By Stephen Zagor — Dean, Restaurant & Culinary Management
What a year! As ICE’s Dean of Restaurant & Culinary Management, I feasted on the stories, successes, errors and reboots of dozens and dozens of industry notable guests, students and alumni. As a consultant, I peered over the shoulders of some huge industry names, as well as investors and stakeholders. As an expert in my field, I’ve researched numerous articles about current issues in our industry. Each day, I get to inspire, inquire, admire, rewire and even satire soon-to-be and long-standing successful food entrepreneurs. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new. So, you might wonder, what, if anything, do those successful food entrepreneurs have in common?
As I remind students in my Restaurant & Culinary Management classes, success stories in this industry aren’t the norm. New food products hit the market at a rate of about 100,000 per year with only a small number actually achieving enough financial success to be able to comfortably support the founders over the long term. New restaurants open by the hundreds across the country every year with fewer than half reaching five years of existence. It’s the rule of the economic jungle. All of these enterprises start with an epiphany — a zinger of an idea, a clever design, a long simmering passion, a raging flavor, a cost-plunging value, a super ingredient combo — an Ah ha! To name a few examples: A guy’s quick-serve taco store became Chipotle; a grad student’s taste for Icelandic yogurt became Siggi’s; a man’s coffee tour of Italy became Starbucks; a visionary’s hot dog stand in a park became Shake Shack; a chemist’s personal taste for vodka became Skyy; and so on.
What made some succeed when so many others didn’t? Is there a magic dust or is there a teachable skill? Here are some common takeaways I learned this year listening to culinary entrepreneurs. Let’s call them tips for going from “little” to “big”:
- Just do it. Most people have no idea what they’re doing when they start a business, and many still have hazy, confused procedures even after they appear successful to the world. More than one entrepreneur has stated that no single course in school, no experienced mentor’s advice, no related job experience will fully prepare you for your own ride on the venture coaster, or tell you when the time to start is right. Classes will help to vaccinate against some types of errors, but there is no vaccine to specifically protect you from “failure-itis.” My advice: Just do it, and be prepared to make lots of mistakes and flubs.
- Have enough money. This seems obvious, but a common tip from entrepreneurs and creators was to be well-funded. Too little capital at the beginning made for needless problems and bad decisions that later haunted business owners. Have enough money to launch effectively and sustain all the flops and screw-ups in the early months.
- Ask for help. All of our guests were firm in their people principle — get help when you need it. No one can do or is effective at doing everything that needs to be done, especially in the early stages. Find help — disciples, mentors, teammates, experts, maybe a psychiatrist — you’ll need them.
- Think and focus small. Go slow. Create the startup prototype, the first location, the first customers, the beginning recipes, and give them 100% of your focus. You will need all of your resources, capabilities, creativity and more at the start. Don’t get distracted, no matter how seductive a new location, new market or business offshoot is. Food businesses are really a process and logistics. Make it work. If you start thinking too big, too soon, ‘little’ will never be ‘big.’
- Know your market and everything about it. You can’t just make it or build it and they will come. There’s too much competition. The knowledge you gather about the market will affect everything — ambiance, packaging, pricing, mission, menu, flavors, etc. Test, refine and test again. Be a listener and observer. Allow ideas to morph and don’t be too headstrong. Find out what your market thinks and feels, what makes the competition successful and who’s doing something similar elsewhere. The best ideas may be out there already — just put your spin on them. Never, ever forget you’re building an emotional bond with your customers.
- S**t will happen — not MAY happen — WILL happen. Keep going. No, this is not an ad for Allstate featuring Mr. Mayhem. Your main source for custom breads with whom you spent six months developing recipes has a fire; you are sued because someone thinks your name is too close to theirs — and you lose; your manager and key employee get married and without notice move to Boise; an irate customer tears you up on Yelp for no apparent reason. These things happen. How you handle them and things like them will define you. Good things are easy to handle — it’s the bad things that make you stronger.
- Anyone can do it. If you met the people I’ve met you would wonder, “How did they do it?” Aren’t they too young, too old, uneducated, over-educated, too quiet or too obnoxious? And you’d be right, but they’ve done it. Why can’t you? (Answer: you can.)
- You won’t regret it. Prepare to work really hard. It will occupy your brain 24/7 and be both painful and pleasurable. No matter how many scars the entrepreneurs I’ve spoken with have earned, and how many sacrifices they had to make, none regret having done it. They might have done it differently, but they have no regrets for having done it. They could have spent their whole lives in the passenger seat. They moved to the driver’s seat.
Those are my tips for food business entrepreneurs; you can now cancel your Amazon order for self-help books. Just remember: The adventure will have lots of unknowns and the only way to figure them out is through experience. Start “little” and maybe one day you’ll be “big.”
In 2017, I piloted a fantasy drone equipped with an X-ray camera that peered into the foodscape below — magically seeing into the hearts and minds of key players in the culinary industry. I was able to hear their in-depth stories and deep insights. The lessons learned were not earth trembling, but were notable in their similarity and cherished in their value. Being an educator can be a great way to be educated — I’m looking forward to 2018 and seeing more littles become bigs.
Interested in launching your own food business? Click here to learn more about ICE’s Restaurant & Culinary Management program.