How to Make It as a Restaurant Owner
Last week in Seattle, Bisnow hosted a summit of the top restaurateurs and developers on our city's exploding food scene.
We held our event at the Triple Door downtown, a large music venue affiliated with (and literally underneath) one of Seattle’s best-known restaurants, Wild Ginger, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Tom Douglas, right, Seattle’s most famous chef, follows a rule that his restaurants (now 15) should be within 10 blocks of each other. He says his employees are his lifeblood, and he likes to walk among them constantly. He also says the concentration brings him more regulars, avoids the need for concierge outreach, and frees him to work on food rather than marketing. Fellow celeb Ethan Stowell (10 restaurants) suggested landlords provide loans so restaurants don’t have to get so many investors, and pointed out that restaurants seek lower rents not to be greedy but to increase volume, which is also good for neighborhoods and landlords.
Like Ethan Stowell, Renee Erickson was just named a James Beard finalist last week for Best Chef in the Northwest. Matt Dillon (five restaurants) says he’s not a “strategic person,” but just does concepts that appeal to him. He wondered about the logic of some regulations, like roping off bars, that he feels can actually be more dangerous for little kids than the risk someone will serve them liquor. “How many 4-year-olds do you see drinking gin?” he joked. He suggested landlords give tenants more skin in the building game, so their businesses will become institutions for 30 years, and perhaps cut rents to interesting non-restaurant tenants like woodworkers, both to promote diversity of retail and avoid excessive numbers of restaurants that can cannibalize each other.
Thierry Rautureau (better known as “The Chef in the Hat”) recommends partnering with a landlord as early as possible in the process, to collaborate on mission and design “as opposed to coming to a shell and just being handed a flyer that says $40 a square foot” before you sign for 10 to 15 years.
Wild Ginger founder Rick Yoder says 60 restaurants opened in Seattle last year, 50 before that, and another 50 are expected in 2014. He and other chefs say the hardest thing to learn is how to be a small business owner, dealing in a tough industry with capital and labor risks, but that restaurateurs like those on stage have the pixie dust that can make a city great.
Developer Matt Griffin says when he puts restaurants on the ground floor of his big apartment complexes (like one across the street from Amazon’s new world HQ), it’s not just to drive traffic but to be part of the community. Great cities are about walking, he said, and streets should provide not just glassy storefronts but experience and interaction. He urged fellow owners to spend more time designing retail, saying you’ll be known as much by that as by your name, and you should spend more time and money on it than you do on your lobbies.
Superbroker Laura Miller urged landlords to go for not necessarily the highest rents, but the best uses for tenants, and said “you’ll make your money on the apartments” as a result. And on a current proposal in Seattle to raise the minimum wage from $9.32 to $15? She says local owners are telling her they’re putting their expansion plans on hold. Others added they expect such a change would increase menu prices 20% to 25%, and decrease the volume of diners.
Scott Wyatt, who heads Seattle’s biggest architecture firm, NBBJ (which is designing the new campuses of both Amazon and Google), said this is an amazing time for the growth of cities around the world, and that while retail foot traffic has in general decreased 50%, restaurant volume has doubled. He himself is likelier to go downtown now, he says, to have dinner rather than to buy a sweater. He told restaurateurs they have more power than they realize, and they need to be bold.
Washington Restaurant Association CEO Anthony Anton, representing 5,500 restaurants in the state, said any increase in the minimum wage should be incremental, since restaurant leases have already been committed to based on certain financial calculations. He said teens and new college grads should look at the minimum wage not as permanent compensation, but as what is offered as they learn the trade.