By Chris Tripoli
It has been said – tongue firmly in cheek – that the process of opening a start-up restaurant may be the closest thing to having a baby that a man will ever experience: The whole process usually takes at least nine months from design and permit through construction to opening day. A new restaurant usually starts out with an announcement, jubilation and congratulations and ends with the final frantic weeks of “push” to get it done. And after a little while to catch your breath and enjoy the new business you think, perhaps, of doing it all again.
James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd knows this feeling well. After nine years at Brennan’s and five with Catalan, Shepherd developed his first independent concept, Underbelly. “I had the advantage of having some very good people around me,” he says. “They shared my vision and understood the concept’s objectives. But even with that, we made mistakes and forgot some things.
“It is hard to know how much of a particular item you will need when you are planning the menu for a restaurant that is new. We wound up with too many of some platters, for example, and not enough of other plate ware. And for the life of me I don’t understand why we couldn’t figure out the right number of bus tubs we were going to need. I clearly remember telling people every day for the last week before opening to stop at Ace Mart and pick some up on their way into work.”
In this final installment of our yearlong series on opening a restaurant, we review some lessons about managing your restaurant opening.
DON’T TRY TO MAKE UP FOR LOST TIME.
If you push the building tradesmen, it is likely to cause errors that can hurt opening-day first impressions. Why is it that we hurry and try to get so many different things done at the same time toward the end of the project, and we allow much more time for trades to complete their work earlier in the project?
I have noticed that the concrete workers, carpentry framers, mechanical installers, electricians and plumbers receive more time during the early and middle portions of the construction schedule than the carpet installers, millworkers, marble and tile workers, painters, and décor team are allowed toward the end of the schedule.
The two main reasons this happens are (1) owners are over-eager to open as they have been spending so much money for so long without any income and (2) owners try to make up for lost time to meet a pre-announced opening day.
THE OPENING PROCESS IS ALL ABOUT INITIAL PREPARATION.
Jerry Alexander, founding partner of Houston-based Acumen Design reminds us that starting with a well-defined vision will create a road map for all on the design team to follow. “With proper concepting, planning and scheduling done at the beginning of the project, you stand a far better chance of having a more organized effort and an on-time opening” says Alexander.
“First-time restaurant operators should be less in a hurry to start and pay more attention to the creation of their brand. Getting the design team aligned right from the start makes for a smoother transition to development and construction and helps ensure consistent use of the brand through design, to furnishings, menus, marketing materials, uniforms and packaging.”
Much like a garden begins with careful soil preparation, observes Alexander, a successful restaurant opening begins with planning.
DEVELOP YOUR DETAILED CONCEPT.
This initial design stage is where you and your design team define the size, layout, and look and feel of the restaurant. These decisions help shape the cost, degree of difficulty and time required to realize the concept. It’s at this point that you will determine your style of service, preliminary kitchen and bar layout, menu and management structure.
Preliminary sketches from this stage form the framework for the more detailed architectural drawings, engineering plans and specifications done in the next step. Concept development typically takes four to six weeks to complete.
DEVELOP THE DESIGN AND WRITE NECESSARY CONTRACTS.
During this stage the architect/designer develops floor plans, elevations and preliminary kitchen and bar equipment installation using a CAD (computer-aided design) program. This process allows for greater detail and provides the accurate scale required for building plans, permits and budgeting.
A logo design and specialty décor, as well as initial menu layout and design, are completed during this stage.
Select uniforms, POS (point-of-sale) system, phone, security, video and sound system at this time. You will need these details so that the location of POS stations, for example, can be included in the design. This stage of your concept development may take eight to 10 weeks to complete.
MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS.
Remember that each decision you make has a quality, cost and schedule consequence. Although all three are equally important, each decision only gets to expect two.
“For example, if the millwork that you specify must be of a very high quality and you need it completed quickly, it will not be available at a reasonable cost. However, if you have specified used kitchen equipment, then you can expect reasonable cost and within your timetable but at a lower quality level than if you specified brand new
“It is quite common for the start-up restaurant operator to not allow sufficient time and enough budget for interior furnishings,” notes Dawn Arcieri, principal of Houston-based Batsche Design. “In the dining room alone, most table-tops range from $200 to $400 and standard restaurant chairs cost anywhere from $95 to $250 each.
“It is also important to consider the importance of lighting and sound management at this stage in design, because mistakes made here become much more costly to fix later.”
IMPLEMENT YOUR PLAN.
The architect will provide you with the final plans and specifications for approval, and these will be submitted to the city (or appropriate jurisdiction) for permit and to the contractor(s) for bid and negotiation. Armed with a building permit, a selected contractor, completed schedule and budget, you are ready to manage the process.
The final months of a restaurant opening are the most intense because during that period design, construction and operations-related items overlap. It is important to maintain a tight schedule so that you minimize the cost overages incurred by delays. It is equally important to allow reasonable time for items to be correctly completed.
For first-time restaurant operators, maintaining this balance may seem like an insurmountable task. With proper information and regular communication the management of this process can be made much easier.
There is a big difference between operating a restaurant and opening one, says Dominic Mandola of Ragin’ Cajun restaurants and Ragin’ Catering. “Our brand has been operating successfully for 40 years, but opening The Woodlands unit earlier this year proved to be more difficult than I imagined. Keeping an eye on the construction and pre-opening schedule helped me manage the project timeline and budget, but I was surprised by how much longer it took to select and train the opening staff.
“Time is money, and we spent more than we anticipated on pre-opening training,” says Mandola.
CREATE A TIME-LINE PLAN THAT EVERYONE CAN REFER TO.
I recommend following a planning guide commonly called the “critical path.” (Critical path refers to the sequence of activities that limit how quickly a project can be completed). Visit my-table.com/current-issue to download a copy of the “120-Day Pre-opening Planning Chart. Our real-life example is for a 160-seat full-service seafood market restaurant and bar that is scheduled to open late January 2015.
To best use the critical path chart, use different colors to mark the weeks allowed for process and consideration, the week a decision or order is required, and the week the item needs to be delivered. Assign tasks to responsible parties and manage issues as they arise. (The “Restaurant Pre-opening Weekly Task Sheet” is also on my-table.com/current-issue and will assist you in this process. Use it as a weekly meeting agenda.)
In the 120-day planning chart we use as our example, “Management Recruitment” requires action to interview and select during weeks one to four in order to have them onsite a minimum of eight weeks prior to opening.
Restaurant and bar equipment is commonly installed by electricians and plumbers contracted by the general contractor. In our chart, this equipment should be installed during weeks 13 and 14, so it becomes mandatory to have the order made during week three to allow suficient time. The vent hoods are to be installed earlier (week eight) because that is when mechanical contractors are onsite doing their work. Typically the hoods are hung by the same contractor doing the air conditioning and heat and need to be completed before ceilings are in.
Pay special attention to the system-related equipment referenced above: POS, security, telephone, sound and video. These items require installation of cable during the week before the contractor covers the walls and then a second installation of the materials one to two weeks before opening.
Non-construction-related items such as marketing, menu development, staff selection, uniforms and beginning inventories need to be scheduled on this same planning guide to maintain project coordination. With only one place to look each week to see the dates requiring action, you and your team are less likely to miss something. Be sure to include the small, easy-to-forget items like extermination, changing the locks and making extra sets of keys, picking up required license or permits and petty cash.
COMMUNICATION IS VITAL.
It is important to manage the opening process of your restaurant by employing weekly meetings – by phone or in person – with your design, construction and management teams. Preview the weeks ahead as well as review the one recently completed to be certain that all items are discussed and all team members are headed in the same direction.
Knowing what construction may need from you at least a week in advance will help you to keep them on schedule. Having the designer know what construction may require one or more weeks ahead will help them greatly with maintaining their schedule for finishes, décor, fixtures and artwork. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of any member of your team because even though this may be your first restaurant opening, it is your restaurant. Remember, as we first said in Part 1 of this series, opening a restaurant isn’t about being scared. It’s all about being prepared.