It's hard to open a restaurant without financial help, but some partners may be more trouble than they're worth. Restaurant veteran Amelia Zatik Sawyer explains.

Amelia Zatik Sawyer
Updated April 26, 2019

Chefs and non-chefs teaming up to open restaurants is not a new thing. The majority of prominent independent chefs opening new ventures are usually at least partially funded by a financial partner or backer. Most people who go into hospitality are not going into it for the money; passion is what pushes chefs to grow and open their own businesses. Contrary to what some television shows would lead you to believe, being a chef is not a lucrative career path. So when a chef wants to open a restaurant, they do what they do best: sell the idea like that plate of food that hits your table on a Friday night. They search for partners or capital so their dream can come to fruition. Sometimes this works, sometimes this blows up in the chef's face like a deep-fried turkey. If you are a chef and you want to open a restaurant, here’s a quick (and subjective) guide to the types of partners you will likely encounter.

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Let’s start with the bad partners. To understand why these are bad options, first you need to understand what kind of chef I am talking about: the dreamer chef, who worked the line more that they should have. This is the chef who reads every food article, pre-orders every cookbook, and writes menus for restaurants that haven't even opened. If this is you, read on.

Bad Partner #1: Family

Choosing a partner from your family is often a big no-no, and it's the quickest way to blow up Thanksgiving dinner. This may seem like a great idea when you first think about opening a restaurant, because these people raised you and have loved you your entire life. They supported you and your dreams of becoming a chef. But the reality of partnering with family is that for the most part, disagreements will happen (as they do), but now money is involved.

A friend of mine won a James Beard award a few years back. Ecstatic and grateful for the honor, he came back to his restaurant inspired and ready to work. Unfortunately his partners did not feel the same, and as his fame in the culinary world grew, so did his partners' resentment. The problem was that they were his family. Eventually the resentment turned into jealousy, which then turned into the restaurant almost being taken right out from under him. A long, unnecessary battle ensued. The family partnership dissolved as well as his own relationships with them. He walked away with permanent trauma. While this situation was one of the worst ones I have heard, I very rarely hear of a prosperous family partnership in the hospitality industry.

Bad Partner #2: Celebrity Chef Chaser

This person loves celebrity chefs, has money to burn, and comes in with plenty of ideas. They love to watch Top Chef, host Chopped parties at their house, and insist on menu items named after them, their significant other, their children, their Aunt Lisa, and their Grandpa Tim. At first this seems like a good partner, but after a while their insistence on being front-and-center and by your side can get annoying and take away from the quality of your menu and brand. They think they "know food" because they watch TV. They suggest menu items featuring balsamic vinegar or truffle oil. But in reality, their knowledge is limited to the clever editing of the Food Network. Occasionally this partner can be fun because they love you and your profession. Love is nice. But eventually, chefs need partners who can actually help, not just adore.

Bad Partner #3: Profiteer

They're just in it for the "money." Since the inception of celebrity chefs and food shows, there is a commonly-held belief that restaurants and chefs are goldmines. For most chefs, this is not the case. Even some of the TV chefs you watch on television today are really just taking in a relatively normal income; these. FYI. Food TV shows don’t pay much unless you one of the top five celebrity chefs. Yes, you get a nice weekend away when filming Grocery Games, no you won’t be able to buy a Mazerati because of it. The profiteer partner believes in the money. They don’t care about the art of balancing hospitality and customer service. They don’t care about your vision. They just want to see cash at the end of the quarter. For a creative chef, this is the quickest way for your dream to die. This person will suck your creativity and art dry for profit.

Good Partner #1: Celebrity

Celebrities are good partners for two reasons: money and friends. Celebrities are like high school; they all know each other and they all hang out in some way, shape, or form. If you partner with a celebrity to open a restaurant, it is more than likely that they will bring their celebrity friends in. Word of mouth will spread, hype will grow, and the seats will book. We may not want to admit it in public, but the majority of Americans are fascinated by the famous. Having one for a partner is a great way to pique interest in your new restaurant and sell out bookings right off the bat. This, too, could be a bad partner depending on the level of involvement, but most of the time, celebrities are looking for a good place to eat, a tax break on their investment, and they won’t really have a whole lot to say about how you run your kitchen.

Good Partner #2: Industry / Business Veteran

Partnering with a successful hospitality group or restauranteur is a great idea in many cases. Most chefs don’t go to business school, and tend to learn the hard way when it comes to running a restaurant. Teaming up with people who have the skills and tools to run a successful business so you can focus on this hospitality aspect of the business is a win- win. You get to cook and follow your passions, while people who know what they are doing get to focus on making the restaurant a financial success. Someone with experience and infrastructure will understand your passion and your persona, and they will allow you to grow alongside them. They will provide you support in the areas you may not be strongest in and will guide you to grow as your restaurant and dreams evolve.

Good Partner #3: Angel Investor / Advisor

This partner has money to burn, not a lot of risk, and will act as an advisor to you while allowing your dreams and passion to flourish. They doesn’t want to be involved in the day-to-day business but are always there if you need a sounding board or insight from someone who has their hands in the business world. This alignment is good because most chefs like control of their own restaurant and menu. The angel investor allows freedom and will only give advice or insight when it is asked for. The angel investor is called this because there are not many of them. If you find one, it’s like finding an angel—so hold on tight.

The above list is merely a suggestion regarding restaurant partners. To have a successful relationship, each party must understand the dynamics of the other. It also helps to actually like your partner especially if they will be in the day-to-day operations of your restaurant. Do your homework on them. Google them. Invite them to a family event. See how they interact with others. When you are around them do you feel supported? Do you feel like they believe in you as a person, not just a chef? These are important things to consider as restaurant partners become family—and every chef needs a good family around the table.