Want to open a restaurant? You're not alone: Nearly half of all adults have worked in the restaurant industry at some point, and 46 percent of restaurant employees say they would like to someday own a restaurant.

Starting a successful restaurant is a common entrepreneurial dream.

Starting a restaurant that fails -- since nearly 20 percent close within the first year -- is not.

That's why I asked Will Malnati, the co-owner of TORO, a Spanish tapas restaurant with locations in NYC, Boston, Bangkok and Dubai (the NYC location is currently celebrating its 5-year anniversary) for tips for aspiring restaurateurs.

Will comes by his restaurant industry knowledge honestly. Growing up, he worked nearly every job in his family's 50-location deep-dish pizza chain, Lou Malnati's. He then earned a Hotel Administration degree from Cornell, managed restaurants in Chicago and New York, and then partnered with Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette, both James Beard award-winning chefs, to open TORO in New York City.

So yeah: Will knows a little about starting a successful restaurant.

Here's what Will says, in his own words, about building a successful restaurant business:

1. Know where you can cut corners... and where you can't.

Plenty of people say try to use as little capital as possible to get your restaurant open. That's good advice... but while there are places you can cut corners, there are others you definitely cannot. 

When it comes to air conditioning, bathrooms, the infrastructure that makes guests comfortable, you simply can't cut corners. You'll pay for it in the end... if you last that long.

2. Don't hire overqualified people. 

While you don't want to hire under-qualified people -- although in some cases you can, since you can develop inexperienced people that have a great attitude -- don't hire people who are over-qualified. If they don't have room to grow they won't stay with you very long.

For example, if you hire an experienced manager with a great resume, and the highest level she can reach is General Manager... she'll soon get bored.

Your goal is to hire people that want to grow with you -- and who knows your growth will create possibilities for them to grow.

3. Every person who comes into your restaurant is important: Not just because they are a customer, but also because... you never know.

Obviously every customer is important. But some can turn out to be key to your restaurant's success.

For example, I met one individual simply because I stopped by to say hi to his table. That made an impression because he has brought us thousands of dollars in event sales. All it took was a connection: He met me, had my business card, had my direct line... he could reach me when he needed to. 

Another person I said hello to at the bar because I had seen him in the restaurant before said, "Have you guys ever thought of opening a restaurant in Dubai?" Now, in part because of him, we have a location in Dubai.

Everyone knows someone who knows someone you should know... but the process starts with you knowing that first person.

Which means treating every customer like they are important. Because they are.

4. Put in place small touches that set your brand apart.

When my wife and I were in Italy on our honeymoon we stopped at a small neighborhood restaurant with a line out the door. We were given small glasses of Prosecco as we walked to our table. The people there made a connection, welcomed us in a way that made us feel important...

Later when I talked with the manager I asked, "How much do you spend on Prosecco?" He said he goes through 30 bottles a night -- and that it is worth 10X the investment.

Try to incorporate small touches like that in your restaurant. They go a long way.

5. Don't take yourself too seriously.

From a quality and service perspective, definitely take yourself seriously. But don't take yourself too seriously. Don't be too structured or too "tight." The less seriously you take yourselves, the more fun your guests will have... and the more genuine the experience they will have.

For example, we don't call ourselves a party restaurant, but occasionally we pull out a perron in the middle of dinner. (A perron is a Spanish wine pitcher that pours a stream of wine directly into your mouth.) When the perron comes out, people applaud -- it sparks an organic energy that says, "Hey, we're going to have fun." 

Organic energy and a sense of fun also lets you...

6. Make your team feel at ease.

When your staff feels at ease, they provide better service. But not too at ease, of course.

Find that balance that lets your staff be professional while also establishing rapport.

7. Celebrate every little win.

Sometimes, especially when a restaurant has won a few major awards, it's easy for the restaurant as a whole to get a little smug and start ignoring smaller victories.

Plus, it's easy to just focus on things that went wrong.

Every win should be celebrated. We send out a weekly recap of reviews from OpenTable to Yelp! to TripAdvisor, organized by how many were 5 stars, 4 stars, etc. And we include the comments. 

When you get all 5 star reviews, don't let it be business as usual. Celebrate. Congratulate the people who make it possible. 

Little things like that keep your team inspired. People enjoy working where they are publicly appreciated -- and that atmosphere will definitely spread to your customers.

8. Don't try to move too quickly.

We knew we wanted to take TORO from Boston to New York: To give us a larger platform, a larger voice, and help solidify the brand.

Beyond that, our goal is to explore opportunities to expand domestically and internationally. But we don't want to grow too fast. When you do your team can't keep up, and you end up diminishing your brand instead of making it stronger. We won't move too fast because we refuse to let rapid expansion ruin any part of the brand.

When you pursue new opportunities, take your time. Be thoughtful. Sometimes dragging your feet is the right thing to do. Sometimes we've moved a little too slow and a deal didn't happen... and looking back, we're glad.

9. Never forget that a restaurant is a business... but ultimately, it's all about the food.

We opened our NYC location on 15th Street and the West Side Highway; essentially it was no man's land. Foot traffic had to cross a busy highway to get to us.

When we chose the location we knew it would be a long time before the area felt like a neighborhood, before there were offices or  buildings that would bring people to our door... so we had to be a food-first destination. To get people to go out of their way we have to be incredible on the food side.

That's why our 5-year anniversary is so important: We had to fight to make sure people knew how great our food is.

10. Don't be afraid to ask other restaurant owners for advice.

Every restaurant has dark days. In fact, this was the first August where I didn't think, "Wow, we're slow... if we don't have a great September we may be in trouble." 

When I talk to other restaurateurs, they have similar stories. But people rarely share them. 

When I was younger I would have loved to have had those conversations, to get the chance to learn from the experiences of others.

Go out of your way to talk to people who have done it. Talk to people who made it to 2 years, to 5 years... Ask what they've learned. As what you should expect. Ask what to watch out for.

And then, when it's your turn, pass some of your knowledge along... because while business is by nature competitive, we should still look out for each other.

Published on: Sep 25, 2018
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