By Stephen Zagor, Dean of Culinary Business Studies
Consider the scene in your average home kitchen. Could a successful restaurant survive with only one sink to clean veggies, peel shrimp, rinse raw chicken, wash hands and rinse pet bowls? Or a reach-in refrigerator filled with perishables that is often left open for too long? What about a dog running around while the staff is working, or an untrained cook who licks his fingers after tasting the sauce? The same warm dreamy set that is the foundation of so many fond childhood memories is also the cauldron of bacteria where you are most likely to get “stomach flu”—or as professionals call it, “food poisoning”.
And yet, in-home restaurants are now in vogue. An article recently published in The New York Post entitled “I Turned MY Apartment into a Restaurant” extolls the virtues of this trend in which (often untrained) cooks invite complete strangers to visit their home and pay for dinner. But those interested in starting such a venture should be warned: the average home kitchen is many times dirtier than any restaurant. The reason we have a Department of Health and regulations about serving food and alcohol is to protect both the diner and the restaurateur.
At ICE’s School of Culinary Management, one of the first things we teach our students to consider when opening a food business is risk versus reward. In the case of home chefs, the risk is a zillion times higher than any possible reward. It takes only one small catastrophe—a guest becomes ill from your famous Lamb Tagine; someone is injured tripping over your new Crate and Barrel rope rug; a diner with a cat allergy goes into anaphylactic shock; or someone has a little too much Pinot and takes a fall on the curb of your home—and you’re in big trouble. The bottom line is, once money is accepted for a restaurant transaction, there is an implied warranty of safety.
In a commercial restaurant, the owner has some defenses. The business is incorporated to protect his or her personal property. There is liability insurance in case of an unexpected disaster. Most importantly, they have been trained in food safety and know the Dram Shop Laws on proper alcohol service.
So this begs the question – can this new cottage industry work? The answer is maybe, but think carefully before choosing this alternative path over your day job. Private Supper Clubs have been around for a while, and some owner/chefs have even gone on to open successful restaurants. But anyone running a food service operation should be properly trained in sanitation and follow the laws and regulations set out for food businesses. My advice would be to set up a proper corporation with suitable insurance. For those daring enough to take on the challenge, think carefully about what you do well and what you should probably avoid.