The Entrepreneur’s Path – Starting a Restaurant


Starting a restaurant is no simple undertaking. Basically, you marry the operation and it becomes a sort of daily performance where you need to be at your very best presentation day-in and day-out (Meyer & Vann, 2013). Of course, your restaurant is best served (pun intended) with you, the owner, having a passion for cooking.

I never thought I could cook until I partnered with my true love. Wanting to concoct the ultimate salad dressing, I became discouraged by the constant taste testing of oils for the right flavour. That was when I recalled the lessons in psychology class that stated that the sense of smell was the biggest driver of taste, followed by the actual taste buds on the tongue and factors such as color, textures, and the sort.

I collected spices until my cupboards were heaping with the items. I collected a variety of colors of plates, and planned the colors of food items so that they were cohesively beautiful together not only on the color wheel, but on the carefully matched plate. I varied textures of foods so that they would tease the taste buds. Every item I cooked had an aromatic scent that was perfect once it wafted up?even outside the premise doors. And every item I cooked was original, never again to be duplicated, at least by me.

Writing a cookbook or starting a restaurant?or better yet, both?are potential routes for the individual who loves to cook or at least loves to be entrepreneurial with a flair for performance.

The biggest question concerning whether to start a restaurant or not is the cost of operation. To take over a turn-key restaurant where no to little remodelling is required costs $50,000 to $60,000+; to take over a restaurant that needs just some remodelling costs $90,000 to $150,000+; to take over a strip center or retail business that is not a restaurant and needs to be remodelled costs $440,000 to $650,000+; and to build a restaurant from scratch?from ground-up?costs from $840,000 to $1.7 million plus (Meyer & Vann, 2013). Now who has that kind of money? You could sell shares to people you know in exchange for discounts and priority service; you could access bank financing; you could tap into personal savings or solicit venture capital; you could lease all of your equipment (which is preferable for keeping costs down and having repair service at your disposal); or you could take on a partner to share in the costs, preferably someone who is skilled at cooking or at management (with the area they are not skilled in being your forte) (Meyer & Vann, 2013).

When opening a restaurant, Meyer and Vann (2013) suggest you need to go through rehearsals, just like with any acting gig. At first, start with index cards that list the food items and have waitresses serve other waitresses, with the line cooks using the index cards as makeshift food items, pretending to cook them according to the time required for that particular food item. Once these preliminary rehearsals are okay, it is wise to invite in a small group of family and friends and even prominent members of the community for a small test run with actual food. Once this is a success, then it is time to branch out and invite a large group in to test the kitchen, substituting less expensive food items for the more expensive ones on the list, as a cost-cutting hedge. Be sure to invite local food reviewers. When your doors are scheduled to open, there is no turning anyone away, so open the doors quietly and announce a grand opening once the staff and the process is streamlined.

When you get big enough, Meyer and Vann (2013) advise that you can expand by doing things such as replicating your restaurant, but be wary of becoming your own competition. They suggest a better idea, which is to isolate some particular area of food that your restaurant is successful making, and start a whole new restaurant concept based on that particular food item (for instance, if you are a steakhouse and your pastry desserts are remarkable, consider starting a pastry shop). Another of Meyer and Vann’s (2013) suggestions is to open a restaurant in a truck that services different areas with your specialty food items.

To get a better taste of what a restaurant entrepreneur experiences, I interviewed Lien Nguyen, owner and chef of Tre Viet, Calgary.

Marie: You worked as a chef with Tre Viet before you took ownership of the restaurant. What factors finalized your decision to take over the business?Lien: Throughout my life, I dreamed of opening a Vietnamese restaurant. It’s been a dream come true for me. I worked for restaurants for 15 years, and I dreamed of owning my own. When there was potential to open, my daughter could not help me. She didn’t want to work for seven days a week. My dream wasn’t coming true at that time. But, I was very surprised when I worked for Tre Viet. I took over right away–after one year of working for them.

Marie: What are some of the trials and tribulations with working as a restaurant owner?Lien: The best part of running a restaurant is the food, the service, and actually just running a business. I try my very best to make the customers happy. I want to invite the customers to test my food. I cook quickly for the customers, plus give complimentary teas sometimes. When a customer comes with a group of people and wants something not on the menu, I cater to him or her. I can do anything the customer wants.

Marie: What are some of the key responsibilities you have as a restaurant owner? Do you do all of the cooking and cleaning yourself, for instance?Lien: We do all of the cleaning and cooking ourselves. We have to clean every day, every night, after we have done the close. We check the washroom. We mop the floor. We clean up the table, and then set up again. We hired a waitress to help me and my daughter helps a lot, too. They help me when I’m busy in the back.

Marie: How did you learn to cook the menu?Lien: The menu is my own as when I was young, I liked to cook at home, but I got more experience when I worked at many restaurants in Calgary. The taste of the food is my own invention. I didn’t take any from those other restaurants. I liked learning how to set up the restaurant, how to set up the kitchen, how to serve the food, how to handle the workers, but the taste of the food is my own.

Marie: What are some of the monthly expenses that you encounter?Lien: Before it was okay. The market has been going up and down now?not like before. I have taken over the restaurant six months now already, right, but the economy is now going down and further down. So, I try my best to keep my customer happy. I try to make some nice promotions and my daughter makes some nice discounts. That way we try to entice new customers.

Marie: What advice would you give students wanting to start a restaurant?Lien: When you open the business, you cannot say no. When I opened my restaurant door, people were coming in, and I had to serve everybody. The customers get to try good food, the best food. That’s why I had to go into business. I welcome everybody.

Marie: Three years from now, where would you like to see your business?Lien: I will work hard, try my best, and make a difference such that my business keeps going up and up.

Marie: Any final comments?Lien: If the students who read The Voice Magazine come into my restaurant and say they read the article in The Voice Magazine, I will give them a 10% discount on their order.

Tre Viet is located at2929 Sunridge Way NE, Calgary, AB. Marie highly recommends the coconut curry chicken stir-fry. The prices are very reasonable and the food quality is extraordinary.

Also, be sure to check out the book How to Open and Operate a Restaurant by Arthur L. Meyer and Jon M. Vann. It provides comprehensive coverage on everything from staffing to financing to menu selection.

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