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'Lessons I wish I'd known'

Nine masters of foodservice divulge the unsung skills for keeping a business firing on all cylinders.

Culinary schools teach the ins and outs of the kitchen; business schools add need-to-know strategies of finance and marketing. But to ace the day-to-day challenges of running a restaurant, you need a broader set of real-world skills. The perfect course of study would throw in everything from basic butchery to psychology 101. We asked the industry’s “upperclassmen” to share the skills that have served them well in this business. Hospitality schools, are you listening?

Intro to butchery and curing

Buying a whole hog saves money, says Bob Cook, chef de cuisine at Cypress in Charleston, S.C. He abstracts and charges premium prices for the loin, and makes more money six months to a year later through charcuterie. “It’s a way to keep the price point down, and the waste to almost zero,” he says.

Principles of leadership

Geoff Alexander, executive vice president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago, says many need an “I need you more than you need me: how to be a better boss” course. “You can’t know it all, so don’t try,” he says. “Seek out answers from experienced people. Those in the restaurant world share experiences. Shut up and listen.”

Real estate: Planning and process

Many people “don’t give enough time to the real-estate process,” says Rich Hicks, CEO of Plano, Texas-based Mooyah Burgers, Fries and Shakes. Construction hurdles can cause delays of three to 18 months, he says. “Opening a restaurant burns through cash fast, especially when there’s nothing coming in and a lot going out quickly.” Hicks suggests waiting until a certificate of occupancy is close before leaving a paying gig.

Anthropolgy of the audience

It’s important to start with your target customer base and work backwards when creating a concept, says Greg Dollarhyde, chief energizing officer of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Veggie Grill. It means learning what will work best in the location, identifying what archetypes are in that space and how to play to their wants, he says. “The trick is to satisfy them better than the next guy, creating food that they talk about.”

The practice of teaching

“Big dollars are spent on build out, FF&E and menus,” says Chris LaRocca of the Crushed Red pizza and salad concept in Missouri. “All [can] be compromised by not spending adequate time and resources to put the staff through proper training to prepare them for opening,” he says.

Advanced forecasting

There’s more to projections than sales. Paul Fehribach, chef-owner of Big Jones in Chicago, says it was eye opening to learn you must “consistently place cost of goods sold and cost of labor in line with sales to yield a [projected] bottom line that makes sense.” 

Intro to carpentry

Ina Pinkney, chef-owner of now-closed Chicago institution Ina’s, and her general manager, Seana Monahan, say that it’s crucial to have a basic understanding of how things work in order to keep operations alive while you wait for a repairman. Sometimes you can even fix problems yourself, avoiding handyman costs altogether.

Human resources: Hiring

The capital investment is not the biggest or most important investment when opening a restaurant, says Stephen Catenese, vice president of operations at Cinncinati-based Buffalo Wings & Rings. “The investment of time and the investment in people dwarf the money requirements and will ultimately determine the success of the venture,” he says. While the interview process can take time, it is crucial to hire the right people, as they are at the forefront of your brand.

Internship (required)

You have to love this business, says Dox Fox, CEO of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Firehouse Subs. Before getting entrenched in it, he suggests spending some time working out in the field. “You will pick up valuable technical and professional insights and experience, but most important of all, you will determine with certainty whether or not this is how you really want to spend your life.”

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