This fall has been a busy time for highly anticipated restaurant openings, so Eater checked in with a few veteran restaurant owners to hear about how their upcoming openings compare to past experiences. David Dubois, CEO of the Franklin Restaurant Group, just opened a Tasty Burger in Southie and is currently hard at work on a third location, this one in Harvard Square. Meanwhile, Paul Wilson and Travis Talbot of the Glynn Hospitality Group, fresh off the opening of Granary Tavern, are working on Sterling's in the Financial District. Amongst the three of them, they've collectively opened about 125 restaurants, so they each know a little something about the challenges and surprises that await restaurateurs. On a fine afternoon in October, the three were able to take a break from supervising their build-outs and budgets to meet at Granary Tavern and swap stories, gripes, and advice. (Also, spoiler alert: Dubois revealed that the Harvard Square Tasty Burger will be open until 4 AM. Hello late night burgers.)
The number one piece of advice to new restaurateurs looking to open a restaurant? Don't. But if that doesn't work out, there are a few important things to keep in mind: the right attitude, for instance. Having a sense of humor and thick skin is vital. "You might as well laugh about it," said Talbot.
"For Paul and me, speaking from experience, we have better senses of humor along the way, because what are you going to do? The first couple of restaurants that we did, you just want to bang your head against the wall. You want to be angry at everybody. You want to take names and kick asses, and after awhile, you just learn that it doesn't get you anywhere."
"Yeah, it's not really as easy as people think who haven't done it before," said Dubois. "But once you've done it once, the experience is something that hopefully gives you a bit of a thick skin to deal with all the craziness that ensues behind it. It's a very regulated process, and there are a lot of agencies that you're dealing with, and a lot of laws that you're dealing with all the time, but hopefully the end game is that you get to open something that is successful and busy, something that the city needs, the city wants."
From a more technical standpoint, picking the right team is key. "The biggest advice I would give is hire professionals," said Talbot.
"Back in the day when we all started, you could do it yourself. The market was a different paradigm. But now, you have to hire a professional contractor. Your brother-in-law can't be doing it because he's a great carpenter. You have to have professionals that help you with the city, permit processing, legalities, and so forth. Hire a designer that actually understands your vision and isn't just there to win awards in the next architectural magazine. And hire a chef that gets your personality and gets that he's part of a team. Hiring pros and having the right people around makes all the difference. At the end of the day, you've got food and beverages as a revenue stream but your product is the experience generated by people."
The third piece of the puzzle, in many ways the most important, is the budget. Keeping a close eye on it every single day helps prevent surprises, because little costs add up. Sure, those fancier doorknobs and different light fixtures may seem worth a few hundred here and there, but when the budget is depleted, the money has to come from somewhere. "Create - with the help of someone who really knows how to do it - a line item Excel spreadsheet budget," suggested Dubois.
"Every day, look at the budget. What happens to people who don't have a lot of experience is that they start spending money on things, and new things come up that they hadn't planned on, and they're pouring money into the project. At the end of the day, they're like, 'Why am I 25% over budget?' A lot of times, that's not 25% that they even have, because they scraped to get to where they were in the first place."
And don't be afraid to ask stupid questions of the people who have already been there. Dubois, Talbot, and Wilson agreed that the local restaurant industry can be a very supportive community. "If you were an architect, I'm assuming, there probably aren't a whole lot of your colleagues you can go to where there wouldn't be billable hours to say, 'Can you have a look at this?'" said Talbot.
"In our industry, you can go out for a beer, show your menu to another chef, and right away, he'll mark it up for you and say, 'Here's what I think.' And you're not reinventing the wheel by any means: there are no new concepts, no new ideas. It's a community, so a lot of times some of our best ideas come from our competitors. They're competitors in the market but not in the industry."
Even with extensive experience opening restaurants, Dubois, Talbot, and Wilson still face challenges; many aspects of the process are simply out of their control. Of particular frustration is the level of regulation and red tape involved with permits, inspections, and other assorted paperwork. Talbot and Wilson expressed aggravation at paperwork being lost by the city on multiple occasions and the fact that there's a massive communication breakdown amongst all the departments that need to be involved in the opening of restaurants. Declaring an accurate opening date is nearly impossible with so many factors out of direct control of the owners, so Dubois defaults to saying "two weeks" whenever he's asked about a date. Although "two weeks" became a running joke throughout the conversation, Dubois did slip in a quiet estimation for the opening of the upcoming Tasty Burger in Harvard Square: "We're shooting for the end of the month or early November." He also revealed that the location would be open until the virtually unheard-of time of 4 AM, so revelers will be able to enjoy a full two hours of burger eating after the bars have closed.
Despite the challenges, it must be worth it, or people like Dubois, Talbot, and Wilson wouldn't be going on to open their seventh, twenty-fifth, hundredth restaurant. "You have to just constantly remind yourself that it's an amazing opportunity," said Dubois. "It's very rare, and not everybody gets to do it even though a lot of people want to do it."