Must-Read Memoirs and Business Books for Anyone Who Wants to Run a Restaurant

Anyone who loves food has at least once thought “I should open a restaurant!” Lots of people do it every year. Lots fail. Historically, one in three restaurants shuttered in the first year, and of the remaining, another 50% or so won’t make it past Year 5. The pandemic and the ongoing effects thereof continue to rock the industry. The spiraling costs of rent, labor, and food, coupled with supply chain issues, are making the job harder. And according to the National Restaurant Association, most proprietors won’t see a real recovery in the next 12 months.

With these sobering statistics in mind, you are going to want as much industry knowhow in hand before you risk it. That goes for anyone currently running a restaurant, too.

To gather materials for a self-led crash course in restaurant management, I sat down with Dr. Michael Cheng, the dean of the top-rated Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University. Before he was an administrator, Dr. Cheng’s favorite class to teach was Restaurant Management. He was happy to share his knowledge and reading list with anyone who may be hitting the books.

This impromptu syllabus will help you sharpen your business skills, and offer a tour of real-life restaurant culture. Reading business texts as well as memoirs will offer you a realistic view of what lies ahead.

Must-read books about restaurant culture and workplaces

First on Cheng’s list is Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table.” In this highly regarded 2006 industry standard, Meyer proselytizes an “enlightened hospitality” credo that puts employees first. While Meyer himself may struggle to uphold his own values, Cheng says “Setting the Table” remains a must-read for anyone wanting to run or own a restaurant; the New York Times review cited an emblematic Meyer quote: “Generosity is clearly in our self-interest.” Cheng also points out the difference in skills and talents those roles require. A charming tableside manner doesn't magically mean you can keep a back office organized, and vice-versa. Meyer’s empire of Manhattan restaurants demonstrates how savvy he was in both dimensions.

Arguably the most enjoyable read on the list, Anthony Bourdain’s seminal “Kitchen Confidential” remains exceptionally relevant after 20 years (fish deliveries excepted). Despite many things changing in our society, Dr. Cheng says, the fundamentals of hospitality remain the same. And regardless of celebrity chefdom, mixologist influencers, and Bourdain’s own personally tragic story, the ruffian-cum-cuisinier trope abounds in the industry. And if that doesn’t apply to you directly, it will apply to people you work with. This is your guide to understanding the folks who are very happy in the back of house.

Bourdain was also a vocal proponent for the vast minority population in the hospitality community. The restaurant industry employs more minority managers than any other sector in the United States — so your reading should reflect a diversity of views. Kwame Onwuachi’s memoir, “Notes from a Young Black Chef,” chronicles his struggles and triumphs while spotlighting the role of race in the long battle to breach the bulwark of fine dining held by white, male chefs. Cheng also teaches the case study of the Shaw Bijou, Onwuachi’s short-lived DC tasting menu venture, as a cautionary tale of celebrity and buzz backfiring.

Women also have been historically undervalued in restaurant culture. Despite nearly half of all restaurants having women partners, the industry has been plagued by sexual harassment going unchecked. Everyone watched as the #MeToo movement toppled the reigns of some American culinary royalty, but to understand the issue more deeply, read “Wine Girl,” a fierce memoir by the wunderkind sommelier Victoria James. There is still a long way to go.

If you prefer your memoirs in smaller servings, pick up Will Brawley’s “Restaurant Owners Uncorked Part II: Twenty-One Owners Share Their Stories.” Reading first-person accounts of successes and failures from the front lines of a broad lineup of restaurants and bars will have you thinking it’s not just me!

Management books for the budding restaurant operator

If you are truly starting from scratch, Cheng recommends skipping “Running a Restaurant for Dummies.” It’s not just that the title implies a clientele of mannequins. It’s that Cheng considers the book not terribly helpful.

Instead, he suggests, you can turn to the web for an abundance of resources. You’re already on this fine website, so you probably know what’s up. Cheng also recommends the site for its depth of resources and templates. Toast, the near-ubiquitous POS, also produces an abundance of industry-specific articles and helpful notes.

If you are really looking to drill down into the inner workings of start to finish business planning without getting yourself a degree, Cheng’s favorite textbook is “Hospitality Management Learning Modules,” by Peter Szende. If you can find the entire book, great. If not, you can buy individual modules directly from the publisher for the taco-esque price of $5 apiece.

If you want the full experience, you can cherry-pick the modules Cheng finds most useful. Here they are, in the order he taught them. These alone would make a decent crash-course for anyone who wanted to get a deep scan of the restaurant business for about $60.

The Restaurant Industry and Restaurant Segments, by Robin B. DiPietro

Restaurant Concept and Service Experience Design, by Madeleine Pullman

Standardized Food Cost, by Michael J. O’Fallon

Pricing Structures Selection in the Restaurant Industry, by Curry Hilton, Tim J. Smith, and Daniel Parmet 

Menu Pricing for the Food & Beverage Operation, by Sybil Yang

Comprehending and Analyzing Food & Beverage Financial Statements, by Jonathan Jaeger

Menu Design for the Food and Beverage Operation, by Sybil Yang

Dining Room Operations: Service Styles & Organization, by Peter Szende

Dining Room Operations: Establishing Service Standards and Procedures, by Peter Szende

Restaurant Revenue Management: Basic Concepts, by Kristin V. Rohlfs

Crafting a Restaurant Business Plan, by Michael Staub and Roy Madhok

[Photo by Mikhail Nilov via Pexels]