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Tips on How To Save a Restaurant

Updated on January 5, 2016

1st Impressions Count for a Lot

There are thousands of Americans who set up restaurants every year, and thousands of restaurants that go out of business every year. The fact is, it is extremely difficult to own and operate a restaurant. Your grandmother makes the best Chicken Parmesan in the world and you think the world needs to taste it? Good for you. Quite frankly, the only people who care about your grandmother’s old recipes are you and the few of your friends who are hopefully not lying to you when they say they love your dishes and cookouts.

Most people who start restaurants and are confident in the reviews of their friends usually wind up screwed and out of business. Your friends are there to lie to you – that’s what friendship is. “Oh, you’re in great shape, bikini looks great!”; “Hey, you’re a catch, he doesn’t know what he’s missing out on!”; “I’m not sleeping with your boyfriend!” Yes, friends lie.

If you’re lucky, you had the right friends, and you opened your restaurant. Hopefully, you did your research and realized that you had better prepare to be potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for a few years, because it is notoriously hard to turn a profit in the restaurant business, and those who are cocky and stupid will ignore bad business signs and will ultimately fail and possibly wind up bankrupt.

These possibilities scare many people off, but if you are a determined, confident business owner, then you have opened your restaurant but now want to stand out, and standing out in the restaurant business is difficult. One bad review on Yelp can be the difference between weeks of success and weeks of low business. There are over 20,000 restaurants in New York City alone, and there are probably more on your own block than you know. If you want to get serious about your restaurant, here are a few guidelines.

Be your restaurant. This sounds ridiculous, pretentious, and like new age mumbo-jumbo, but it’s not B.S. Whatever ethnic food or style you started out with, stick with it. Simple, familiar dishes done right will bring regular customers back, and well-done but slightly out-there dishes will bring new customers in. Not Indian/Japanese/French fusion “out-there”, but let’s say you have a Cajun or BBQ restaurant. A good pulled-pork sandwich done well should be part of your menu, but who else in the neighborhood would have a great pulled-gator meat sandwich?

Advertise. Advertise. Advertise. I get it – you want to be one of those chic, hole-in-the-wall, word-of-mouth, local, off-the-map legendary restaurants. Guess what – THOSE PLACES DON’T EXIST! Even the ones you think exist started out by advertising at one point or another and still do whether you think so or not. Flyers on a telephone pole may technically be advertising, but indoor signage in places you hope to catch your clientele in is a smarter route. Maybe it will cost you a few free meals or so, but being able to put your brochure next to the big lobby signs in local hotels, bars and stores can have more impact than a Facebook or Twitter can. Wow, you can reach 6 billion people with the click of a “post” button; that’d be great if “Bill” at the call center in India would ever in his life have the chance to go to your restaurant.

Work. Work. Work. Work. The only thing more important than advertising is actual work. Work on making your servers and cooks smile and enjoy their job. Work on finances. Work on new ways to get customers. This is your restaurant, and an extension of yourself, so get to work!

Getting Your Restaurant Back On Track

Your restaurant is failing. It’s a tragic story that happens every single day. It’s hard to stand out when there are so many restaurants on a city block these days. Here’s a quick list of questions to help you get back on track:

1) What are you doing right? Always start with ways to improve, not ways to start from scratch. What’s your best seller? What do you have confidence in from the menu? Take those things and simplify the menu. People don’t really want to eat at a place that serves fish, burritos, steak, lasagna and chicken pot pie. A short menu focused on simply what you do best is going to help.

2) What can I learn from the big guys? Most people don’t consider fast-food to be gourmet food – of course, I mean, it isn’t. But there a few mistakes or improvements you could learn from. Consider McDonald’s and the Arch Deluxe, an attempt to bring a more “adult” burger to McDonald’s menu. Guess what? People at McDonald’s don’t want to be reminded they are adults, because their earliest experiences with the restaurant were as a kid, with clowns, playgrounds and toys. The food is nostalgic comfort, and should reflect that. As for Wendy’s, they took their worst features – fries, soggy buns, subpar beef – and within the last few years changed it and are now thriving in ways unforeseen ten years ago.

3) Where am I getting my product? Always go as local as you can. It’s much better to say on a menu that you got something from the local farmer’s market or from a local farm. It naturally comforts the customer and gets you in as part of the community. Don’t underestimate the goodwill points you get by being involved with your community.

Beautiful Interiors Create Ambiance

An aesthetically pleasing interior, such as the one featured above from Canela Bistro & Wine Bar in San Francisco, helps create the kind of ambiance diners are seeking and the feeling of an 'experience' beyond a simple plate of food.
An aesthetically pleasing interior, such as the one featured above from Canela Bistro & Wine Bar in San Francisco, helps create the kind of ambiance diners are seeking and the feeling of an 'experience' beyond a simple plate of food.

Enhance the Food with Better Ambiance

(Above photo credit: Canela Bistro & Wine Bar)

For many diners, going out for a meal is about much more than simply the food. Whether it's a family looking for a night away from the demands of cooking and dishes, a couple celebrating a romantic occasion, or a group of friends getting together to reminisce about old times, the surrounding ambiance of a restaurant can have a major impact on how diners feel about the whole experience. For better or worse, a shabby interior, much like rude or dismissive service from a host or the wait staff, can overshadow the quality of the food.

Below are a few tips on making sure your restaurant interior is in tip-top shape:

Know Your Demographics: Understand who will be eating in your restaurant from the local community, and use that knowledge to help create an ambiance that suits it. A family-oriented establishment should probably feature things like bright lighting, easy to clean surfaces, and changing stations in the restrooms. Conversely, a restaurant targeting couples and romantic types would probably go a totally different direction. Whatever the demographic target is, stick with a theme and don't try to be all things to all people... it rarely (if ever) works.

Follow Recent Trends: According to an article on Restaurant Reportseveral types of restaurants that have enjoyed a lot of success in recent years have taken advantage of the popularity of the following trends:

  1. Upscale, but casual
  2. Entertainment themes
  3. Exhibition cooking (open view of chef at work)
  4. Neighborhood feel

Getting the Right Staff for Your Restaurant

When seeking for the right candidate to hire for your restaurant, employers look for specific traits and skills that they need to for their type of restaurant. Depending on the type of business it is, the qualifications will vary from one another. But there is a set of skills and traits all employers look for no matter what type of job it is. Here are some skills and traits employers seek in a candidate:

Communications Skills - Communication skills is a skill that employer look for in all candidates no matter what job position it is. The ability to listen, speak, and write is necessary for a successful and effective employer. Employers expect their employees to work and communicate with either customers, clients, co-workers, and others in a clear and concise manner.

Teamwork Skills - Employers seeks teamwork skills because most jobs involve working with many people all together. The ability to work and get along with your teammates is key to success in all businesses. Working with many co-workers can be difficult, and employers expect their employees to be able to make adjustment from one another for the better of the business.

Decision-Making Skills - This is a quality skill employer seek after in their candidates. The ability to handle tough situation, make hard and effective decision, make good judgment, find solutions, solve problems, use reasoning, and address issues are needed in a successful business. Employers need an employee who can do their work with constant supervision from them.

Characteristic Skills - Employers look for good characteristic skills such as eagerness to learn, self-motivated, trustworthy, confident, professional, a can-do attitude, dependable and responsible, hard-working, ethical, flexible, and honest.


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Good to know! I am thinking of starting a small restaurant in Halifax like this one and I was happy to find this article. It's good to hear from people who have already been through it.

    • Shreevie profile image


      7 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa

      I can speak from experience, KickStart1!You are spot on. Add to the do-list: treat your customers like kings; be hands-on: run the place yourself; stock controls, ordering, freshness - these are far more important than a better-than-average ability to cook; food presentation: people 'eat with their eyes.'


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