What Makes a Successful Restaurateur?

81i8EYVVbNL._AA1500_Jews and food: could there be a more natural and passionate partnership? Any doubts on this count were instantly dispelled by the entertaining and revealing presentation given yesterday at London’s Jewish Book Week by Nicholas Lander, restaurant critic for the Financial Times and author of The Art of the Restaurateur, and Russell Norman one of the team behind hit London restaurants Polpo, Spuntino and Mishkin’s.

The meat of the talk was Lander’s distillation to 10 key points of what makes a successful restauranteur. I’ll get around to these in a minute but equally striking were some of the opinions that flowed forth from the audience, a gathering of possibly the most high maintenance restaurant goers in the capital.

Complaints were leveled at no-bookings policies, noise levels (too loud!), light levels (too dim!), seating (too hard!) and noisy fellow diners (having too much fun!). All this left Norman, whose restaurants tend not to take bookings, be loud, dark, not especially comfy and packed with screeching patrons, swiveling uncomfortably in his chair.

Lander, who in pre-critic days breathed life into the Soho dining institution L’Escargot, stoically responded with some useful advice for the hard of hearing: if you can make a booking, then request the quietest table. Also don’t assume your waiter is a mind reader: if you don’t want them interrupting your conversation every five minutes, refilling wine and water glasses, ask for the jug/bottle to be left on the table.

The duo asked that the audience appreciate the value that no-bookings policies can provide: it can cost as much as £100,000 a year in staff costs to manage bookings on a daily basis, as hot restaurants such as Dabbous and Balthazar can receive anything up to a 1000 calls a day. Doing away with bookings means one less business cost to be accounted so, hopefully, lower, menu prices (I also realised that it also explains why so many restaurants now use the likes of Open Table and Top Table to manage their bookings online.)

In case you are thinking of opening a restaurant, here are Lander’s top 10 things you’ll need to have a chance of success:

1. A Sense of Humour – this is a ‘sine qua non’ since customers and the day-to-day operations of the business are utterly unpredictable. If you took it all seriously, you’d be a nervous wreck within a week or less.

2. Three Loves – of food, wine and fellow human beings. Norman thought the last is really the most important: you’ve got to be able to make your customers feel good and satisfied -and, interestingly, this need not be through the provision of the best food or wine.

3. Location – having a nose for the right location and get a deal on the lease (see 6) – look for neighbourhoods where there are opportunities and avoid locations in front of bus stops (because of poor shop front visibility).

4. Financial Nous – the fundamentals of good housekeeping, working out profit and loss and using cash wisely never go out of style. In particular, pay small, independent suppliers promptly. If you’re not up to this, then hire someone who is good with figures and work that into your business plan.

5. Lead from the Front – inspire your staff and be able to communicate your vision. Loiter with intent on the floor and be there, even if you’re not the most competent to deal with an issue.

6. Know what is of real value – A: the lease and B: the alcohol license. Westminster council don’t issue new alcohol licenses which means that if you have one to pass on it can add a premium of £800,000 to your business in Central London. The gold rule is also that you should be aiming to make 70% of your profits from food, 30% from liquor sales, while being aware of how much more labour and cost intensive it is to make that profit on a plate of food vs the simple act of opening a bottle of wine.

7. Determination – combine your vision with a determination to realise it – one without the other isn’t enough.

8. Rigour and flexibility – be prepared to bend to popular demand, ie give your customer what they want and do it supremely well.

9. A Thick Skin – don’t get upset by criticism as your biggest enemy can be your ego. Also take heart from the fact that most problems can be corrected very quickly – in the space of hours between lunch and dinner.

10. The Hardest Three: A) be aware of the environmental impact of your business and consider ways to minimise it; B) consider what you can do for your local community  – they will then be more likely to support you; and C) consider your power to do good, ie supporting charitable causes. I took this all to suggest you need to have a sense of social responsibility which really tied it into point 2’s about needing to love humanity.

These last few points were very quickly skimmed over because – with all the audience comments – the allotted hour was up. I was surprised, though, that the ability to be able choose and manage a winning team (and in particular a competent if not talented chef) was not one of Lander’s essentials.

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