We recently announced the release of How to Open a Restaurant, OpenTable’s complete digital guide to starting and growing a restaurant business. We partnered with hospitality consultant Alison Arth to share tips, stories, and best practices from the best in the business (think the groups of Daniel Boulud and Danny Meyer, plus restaurateurs Gavin Kaysen and Aaron London). PLUS: we’re giving away a $38,000 prize package to help one restaurant industry professional fund his or her dream project!
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be excerpting some of our favorite (and most valuable) content from the guide. Today, it’s all about best practices for ordering and purchasing. Read on, then get the guide and enter the contest here.
Once the work to build your restaurant has begun, start strategizing your opening purchases for the front and back of house. These purchases are the whole slew of items that are smaller than a walk-in refrigerator or bar stool but are just as critical in terms of functionality: plates, glasses, uniforms, pots, and pans. These tips outline key considerations to help you make smart purchases before and after your restaurant opens.
What Do You Need?
The exact items you need to select and purchase at this point depend on your restaurant concept; what you have already chosen with your designer, architect, and contractor; and your budget. Some major ones to consider are:
Front of House
- Serviceware (tea and coffee pots, marking trays, service trays, water pitchers, salt and pepper grinders, etc.)
- Bar smallwares
- Table top decor (vase, votive holder, etc.)
- Menu covers and paper (food, wine, cocktail)
- Check presenters
Back of House
- Pots, pans
- Cooking utensils (tongs, knives, spatulas, mixers, etc.)
- Kitchen smallwares (cutting boards, etc.)
- Paper and plastic supplies (deli containers, paper towels, toilet paper, to go boxes and bags)
- Plate, silverware, and glassracks
- Cleaning supplies
- Storage racks
- Office supplies
The four most important factors to weigh when making purchasing decisions are cost, durability, brand consistency, and lead time. Even though your opening orders will be your biggest, they certainly won’t be your last — those $40 plates that break when you look at them the wrong way and take two months to import will be a pain in your P&L for as long as your restaurant is in operation.
Money will likely be the greatest determinant in what you decide to purchase for your restaurant. That doesn’t mean every restaurant owner should spend as little as possible on every purchase, but it does mean you should consider where investing more will actually produce a tangible outcome for your team and guests. Even in fine-dining restaurants, there are always opportunities to save money without sacrificing anything of importance. Here are a few money saving tips from our experts:
Decide what you want to invest in before you start looking. Once you have catalogues, samples, and reps in front of you, it’s going to be hard to decide objectively whether a beautiful steak knife is a worth the price. Make a master list and go through it line by line to figure out where it makes sense to spend and where it makes sense to save.
SPEND: Gavin Kaysen, owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis says, “I opted to spend more money to have the handles of my flatware buffed out so that it had a matte finish that hides wear and tear. New flatware gets scratched so fast — it looks terrible, and then you have to buy more. Plus, it’s one of the few items in a restaurant that doesn’t break, so I felt good about investing in it.”
SAVE: It’s tempting to buy expensive water glasses because they’re almost always in front of guests, but they also get handled more than any other item and therefore break more. Opt for a water glass that’s consistent with your overall aesthetic, but doesn’t break the bank.
Get multiple quotes and negotiate pricing. In many markets, there are multiple distributors that can sell you the exact same thing. Do your research and make sure you’re comparing apples to apples; some reps will give you one price (usually lower) for your opening order and then a different price for all subsequent purchases, while others will give the same price across the board.
SAVE: Regardless of how many competitive bids you get, always negotiate down before purchasing.
Think outside the box, but understand the trade-offs. Searching for unique service pieces or used equipment at a flea market or consignment store can be a great way to save money and bring cool items into your restaurant. However, keep in mind that most secondhand finds won’t be designed for commercial use, meaning they will be breakable and impossible to replace with the exact same item. The eclectic aesthetic also needs to be consistent with your brand as a whole, or the confusion it creates for guests will negate your cost savings.
Don’t buy everything in time for day one. Keep your purchasing strategy focused on everything you really need, not on everything you really want. Aaron London, owner of AL’s Place in San Francisco, explained that his mindset when opening AL’s Place was to start small in order to preserve working capital for his first months of operation and then build, grow, and add slowly.
SAVE: Some things he held back on? “I couldn’t afford nice plates so we bought the cheapest ones possible to start and now we have singular plates made by local potters, but that took time. Another big one was the patio. If I’d taken on all of that expense up front — tables, chairs, awning, heaters, extra china glass and silver — I would have had no operating cashflow and I wouldn’t have been able to recover from unexpected expenses.”
Weigh all the factors when choosing quantities. Some distributors will offer price breaks when you buy certain quantities, which can be great — but it can also be a quick way of taking over all of your storage space and leading you into spending more money than you needed to.
SAVE: Don’t be sold on what you don’t need; it’s easier to buy more of something than get rid of something that you have in abundance.
Lead time for items in your kitchen or your dining room will impact your initial purchases and is often even more detrimental once operations are in full swing. When Aaron opened AL’s Place, he was on a strict timeline to get the restaurant up and running as soon as he had to start paying rent, so anything that could potentially affect his opening date was automatically dismissed.
If you do have the luxury of time in your opening process, consider challenges you may face if you realize you’re low on a certain bowl or glass and it takes six weeks to get it. This is common with pieces that have some sort of custom element, like branded plates or uniforms. If you do purchase items with long lead times, make sure that you have a solid inventory and ordering system in place, which we’ll talk more about later in this chapter.
For Gavin, how frequently he would have to replace things was a big factor in determining what to purchase. When he considered that he would be writing a check to replace plates and glasses almost every month, he decided to spend less on those things up front.
“I put out maybe 60 samples of plates on the floor and then I put post-its with the price on every single one,” says Gavin. “That made me think a lot more consciously about whether I wanted to spend that much money on those types of things or if I wanted to spend it on something else that I might get more value from. And that’s what it all comes down to — what’s the most effective place to spend the money you have?”
Every purchase you make needs to tie back to your brand, because everything that a guest or employee sees, touches, wears, or uses will give them a data point about what your restaurant stands for.
Gavin spent more to have custom leather wine lists covers because he’d already invested in curating an interesting wine list and creating a beautiful wine room that was visible to guests. He didn’t want them to walk in and see a design element that indicated one thing and a flimsy paper wine list that indicated something else entirely.
Another expense that Gavin prioritized were employee uniforms. There was no way his hospitality philosophy would shine through his team if they didn’t feel comfortable, confident, and empowered on the floor. He says, “Maybe the water glass is going to sit there the entire meal, but that server is going to bring them their experience and how that server looks and feels is a reflection of me.”
Post-Opening Ordering & Purchasing
Opening day will come and go quickly, and it will be all too easy to forget to check pars on uniforms, to-go boxes, and wine glasses. Get ahead of the game: build organized order sheets, set up inventory days, and delegate ordering responsibilities before you open so that everyone understands their part right out of the gate.
Build Order Sheets
By the time you’re placing pre-opening orders, you will have spent hours reviewing pricing, looking at quote sheets, circling product numbers in catalogues, and talking to reps. Once you’ve placed orders, either use the final invoices or ask your distributors to put together a list of everything you purchased, including the name of the item, item number, size specifications, lead time, price, and the quantity you’re starting with. Include purveyor contact information and par levels so it’s easy for anyone to figure out how to place an order.
Then consolidate these lists (hiding columns you don’t need on a regular basis) into one that’s based on how you organize your restaurant. Charles Bililies, owner of Souvla in San Francisco, recommends basing your order sheets on your storage plan so that when it comes time to place orders, you can move from left to right, top to bottom alongside your storage space.
Take Inventory Regularly
Most restaurateurs are pretty comfortable with taking food and beverage inventory at the end of every month (or sometimes even more frequently). But many operators don’t even think about taking inventory of china, glass, silver, uniforms, menu paper, or the many other things that can suddenly go from being fully stocked to 86’d. Once your order sheets are built, calendar inventory dates and be clear about who on your team is responsible for performing inventory and following up with necessary ordering.