The first 12 months for a new restaurant are all about constant change, planning, creativity and people. How do you survive this testing period? Chris Sheedy finds out
The doors to Silver Fox Bar & Grill in Canberra were opened for the first time just five months ago but already the restaurant’s owner is overseeing major changes in the kitchen. Staff have been shifted around, hours have been changed and, most importantly, the menu is going through a refresh. It seems early days to be making such a dramatic adjustment but actually the timing couldn’t be better. The first 12 months should be all about change.
“In the first 12 months of a new restaurant’s life, it simply has to be a matter of refining as you go,” says Silver Fox Bar & Grill director/owner Michelle Cochrane. “You have to do a lot of listening to what the market is telling you and, in my experience so far, in the first six months a new restaurant’s feedback book gets filled very quickly.
“You must not be afraid of change. I love change. I see the positive in it. I listen to every single piece of feedback and I do it by spending a fair bit of time on the floor. When people really want to have their say, I listen to them. In our first week we had complaints about the lighting, for instance. We were told we were not dimming the lights enough. But then when we dimmed the lights, people complained that they could not see. So it is about listening to the feedback but then finding the right balance.”
For Cochrane, Silver Fox Bar & Grill is her first foray into the restaurant world. She has had valuable guidance from her parents, at whose seafood restaurant she waited tables when she was younger. But still the start-up challenges are coming thick and fast.
Legendary chef Warren Turnbull, whose restaurant Assiette earned him so much acclaim, has opened more eateries than he can count on two hands. Since Assiette, there has been District Dining, with restaurants in Sydney and Auckland, as well as several outlets of Mexico Food & Liquor in New Zealand and Australia, and two locations so far of his popular Chur Burger restaurants, in Sydney and Brisbane.
Chur Burger began as a pop-up restaurant in 2013, intended to simply see Turnbull through a difficult personal and professional period caused by his divorce and by a catastrophic fire that destroyed Assiette just weeks after an expensive renovation. But then the little burger joint developed a life of its own, experiencing an astounding level of popularity in the old Assiette premises.
“It was such a huge success that I just rolled with it,” Turnbull says. “I have cut out the fine dining for the time being and right now I couldn’t be happier. I have finally found a balance in life where I still work hard but I can take time off and enjoy myself.
“We do up to 3000 burgers a week in the Sydney restaurant. We make more money weekly than Assiette ever made. My accountants can’t quite believe it. Chur Burger has a cheap and cheerful vibe but as a business, it is phenomenal. I still have to pinch myself.”
So, what are the secrets to success when it comes to starting up a new venture? Turnbull says it begins with passion. If you love what you are doing and you are passionate about it then that is an excellent start.
“Then you need to find the right site and study the area,” Turnbull says. “Spend some time there. Spend a month eating around that area and check out what the traffic flow is like on a Sunday night or a Monday morning.”
Next up, Turnbull says, make sure you have enough start-up capital. “A lot of people spend all their money before the restaurant even opens,” he says. “If you’re on a budget then it is very important that you find somewhere that already has extraction and a grease trap, etc, because they are expensive outlays. And have the key staff on board before the restaurant opens. Make sure they are people that you are comfortable with and that you feel safe with.”
Cochrane agrees, saying perhaps the single most important ingredient for success is the right people. She is not necessarily talking about people who are of a similar mindset to you. You need to find staff, Cochrane says, that complement your business plan.
“You really need to consider the menu and your clientele and match the skill sets and personalities with that,” she explains. “I have already had two specific incidents with staff who simply did not complement the business model. Sometimes you don’t find that out until after the recruiting. But when you do realise you have made that mistake, you need to take care of it immediately. The first step, really, is understanding and knowing exactly what you want the business to be.”
As Turnbull was launching Assiette, the most difficult tasks involved things completely unrelated to cooking—insurance, tills and other technological systems, HR processes, and so on. But it all became easier once he surrounded himself with the right people.
“Once I had the right people to help me, it wasn’t as scary as I thought,” he says. “I never did it myself and I still don’t. I get third parties or other staff to do it. Just make sure they are people who are very good at what they do. If you have a good accountant and you have good payroll and accounts staff, then it leaves you time to concentrate on what you do best.”
And finally, both of our experts reiterate, a golden rule in the first 12 months is to always listen to the market. “Too many chefs will just do what they want to do but you have to listen to your customers,” Turnbull says. “They are the ones who are paying your bills. They are the ones who are giving you money. If you don’t give them what they want then they will take their money somewhere else.”