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How to make an independent restaurant work for you

Chuck Shapiro
Owner of Wild River Grille and the River Room in downtown Reno
Chef poses for a shot at Wild River Grille in downtown Reno.
Courtesy Jeff Dow |

Starting Up

Opening a restaurant, as they say, is the easy part. Keeping the doors open and actually growing the business to be successful over the long term is a bit more difficult. Most restaurateurs start out with a very good idea of what they want to create. They envision the food, the environment, the style of service and typically they are very creative and highly motivated. So why do some succeed while others uhh…not so much? I think it’s because many of these culinary entrepreneurs approach the business without a comprehensive enough business plan. These days great product and aesthetics won’t be enough unless you have thought of just about everything. The following are a few sensible tips for not just a successful start-up, but a long and happy restaurant life.



Do the Math

One of the most basic items on the planning checklist is “Do you have a financial business model that works?” Imagine that you create a thriving, bustling restaurant just like you hoped for. Terrific, right? But, do you really know how that will translate into revenue and what the expenses will be? Is there enough left over to pay yourself and toward the debt that you created? Developing a solid business plan before you embark on your operation is a must. I have never heard of a restaurant operation that was built under budget or that exceeded its projections right out of the gate. A good rule to follow is once you do these projections, then slash your revenue projections by 25%, and see if the model still works. If not, you might have some re-thinking to do.



Choose your Location Wisely

Location, location, location. Cliché? Yes, but it is that important. Many new restaurants, it seems, start out with a flourish because of the initial buzz, then dwindle. This can happen for several reasons but sometimes it is because the choice of location just isn’t that conducive to sustained operations. Or it might be built too small to or be too expensive to lease. These factors can take the profit right out of the equation. Things to evaluate when choosing a location include the parking situation and pedestrian traffic. Also important to consider is the area of town. Does the area support the demographic of the customer that you are shooting for? Is that part of town on the upswing or on the decline? Will the location allow you to develop a facility that meets your business model goals and still allows for growth? And of course, is the rent affordable? There are always tradeoffs when choosing a location but one needs to do their research. Know what appropriate lease rates are for the neighborhood. And unless you are experienced at negotiating leases, get the help of a real estate professional before signing on that dotted line.

Be Ready to Work

Successful operations for an independent restaurant will require hands on, sincere, owner-involved management. If you expect the restaurant to provide you with income then you will have to work for it. Profit margins are far too slim to support the dead weight of an uninvolved owner. Effective entrepreneurs embrace their independence and the freedom it provides, but a great restaurant must first be built with sacrifice and hard work.

Meet Your Obstacles Head On

Inevitably, your restaurant will face serious challenges and obstacles, many of which cannot be anticipated. Examples of this are competition challenges, economic trends, construction projects and weather to name a few. When these things happen, it will be vital to be proactive. Work with those who might be able to help such as city officials, or other professionals. Look for ways to turn a negative into a positive. When you attack an issue head on, you will often find a silver lining.

Keep Your Name Out There

Managing an ever-improving reputation and perpetuating your brand will be essential to maintain business health and growth. Your customers’ word of mouth will always be a major force, so make sure you take care of them first. Market to your existing customers. Rewarding repeat business and establishing ways to communicate with your existing customer base will increase loyalty and the frequency of their visits. Web, online presence, social media, good PR, are basic necessities in this day and age. Use trusted marketing professionals that know your business to help you whenever possible.

Cultivate Your Relationships

The people you surround yourself with are your most important assets. While it may be somewhat true that no one is going to care as much as the owner does, that does not mean that you can’t have an amazing, loyal and caring team. This includes your direct crew and other professionals who assist you. Focusing on their development, health and mutual well being in a sincere way will yield untold dividends. Likewise, giving to community organizations and establishing community partners is not only a good thing to do, but will yield good will and customer loyalty in return. And, of course, always love and respect your customers by always trying to exceed their expectations and by thanking them for their business.

Keep Your Perspective

Through it all, maintaining a balanced perspective and approach will be very important to your continued survival. Daily operations will pull you with enormous force, but one should be careful not to neglect the marketing, financial and overall management. The passion will be there for your product, after all you are a restaurateur, but simultaneously take a broad look and manage the overall health of the business and plan for the future. You may need to adapt your business model as you go according to the lessons you have learned, so be open to that. And when you are navigating in unfamiliar waters, use professionals to assist you. When done with sincerity and forethought, owning an independent restaurant can be a wonderful thing.

Owner Chuck Shapiro opened Wild River Grille in the historic Riverside Building in 2007, just before the economic crisis hit. He was one of the first visionaries to take a risk on opening an independent restaurant in that area of downtown. He opened the River Room directly next door in 2010. Originally from Southern California, Shapiro has decades of hospitality experience, having previously managed renowned resorts and attractions in Lake Tahoe. Utilizing this expertise, he’s seen consistent growth with his downtown Reno restaurants since opening, even through the financial downturn.


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