Don’t give up your day job…

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Virgil Evetts

I grew up in restaurants. I won’t you bore you with the details again, but suffice to say the industry holds no glamour for me.

Although it’s well known that more restaurants fail than flourish- by a very large margin- I still meet people who talk excitedly about their dreadful “next-chapter-of-my-life” dreams  of opening up a ‘nice little’ cafe or restaurant. Oh I know we’re all supposed to ‘follow our dreams’, but the trouble is a lot of us have very dumb dreams. Dreams that are harmless enough in the David Lynch-esque reality of our resting brains, but very dangerous in the real world .

The reality is that many people who blunder into the food business are simply not equipped for the job. They confuse the pleasures of dining out with the realities of running a business, or their idea of the industry has been shaped by television. Take Friends  for example,  (the bad comedy we watched whether we admitted it or not) central character Monica was a chef in a popular restaurant, yet she was almost never at work. Instead she spent her days lolling about with her friends, spouting endless self indulgent twaddle.  When real chefs hang out with their friends it’s usually at about 3am and their friends are usually other chefs. They still talk utter rot, but mostly because of the vast quantities of vodka they’ve thrown back since the whistle blew.

Almost without exception, opening a restaurant or café is a terrible idea. Anybody who thinks it will be ‘fun’ from the outset has already flunked the entrance exam. Certainly, if you have your wits about you, then you may experience something resembling fun, from time to time. But mostly you’ll just be tired. And poor.

Successful restaurants are not run by people out for a laugh, they’re run by shrewd business types (often with investors) who know how to make money against all odds, and understand the importance of offering a precisely targeted, streamlined and consistent product. They probably run their places like battleships and barely take a wage themselves  because they know they’ll make their money when they sell.  The goal for many a successful restaurateur is to build it up and sell it high- not hold on to it until they’re homeless. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but this is the most level-headed approach to what is an extremely tough industry.

But for most people, it’s just a complicated way of disposing of large sums of money and assets. Just as a successful restaurant can reap substantial rewards- eventually- an unsuccessful one can consume money, property and relationships like a hippo with portion-control issues.

So am I sympathetic towards people who’ve lost out large on some hare-brained cafe scheme? Frankly, no. One of my personal mottos in life is ‘Caveat Emptor’. Anyone who has ever eaten in a food establishment only needs to look around the dining room to get a feel for the costs and pressures. They are myriad, and they don’t stop, ever.

I wouldn’t do it. Not in a million years. I know my limits and they fall well short of what’s required to run a restaurant, café or even a cake stand. I am however very good at eating out and I have every intention of doing a great deal more of that. Play to your strengths, I say.

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6 thoughts on “Don’t give up your day job…

  1. Add me to the agree sector. It isn’t only the restaurant business that often fails. Fools rush in where angels fear, a very old saying but one that is as relevant today as it was back then.
    I’ve seen a café opened by someone who spent all they had on the business, only to find that relatives thought they should be able to eat for free.
    Not all who started a business regretted it, they took all the advice they could before they went ahead. They also had a ‘business brain’ rather than just dreams of walking with giants.

  2. Amen Virgil.

    Fun is a very small part of running a business, and not at all part of running a failing one. Competition for diners is so fierce in NZ, it’s not like places overseas the sheer population will help your survival as a business.

    My parents were in the business for 20 years and while I love to cook and eat out, I’ve never wanted to cook professionally. Why is it with so many of life’s pleasurable things, people confuse being a fan with being a creator? Just because you like to eat yummy food, doesn’t mean that your personality will suit running a restaurant. I work in design and it seems that people have this thing where they think, “I love looking at websites, I’m going be a web designer”. It doesn’t work like that.

    I’m starting my own design company soon, but not with my eyes closed. With a degree and 10 years working in design. A part of me hopes and dreams that it is going to be fun, but another part of me freaks out with the sheer amount of work that I’m doing to get there.

  3. To me it seems silly to open a new cafe when the one down the road just closed…

    In our small town we have have 4 cafes not including the golden arches cafe (which we do have), but in that time only 2 of them have been well established for over 5 years or more, the other 2 are less than a year old and I can easily see one of them shutting their doors soon. After all this is Tokoroa, not a big town, its a small place where people go out of town to shop and to “do coffee” unless we pop over to a mates place for a cuppa.
    Restaurants, well, apart from our local Italian and the 1 Indian place we have the 2 clubs(cossie and RSA)to eat at unless you’re keen on fast food.Which we have way too many takeaway places here (mainly fish n chips etc).
    Sounds weird but I do love living here. For the lack of restautrants and the distance we have to travel to go to decent one is worth cooking a really good home cooked meal and saved tons of cash…

  4. Completely agree – I always shudder when I hear people talking enthusiastically about opening a restaurant.
    It is certainly not a lifestyle choice and very few make anything out of it other than a drinking problem.

  5. I have to say I agree. I tend to be something of a party pooper on peoples business dreams. Business is business. Pleasure is pleasure. Starting a business to make your pleasure into a job without having really though through the commercial aspects is a very quick route to unemployed debt!
    Gosh, that’s not very upbeat for a friday it it!