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Why would anyone want to open a restaurant?!

March 1, 2019

I’ve written more than once about unskilled, unprepared or underfunded restaurant startups that end up in failure. The cyclic turnover in a seasonal resort like the Cape Region is proof positive that only the strong survive in this business of eating. An occasional owner will even blame “the economy,” ignoring or denying the obvious fact that other restaurants - right next door or across the street - continue to thrive. Though certainly disappointing and traumatic, the failure of one’s beloved concept is often a sad wake-up call. 

I’ve been thinking about all the new openings for our 2019 season. By the time you read this, the new Gilligan’s in Milton will be up and running. Gary & Chris Desch are about to debut their Baltimore-flavored Chaps Pit Beef. Eric Sugrue and his Big Fish team are working hard to get the new Sazio (the old Zebra) running for the summer. Mit Patel’s team is opening a second Dos Locos in the old El Dorado restaurant space. Regan Derrickson’s Nalu Rehoboth is taking shape (complete with a thatched roof). The Surfing Crab crew is hoping to open Steamin’ Blues in the old Jake’s location downtown. Indigo Indian restaurant is expanding its reach into Columbia, Md. Talented chef Brenton Wallace is handing over the reins (and the pizza peels) at Crust & Craft to SoDel Concepts. Warren Rosenfeld recently introduced corned beef to the Salisbury Regional Airport in the form of Rosenfeld’s Jewish Deli number three. Dr. Vinay Hosmane, Chef GG and their Masala Bay Hospitality Group are hard at work bringing Raas - an Indian fusion concept - to Lewes. The list goes on. 

Which ones will survive? Hopefully, all. Are they prepared for the rigors of seasonal restauranting? The point was driven home for me last week during a visit to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I like to stay in the East Las Olas area because it reminds me of Rehoboth Avenue, Baltimore Avenue and Wilmington Avenue all rolled into one. This busy east/west boulevard teems with restaurants, cafes, bakeries, carryouts, hotels; very much like what we enjoy in Rehoboth, Lewes and Dewey Beach. 

So far, so good - until I ventured out onto Las Olas Boulevard to discover that more than a few of the little eateries I remembered from last year had been replaced with For Lease signs. But wait - Fort Lauderdale isn’t nearly as seasonal as our tiny Delaware Cape Region towns! Shouldn’t it be easier to keep a restaurant running year-round in a city that sports two international airports, multiple shopping malls, high-rises as far as the eye can see, and a huge year-round population? For a rare moment, I was speechless (the moment didn’t last long…). 

I’ve written more than once that the hardest part of owning a restaurant in our Delaware resorts is the relatively short vacation season and the inconveniently long and sometimes financially stressful off-season. Fort Lauderdale’s busiest time runs from around Thanksgiving to around Easter, but the relatively temperate weather keeps the differential between seasonal populations to a minimum. 

So I decided to do a little research. I dropped in to a couple of commercial real estate offices along the boulevard and casually asked about the surprising turnover in food service businesses. I introduced myself as having owned and operated restaurants in the past (true), and implied that I was researching restaurant spaces there in coastal Florida (sorta not true). 

Lo and behold! Several of the friendlier agents confided that they are under constant pressure from their landlord clients to qualify potential tenants before they sign on the dotted line. In other words, to make sure that restaurateur wannabes possess sufficient funds and working capital to not only construct and open the place, but also to keep it running during slow times. Though much of that information can be easily gleaned from financial statements, bank balances and references, the real challenge for these agents was trying to determine, as diplomatically as possible, if the potential lessee had any clue as to what he or she was getting him- or herself into. 

One of the agents told me that she tries to get together informally with the potential leaseholder to learn about his or her motivation and experience. Any fan of Robert Irvine’s “Restaurant Impossible” on Food Network can recite from memory the list of well-meaning yet fatally flawed motivations that often doom a food service business to failure before it even starts. “Mom is such as good cook! The family decided she should open a restaurant.” I can almost hear the mournful notes of “Taps” echoing in the background. Or, worse yet, “I financed and opened the place, and all I need are really good managers and employees to run it for me. I shouldn’t have to be there. I’ve got other things to do!” (Hear it? – yup, that’s “Taps” sure enough.) 

The majority of successful restaurants have strong on-site ownership or generously vested management that not only provides quality training for employees, but also ensures systems are in place to incentivize those employees and let them know how important they are to the operation. If the owners bring savvy business experience and people skills to the table - both in the kitchen and in the dining room - the chances of success increase dramatically. 

We really have to look no further than some of our most successful restaurants here in Rehoboth Beach where employees respect and support the ownership/management, and owners/managers return that respect and support. And it’s all backed up with sound business plans and the financial means and skills to execute them. 

So maybe it’s not so much about on- and off-season business peaks and valleys. Maybe it’s more about making a total, 24/7 commitment to your concept, your business and your employees in order to keep customers smiling. 

One need look no further than some of the consistently successful restaurant groups here at the beach. Build it, and they will come … IF you do it right.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.