is Blowin Smoke!
Join Date: 08-08-07
Location: Cartersville, GA
My pleasure. Since you gave your story, let me give you my own. Maybe it will be of some use to you.
I spent the 90's piddling around with BBQ as a hobby, creating a line of sauces made from scratch, cooking for parties, the odd fundraiser etc. "Everybody" kept telling me how great my stuff was, and how I should market my sauces, get paid to cater events, open a restaurant, etc. I admit I thought about it and how cool it would be. But my day job as a partner in a computer business demanded most of my time and paid fairly well.
At the turn of the decade things to a sudden downturn for me. The DotCom Bubble burst, the economy tanked and I fell off a scaffold working on my house and shattered a leg which took two expensive surgeries to fix and kept me in bed for six months before it began to regain some function. My computer business closed and with the job market was flooded with out of work IT people, I went on unemployment. Things were pretty grim, and I started thinking $7 an hour pulling pork at Sonny's didn't sound so bad!
During this time I met another BBQ guy though my spouse and we found we had a lot in common. He was working as a contractor, but was well-known for a big annual pig roast he held. So many people kept asking him to cook for their own parties he decided to start up a catering biz on the side: built out a commercial kitchen in his basement, got the license and HD inspection, etc. When he was overbooked I would help him out with grilling gigs and such. We started cooking a few BBQ contests together and doing a little event vending. Fast forward another ten years...
My friend and his wife now are running their second restaurant where they work seven days a week and have about 20 people on the payroll. The stress is incredible - my friend has had a couple heart attacks but thankfully survives (due mostly to his own stubbornness, I think). During the years I have had many occasions to lend a hand with their business, either by working or injecting money when cash flow didn't quite make ends meet. I run the competition team now (he had to quit after the second cardiac episode) and the restaurant stands on it's own two feet financially. I am proud to have been able to help my friend, but also very grateful for being able to vicariously experience owning a restaurant and through this discovering that it is not something I ever need to do for myself. A 50 year old fat man with a bum leg makes a lousy line cook, and working 100 hours in a week to earn what I can make in a day doing my IT job is a poor financial move. I will forever owe my friend for allowing me to see the reality of the food service business from a top-down perspective, which is very different from my previous view as a 16 year old line cook at McDonalds. All that said, my friend HAS been able to make the leap to successful restaurateur, though it has taken him fifteen years and nearly killed him at least twice.
So... what is my takeaway from this story? Pretty much the basics you'll hear from a lot of others:
1) Don't give up your current source of income to go in the food service business. Work both jobs if you must, but hold on to your reliable paycheck!
2) Don't borrow money. If you can't afford equipment, do without, rent, borrow, whatever. Recruit investors if you have to. The last place you want to be is facing a fat loan payoff with no way to pay it.
3) Go slow and keep your overhead low. 75% of all restaurants fail in the first year, so there is plenty of good used equipment out there for pennies on the dollar. Never buy new equipment. Don't hire people to watch them stand around - send them home when it's a dead shift! Don't commit to advertising, security, suppliers or any other monthly contract that you will be bound to pay for in the future when you may not have the money that month.
4) Embrace your community! You will be amazed how rarely all those friends and family who kept telling you how great your food was when it was free show up at your new place to pay for dinner. Go to every Chamber, United Way, DDA, Rotary, Charity Auction, etc. etc. gathering you can. Yes, they will hit you up for freebies, but only by priming this pump can you build loyalty with the movers and shakers in your community to drop your name when somebody asks about caterers. Let them know you are willing to help, but don't become the doormat for free food for every fundraiser either. This investment is much better than advertising and will pay good dividends, but it will take time - after all 75% of the other restaurant guys that came along before you were just a flash in the pan, so it will take a while to build trust. And of course, make every customer that walks through your door feel like this is "his" place. A few super-fans with Facebook accounts can put you on the map, conversely a couple grouchy reviewers on Yelp can dry up your profits.
In conclusion, for myself, I chose to maintain BBQ as something I did because I enjoyed it. I could see where a few years of doing it because I had to in order to pay the bills was going to take the joy out of the thing for me. My friend and his wife took the other path, and they have made it work only because they put everything they have into it every single day of their lives - 100% of their heart & soul, money & time. It's an intensely personal decision, just make sure you go into it with your eyes open and reasonable expectations.
Best of Luck!