. And it’s almost guaranteed you have a flame of entrepreneurial spirit within you, ready to transform ideas into an actual business.

There's no doubt that running a restaurant takes hard work, and unfortunately, failure rates are significant. (The National Restaurant Association averages that one in three restaurants fail in their first year.) But with the right stamina and strategies, success is certainly within reach. 

To learn from others who’ve done it before, we reached out to eight established restaurateurs to get their answers to a single question: "What's the number one piece of advice you'd give to a new restaurant owner?" Here’s what they had to say.

Ellen Yin, co-founder of Philadelphia-based High Street Hospitality Group

Be ready. New restaurants always generate tons of buzz. It is your opportunity to put your best foot forward and introduce the world to your brand. Doing practice on friends and family who can provide honest feedback is an incredible gift. Soft open until you feel comfortable. The grand opening does not have to be the day you open your doors! 

Being ready also includes being ready in the event things don’t go exactly how you expected. Be flexible and open-minded to the fact that you will be learning about your clientele as well as your team members as things progress. Obviously having a focused mission and vision helps make the team more cohesive and driven toward working together. Have your basic systems in place so you can measure your progress. Building a contingency fund before you open also helps bridge the gaps of uncertainty. 

Diana Davila, chef-owner of Chicago-based Mi Tocaya Antojeria

You have to come up with a concept and then really allocate your funds in the places you determine are most important by constantly referring back to your concept. Who are we? What’s the story here? And what’s going to be most important to that? Prioritize accordingly. Do we really need to have uniforms? Do we need tons of kinds of glassware or plates? Plates are part of how I express myself with food, so I decided to spend a little more on plates. But all of these little decisions can save you, or cost you, thousands of dollars.

Hopefully things go well, and then later you can purchase the nicer silverware or another piece of equipment and do it with more ease. My other advice? Always get three quotes for everything – any electric job, any design job, any POS job. You’re going to see just how wildly different quotes can be and what each person can each bring to the table. Make your decisions from there.

Yehuda Sichel, owner of Philadelphia-based HUDA.

Invest in good staff. It’s important that you invest not only time, but money – pay them well and train them well. You can’t do everything yourself, and as an owner you have to be able to manage the operation. The only way to grow is with other people. Beyond pay, you can look at offering a 401K or even benefits like a discounted membership to a local gym. A lot of people who work in restaurants say it’s hard to get fit because you’re so tired, so if the employer helps with motivation to exercise and live a more balanced life, that brings you better staff and better performance.

It’s also important to look at it from a long-term perspective. It’s not only about where your staff are at now, but where they could be in a year or two years, and help them focus on long- and short-term goals.

Katie Button, founder of Asheville-based restaurant group Katie Button Restaurants

Opening a restaurant for the first time is incredibly overwhelming. You're going to wear a lot of hats in the beginning and feel like it's impossible to put out every fire. I've found that the key is isolating problems individually, and making sure that there are systems in place that prevent them from growing in scale or coming up again in the future. This way, things improve over time. It will get easier.

Nicole Mattson, co-owner of Denver-based Nocturne

Your team is everything. Being short on staff is better than being fully staffed with the wrong fits for your culture. Hospitality tends to be a very transient business – even if you find a great team, someone will move away to go to grad school, someone’s landlord will sell their house and inspire a server to follow their dreams and move to Hawaii – true story. When people leave unexpectedly, there’s always a time that you find yourself being more lenient on interviews out of pragmatism, and you go into interviews hoping for a good fit so badly that you extend an offer to someone who you know in your gut isn’t going to work out. Wait for the candidates that are excited to interview with you, have great answers, and make you smile. Add people that will lift the team up and inspire them further. Though, not to say you have to wait for the perfect candidate – we’ve had some wonderful people join our team without hospitality experience that became key players. 

Anthony Valletta, president of Bartaco (multiple locations)

Always remember that no one will care as much as you do [or] work as hard as you do, but the speed of the captain determines the speed of the ship. You will strive for excellence daily, but know that the opposite of excellence isn't poor, it's apathy, and it is important to preach that to your team. A mistake made twice is a decision, not a misstep. You will make many mistakes, but those are key learning moments. 

The world isn't waiting for more of the same thing, so constantly ask yourself why. If you are planning to recreate something that already exists, then stop and get out. No one is excited to be the second iteration of a product or service. They are excited to be the first Nike, Apple, or lululemon. Communicate your vision and strategy frequently and clearly, then do it again. Consistency is key and clarity is kindness. Don't leave people in the dark or they will see monsters. Lastly, remember you don't have to do this – you get to do this. Enjoy the wild and fun ride.

Matt de Gruyter, co-founder of Next Level Burger (multiple locations)

Approach your team like the best coach you ever had or the coach you wish you had. That means you’re going to support your team but also challenge them. If all you do is pour positivity into your team, theoretically that’s great, but you’ll end up with a team that’s too entitled to be teachable. If you’re an old-school, top-down boss that doesn’t respect and appreciate your staff, you just won’t have a staff. It’s about riding that line in between.

One of the best ways to challenge your team is to teach them the paradigm of, “focus on what you can control and influence and let go of the rest”. Challenge your staff to put everything through this paradigm. It’s amazing how often that simple and ancient construct can impact what they do – from handling a rude guest to the soft-serve machine not working.

Kyle Tovar, COO of Chicago-based Well Done Hospitality Group (François Frankie, Taureaux Tavern)

Lead with passion and genuine hospitality. The success of any restaurant ultimately relies on how satisfied guests are with their experience. The quality of the food and drinks should be prioritized, but it's not the only thing that mattersambiance and service should be at the top of the list as well.

To put your guests at ease and make them feel “at home”, it’s vital to establish a welcoming and comfortable environment. That starts with the team. Everyone from the front to back of the house should be knowledgeable, motivated, passionate, and attentive. It’s absolutely imperative to have the right people in place to create a memorable experience for the guests that will keep them coming back.