It takes more than good food to start a successful food business. That’s why, last year, leaders at New York City’s International Culinary Center (ICC) expanded their restaurant management program into a Culinary Entrepreneurship immersion course: six weeks of training to take aspiring entrepreneurs from concept to business plan.
“It went from being how to manage a restaurant to how to plan, finance, concept, build out, market, and pitch your restaurant concept,” says Philip Ruskin, an instructor in the program who founded his own food-focused PR and marketing agency 15 years ago. “These are the food entrepreneurs who will be shaping the culinary landscape moving forward.”
In addition to Philip, we talked to Adam Lathan — a graduate of the Culinary Entrepreneurship program and founder of NYC’s Gumbo Brothers — all about what it takes to start a thriving food business. Here, they share their top learnings from the classroom and the field.
Work in the industry.
“I’ve worked with clients who decided to open an eatery or launch a food product without having any experience in the field,” says Philip. “They were smart people who had done well in different industries and thought, this is a business. But people who have worked in restaurants have an advantage.”
He recommends working in a restaurant while also taking a professional program, so you can see both sides of the coin. That way you’re gleaning knowledge from people who are experts in their field and also gaining real-life work experience on the job — putting it all into practice. “I knew a restaurateur who was in marketing and business, and she got an internship with a well-regarded chef, just to learn how the kitchen ran.”
Adam did just that. He started Gumbo Brothers as a small pop-up and catering business and was running it part-time when he enrolled in the ICC program. “I decided to take the program and put it into play with my business, and ultimately open the restaurant.”
Clarify your concept up front.
Adam says it was a huge advantage for him to know what he wanted to do from the beginning. Once he decided to turn Gumbo Brothers into a brick-and-mortar restaurant, he was able to focus all of his energies during the entrepreneurship course on that final goal.
“I was unique in my class in that I was already a business owner when I was taking the course,” he says. “A lot of my classmates were trying to come up with a restaurant business plan. I was fortunate in that I could take everything I was hearing and put it into play versus coming up with something in the creative process.”
Pay attention to the little things.
When we asked Adam to share some of his biggest learnings from the ICC, he said it’s the little things that really added up. “There are so many small details here and there that I put into play to save myself a buck here and a buck there — it’s a nickel-and-dime business.” But all of those lessons are more than the sum of their parts: “As for the long-term uses, it was really about how to keep an operation functioning and moving and financially stable.”
As anyone in the industry knows, a restaurant business plan isn’t like a typical business plan. Your inventory is perishable; employees tend to come and go. A slew of different taxes come into play. Experts can teach the things that can otherwise be difficult to navigate: nuances of the financials, HR, and operations.
“The program gave me the confidence to put my business plan into action, to raise the money. You only hear about all the negative aspects: the fail numbers, the hours — and yes, it’s a lot of hours, it’s a lot of work, a lot of stress, but I don’t want to do anything else, ever. If you’re that type of person, it’s an unbelievable asset. I’m still in the program as far as I’m concerned — I reach out weekly to my professors and talk to them with real-world problems.”
Be realistic about your timeline.
Construction delays are notoriously common in the restaurant industry — don’t assume that your experience will be any different. “Understand that people almost never open on their planned date,” says Philip. “I always advise people: why don’t you plan on that, but really plan on opening two weeks or a month later.” Instead of committing to a date and sharing it with media early on (then scrambling to make it happen or having to go back on your word) build in a buffer that allows for permitting, construction, and all of the many things that can delay an opening.
Adam knows from experience: he counts construction among his biggest challenges in the startup process. “There were a lot of soft costs that I wasn’t prepared for and I didn’t expect as many issues with,” he says. “There are a lot of problems with just getting the gas turned on. Those are the real-world things you learn on your own. I signed the lease, we were ready to go in June, we had a goal to open in September, and we opened in December.”
During that time, the experts and professionals he’d worked with in the business planning process were key to keeping him sane and confident. “They gave me practical advice, and they also gave me that reassurance: this is very common, relax, you’re ok. Having that support meant a lot.”
Listen to the people around you — all of them.
As a new entrepreneur you’ll spend so much time thinking, dreaming, and planning your concept that it can be hard to step back and see it from an outsider’s point of view. That’s where advisors are absolutely essential. In the final class of the Culinary Entrepreneurship program, students pitch their concepts with a polished presentation — including their business plan and marketing strategy — to a panel of instructors and industry professionals. “They all had such valuable input,” says Philip. “Some would come up with a little twist that would give a concept a 180-degree turn to turn it from great concept to an amazing concept. There were a lot of those aha moments.”
“You need people to support and advise, but also to give you constructive criticism — that’s a lot more helpful,” says Adam. “Be practical in your expectations. It’s such a personal thing, and if you have a good relationship with someone — a business partner, a mentor — they’re not going to just tell you everything’s great the time. That’s not possible on your first try.”
Ask for feedback on your presentation, food, decor — everything the customer sees. Take that feedback to heart and use it to inform your judgments and decisions going forward. “The ability to listen to other people and really internalize and utilize it is key,” Adam adds.
Articulate your unique message.
On a similar note, avoid the trap of thinking too broadly about your value proposition, Philip advises. A lot of people think they do everything well — they have great food, incredible service — but if you don’t take the time and energy to understand what you do best, you’re missing out when it comes to messaging.
“What do you do best or better than other people? What are your top five things? List them in priority. What’s the number one thing people come to you for? If the messaging unclear, it’s going to be unclear from the audience’s point of view.”
If you don’t know what you stand for and your audience doesn’t know, either, people are going to go elsewhere. Be clear about your strengths, understand who makes your concept unique, and your guests will come to value that, too.
Photo Credits: Top two images courtesy of Arielle Figueredo; Adam Lathan courtesy of Gumbo Brothers; ICC courtesy of Alexandra Bendek for ICC.