Dave Query owns The Big Red F Restaurant Group. I gathered from our interview that he has forgotten more about the keys to building successful restaurants than most restaurant owners will ever know. I had a hard time narrowing down his comments to create this summary. Everything he said was just gold. Dave is real, honest, and smart as heck. If you plan to start a restaurant and you don’t find tons of value in Dave’s interview, you are missing something…
Stay focused. In this business, when you take the eye off the ball – even for a moment – things change. It doesn’t always mean they are going to change for the worse, but they are definitely going to change, whether you like it or not.
Know what you want to be. We started listening to everyone who had a comment on what they thought was the problem, what they thought we should change, and the place became wildly schizophrenic , and we didn’t even know what the hell the place was anymore. Every time a customer walked in, it was different.
Know what you’re getting into. In the restaurant business, you get passionate people. It’s a hardcore tribe. You work hard. You play hard. You spend a lot of time together. I’ve been divorced for eleven years, and the restaurant business all but doomed my marriage. And I know so many people in the same spot. And I was married to a girl who got it. She was a chef, and she got the whole biz. But it’s just too fucking crazy. And God forbid you have just one little added load, and you just…you’re done.
Do you want to share your vision? But, if you get a partnership with two or three people, or God forbid, more than that, and everybody is strong-minded, and strong-willed – that’s why we’re all doing what we do, and we all think we know the answer – and it’s just hard. It’s like painting a picture with somebody. It’s like it’s your picture, and you’ve got a full idea of how you want it to look. And this is where the blue’s going to go, and this is where the green’s going to go, and here’s where the two are going to meet. And somebody else comes in with a bigger brush, and heavier paint, and, you know, heavier tones that what you thought the thing needed – and you’re way off track right then and there.
Ownership ain’t easy street. You are the last one that gets paid. Everyone else gets an income before you do. And you know, there’s a lot of people, especially chefs, that want that name “Owner” on their card. And when it finally comes, their like, “This sucks. I’m just working my ass off, and not getting what I thought I should. I’m making less now than I was before. And I’m a lot more stressed out.” You know, ownership isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. When it works, it works great. But when it doesn’t, it can bring you down pretty hard.
Go where the universities are. This college environment in this town (Boulder, CO), and in a lot of them where it’s really thriving, it’s a fantastic scenario for restaurant success. You’ve got five or six or ten thousand new kids coming in every year, and their twenty thousand parents. And every year you get all of these new kids, and they’ve got mom and dad’s gold card, and they’re trying the restaurants to see what’s what, and they’re parents are coming in to visit them, and then they finally turn twenty-one as a junior, and then they’re really ready to rock-and-roll. It’s nuts. It’s awesome.
Find an existing space. I just love the whole idea of sticking tight to taking over existing spaces and keeping your overhead low, because it is a high risk business, and it is a high risk industry, and having that debt load will kill ya.
Think carefully about who you want as your investors. Well, it’s like going out on a first date, you know? If you’re in your mid-twenties, or thirties, and you’re dating with something bigger in mind, that’s the same as finding an investor. So when you get those weird hits, and those weird personalities, and those weird ego comments, run fast and run far, because that shit will only get worse.
Take care of your staff. And mean it. We’ve always had the attitude that you’ll never have happy customers unless you have happy employees. So all of our focus, first and foremost, is with the employees. You treat ‘em well. You treat ‘em with respect. Things like Schedulefly. That’s a respect move on our part, to spend a little bit more money to make the staff’s lives easier. So these people can now have access via the Internet to their schedule. They don’t have to call. They don’t have to interrupt. They can make plans. They can have a life. So it’s always been about creating an environment where people want to work.
Check that ego at the door. And I know so many restaurant people that the ego is the driving force behind what they are doing, and then they pay for it. Get your ego out of the way and be smart about business.
If you are good to your staff, you can trust them. We don’t have security cameras in the restaurants. We don’t check cash drawers. We don’t pull cash drawers in the middle of shifts like a lot of places do. It’s like…I just can’t believe that – and its maybe a little naïve and it’s the cost of doing business – but employee theft is just not even on our radar as one the issues that we’re having to deal with. Because how could somebody want to clip you, when you’ve just done them so righteously all of the time?
You might have passion. But do you have good sense? This industry, more so than others…it’s passionate people. And sometimes it’s passionate people who really get it, and understand it, and they’re making good decisions. And then there’s complete passionate idiots, who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. And you can lose money fast in this business. I mean it’s amazing how behind the ball you can get in a short amount of time.
Be unique. You don’t want to be the tenth place doing something. You want to be the first.
It might still be a good time to lay low. The conservative, hyperactive part of me feels like the worst is yet to come on this whole recession, and that there could be another blip on the screen that’s not nearly as long, but terribly devastating to people who have been hanging on for the last twenty-four months. And then a little dip just sends ‘em packing. And I don’t want to be in construction if that’s going to happen. So we’re chilling right now. And just trying to make these joints better, which is a full time job.