How to Open a Restaurant, Part 1: Building a Brand Identity

I am so excited to be be posting my first article in collaboration with OpenTable's new online resource for restaurateurs, Open For Business. This is the first of ten posts, so stay tuned!

Cheers, Alison


Write a Mission Statement

Every new restaurant is “busy.” However, keeping seats full six months, a year, or five years down the road is the challenge that you’ll need to start tackling before you even open your doors. A mission statement defines what you do, who you are, and why you’re doing it, creating a foundation for aligned decision making that ultimately translates into a consistent guest experience.

I began working with Gavin Kaysen and the Spoon and Stable team in Minneapolis on creating their organizational North Star nearly six months before the restaurant opened. My goal was to ensure their leaders had a comprehensive understanding of their purpose and how they would define success. Here are some things we did, and others can do, to make the mission statement effective:

Find someone to lead the process. If you’ve never worked in brand development before, hiring a professional who has experience with mission statements and managing process work is ideal. If you decide to go 100% in-house, appoint a member of your team with strong organizational and leadership skills who can take responsibility for keeping the team focused and on task.

Find the common thread and keep it short. These sessions typically produce lots of ideas, and narrowing them down can be overwhelming. Remember that a mission statement isn’t meant to be a catchall. Look for the words and feelings that are repeatedly brought to center stage and keep the big picture in mind. The goal is for everyone in your organization to use this as a reference tool when they’re making decisions, so your mission statement should be simple, concise, and easy to understand. Less is more.

Make the process inclusive. Inclusion creates buy-in, and the more bought into the mission your leadership team is, the more likely you are to achieve your goals consistently. Your staff is the most powerful part of your brand. How they represent it while they are working and how they speak about it when they aren’t will shape how others perceive your restaurant and what they expect from it.

If you don’t quite know where to begin with your mission statement, look at what some of your favorite companies have put together. Taking the lead from bigger organizations that have devoted a ton of resources to this is a great way to find inspiration.

Be Consistent

Simply put: everything matters. Your brand is only as strong as its least-considered element, and in order to create and maintain a clear and consistent brand message internally and externally, you must obsess over details. Every decision you make must tie back to what you do, who you are, and why you’re doing it. Some of the most prominent touch points of your brand are:

Name & Logo. The name of your restaurant and how you display it graphically should be in step with the experience you’ve conceptualized. Elements like name length, ease of pronunciation and typeface all affect guests’ perceptions of how casual, formal, trendy or traditional your restaurant is. Be measured and purposeful when making these choices.

The naming process at Spoon and Stable was a unique one, because it was a big priority to keep the brand consistent. Until about three weeks before the restaurant opened, the restaurant was named Merchant. After many discussions about Gavin’s long-term vision for the company — and the fact that it was immensely important to him that his first restaurant reflect who he is and where it is — he decided to change the name. (He is a notorious spoon collector, and the restaurant is housed in a building that used to be a horse stable.)

A name should always be able to tell a story, and everyone on the team should be aware of that story to communicate it effectively at all times.

Menu. Your menu is one element of your brand that your customer seeks out and comes into contact with more than any other. The menu format, ingredient listing and the price point must all work in harmony. We’ve all been to the restaurant that has curry, peanut butter, and pâté all on the same menu. It’s confusing — and not many people will pay for confusion more than once.

Uniforms. Your people are your brand, and what they wear is a highly visible and impactful representation of your restaurant’s personality. For fine dining concepts, most attempts at purchasing inexpensive uniforms will detract from the message you are trying to send your guest; tasting menus and brigade-style service don’t go with poorly tailored suits. If your service style encourages your staff to express their personalities at the table, consider setting up some guidelines and letting them wear their own clothes.

Interior & Tabletop Design. Everything a guest sees inside your restaurant is an indication of your brand. Your flatware, plates, glassware, linens, and the quality of your furniture and fixtures should be consistent with the price point of your menu and the rest of your brand.

Spoon and Stable debated using tablecloths in their private dining rooms but ultimately decided against them. The formality was inconsistent with their goal of creating a space that feels like a true extension of the guest’s home. It is way too easy to get attached to that beautiful Bernardaud plate or to the idea of saving thousands of dollars on the cheaper carpet that doesn’t quite fit the space. Be objective in your decision making and include your team to help you do so.

Find Your Voice

Once you have a clear picture of your brand identity, determine your voice and make it heard. Your website, your employees, and your social media presence provide the most traction in communicating your brand.

Website. Often, your website will be a guest’s first impression of your restaurant, so the feeling someone gets from looking at your homepage should match the one they get when they walk in your front door. You will never make a lifelong customer from your website alone, but you certainly can lose one. Don’t cut corners in building out the restaurant website, and employ the help of professionals when needed.

Internal communication. Nobody is a better steward of your brand than your employees. If they have a deep understanding of the brand and the who, what, and why that’s driving it, they will take greater ownership of delivering it. Things like branded, consistent email signatures, the type of language the team uses, and how managers and employees speak to one another are opportunities to reinforce your brand through communication.

Social media. Social media content should be carefully considered and share the same voice as your website and other branded materials. If you’re a chef-driven, ingredient-focused restaurant, skip the emoticons.

The restaurant landscape is currently as booming and competitive as ever. These tips, and others I’ll share throughout this series, are ways you can set yourself and your restaurant apart and ensure sustained success.

Posted on June 1, 2015 .

How to Open a Restaurant, Part 2: Location, Location, Location

For those in the restaurant business, “location, location, location” is a phrase we’ve all heard more times than we care to count, and for good reason. Choosing a location is a critically important decision that can quickly turn a solid, well-conceived business plan into a failed restaurant if not handled properly. In addition to being one of the most significant determinants of your financial viability, decisions regarding location aren’t easy to undo. Changing your mind will be expensive, difficult, and damaging to the perception of your brand.

While there is no exact recipe to securing the perfect space in a great location, there are a number of considerations that will get you headed in the right direction. In this post, I’ll share a few key tips to help you find the best home for your restaurant.

Find Your People

Before you can intelligently consider a good location, you first must understand who you expect your customers to be. Your customers are going to pay your bills, so investing time to ensure their paths intersect with your restaurant is crucial. Figure out where they live, where they work, and where they spend their time when they aren’t in one of those two places. Ideally, you’ll be able to find some areas that encompass more than one of these categories; if you are located in a neighborhood where your target market both lives and works, there’s a better chance they’ll visit regularly.

Finding this information may sound daunting, but there are a number of resources available to assist you in the process of identifying your people.

Get a demographic overview of every location you’re considering, Be sure to look at age, income, population density, foot traffic, and number of households. An excellent starting point for big picture demographic data is the U.S. Census Beareau. Within their site,American FactFinder is the easiest way to electronically search for data from multiple Census sources for free. Once you’re ready to hone in on specific neighborhoods, SimplyMap andSocial Explorer are great resources for intuitive, easy-to-read maps that use demographic, business, and marketing data from government agencies and private market research firms.

Research plans for future development. Upcoming neighborhood additions like sports arenas, condominium complexes, and transportation hubs should be considered. Remember that having more people around isn’t as important as having the right people around. Most counties make plans for the development of public areas available on sites like this one, andCurbed often posts summaries of upcoming commercial projects in the areas they cover. Check online to see what’s ahead for your city.

Map the competition. Successful restaurants with concepts and target markets similar to yours are a great way to find out where your future customers are spending their time and money. If you’re unfamiliar with the competition in the market you’re entering, Zagat can quickly map restaurants using detailed filters for city, neighborhood, cuisine, and their own ratings for food, cost, service, and decor.

Embrace the Competition

It may sound counterintuitive, but the best location is usually as close to your biggest competitor as you can get — it’s even better if you can nestle yourself into a cluster of them. Think of it this way: If your direct competitors are already in business and experiencing success, they’re proof that the location they have is a fit for the target audience you share. Because they’ve done the hard work by validating the area and market fit, it’s a great idea to seek out spaces nearby or even on the same block. It’s in your best interest to capitalize on what your peers have already established and place yourself into an already engaged and primed community.

So when evaluating where to settle in, don’t be shy about exploring locations right in the thick of the competition. Consider it more joining the flock than swimming with sharks. Adding yourself to a collection of other magnet locations will stimulate quality foot traffic and lift the profile of your brand, and is overall a much more successful strategy than trying to get your customers to come to an area where you are one of one.

Don’t Choose the Road Less Traveled

While some adages like “location, location, location,” ring true, others like “if you build it, they will come,” do not. Gavin Kaysen, the Executive Chef and owner of Spoon and Stable, looked at more than 60 spaces in multiple locations before finding the restaurant’s home in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis. Three of his four biggest considerations in making this choice were directly related to accessibility: parking, foot traffic, and freeway proximity (the fourth was neighborhood growth potential). Whether your concept is a destination fine dining establishment or a casual burger joint, your objective when seeking out a location is to make it as easy as possible for your potential customers to get there. The bottom line is: if you build it and they can’t get to it, they won’t come.

Accessibility also extends past your customers to your future employees. You will have a target employment market just as you have a target customer market, and one has to support the other in order for the whole operation to be successful. If you are opening a restaurant that will require your employees to come in early or leave late at night, make sure that you set yourself up in a neighborhood that has access to public transportation at those hours or a nearby parking lot if most people drive. Getting to and from work needs to be safe, fast, and cheap for the people you hope to employ.

Opening a restaurant is a huge undertaking, and anyone looking to do so has a vision of what the finished product will look and feel like. It’s easy to fall in love with a location or a space, but it’s important to balance that emotional appeal with a measured, strategic approach to finding one that fits your business model. By employing these tactics, you’ll give yourself and your new restaurant the best shot at success.

Posted on May 15, 2015 .

How to Open a Restaurant, Part 3: How to Hire the Best Staff for Your Restaurant

If you don’t hire the right people, you won’t be successful. It really is that simple. Your people are your biggest asset, and in our industry they’re often the scarcest resource, so you need to have a strategy in place for identifying them before you begin the hiring process.

Developing and executing a hiring strategy requires a significant investment of time and energy, but skipping it will cost you big time in the long run through frequent turnover, negative guest experiences, and brand inconsistency. This article outlines 10 keys to bringing on the best opening team for your new restaurant.

1. Define greatness. Never assume that all of your managers have the same definition of what makes a good employee. Sit down with them before conducting the first interview to collectively establish the core values that all employees will need to possess.

2. Post specific and informative job ads. The ads that you post should include keywords describing your company culture as well as your restaurant’s concept, style of service, projected opening date, and any relevant specifics regarding job description and schedule requirements. Ads should be professionally presented and shared through multiple channels (online, word of mouth, and social media).

3. Have at least two managers interview every candidate. Passing over a great candidate can be as big of a loss as hiring a bad one, so make sure that you’re taking more than one person’s opinion into account. Managers should sync up between interviews to highlight any areas of concern for others to further investigate. This practice also ensures hiring managers all have buy-in, so no staff members are brought on board because one manager lobbied for them.

4. Develop a core set of interview questions. Assembling a thoughtful list of questions designed to determine whether a candidate shares your values and uncover details of their professional experiences will eliminate haphazard interviewing and keep the process objective. It will also ensure that your interviews are efficient and will immediately demonstrate your level of professionalism to the applicant.

5. Take notes. This is particularly important when you’re interviewing for an opening team because you’ll be meeting with applicants constantly. It is very easy to forget how you felt about someone or mix them up with a different person when you’re in the throes of pre-opening onboarding.

6. Attitude is king. Skills and information can be taught, but a person’s attitude usually cannot be altered. Don’t let yourself be wooed by an impressive resume if the applicant is missing any of the core values your team has collectively established as critical. Remember that an interview is a controlled, deliberate presentation of a person; if they are not projecting positively in this setting, how will they behave under pressure?

7. Train managers to assess physical cues. If an interviewee is describing how friendly and warm their service style is, but they’ve barely cracked a smile since walking through the door, don’t assume that they will suddenly change when they are on the floor. When you ask why they left their last position and they avoid eye contact, dig deeper.

8. Make interviewing a two-way street. Interviews are, of course, about identifying great candidates, but you can never overlook that candidates are also evaluating you. This means being on time, reading their resume beforehand, and dressing appropriately; it will go a long way to creating a strong impression of what can be expected if they come on board. You’ll want your managers to always be putting their best foot forward to ensure that when you come across great candidates, you’re able to hire them.

9. Check references without exception. Ask every candidate you’re seriously considering to provide you with three professional references. Let the applicant know up front that you will need to hear back from at least two of them in order to move forward with the hiring process. No matter how great someone seems or how strongly you connected with them, do not skip this step. You don’t want to learn this lesson the hard way…trust me!

10. Aim for balance. When it comes to assembling a team, diversity is your friend; this applies to knowledge, skill set, past experience, and personality. Pay attention to balance as you bring people on board, as a diverse and dynamic staff helps everyone to learn from one another. Be wary of hiring too many people from the same restaurant or company. You want to develop your own culture, not adopt someone else’s.

In order to select great people, you must first decide what essential qualities an employee should have to deliver the best iteration of your brand experience and positively contribute to your company culture. Restaurant openings are a rare and valuable opportunity to hire a group of aligned people from the get-go, so it’s crucial that your leaders are using an organized process to determine which candidates are the right fit for your opening team.

Posted on May 1, 2015 .