If you ever have the urge to open a restaurant in New York City and decide to tell someone about your idea, chances are you will be met with questions about your sanity. The restaurant business is a difficult one to say the least, add NYC's heartless real estate market and opening and maintaining a successful restaurant seems next to impossible.
Last year, there were 82 New York City restaurant closings, according to the state’s restaurant association. Twice as many as the year before. Notable casualties include: Pastis, wd-50 and Union Square Cafe. Although this news may sound discouraging, 160 new restaurants have opened in the same time span, the highest amount since 2007. Amid the closings, there is brazen optimism and hopes of becoming the next feisty pop up to find a permanent address, the latest niche concept to become a city wide obsession or the next Smorgasburg stand out to turn into a mini-chain.
It's true that not everyone wins or loses in the restaurant industry, so what does it take to achieve success? For starters, you're going to have to be cagey, determined with almost blind confidence and have lots of luck. Above all, you're going to have to know how to play the game.
Some may point to Chef David Chang as the poster-child of achieving this type of success in this industry. Chang deviated from his fine dining background and created his own path to success through sheer conviction and a paltry budget. It's been a decade since he opened Momofuku Noodle Bar. He now oversees six New York establishments plus others in Sydney and Toronto, and has become a celebrity while changing the perception of modern American food.
Chang embodies the modern chef: masters of their own branding, joining and opening food labs, traveling to international culinary conferences, profiting from signature dishes and expanding strategically. They know how to save a few bucks on a menu item and flip that savings into a hot new dining trend. Of course this game is far from new, today's David Chang's are yesterday's Jean-Georges Vonerichtens- major players in a network of restaurants and generations. With that being said, there are some sure fire moves to make that will help fill your seats.
1. Your Network is Your Net Worth
Many chefs and restauranteurs have worked with the same handful of people. In the restaurant business, relationships matter a lot. A good mentor can be as critical to a novice chef's career as any amount of schooling. For example, you have Christina Tosi, who worked with Wylie Dufresne after graduating from culinary school in 2004 and now is the chef-owner of Momofuku Milk Bar. Make the right connections and you could be on the fast track to success in your career.
There is a group of modern superstar international chefs who meet up regularly at food conferences such as Mistura in Peru, Cook it Raw in Japan or MAD, the brainchild of Danish chef Rene Redzepi. Conferences like this provide a way for chefs to network, learn new techniques as well as get new ideas to bring back home.
2. Location, Location, Location
Don't rent, own. Easier said than done of course. Several NYC restaurants have been able to overcome the odds simply because they own the building that they are located in. If ever presented with this opportunity, its best to take it if you can.
If ownership isn't an option, you may have to settle for another type of space. If the space is say less than ideal, that doesn't mean you have to pass on it. There are plenty of concepts that started out of different and sometime strange locations. For instance, Underwest Donuts is locted inside the Westside Highway Car Wash, where his father in law is an owner. Being here allowed chef/owner Scott Levine to test the concept. It turned out to be a pretty good endeavor so far.
Maybe you don't have a connection you can use to get your business started, that doesn't mean it still can't happen. Several well known restaurants started out as pop ups. Semilla in Brooklyn started out as a pop up prototype named Chez Jose. Originally a weekly dinner series which took place after-hours at Whirlybird, a Williamsburg coffee shop in 2012, the concept quickly gained steam and eventually owners Jose Ramirez-Ruiz and Pam Yung needed to find a space of their own. Through their own connections they were able to relocate to the old Lake Trout fish shack space and form a partnership with it's owner; Joe Carroll. In October, Semilla debuted.
3. Put Your Name on it
Signature dishes are the way to go. Whether you create a signature dish on purpose or by accident, if the dining public love it, you can pretty much sit back and count your cash. Regardless of how you came up with it, make sure that your signature dish is creative, fresh and above all delicious. Some chefs believe that a signature dish is never complete and are constantly searching for new ways to improve it.