This story originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Gold Coast magazine.
SO YOU WANT TO OPEN A RESTAURANT?
We’ve all thought about it at some point. Admit it. After dining out numerous times a week, heck, maybe every day this week, you think you can open up your own restaurant. You’ve probably made mental notes on what décor items you’d include, ensured your grandma’s famous meatball recipe is on the menu, already scoped out a potential spot for the joint, and definitely will never make your guests wait for a table as long as you waited for that last one. All you have to do is cook good food, have a comfortable ambience, and make sure your staff is friendly, and you are set.
It’s that easy, eh? Uh, not quite.
There’s more to opening up a restaurant than the average armchair restaurateur thinks. And, there’s more to keeping it open as well. Depending on who you ask or what study you look up, it’s been said 70 to 90 percent of new restaurants close within three years. That means out of 10 restaurant openings, you can expect seven to nine of them to shut down while still in preschool. You don’t have to count cards to know the odds aren’t with you.
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
Renowned restaurateur Burt Rapoport grew up in the restaurant business. His grandfather opened a kosher deli in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the young Rapoport washed dishes, bussed tables and organized the store, making sure all the labels were turned to the front. So, it was a natural for Rapoport to make his own living in the restaurant industry, opening up his first in 1980 along with fellow restaurateur Dennis Max.
Today, after opening 29 restaurants – including Deck 84, Henry’s, Bogart’s and Max’s Grille, some of the most popular spots in Palm Beach County – the 63-year-old Rapoport still gets knots in his stomach with every new restaurant on tap. Take for example Burt & Max’s, his most recent restaurant co-opened with Max, which debuted in February at Delray Marketplace.
“The biggest thing that goes through my mind is, ‘Is anybody going to show up?’” Rapoport rhetorically asks. “On opening day, you’ve spent all your money – usually more than you thought you were going to spend. What if it doesn’t feel right? Is this the right location? In all the restaurants I’ve opened, I still get that same feeling. Everybody has their fair share of failures – and you just don’t know what to predict.”
Rapoport says there is so much that goes on in a restaurant that most diners don’t even know about or can appreciate. From the right lighting to the right uniforms for the server to the cushions on the chairs, so much detail goes into making a restaurant and giving the diners the experience they want. And that’s not even mentioning how good the food needs to be.
“I was eating a salad at Burt & Max’s the other day, and my tomato was cold,” Rapoport says.
Hmmm… A cold tomato? What’s the big deal?
“Tomatoes should be at room temperature for more flavor,” Rapoport, the consummate professional, explains. “And, no salt was on the tomato.”
Oops, hopefully it was just you who got served a cold, unsalted tomato.
“Well, I thought, ‘Oh, no. If I got served this plate, my customers could have too.’ If a restaurateur did not understand food, they would serve an OK plate, but they wouldn’t serve food that was memorable.”
IT ISN’T ALL THAT GLAMOUROUS
“This business is like a disease,” says Tim Petrillo, restaurateur and co-owner of The Restaurant People.
With the wildly popular Fort Lauderdale restaurants YOLO and Tarpon Bend (also in Coral Gables) under his repertoire, Petrillo knows a thing or two about successful dining destinations. He opened The Restaurant People’s first restaurant, Himmarshee Bar & Grill, in 1997 to much acclaim and success. After opening, closing and selling restaurants since then, his company’s most recent venture, S3, opened recently inside the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort. And if you think all that experience Petrillo and Co. have has made the days leading up to S3’s opening any easier to digest, think again.
“There are certain things that are all going on at one time,” Petrillo says of S3 a few weeks prior to its spring opening. “The construction details and finish work are being done, and with that there are a variety of issues that come up. Furniture from Indonesia is delayed now, and that’s 70 percent of our furniture. At the same time, we’re hiring 150 people for our training. You have to time it right because there are people who are potentially leaving their current jobs after being told this restaurant will open on a certain day. And if it’s not open by then, they can’t be out of a job for a long time.
“At this point of the project, you are spending dollars, you are writing such big checks to get open. You are spending $20,000 a day alone in training, and you have no income.”
But for Petrillo, it’s not all doom and gloom. After 16 years in the restaurant business (not including his time at managing and operating Houston’s, Mark’s Place and Mark’s Las Olas), Petrillo just knows how savage this industry can be – no amount of sugarcoating will disguise that. The opening of S3 hijacked much of his thoughts leading to the debut. But, that doesn’t mean he can’t take away some pleasure in the job.
“I really enjoy this business; my team enjoys it,” he says. “If you can do something that others can enjoy, there’s a sense of pride.”
But this business isn’t for the weary, Petrillo emphasizes. “Had I known what the industry is like when I started, I may not have been that into it. … You are running around all the time, putting out a lot of fires. At the end of the day, you’re like, ‘Where did the day go?’ With those demands, you get burned out. You’re working when everyone else is having fun. You’re working on holidays when people are out.”
Perhaps the decision to turn from armchair restaurateur to actual, real-life restaurateur is best summed by Burt Rapoport’s brutally honest answer: “When my friends tell me their kids want to be in the restaurant business, I always try to talk them out of it.”