Monday, March 22, 2010

Restaurants and Small Businesses

Last week, a friend asked me to help him clean up and take some things from his restaurant, which closed last year. The details of the restaurant or why it closed aren’t relevant; what is relevant is that this is the second time in two years that a friend, who was also the owner of a long-running, successful restaurant that had closed its doors, asked me to help clean the place out. In both cases the object of the mission was to clean out the wine and booze.
While the temptation is to ask, “What does that say about me?”, I think a better question might be, “Why are my restaurant owner friends going out of business?” A coda to that might be, “And why do they ask Shawn to help them spirit the booze away before the auctioneer arrives?” (I think owning a pickup truck has something to do with it.)
The restaurant business is tough—it’s right up there with being a small innkeeper, or being an independent grocer. Economies of scale work against you. The whimsical nature of societal taste works against you. Zoning laws work against you. When I was a boy and my father was a carpenter, many of his builder friends thought that the notion of burying their profits in restaurants was a good idea. They were soon disabused of that notion—especially if they had no previous experience in food service or hospitality.
Like many small businesses, owning a restaurant is a labor of love. That love balances the headaches, and the hope is that there’s enough left over to make a living. Restaurant owners live much of their days on site, and many have small apartments attached so that they never have to leave. Success depends on that long term relationship with the business.
Both of my friends had run their restaurants for decades, carving out a niche that resisted and transcended trends that blew through the zeitgeist. They did that by being true to themselves, and by believing in hard work. But there came a time in their lives when they felt it was better to move on, and though both of them tried to ensure the continuity of their restaurants, when new management came in the restaurants eventually failed.
What does that mean? Are there only certain types of people capable of successfully managing a restaurant? Or would my friends have been just as successful at another endeavor, had they put their hearts and minds to it? Ultimately, I believe they both loved what they were doing, and it showed. That’s not something that can be taught from a book. That’s only something that can be absorbed through experience.