If your friends love your ribs and pulled pork sandwiches, you may have a little dream kicking around in the back of your head that you could start a small barbecue restaurant. If your neighbors constantly sing the praises of your summertime IPA and your Christmastime porter, you may think you could make it big with a modest micro-brewery restaurant venture. Or maybe you’ve mastered a hollandaise and are really dreaming big, thinking of Michelin stars.
You wouldn’t be alone.
Restaurant ownership is the dream of many. As office jobs grow more demanding and many become disheartened by career prospects in their given field; sinking one’s savings into a restaurant venture can seem like a good idea. A way out. It’s difficult to say why the restaurant dream remains so persistent. Surely it has something to do with the celebrity chef phenomenon in the United States. Television shows make it seem that with the right combination of creativity and hard work, anyone can make it in the business. It’s a dreamy landscape, one where a person can work independently, not beholden to a boss and be free to be creative and let his or her talents shine.
Rachael Ray, Paula Deen, and Guy Fieri are all examples of the rags to riches story of the celebrity chef. From humble beginnings, these enterprising cooks made it big. Many don’t dream of making it so big. Many have more modest goals of a simple life pursuing one’s passion, escaping their hum-drum office job and maybe making a little money in the process.
Before someone cashes in the 401k though, the words of anti-celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain should be given a close look. It is enough to give any sensible business person pause. On the restaurant dream phenomenon Bourdain asks:
What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people? Why would anyone who has worked hard, saved money, and often been successful in other fields want to pump his hard-earned cash down a hole that statistically, at least, will almost purely prove dry?
Why venture into an industry with enormous fixed expenses (rent, electricity, gas, water, linen, maintenance, insurance, license fees, trash removal, etc.), with a notoriously transient and unstable workforce and highly perishable inventory of assets? The chance of ever seeing a return on an investment is about one in five. What insidious spongiform bacterium so riddles the brains of men and women that they stand there on the tracks, watching the lights of the oncoming locomotive, knowing full well it will eventually run them over? After all these years in the business, I still don't know.
A common statistic heard in the restaurant business is that 90 percent of restaurants fail in the first year. There is virtually no evidence to support this outrageous claim. However, true statistics are still hard to come by. Some old studies put the three year success rate of a restaurant at around 40 percent. By ten years a restaurant has about a 70 or 80 percent chance of being gone. Those aren’t good numbers. But just because a restaurant is gone does not mean that it didn’t make money. Many people, simply, can’t take the work.
The restaurant business is grueling. It’s grueling for any career changer recently sprung from a desk chair looking for more active work. Long hours, hot conditions, an unstable workforce, and late nights are all hazards of the business. Many go into it knowing this, but many get out quickly, not having understood that a restaurant provides a constant onslaught of all those things. They are not just hazards of the business – they are the business.
As chefs know (literally) in their bones (and joints), half the job for the first few years—if not the entirety of your career—involves running up and down stairs (quickly), carrying bus pans loaded with food, and making hundreds of deep-knee bends a night into low-boy refrigerators. In conditions of excruciatingly high heat and humidity of a kind that can cause young and superbly fit cooks to falter.
As an owner, the hours are longer. The stress greater – it is your money, after all. And the troublesome employees are all yours too. Owners, particularly in the startup phase, wear many hats. Floor scrubber, carpenter, plumber, electrician, accountant and bathroom cleaner are all jobs a restaurant owner has to look forward to. Occasionally they may cook. Getting a restaurant off the ground can require 120-hour work weeks. Once up and running, a more relaxed 80 hours may prove to be the rule.
The stress, the hours, and the lack of return on investment push many out. The lucky ones get, at least, a return of their investment.
All the doom and gloom should only serve as fair warning. There are plenty of success stories out there. Not the manufactured stories made for reality television, but real success stories of software engineers or lawyers who leave the desk for the kitchen to realize their dream of cooking and restaurant ownership.
A prudent approach would be to talk to some of these people. Talk to the successes and the failures. Look at their scars, their burns, and look into their weary eyes. Anyone thinking about restaurant ownership as a job would do well to think of it more as a way of life. It is tough, very tough. Talk to the successes and the failures and ask if the life they adopted after leaving a stable career is a workable option.
Bourdain often says there is a one word answer for any 30-something career changer who wants to know if work as a chef or restaurant owner is a good idea. That answer is “no.” A better answer for the hard working and not faint of heart is two words: “think twice.”