Book Update – Scott Maitland of Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery

We’re going to start pulling out a few quotes from each interview, and posting them here. There is so much incredible wisdom and advice and knowledge in these interviews that we can’t hold onto it until the book is completed. It wants to get out. It needs to be available.

Scott Maitland started Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery in Chapel Hill, NC in 1996. If you’ve visited Chapel Hill, you most likely stopped in for a bite to eat or a drink. It has become an institution. These are just a few snippets of what Scott had to say about owning a restaurant…

Know Your Community. Intimately. “At the end of the day an independent restaurant is all about your local community. And if you don’t understand that local community, then I think you’ve got real problems. That intimate knowledge of your local market is key. And I think your business plans and research need to incorporate that as much as anything else.”

Don’t Underestimate the Importance Of What Is On Your Menu. “I think everyone starting a restaurant will tell you that the menu is important, but I don’t think people really understand how important the menu is. It drives everything, from staffing and equipment needs, to the type of customers you are going to get, to the whole feel of the restaurant. So you’ve got to think long and hard to what it is that you want to offer.”

If You Raise Money, Start Your Pitch With Your Last Prospects. “If you are going to raise money, you are going to make a list of people that you are going to talk to to raise money. So if I tell you to go make a list of one hundred people that will give you money, by its very nature the top of the list is going to be populated with your best prospects. And the mistake most of us make is, we start off with our very best prospects. That’s what I did. I made my list and started with my very best prospects, and with no experience with my pitch, I gave lousy presentations, and burned my prospects. So the key is, if you are going to make a list, turn it upside down and start at the bottom. By the time you get to your best prospects, you are going to have a much better presentation. And a much better deal. It’s not just about showmanship. You see you make a presentation and you get rejected, and if you are intellectually very honest with yourself, you ask “Why?”, and you can’t get upset, and you have to focus on making your deal better.”

Be Careful When Hiring. “Don’t ever hire somebody to fill a spot. Don’t do it. Only hire somebody that you think is going to be good. I think it’s better to have no manager at all than to have a bad manager.”

Don’t Look At Yourself As A Restaurateur. But Rather As A Business Person. “I don’t consider myself a restaurateur. I consider myself a business person. I think that the reason Top of the Hill is able to do some of the things that other people don’t is because, quite frankly, myself personally, and henceforth the people that work for me, don’t feel trapped by the conventions of the restaurant business itself. We look at it as, we look at best practices, and those best practices can come from any organization. And we like to take a look at people that are doing well, and we say, ‘Hey, is there some inspiration for what we can do?’”

Foster Autonomy. “If you are going to have an organization that is going to initiate best practices, you can’t be top-down driven. Not that I don’t stay involved and want to stay involved, but you have to foster the ability for your junior leaders and your waiters and everybody to have their own sense of dominion over the place.”

Do More With One Location Vs. Opening A Second Location. “A couple of years after opening our second location, I looked at it and realized that I was splitting my energy between two stores. And by the way, God bless an independent that can run two or three stores. I’m told that once you get to five it gets easier, but I’m telling you, having two or three is a bear. So I realized that I could take half the energy I was putting into the new store and make more money. I took a look at the very best amount of money I could make in Raleigh, and realized that it was the equivalent of 5% of my sales here in Chapel Hill. So I asked myself, ‘If I focus all of my attention on Chapel Hill, can’t I run it 5% better?’ And sure enough, we combined teams, and got rid of some folks that were not necessarily at the top of their game, and we came back in and rejuvenated the menu here in Chapel Hill, and ultimately ended up cutting overhead costs by 12%. And truly I was suddenly making twice as much money and working half as much. Being able to focus on expanding what we have, rather than opening another location, has allowed us to really harness our energy in a synergistic way. I would caution folks to really consider carefully whether you want to expand to another town, or whether you even want to expand at all. Because any expansion – even though we feel really comfortable with what we’ve done – brings lots of challenges. You have to spend a lot of time creating a successful restaurant, and doubling it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to make you any more money.”

Independents Have Something That Chains Never Will. “The other thing that the independent has that no amount of money can replace, is the true understanding of the local community. So whereas a well-funded chain restaurant can blow an independent away with restaurant design, menu design and all of that stuff…if they chose to, and there is enough capital behind it, it would be tough for an independent to reach them on that level. But the problem is that, by its definition, to justify that type of capital expense it needs to be replicatable, and that sense or replicatableness is a chain’s Achilles Heel. What the money can’t do, is it can’t drill down into one community and understand what that community needs. Chains can’t do that. An independent can.”

Learning A Ton With Every Interview We Conduct,

The Schedulefly Crew