5 Unexpected Things I Learned When I Opened a Restaurant
A Food & Wine editor recounts the craziest thing she's ever done: open a café with her husband.
After 14 years of writing about food and restaurants (including a stint as a critic in my native Australia), I did something completely batshit crazy: My husband and I opened our own restaurant. It was crazy because I knew the unrelenting hard work, long hours, razor-thin margins, and inevitable marriage strain that would come with operating a small business in the hospitality industry. Batshit, because we did it anyway. I don’t profess to have an advantage or to have done things any differently than the folks who have worked their butts off before me. But have I learned anything in transitioning from creating food and dining content to also creating food and dining experiences? Heck yes. Here’s how the former helped inform the latter.
It’s All About the Narrative
Journalism and the restaurant business are not so different; they’re both about storytelling. In the restaurant, we do it through our menu-writing, how we style the space, the tone of the hospitality experience, and how we market ourselves, which for us includes the manifesto on our chalkboard. We pay attention to the details of the story, right down to the soft, hand-rolled towels in our restroom (never underestimate the power of little comforts in your loo). Our broader story? We’re bringing elevated Aussie café culture to our town in Pennsylvania, one cheeky flat white and avocado toast at a time.
The story, of course, has to be true; readers and customers can smell a phony a mile off. Part of that is putting your money where your mouth is. If you say your menu is local and organic, then it has to be local and organic. If you say you’re paying a living wage and pooling tips between the front and back of house, then do it. We’ve been transparent with our customers about how we run our business, but you never know when you might be called out. (“You’re not Australian; you’re supposed to sound like Steve Irwin,” is a thing a customer once said accusingly to my Wagga Wagga–born, Tasmania-raised husband.)
Stick to Your Business Model
You might have been taught that the customer is king and all their wishes should be granted, but our experience has also taught us not to try to be all things to all people: If you dilute your story, you erode your narrative. We have customers who walk out because we don’t have drip coffee, hash, or waffles. But that’s OK because we believe that our difference is also our strongest selling point. (Of course, we’ll accommodate where we can, but a little flexibility is better than bending over backward.)
Yelp Is Not Your Friend
Yelp has damaged the art of respectful dialogue between a small-business owner and a customer—negative reviews are often published after the fact, which doesn’t allow the owner an opportunity to address or rectify the situation (and practice good customer service) in real time. As a small-business owner, I dislike snarky Yelpers because they fail to see the negative impact rude, mean-spirited, or unconstructive reviews have on a new business (because prospective customers look at those star ratings). As a journalist I dislike them because they have little regard for facts or fact-checking. Our strategy to deal with nasty Yelp reviews? We own them and put them in the testimonials section of our website—because comedy really is the best remedy.
Your Customers Are Your Best Asset
My magazine colleagues will kill me for saying so, but loyal, engaged customers are worth more than any write-up or review. Word of mouth and social media are the biggest drivers of new business to our café. Plus, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in food media, it’s that readers (and customers) eat with their eyes. If your food looks delicious and amazing, your customers will share that with their friends on social media, driving new people to your business (even more so if it’s served on a pretty vintage plate in a beautifully curated space with big licks of personality). Creating engagement is what we do in media, and it’s what we do as business owners—because, ultimately, it’s what keeps folks coming back.
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