Schedulefly Stories

Growing a software business one restaurant at a time

Month: June 2016

Scott Youkilis, a member of the Schedulefly community, talks about the restaurant business…

Scott owns Hog & Rocks, a highly successful restaurant in San Francisco. He’s also opening Loma Brewing Company in Los Gatos, CA in just a few weeks. He took time to speak with us about his nearly 20 years in the business, and discussed everything from culinary school, to raising money for a restaurant, to business partners, to finding and keeping good talent, to staying focused on the things you can control. Scott is great at communicating his thoughts about the business. Enjoy…

All of our Restaurant Owners Uncorked podcast episodes are available here on iTunes.

Great advice from Meherwan Irani, a member of the Schedulefly community

Meherwan Irani and his wife, Molly, started Chai Pani in Asheville, N.C. in 2009. Today there are two Chai Pani locations and three other concepts under his watch. Meherwan tells his inspiring, refreshing, unconventional story on our Restaurant Owners Uncorked podcast series, and here are a few of his comments…

On the types of people he hires
“What I’m looking for is empathy. Do they actually understand how their actions make other people feel?  Does this person have emotional intelligence?  Can they communicate well and understand how emotionally-driven people are at the end of the day, and that how you motivate them is by connecting at that level? 

For me, work ethic is not about how many hours somebody puts in or how hard they work.  Work ethic to me is this inclination to always do something as well as it possibly could be done.  Nothing less than that is acceptable.  There are people all around us wired that way.  So, we look for that combination and then I really, actually let them run with it.  I go, “Hey, I would do no better or no worse than them in their shoes with the same decisions.”  I have trusted myself to figure it out and make the right decisions, so I’ve got to trust them, too.  As long as I have my culture carriers in there, in the midst of them, I know, generally speaking, our culture will be intact.  But I want to let these people make their own decisions.  That’s how Chai Pani Decatur runs — it’s a completely autonomous business, and my job is just to inspire and not worry too much about micromanaging their decisions.”

On his research into why restaurants fail while writing his business plan for Chai Pani
For awhile I was really worried about this sort of myth or urban legend that 70% – 90% (depending on who you ask) of restaurants go out of business in their first five years.  I was really curious to find out if this is real or is this just an urban legend.  I did the research.  The University of Florida had a hospitality management program where they’d done a study on restaurant closings.  They listed five reasons why a typical restaurant would close.  They had the stats on restaurant failure rates.  I think what they said was that a third of the restaurants close in their first year – the ones that don’t close in the first year usually make it to their fifth year.  That’s when the second third closes, for completely different reasons than the first year.
But, their point was that there are all the usual suspects for why a lot of restaurants goes out of business – lack of capital, bad food, bad market conditions, location.  But all of those are completely eclipsed by the single, most overriding factor – and that was lack of a defined concept that is easy to articulate.  If somebody asked you what kind of restaurant it was, the key was in being able to answer that question as simply and quickly as you can.  And the study went on to say that’s why even mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants in strip malls and Chinese restaurants and Italian restaurants all tend to last, even the ones that aren’t that good.  One thing they have going in their favor is when somebody says what kind of food it is – you can just say “Chinese” and that’s it.  But when you have a restaurant going, “Well, we do a fusion of Mediterranean-Tapas-style but with a little bit of Asian ingredients and . . .”  Yeah, you lost me.  That was their point.  So that was a key factor in  my business plan – I  wanted to make sure my concept made sense.”

On what has helped him succeed over the last seven years
“I read something that some business guy – could have been Warren Buffet or could have been Steve Jobs, or someone like that – basically said there are certain commonalities to successful businesses that are started from scratch.  The three most important things that they have in common are, number one, somebody with a very clear vision and a sense of purpose.  Number two, people that were willing to completely buy into that vision.  Almost like tribal loyalty buy-in.  And three, limited resources.  In fact, scarcity of resources.  The first two make sense.  But the third one really struck the deepest.  

I did have this real clear sense of what I wanted to do.  And when I explained it to people I knew they bought into the vision — or maybe they were buying into me.  In either case, they believed in something.  But the critical factor was that our limited resources made us really think outside the box and forced us to do things differently because we didn’t have the money to do it the way we were supposed to.  For example, opening with two hundred and fifty dollars in the cash register and not even having enough money for payroll and using social media instead of putting ads in the local paper.  We couldn’t afford to advertise at all.  Period.  Zero.  None.  Yet at the same time, anytime a charity approached us for any kind of benefit or to give food or to give gift cards or to come cook, we’d jump all over it.  So now, six years later with four restaurants and a fifth on the way, we still do that.  We don’t advertise but we give tens of thousands of dollars a year of food or time or effort for charities.  

So, those three ingredients combined created an environment that might have seemed extraordinary to you, but to us that was just the way we did things. That’s how we’re able to do it today.”

More from Meherwan in our second Restaurant Owners Uncorked book, coming in the next few months. You can also enjoy hearing his co-owner at Buxton Hall Barbecue, Elliott Moss, share his passion for his work in our film, The Pitmaster.


The inspiring story of Van Nolintha, a member of the Schedulefly community

Van Nolintha is in Raleigh, N.C. and owns Bida Manda with his sister, Vanvisa. The term “bida manda” is the Sanskrit ceremonial term for father and mother, so the restaurant was named to honor their parents, who instilled a love of food in Van and Vanvisa and taught them that food can bring people together. Opened in 2012, Bida Manda is bringing tons of people together every day, and has become one of the most loved and celebrated restaurants in the state. I’ve visited Bida Manda personally, and I can attest to the incredible quality of the food, service, and atmosphere. It’s am amazing restaurant with an amazing story, Enjoy…

Tell me a little about your background.

We opened the restaurant on September 1, 2012. It was just my sister, Vanvisa, and I. We never really intended to open a restaurant. I went to NC State and did design and chemistry. I had a graduate degree in international peace and conflict studies from Trinity in Dublin. I never thought that we would be in the food industry. But it’s amazing the journey your life takes.

So, after Trinity I came back to Raleigh and I was really just looking for jobs in international peace and conflict studies, in community building in general. And it was right around recession time, so I applied to about three hundred jobs in what was probably the hardest, the most difficult year of my life. I got zero job offers. None. So Visa and I took a summer off that year and went to Laos and spent that summer with Mom and Dad. We just really reconnected with our roots.

When Vanvisa and I came to the U.S., I was twelve and she was nine — the rest of our family was still living in Laos. We left home at such a young age, so it was easy to assume that Laos was a long distant past. But what we realized now that we were older was that we are a direct part of that Laotian community. And looking back, food has always been so centered to my life. When Vanvisa and I arrived, we lived with an American family and the only way to make sure that her memories of home, of Laos, of mom and dad, were preserved as a small nine-year-old child was for me to cook for her. We couldn’t just go to a Laotian restaurant – we couldn’t just go to a Laotian temple. There’s no Laotian community center anywhere. So, knowing all of that I knew I had to do something to make sure that she remembered home, and food was the most direct and most meaningful tool I had. Growing up with Mom and Dad, I always cooked. I think as a culture in general, cooking is almost a sacred, spiritual experience. It was such a privilege and honor to be able to share that experience with my sister.

Looking back now, it kind of makes sense that we are in this industry. But at the time of career choices, that was not the most obvious one.

Did I hear you correctly … you applied to 300 jobs and got no offers?

Yes. Even with all of those degrees and experiences, I got zero offers. It was everything from applying to the U.N., to applying to small MGOs working on educational empowerment in Guatemala. I got so desperate, I remember applying to work at CVS to be an assistant clerk. I think my resume can be perceived as a very distracted person. But, it has definitely led into a wonderful journey.

Considering you now have one of the best restaurants in Raleigh, it’s quite an amazing journey!

I try to be sensitive to what it means to have a “best restaurant.” I think we are definitely learning a lot. And I think the most fascinating thing for us is that what we do at Bida Manda really is just an extension of who we are. Our menu is nothing more than the dishes we remember eating growing up, the kind of dishes that I cooked for my sister to make sure that she remembers home. It’s not a creative process. It’s just a genuine offering from our family to our community here. It has been a very empowering journey to see that what we do is meaningful to the community and the community celebrates our narrative and authenticity to our food.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you begin the process of opening your restaurant?

The first stop when we came back to Raleigh was I went to Barnes & Noble and I bought a phenomenal book that’s called Opening a Restaurant for Dummies (laughs). It really was that fundamental. We did not know anything. We did not know how we were going to look for space. We didn’t know how we were going to look for funding. How are we going to find a chef? What is the legal complexity of it? We didn’t know anything. So, we really started from scratch. I remember coming back and just kind of being shocked about the kind of resources in the community that were lacking at the time. How do you open a restaurant?

We were fortunate at that time to have the kind relationships in Raleigh that really allowed that to be a positive journey. I remember emailing Ashley Christensen and saying, “I would love to learn from you. Can you please mentor us?” I remember reaching out to Chris Powers at Busy Bee and Trophy Brewing. I remember emailing Angela Salamanca, the owner of Centro and Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria. She’s from Colombia and one of my closest friends now. I said, “This is my hopes and dreams and passion and heartbeat. I would love to learn as much as I could from you.” And surprisingly, all of these successful, meaningful leaders in the food community said, “Yes!” And it all started with saying, “I love what you do and would love for you to be a part of this journey. Please train us. Teach us all you know.”

Those are very well-respected, successful restaurant people in Raleigh. It says a lot that they offered to help.

The response was “We are so excited that you’re passionate about Laotian food and your family narrative and your love of people. Let’s make sure this happens.” And I think that positive seed, that supportive tone, really changed how we approached the process. Instead of it being a business journey, it really was about relationship building.

From not knowing anything about the industry, we were granted so many relationships with people who know. I think the humility of saying “I don’t know” and “I would love to know more” really opened a lot of opportunities and positive relationships in our lives. And that is something that we will forever treasure. That’s how it all how it all began.

I was also fortunate to have a very supportive and loving group of friends. A lot of things from the construction of the space to a lot of the legal help to graphic design were donated and volunteered by our friends. We always use the visual image of our sticks on the wall that were completely hand-tied by our friends. We had about fifty of our friends working on that. We didn’t have much funding so I gave all of them a Miller Light and we really just built the space together.

I think our guests can see a lot of the passionate hands that were involved in the making of the space, that are still important and meaningful to us today. Bida Manda is nothing but a reflection of what a tremendous, positive, loving community we have in Raleigh.

The hospitality at Bida Manda is phenomenal. What are you doing to provide that kind of atmosphere consistently?

I think the consistency is difficult and especially providing an intimate, meaningful, personal experience each and every time. That’s very difficult in any restaurant. At Bida Manda we serve more than three thousand meals a week — how do we create that kind of consistency? It’s an ongoing challenge. But our goal wasn’t to be wealthy — our goal wasn’t to create the best restaurant in Raleigh. Our goal was to make sure that we share our narrative, food and culture with our community the best that we know how.

I think it’s that authenticity to what you love and allowing that to be the beginning of every decision-making process. Then it will always be something that’s organic and true. I think “hospitality” is an interesting word because for us it really is us hosting and welcoming people into our home. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. Food is such a basic life offering. When we overcomplicate that experience, that’s when it gets tricky. For us it really is about how we continue sharing our story and welcoming our guests to our home, and caring for them like we were caring for our friends. That is our basic principle at the restaurant. We try to care for our friends and family and community.

It’s your story and your narrative and it’s very personal to you and Vanvisa. How do you share it through your staff?

I think sourcing the right team is probably the most important ingredient in what we do. How do we create a team that’s cohesive and creative and fires all together to yield this experience? We spend a lot of time on the front-end of the selection process. We put a lot of attention and resources into that beginning phase of training and recruiting. It is so important to us that it doesn’t matter if that person does not even have service industry experience. What we are looking for is always someone who’s capable of caring — someone who is genuinely passionate about life. And that doesn’t have to be food. We have a lot of artists. We have a lot of “makers” in the world. We have a Yoga instructor. We have a lot of students who are waiting to go to medical school. We have last year law school students. We are looking for people who are passionate in what they do, and in turn, they bring that aliveness to what we do and it adds a level of complexity and meaning to what they do.

“Intention” is the big word in our training process. And intention is actually really hard to train someone that doesn’t already carry that sense of pride in what they do. How do we make polishing glasses as meaningful of an experience as talking to a guest as a table? What we have learned is that when we find someone that takes a lot of pride and meaning in what they do and love what they do, that translates directly to our guests’ experience. We have such a phenomenal team and community at the restaurant that I’m so grateful for.

I think a lot of our success comes directly from that team. Developing and co-creating that team is very important to us. A good example is we take our annual staff retreat once or twice a year. We take three or four days off from the restaurant, and we spend some time somewhere else. The first year we went to Asheville in the N.C. mountain, and last year we went to Wilmington on the N.C. coast. It’s just really allowing our team to go through a shared experience, setting intentions and goals, and showing them how to work for each other’s development. We are just a community of passionate people who are just absolutely in love with what we do, and wanting to care for our guests.

Do do you close the restaurant for a few days when you do this?

Yes, we do. It’s always a few of the best days of the year, especially for back of house and front of house to coexist in one home. We usually rent a big home and just cook together. Last year we had Tim leading a Yoga class. And we have massages. We share common readings and reflection times. I do my cooking class. It really is about being present and intentional together. When you have that seed, it’s really easy to develop at work. This restaurant is an extremely aggressive and intense environment. So for us to go into a shift feeling that you are with your team and you are with your family, I think it helps with the operation.

We’ll be filming an inspiring video featuring Van later this year, and you can listen to his entire interview on our Restaurant Owners Uncorked podcast.


Great advice from Sean Scott, a member of the Schedulefly community

Sean Scott owns Subculture Coffee, with locations in West Palm Beach and Delray Beach in Florida. When Sean and I spoke for our podcast we talked about about everything from the trust and relationships formed between coffee buyers and the farmers they source their beans from, to the risks of bad weather harming coffee bean crops, to the trial and error of the craft of roasting great coffee, to issues that are relevant whether you are starting a coffee shop or any type of restaurant. Here’s a great example…

What are some of the things you learned when starting that you hadn’t thought of before you got started?

I think a lot of people, me included, underestimate just the liquid cash you should have accessible when you start. You think, “Alright, so I have the build-out paid for” and you tend to spend everything before you open. You think, “Well, we’ll make money once we’re open.” I think that’s a bad move. If I had to do it all over again, I’d have more money in the bank just because you’re going to have to do a lot of promo. You’re going to waste a lot of products. You aren’t going to make as much money as you thought you were, because things might happen slower, things break, etc. Usually opening is delayed a lot longer than you thought. There’s way more permits that you have to pay for than you had anticipated. There’s way more licenses that are a hundred-and-fifty bucks here, a few-hundred-fifty bucks there. A lot of people just focus on paying for the build-out, but they don’t really pad their account. I understand because a lot of people don’t have access to the capital to cover all that. But I think it’s really important. That can make or break it, especially in the first year.

How much capital should you have?

I would say six months is good for us. I would also advise that if your personal finances are a mess, you probably shouldn’t go into business. A really good litmus test is when I’m talking to people who are considering this, I ask “How are your personal finances?” Not the specifics, but if you have a hard time managing your personal finances, and if you can’t figure out ways how to save money then business might not be the place for you. You have to be able to do that. We price out per cup of coffee, lids, cups, coffee, milk, sugar – I know exactly where everything’s going. The same thing applies in your personal life. If you don’t know where everything’s going, then there are going to be a lot of holes in your boat – maybe losing a lot of money. I was always very conscious about accessing my own checking account when I was twelve and had to start buying my own clothes and all that stuff at a very young age. Accounting has always been something that I’ve had a focus on and been aware of. It’s almost natural. But I found that for a lot of people – like my wife – it wasn’t like that at all.

We moved in with my brother before we opened the first coffee shop and we just shared rent with him. We had one car instead of two cars. We minimized our lifestyle before we opened the shop. Don’t expect to maintain your same lifestyle. Minimize it on purpose so that you require the least amount of money when you’re starting up. Then, expand it as you can afford to as you grow. I almost put more emphasis on your personal life before you open than I do on your vision of the business, because there’s a definite correlation to how you run both and the ability that you’ll have to navigate rough waters and make it through and survive.

No matter how diligently you plan, and how conservative you think you are, it will still take longer and cost more…

Absolutely. For sure. I think that’s without a doubt. In my six years of doing this there’s never been a time where I’m like, “Oh, that was faster.”

Sean shared plenty of additional great advice during his interview, so give it a listen if you enjoyed this piece. You can subscribe to our podcast series on iTunes for free.


The moment I had to accept that what I was doing wasn’t working

Nothing I was doing for Schedulefly was working. It was 2010, and everything I had tried since the fall of 2008 had not panned out. Rather than continue to convince myself patience would pay off, I needed to get uncomfortable and try something different.

For nearly two years I had tried doing what I knew: selling. My sales efforts took shape in several forms. Selling to chains. Selling to restaurant groups. Selling at a trade show. Selling door-to-door. Heck, I even tried selling magazines on writing stories about us. None of it worked. I felt so dejected. I couldn’t believe that what I had done for my entire career in business was showing zero results. And because I couldn’t believe it, I stubbornly kept trying it for longer than I should have. My intuition was that if I kept at it, it would eventually start working. But it never did. Before I stopped selling, I tried setting up partnerships, figuring sales people that had restaurant customers could sell for us. That didn’t work out either.

One day I sat quietly on my back porch, closed my eyes, and sighed. It was the moment I had to accept that nothing I was doing was working, and I needed to find another way to help our business. That’s a tough moment because it can be scary to start from scratch and force yourself to learn to do things you’ve never done, but it’s an important moment if you are going to find a way to move forward and figure out something that works. I don’t remember when I decided to start recording interviews with restaurants owners and post the recordings on our blog, which eventually led to our book, our video series and our podcast channel. I could make this story more dramatic and claim it was at that moment with my eyes closed. But it wasn’t then. It happened later. But it only happened because I experienced that moment.

That experience taught me that when you get outside of your comfort zone and finally let go of something that isn’t working in your business, you liberate yourself to grow and learn and find something better. Right now I’m sitting on that same porch, answering Schedulefly’s phone calls, writing this post, and working on ideas for our next video, and because of that our business is doing much better than it would be if I were out on a sales call.


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