As increasing numbers of consumers want to dine out or take prepared food home, the number of food-service operations has skyrocketed from 155,000 about 40 years ago to nearly 960,000 today. But there’s still room in the market for your food-service business.
- Restaurant Service Styles
- Carving Your Niche
- Writing a Business Plan
- Choosing a Location
- Creating a Menu with Using Menu Maker
- Hiring Employees
- Marketing and Promotions
Shifting demographics and changing lifestyles are driving the surge in food-service businesses. Busy consumers don’t have the time or inclination to cook. They want the flavour of fresh bread without the hassle of baking. They want tasty, nutritious meals without dishes to wash. In fact, the rise in popularity of to-go operations underscores some clear trends in the food-service industry. More and more singles, working parents and elderly people are demanding greater convenience when it comes to buying their meals.
Though the future looks bright for the food-service industry overall, there are no guarantees in this business. Even the most successful operators will tell you this isn’t a “get rich quick” industry. It’s more like a “work hard and make a living” industry.
No single food-service operation has universal appeal. This is a fact that many newer entrepreneurs have trouble accepting, but the reality is that you will never capture 100 percent of the market. When you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. So focus on the 5 or 10 percent of the market that you can get, and forget about the rest.
With that said, who is eating at restaurants? Let’s look at the main market categories of food-service business customers:
Restaurant Service Styles
Restaurants are classified into three primary categories: quick-service, midscale and upscale. Quick-service restaurants are also known as fast-food restaurants. These establishments offer limited menus of items that are prepared quickly and sold for a relatively low price. In addition to very casual dining areas, they typically offer drive-thru windows and take-out service.
When people think of fast-food restaurants, they often think of hamburgers and french fries, but establishments in this category also serve chicken, hot dogs, sandwiches, pizza, seafood and ethnic foods.
Midscale restaurants, as the name implies, occupy the middle ground between quick-service and upscale restaurants. They offer full meals but charge prices that customers perceive as providing good value. Midscale restaurants offer a range of limited- and full-service options. In a full-service restaurant, patrons place and receive their orders at their tables; in a limited-service operation, patrons order their food at a counter and then receive their meals at their tables. Many limited-service restaurants offer salad bars and buffets.
Upscale restaurants offer full table service and do not necessarily promote their meals as offering great value; instead, they focus on the quality of their cuisine and the ambience of their facilities. Fine-dining establishments are at the highest end of the upscale restaurant category and charge the highest prices.
Carving Your Niche
Before you can begin any serious business planning, you must first decide what specific segment of the food-service industry you want to enter. While there are many commonalities among the various types of food-service businesses, there are also many differences. And while there is much overlap in the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful, your own personality and preferences will dictate whether you choose to open a commercial bakery, a coffee cart, a fine-dining restaurant or another type of operation. Then, once you have decided what business best suits you, you must figure out the niche you’ll occupy in the marketplace.
For example, are you an early riser, or do you prefer to stay up late and sleep late? If you like–or at least don’t mind–getting up before dawn, your niche may be a bakery or a casual breakfast-and-lunch operation. Night owls are going to be drawn to the hours required for bar-and-grill types of restaurants, fine-dining establishments and even pizzerias.
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Do you like dealing with the public, or are you happier in the kitchen? If you’re a people person, choose a food-service business that gives you plenty of opportunity to connect with your customers. If you’re not especially gregarious, you’ll probably lean more toward a commercial type of business, perhaps a bakery or even a catering service, where you can deal more with operational issues than with people.
Some other types of questions to ask yourself include, Do you have a passion for a particular type of cuisine? Do you enjoy a predictable routine, or do you prefer something different every day? Are you willing to deal with the additional responsibilities and liabilities that come with serving alcoholic beverages?
As you do this self-analysis, think about your ideal day. If you could be doing exactly what you wanted to do, what would it be?
Once you’ve decided on the best niche for you as an individual, it’s time to determine if you can develop a niche in the market for your food-service business.
Working in a Restaurant
Dealing graciously with customers and playing the role of elegant host are only part of a restaurateur’s many duties. Food-service business operators spend most of their time developing menus; ordering inventory and supplies; managing personnel; creating and implementing marketing campaigns; making sure their operation is in compliance with a myriad of local, state and federal regulations; completing a wide range of paperwork; and performing other administrative chores. Certainly the financial opportunities are there–as are the fun aspects of the business–but starting, running and growing a food-service business is also hard work.
Regardless of the type of food-service business you intend to start, the best way to learn the ropes is to work for a similar operation for a while before striking out on your own. Doing so will give you significant insight into the realities and logistics of the business.
Ideally, you should work in a restaurant similar to the type you want to open. You may find you don’t like the business. Or you may find you’re more suited to a different type of operation than you originally thought. Hopefully, you’ll discover you’re in exactly the right place.
Writing a Business Plan
Armed with practical experience, you’re ready to put together your business plan–the most critical element of your restaurant. Map out everything on paper before you buy the first spoon or crack the first egg.
When you’re writing a business plan you should include: a clear definition of your concept; a description of your market; your menu and pricing; detailed financial information, including data on your startup capital (amount and sources) and your long-term income and expense forecasts; a marketing plan; employee hiring, training and retention programs; and detailed plans that outline how you’ll deal with the challenges restaurateurs face every day. Including an exit plan in your strategy is also a good idea.
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Funding Your Business
How much money you need to start depends on the type of business, the facility, how much equipment you need, whether you buy new or used, your inventory, marketing, and necessary operating capital (the amount of cash you need on hand to carry you until your business starts generating cash). It’s easy to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars starting a restaurant, but it’s not essential. For instance, when Borealis Breads owner Jim Amaral started his first bakery in Maine, he rented a space that had been a commercial bakery and came complete with mixers, benches, ovens and other equipment. He was able to start with just $10,000 he’d borrowed from family and friends, and used that primarily for inventory.
Regardless of how much you need, you will definitely need some cash to start your food-service business started. Here are some suggestions of where to go to raise your startup funds:
- Your own resources. Do a thorough inventory of your assets. People generally have more assets than they realize, including savings accounts, retirement accounts, equity in real estate, recreation equipment, vehicles, collections and other investments. You may opt to sell assets for cash or use them as collateral for a loan. Also look at your personal line of credit. Many a successful business has been started with credit cards.
- Family and friends. The logical next step after gathering your own resources is to approach friends and relatives who believe in you and want to help you succeed. Be cautious with these arrangements; no matter how close you are with the person, present yourself professionally, put everything in writing, and be sure the individuals you approach can afford to take the risk of investing in your business.
- Partners. Using the “strength in numbers” principle, look around for someone who may want to team up with you in your venture. You may choose someone who has financial resources and wants to work side by side with you in the business. Or you may find someone who has money to invest but no interest in doing the actual work. Be sure to create a written partnership agreement that clearly defines your respective responsibilities and obligations. And choose your partners carefully–especially when it comes to family members.
- Government programs. Take advantage of the abundance of local, state and federal programs designed to support small businesses. Make your first stop the SBA, but be sure to investigate various other programs. Women, minorities and veterans should check out special financing programs designed to help them get into business. The business section of your local library is a good place to begin your research.