Antonia Lofaso of ‘Restaurant Startup’ on What Makes a Restaurant Succeed or Fail

Lessons on vision, leadership and staying power from the celebrity chef and restaurateur.
Antonia Lofaso Cutthroat Kitchen
Antonia Lofaso talks how to make sure your restaurant succeeds, and if it doesn't, how to save it from failure. (Photo: Food Network)

Antonia Lofaso didn’t take the top title on “Top Chef” or “Top Chef All­-Stars,” but her creativity in the kitchen, engaging personality and restaurant expertise led to jobs as an advisor on CNBC’s “Restaurant Startup” and a judge on Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” and the NBC pro vs. amateur competition “Food Fighters.”

But Lofaso’s main culinary focus is running her two Los Angeles restaurants, Scopa Italian Roots and Black Market Liquor Bar (and planning to open more). She knows what it takes to make a restaurant successful — and what to do if it’s not working. She shared her insights in this interview.

What are the main reasons restaurants fail?

One of the biggest reasons is there’s not a clear vision in concept from the beginning.

Diners like to understand where they’re going and what their experience is going to be. It should be fluid from the moment they get there, from the lighting and the atmosphere to the food. And when they leave, they’ve understood what they ate, they enjoyed their experience and they can’t wait to come back.

People who are inexperienced in running restaurants don’t know the costs of their food and their rent and what percentage of gross sales goes toward that. People rent a space because the location is amazing, and it’s $4500 a month but they open a taco shop. Tacos don’t produce that kind of revenue. You need to know what your percentages should add up to before you decide on the concept and know what the clientele in the neighborhood is, whether it’s high volume or fine dining.

We’re looking to build a new restaurant now, and we’re talking about the atmosphere, the drinks, the size of the grill. It’s about driving home the concept first. With Scopa, I knew I wanted to do American Italian food, food I grew up eating — baked ziti, stuffed shells, baked clams — using amazing California ingredients. The décor had to evoke the emotion of an old school New York Italian restaurant.

Can a failing restaurant be saved?

Saving a failing restaurant is hard. You need to be able to identify the problem. Is it the food, the ambience, the service? Did you get into a bad deal? Is it about getting a new chef? Is it about creating a new concept? Then chip away at the problem, and if necessary think about doing a relaunch.

What do successful restaurants have in common?

Successful restaurants have strong leadership: a strong executive chef and strong management. The best restaurants across the world all have chefs that are very strong­-willed and opinionated, and that breeds managers and sous­-chefs that create a place where people are proud to be working and cooking. That breeds a successful restaurant that has longevity.

Consistency is the biggest element to success. When you come back to a restaurant you want to have the same cocktail and the same T­-bone steak that you had a year ago. You never want to come in and not know what you’re going to get. People expect it to be done the same way every time.

For a chef, that’s the hardest thing to create passion around. When you first open a restaurant there’s so much energy — you’re the hot new thing. But how do I keep my chefs who’ve been with me forever excited about the same dish that I’d never take off the menu because people love it? I battle with this at both of my restaurants. But it’s your job to keep your staff excited and motivated.

Anyone can open a restaurant and be a success for a year. If it’s a success for six years or ten years, those are the ones that should be celebrated.

Not every restaurant owner has the advantage of TV exposure. What’s your branding and publicity advice?

This might sound crazy, but when I opened Black Market nobody knew I was the chef there. Word of mouth is our best publicity when it comes to restaurants, starting slow and building. I tell people that all the time.

You can spend tons of money to get you on every list and get writers into your venue, and I get that and appreciate it, but at the end of the day it’s about people coming to your restaurant and saying ‘That was amazing,’ and they tell all of their friends and they tell all of their friends.

Do a good job and people will come to your restaurant. If your restaurant is not full, there’s something you’re not doing in the venue, not because you had poor PR.

Anything else you want to tell restaurateurs?

Don’t do it unless you love it. This work isn’t glamorous. It’s 16-­hour days working very hard. It’s very physically and emotionally demanding. You’d better love what you do because this is not easy work.

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