While so much of the allure of owning and operating a food-based business is focused on the cooking and baking, it’s the core business matters for which those in the trade often need the most ongoing support.  Improving a recipe often comes more naturally than maximizing profit margins.  Learning from experienced peers is critical to keeping both dreams and business alive and thriving.

In preparation for ICE’s new One Day Restaurant School program, an exclusive six-hour management seminar for restaurant owners and managers to learn skills to improve their business and grow their revenue, seasoned industry professionals Vin McCann and Julia Heyer sat with us to discuss the many challenges that restaurateurs face when attempting to successfully plan, launch and run a food business.

Vin McCann
Every opportunity I get to meet with a restaurant owner, I marvel at both the nerve and effort each of them has relied on to get into business.  Whatever feeds these characteristics:  whether a passion to excel, a sharp market insight, or the desire for the restaurant life, it is admirable.  But all too often I find that the praiseworthy determination has not been tempered with any solid, coherent business planning.  In fact it is often not tempered at all.  Start-up costs explode budgets.  Snappy designs are marred by dysfunctional production facilities.  Ill-conceived restaurant concepts miss their hoped for target guests.  Many stores open without sufficient training.  Businesses generating healthy sales are unproductive when it comes to profits.  The list of critical oversights is long and costly, and reminds me of that old oil filter commercial tag-line, “pay me now, or pay me later.”  How many operations could be saved or enhanced if they spent the time and whatever money it took to plan the management strategies for each vital areas of their business.

Julia Heyer
Oh wow, Vin, you are getting me started on one of my favorite topics, and something I tend to spend a lot of time on with my clients:  the planning – or often rather unfortunate lack thereof – during the design and pre-opening phase. Restaurant development is complex puzzle. Entrepreneurs generally realize this, but unfortunately they underestimate the pieces involved, mistaking the challenge for an 8,000 piece puzzle, when there really are 15,000 pieces they need to consider.  In other words: It is not that people don’t ask questions… they often simply do not know which questions to ask and in which order.

A prime example: the 6 foot wide dish drop table for a 480 seat casual restaurant, planning on serving 425 guests per hour, using 8 different types of glasses and 12 styles of plate-ware…. Can you see where I’m going here?

Do some basic math and it turns out each of the guest uses an average of 2.5 glasses, 4.5 plates and 3 pieces of silverware. That makes 950 glasses, over 1,900 plates and 1,275 pieces of silverware hitting those 6 feet every hour. That’s 32 plates per minute hitting those six feet alone. You can’t squeeze enough dishwashers in the area to handle the volume and avoid serious breakage.  Details matter, especially the functional ones.

Vin McCann
It’s no exaggeration, Jules. Details do matter, and restaurants unlike so many other retail businesses are all about function.  We make, sell, and serve our products.  Connecting the dots through those responsibilities under the banner of a coherent concept is trip down the rabbit hole of minutia.  Whether the size of the dish drop table, or the size of the menu, the failure to address every connection point brings start-ups and loosely managed operations that much closer to failure.

It is impossible to stress too much the need to understand the market, make the right location choice, avoid the pitfalls of a bad lease, or conduct comprehensive competitive research. Small margin businesses call for a critical eye for detail.  Unless the marginal profits after food and labor are sufficient to cover the other costs, the thought of making profits up in volume is delusional.   Food and beverage portion control, along with recipe costing is vital to both consistency and profitability, but too many operators fail to engage in them.   A good idea is simply not enough to launch a successful restaurant, and the effort and money invested must be tethered to concept and operational planning buttressed by realistic sales and profitability projections.  It ain’t rocket science, but it takes time, effort and team work to navigate the process.

Julia Heyer
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Oh, we’ll figure that piece out once we are open.” It’s nearly as good as “we’ll fix that when we’re successful.” I’m not joking.  Honestly, whether one is planning a new restaurant or trying to improve an existing one, the amount of work involved calls for a collaborative effort, and the determination of who should do what.  At the same time taking care to avoid the pitfall, “Zuviele Koeche verderben den Brei” which is the German equivalent of too many cooks spoil the broth.  Planning for optimal execution calls for recognizing who brings the appropriate and necessary skills and talents to the team, and also identifying which areas they probably shouldn’t be involved in.  The objective is to get the best out of the team, by motivating them to march in ONE joint direction, which, of course presumes a plan, and the ability to articulate it well …. So many puzzle pieces, so little time!

Vin and Julia will be leading ICE’s One Day Restaurant School on Wednesday, October 17th, from 9am-3pm, where they will focus on these and other topics that restaurant professionals face. Click here to register!

ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who are still active in the industry, working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. With such a wide range of experience between them, we decided to ask Julia Heyer and Vin McCann to take a closer look at some of the trends and culinary businesses we keep hearing so much about. Their first post was about NBC’s America’s Next Great Restaurant. Now that the winner of the show has closed his restaurants, they decided to revisit the show.

Julia Heyer
About a month ago, a new restaurant closed its doors within weeks of opening — generally a bit of a non-event in NYC. However, in this case it garnered some news as it had been the winning ‘concept’ of America’s Next Great Restaurant, the TV show we didn’t lose any love for in our first blog post here.

Restaurants are a tough industry to break into in general — but what if you can’t even make it given financial backing, “mentoring” by some industry experts (and unknowns presented as such), the operations machine of Chipotle behind it, good locations and national marketing on a level an ordinary operator can only dream of? What went wrong here?

The cynic in me asks where to start. Well, number 1: Opening one restaurant is no picnic. Trying to open THREE, at the same time, in COMPLETELY different areas of the country seemed like a, well I could call it less prudent, but really, just mind bogglingly DUMB idea from the beginning — especially with a NEW concept that will need to be honed, tweaked and adjusted. And yes, all concepts need that in the beginning, no matter who the operator is or how genius the idea seems.

Vin McCann
Of course the idea was stupid and unsurprisingly it failed. I don’t normally think of you as cynical, Julia, and true to form, you are simply not cynical enough. The show was canceled after the first season, but the producers had to deliver on their promise of a new national chain with three versions of a new concept in three different markets at the same time. Without the ratings to continue on it was a matter of just getting it done — here today, gone tomorrow. One has to wonder what the lease terms of the Soul Daddy locations were — 60 to 90 days? Despite doing sales the store in downtown NYC didn’t stay open long enough to determine if it was a viable business or not. It was just a continuation of the show’s script, and the ending had been written well in advance. More…

Hello, August! August means that we have passed the halfway mark of the Culinary Management Program.

The funny part about this program is that I think it mirrors my life a little too closely. When I started my current job, I was challenged to find local purveyors for most of my products. When it comes to chocolate, this was a real challenge. Then John Schaffenberger came to speak to the class about his experiences in the food industry and his most famous business venture — Scharffen Berger chocolates. He brought up a very interesting point — when it comes to chocolate, you really want something that tastes good. For example, when it comes to Fair Trade, even if something claims to be fair, you don’t know what the realities really are unless you visit the farms. Also, Fair Trade is an idea and he said that you can’t eat an idea and expect it to taste good. When you’re in the food industry, there is a very fine balance between following idea trends, but also maintaining the integrity of taste.

Then I had to calculate food costs for all of my baked goods at Smith Canteen at the same time that we were being tested on purchasing and calculating food costs in class. While I discovered my food costs were mainly in the teens (when your main ingredients are flour, sugar, and eggs, it’s not surprising that it’s so low), I began to question how bakeries aren’t more profitable! The more I thought about it, even with a food cost that’s 19% — if it only costs you $0.19 to make a chocolate chip cookie that you will sell at $1 — you will have to bake and sell at least 25 cookies just to make $20. This $20 is going to be used for several other costs like labor, rent, and insurance. You’re going to have to sell lots of cookies! More…

ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who are still active in the industry, working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. With such a wide range of experience between them, we decided to ask Julia Heyer and Vin McCann to take a closer look at some of the trends and culinary businesses we keep hearing so much about today, they taken on the case of Lenny’s and labor laws.

Julia Heyer
It saddened me to read recently that Lenny’s, a local NYC chain of sandwich shops with 13-plus outlets, recently agreed to the largest settlement in the history of New York State’s Department of Labor. The firm will settle labor violations — for not adequately paying overtime and minimum wages — by plunking down over $5 million in back wages, damages and penalties.

I have encountered plenty of restaurateurs that — besides ignoring the moral aspect —think that shortcuts actually make sense economically. They are willing to ‘push the boundaries,’ pay less than they should to make some money and line their own pockets. Usually as an individual restaurant or two grows into a multi-unit operation, growing in sophistication and bringing on additional leadership and resources, such practices get squelched out, making room for proper business practices instead of exploitation.

Or so one hopes. I opt for the positive, optimistically thinking that entrepreneurs and managers want to treat their employees right.

The case of Lenny’s shows that this isn’t necessarily the case. Why, I wonder? Is it old-fashioned greed? The culture of an organization and maybe our industry? Is it a false sense of entitlement? What’s your take? More…

Whew. ServSafe is now under my belt. My Culinary Management class took the exam early this month and we just got our scores back a few days ago. I’m happy to report that I passed. The refresher course has actually come at an ideal time as I just started a new job at Smith Canteen. My first few days involved trying to figure out how to arrange storage so that we were in compliance with health codes.

In the past weeks, Steve taught us about the restaurant experience for guests and opportunities for us to be great. He included ideas like having the chef visit all of the tables in the restaurant. He said that many people find being able to chat with the chef and be able to convey all of their ideas and concerns directly to the person in charge of the food is a great touch. However, he warned that the chef shouldn’t stand and hover creepily over diners without saying anything, because that becomes a negative experience. Last year, at Le Bernardin, I saw Eric Ripert glide out of the kitchen and come and visit one of the tables. Even though he didn’t visit my table, I remember how the entire dining room atmosphere changed and how thrilled I was to see that he was in the kitchen. More…

My first week of class has been amazing. Before starting, a small part of me was panicking about juggling school, work and my business. This last week was tough. I’m scheduled to work until about 1:00 am, but class starts at 8:00 am and I love my sleep, so get up in the morning can be a battle. Also, this past Tuesday Macaron Parlour started a week-long pop-up shop at Henri Bendel, so I spent every spare moment baking and planning. As the pop-up winds down, I think things will be less crazy, but even if every week is like the last two, this class is worth it. Both Steve Zagor and Julia Heyer come to the class with so much knowledge and energy that I’m both startled awake and willing to prop my eyelids open with pencils to make sure I don’t miss a single thing.

In my previous career, I was an avid reader of Eater, Grub Street, Serious Eats, and all of the fun online food gossip. I read about restaurant openings, drooled over photos and had mini crushes on chefs I’ll probably never meet. Once I actually started working in a kitchen, my grasp on industry knowledge and current news went out the window. BP oil spil? I know about the grapeseed oil I just spilled in the dry storage area. Earthquake in Japan? I think I caught a glimpse on TV while getting ready for work. Martha Stewart’s pop-up pie shop? I made plans to go two weeks after it closed.

So, it is a pleasure to discover that part of our Wednesday curriculum involves catching up on current events. We’ve been advised to keep an eye on New York Times Dining Section, Nation’s Restaurant News, Crain’s and Eater. I wondered if much has changed since I last sat down to catch up on the industry. Well, I read my first Sam Sifton review and I can’t really figure out his true opinion. I wondered if suing McDonald’s over the Happy Meal toy will really do anything. In any case, it’s nice to finally sit down and catch up on what’s new. More…

While it seems like just about everyone has a great idea for a food business, ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who have actually opened and operated their own restaurants and food businesses. They are still active in the industry, working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. Julia Heyer is a restaurant consultant and owner of Heyer Performance and has worked on projects from Dubai to Mexico City. Vin McCann has managed restaurant operations ranging from $500,000 to $400 million in revenue and divides his time between teaching, consulting and operating a landmark inn and restaurant, The Wells House, in New York’s Adirondack region. With such a wide range of experience between these two, we decided to ask these two to take a closer look at some of the trends and culinary businesses we keep hearing so much about. First up, we asked them about food TV and the glamorization of restaurant life in NBC’s new show, America’s Next Great Restaurant.

Julia Heyer
My initial reaction towards America’s Next Great Restaurant was admittedly a not-so-mild sneer. A reality TV show about creating a large-scale quick-service restaurant business, when this particular segment of the market is not exactly lacking in competition and tends to be devoid of sex appeal — really? Who do you know who fantasizes about working and spending time at a fast food place?

Cooking and restaurant management is physically demanding work, with looooong hours on your feet, usually at times when the rest of the world enjoys leisure time such as evenings, weekends and holidays. It involves dealing with the random and unexpected curveballs. In a day you may encounter a broken down compressor, no-showing staff (“My rabbit ate my metrocard”) picketing by the “Lobster Liberation Front” and your linen order not arriving. You are so happy to sit down after service that it does not matter that you are sitting on boxes of sugar packs next to the electrical panel in the basement. More…