Many of us who enjoy cooking at home for family and friends often dream in those quiet moments of maybe opening a restaurant. We can see ourselves welcoming our customers at the door, talking through the specials with them, and perhaps having a glass with them at the end of an evening. “It’s been a fantastic evening!” And the sea bass was incredible!” they say as they leave. And we glow with satisfaction. We have made them happy.
But opening and running a restaurant involves far more than being a good host. It means early starts, late finishes, problems finding the right staff, problems with the produce, problems with kitchen equipment, problems paying the bills.
One restaurant owner I met recently said, “To open a restaurant, you’re going to need a minimum of £60,000.” That’s just for kitting it out. On top of that comes paying the rent, the lease, business rates, and other costs. It’s no wonder that many people opt for selling food on market stalls or in vans.
Another restaurant owner told me about the strain his business has put on his marriage. “I find it hard to switch off,” he said. “There’s always something to do.”
The word restaurant comes from the French verb meaning to restore. And it seems many of us feel we need a lot of restoring in our daily lives. Harden’s 2016 annual guide to London’s restaurants recorded 179 restaurants. The guide’s co-founder Peter Harden remarked, “The growth of the London restaurant scene is jaw-dropping in comparison to its recent past, never mind the dark ages in which we founded our guide 25 years ago.”
The guide also recorded 56 closures. However, I suspect the figure is far higher. In the corner of south-east London I live in, at least six restaurants have closed in the last year. In one case (it was a café actually) you could see disaster written above the door as soon as it opened: a name they made everyone think it was Chinese, poorly designed frontage, unimaginative and badly thought out menu (sandwiches and chilli con carne), a décor that screamed 1980s, and erratic opening hours.
It was also on a road with little footfall, which made the owner’s decision to open on Sundays completely bonkers. It was, I suspect, an act of desperation, because every time I walked past the café, it was always empty apart from the owner, who was always sitting at a table, tapping her mobile phone.
If you dream of opening a restaurant one day, then you need to have enough money to tide you over in those early months, or that first year. But you also need to do your homework. What is the right location? Do I know what kind of food locals want? What are other local restaurants offering? Who are going to be my customers? What kind of ambience do I want to create? How many days a week will I open? How many hours?
So us amateur cooks who like to entertain can have our dreams. But we also need to think about reality.