Knowing about good food and having great presentation skills simply isn't enough if you're thinking about jacking in the day job to become a restaurateur say first-timers
You're sociable. You give dinner parties. You have ‘mine host' fantasies. Next thing you know, it's opening night. To people who are frustrated in other industries, restaurant grass often seems an alluring shade of green, but once you've made the move, how do you know what to do?
Julian Mason and his wife Judith bought The Strand, a bistro in Matlock, as a going concern 21 years ago. She had catering experience; he'd been made redundant from the petrochemical industry and didn't want to be vulnerable again. The couple had to keep a firm eye on costs and that meant living on-site.
"If you can live above or on the premises, do it," says Mason. "In the early days, you have to make sure your outgoings are minimal, you have so many fixed overheads. The one thing you can control is your labour costs. We probably made more money in the first year than subsequently, because our labour costs were so low."
In straitened circumstances, Mason recommends taking advice wherever you can get it – which usually means existing staff or the outgoing owners. "I worked with the couple that we bought it from for 10 days. I got to grips with running the cellar and got to know the suppliers, so at least there was some sort of hand-over."
Ross Williams, who owns Herefordshire pub-restaurant The Wellington with wife Philippa, agrees. They were both PR consultants and keen eaters-out before buying The Wellington in 2002, and they've shifted the wet/dry split from 60/40 to 30/70.
"I bought a book on how to run a successful pub and was none the wiser. On the first night, all the staff on the books were working. We were massively overstaffed, but in those first few weeks I learned as I went along, from them."
The advantage of taking on a business with room to grow is your mistakes are hidden. "Basic systems weren't in place until we were here,"
says Williams. "There was no way of allocating customers to tables. Luckily, it was never full!"
He advises drawing on existing skills; staff training came easily to the couple because of their background in communications, he says.
Giving staff a sense of ownership can help.
"We involve our staff in the bigger picture," he says. "We tell them what our targets are and how they can contribute." He also counsels waiting before refurbs or kitchen upgrades. "If we'd done it straight away we wouldn't have known what we needed, and we could have made mistakes."
Andy Spracklen is co-owner, with partner Norman Musa, of Manchester Asian canteen Ning. He has remained in his day job in urban regeneration and spends most of his free time running the restaurant floor. Their first three months were made slightly easier by employing a front of house manager who helped implement basic systems, but Spracklen was prey to ‘nervous owner' syndrome, a common pitfall.
"We couldn't afford expensive consultants. You pick up from books, but there are surprisingly few with practical advice and techniques. You learn on your feet; a lot of it is common sense. But if I was to give any advice, I'd say it's very easy when it's your own restaurant to be almost too controlling and too paranoid about what people are thinking. It's impossible to please everyone. I've learnt that you've got to give your staff an element of freedom."
The essential element for all first-timers is money. Matt Hew was an electrician before his father bought Cheshire pub the Cock O Barton. For the past year, it has been a smart restaurant bringing city fripperies to the country. Hew learned on a ‘suck it and see'
basis, but he, too, swears by his weekly profit and loss sheet.
"Have a very tight idea of budget. It's all about the numbers.
You might think if you create some great place you'll do well, but unless you watch the numbers you get into trouble."