Of course you don’t want your new restaurant opening to perish and like most people involved in opening a new restaurant you’re pretty confident you, and your new opening, will be a success. And why not? Starting any new venture with the expectation of failure isn’t conducive to success. In any case who starts anything anticipating failure?
The Alarming Rate Of New Restaurant Openings That Fail
What happens more often is that new restaurants do fail and at an alarming rate. While a positive attitude doesn’t insulate anyone involved in a new restaurant opening from crashing and burning what trips them up is bad planning and fantasy thinking.
It’s hard to get reliable data on the rate of new restaurants failing and some of the rates commonly quoted are, thankfully, a lot worse than the reality. You’ve probably, like me, heard, at least once, the famous stat that: 90% of new restaurant openings fail. The reality is, thankfully, nowhere near as catestrophic.
So much for the good news. The bad news is that the failure rate is still appalling. Some years back a study of the failure rate was undertaken by Cornell University which broke down the failure rate of newly opened restaurants over time.
- After the first year: 27% of newly opened restaurants had closed their doors
- After three years: 50% of those restaurants were no longer in business
- After five years: 60% had disappeared
- After 10 years: 70% of the restaurants that had opened a decade earlier had vanished
Sobering reading, isn’t it? You have to wonder as to how many of those that failed by year three were already limping the the end of year one, wouldn’t you? I’m guessing a very decent sized batch of those crawled out of year one.
It’ll Be Alright On The Night Isn’t A Strategy
Here’s another question to ponder: How many of those new restaurant openings planned for their “grand reveal” properly? And how many assumed everything would work out “one way or another?”
There’s just so many moving parts to a restaurant and key considerations to take into account. Location, decor, ergonomics, design, theme, budgeting, marketing, food style etc. Get one of these wrong and you could be doomed from the start, but get the food wrong and you’ll be doomed anyway.
As chef recruiters we’re almost always as excited by the idea of getting to work on a new opening as the people actually doing the opening. It offers a recruiter a rare opportunity to shape the style of a restaurant and, hopefully, play a hidden part in its success. And yet new openings are something that, as recruiters, we’ve learned need quite a lot of “due diligence.”
Chef Jobs Need To Be Sold – Allow Enough Time
Ultimately it will be our responsibility to sell this chef job [often the key appointment is for a Head Chef] and, despite what you might think new openings are often a hard sell. Chefs are as averse to taking unnecessary risks as anyone else. If we’re going to succeed in persuading a high value chef to take on a new restaurant opening we need to have a very high degree of confidence about the following:
- That the opening is actually going to happen
- That there is a plan for success that is realistic and realizable
- That the people managing the opening are competent, or that they’re hiring someone competent to manage it on their behalf
- That they haven’t underestimated the initial costs, especially working capital for the first nine months
- That they fully appreciate the importance of the kitchen and the people who’ll work in it
That might seem like a pretty obvious checklist but it’s not for nothing that the failure rate of restaurants is a bad as it is. As chef recruiters we have to walk away from more new opening projects than we accept precisely because such a large proportion of new owners can’t satisfy us that they’re on point, on those five points.
We’re obsessed with what we do, recruit, but each time we make an approach, to a chef, on behalf of a new restaurant project we’re putting our own credibility on the line. Yes I know that recruiters have a shoddy reputation anyway, but that doesn’t mean that we have to join the club.
When You’re In A Hole: Dig Differently Or Stop
So what am I saying? What’s the point to this? Truthfully I hate getting to the point, especially when the point can be read as a damning indictment of a meaningful proportion of our potential client base. Anyway, here goes: the point is that an astonishingly high percentage of new openings are disasterously conceived and poorly planned. They fail long before they open their doors and, because they try to rescue the situation with the same flawed thinking that got them into a mess in the first place, everything they try after the fact only puts them in deeper.
Operation: Brand New Restaurant Luxury Opening In China
Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s an example [suitably anonomised, client confidentially always rules] and it’s by no means the most fantasy based client I’ve dealt with by any stretch of the imagination:
The assignment was for a new restaurant opening in China, here’s the wish list for the position of Head Chef
- Experience as, at least, a Second Chef in one of the Pelligrino World’s Top 50 Restaurants
- Min 5 Years experience prior to that in Michelin 2 Stars and and above
- To commence work in time for the opening in 5 weeks time
- Deliver food comparable to Paul Pairet’s “Mr & Mrs Bund”
In return they were prepared to offer:
- US-$60,000 Per Year
- Accommodation [Location, quality, size etc unspecified]
That’s it. If you’re still reading then you probably don’t need me to explain what’s wrong with that picture but in case you do here are some of the most glaring problems bulleted
- Chefs of that quality simply won’t abandon their current positions with little or no notice
- They won’t relocate to to remote locations for money that’s less than they currently earn
- They don’t make hasty decisions
- If they’re married, or in a relationship, they’ll want a “family package” [not mentioned in the brief]
- They’ll be very particular about the kitchen and the staff [not mentioned in the brief]
- For a new opening they’ll know that they need plenty of time to design, cost and implement a menu(s)
In short the client was a lot more than “a day late and a dollar short.” They had a clear idea of what they wanted in a head chef but had given no consideration to the WIIFT (what’s in it for them).
As chef recruiters we don’t go to first base without a clear understanding of the WIIFT. People do things for reasons and if you don’t give them a reason, several in fact, to come work for you then you’re not getting them, period.
If you can give chefs good reasons to work for you and think you can fill your vacancy without the assistance of specialist chef recruiters then be our guest and help yourself to some prime chef job advertising for free.
Magical Thinking & New Restaurants Don’t Mix
You might think I’ve chosen an outlier example to make a point but I’ve fielded even more unrealistic requests. So unrealistic I’d hesitate to recount them because they’d sound like something from the pages of a David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon novel instead of the sincere, but unrealistic, thoughts of a restauranter or would-be restauranter. However the most astonishing thing about the example I have given you is that this was a project with very serious money riding on it. One thing we did manage to wring from the prospective client was a set of design renders for the restaurant; it looked palatial and luxurious.
We’re chef recruiters so naturally we think that the appointment of a Head Chef is one of the first things on the to-do list of any new opening, with realistic expectations of success, but we live in the real world too and understand that sometimes other things come first. However even if the appointment of a Head Chef isn’t item 1. it needs to rank very high on the to-do list.
Lessons From A Restaurant Superstar
I recently watched a documentary on Danny Meyer’s opening of Eleven Madison Park and was supremely unsurprised that Meyer, perhaps the world most successful restauranter, had his head chef appointed a year before opening. Appointed mind, not just found, not just contracted, but appointed and working.
I know Meyer is a superstar, and by now a very well funded one, and that not everyone can plan so far ahead, but Danny Meyer didn’t become Danny Meyer by accident and you can bet your shirt that securing a top quality Head Chef for any new openings of his was a top priority from day one.
Notwithstanding the fact that Paul Pairet is a world class chef in his own right you can be sure he doesn’t leave appointing a Head Chef till the last minute and that there was no way he was without a head chef a month before Mr & Mrs Bund opened.
If You’re Not Ready For Primetime…WAIT
If finance is an issue, in making a timely head chef appointment, then maybe your project is underfunded to begin with, in which case either delay opening, until you’ve better finance in place, or abort; you’ll save yourself a shed load of cash and a lifetime’s worth of heartache. Seriously, get your working capital in order, plan everything and get your head chef signed up months ahead of time.
Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives