Biggest Lessons Restaurant Owners Learned in Their First Year of Business

From how to manage employees to how not to get sued, 10 restaurateurs share what they wish they knew then.
VERTS-co-founders Michael Heyne and Dominik Stein
Hiring the right employees who share your same vision and passion is crucial according to the founders of VERTS. (Photo: VERTS)

Surviving in the restaurant business isn’t easy. Some 60 percent of restaurants fail in the first three years.

To turn a profit and avoid becoming a statistic, it takes a combination of the right location, hard work, good food, good service, marketing savvy and luck, to name a few factors.

Since hindsight is 20/20, NCR asked restaurant owners across the nation to share the lessons they learned the hard way.


(Photo: Miusa Wine Bar)

Federico Bernocchi, co-owner

MIUSA Wine Bar, Brooklyn NY

On setting your hours: “We wanted to be open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and after hours, when in reality there just wasn’t the business to be open all that time…The restaurant and area we are in is great for dinner, but does not have the foot traffic for lunch.”

On saving money: “Our number one resource is food, and so in order to save money, we’ve always tried to avoid waste. This means knowing how much food to order ahead of time, never over-purchasing and understanding what is popular. We also try to use extra food for staff meals. This helps the team learn what we are serving, while also making sure nothing goes in the garbage.”


(Photo: Delice De Savoie)

Christophe Caron Soriano, partner

Delice & Sarrasin, New York, NY

On purchasing: “Don’t overbuy. When you open a business, you have a big vision and tend to buy more than you need. I definitely bought too many things thinking I would need them. But in the end, all you need are quality products that will hold up to the wear and tear experienced in a restaurant setting.”

On building your team: “It’s very difficult to find the right person who embodies the same enthusiasm and passion as the business owner does. And once you find people that are reliable, serious, and like what they do, you need to reinforce how grateful you are that they are a part of your team.”


(Photo: Asian Mint)

Nikky Phinyawatana, owner

Asian Mint, Dallas, Texas

On managing: “You need to treat your employees just as well as your customers. Then, they will treat all of our customers as they are being treated and with their heart.”

On having signed legal documents: “My partner decided to sue me, and that’s the biggest lesson learned for me. I had partnership documents drawn up, and I didn’t have them signed before starting the business. No matter how much good intention the business is based on, it’s like a marriage. It was emotionally draining. Have all your documents drafted by attorneys and signed before doing anything.”


(Photo: Firo Pizza)

Al Ryan, vice president of operations

Firo Fire Kissed Pizza, Lawton, Oklahoma

On using data: “Knowledge is power. By using data and being aware of what the opportunities are, we were able to reduce our food and labor costs by more than 10 percent in six months. You must be able to accurately measure, track, and adjust your performance to meet your specific targets.”

On hiring: “Don’t be too quick to hire a body to fill a spot. This is the biggest mistake restaurant operations can do. No warm bodies allowed. Take the time to hire an experienced individual that is on fire and will work and drive him or herself to get results.”

Tatsu Hippie Ramen

(Photo: Tatsu Hippie Ramen)

Ryu Isobe, founder

Tatsu: Ramen With A Soul, Los Angeles, California

On food quality: “Never sacrifice food quality. People come to eat to eat good food, and just because a process might be faster or cheaper, that doesn’t mean it is right. Right is always making the best tasting ramen possible.”

On training: “It’s imperative that processes and job roles be efficient, or labor costs go through the roof. This all starts with proper training. Make each employee a master at something, so they can complete it right the first time with pride. You cannot do everything yourself.”


(Photo: VERTS)

Michael Heyne, CEO and co-founder

VERTS (more than 30 locations in Texas)

On hiring: “Our business is only as good as the team we build. As VERTS grew, Dominik [VERTS’ other founder] and I knew we needed to hire help, but realized quickly we needed to look for people who shared our vision for the future, not the present…We looked for driven candidates genuinely excited about our direction and plans for the company. If we didn’t see that spark, we waited.”

Sofia Restaurant

(Photo: Sofia Restaurant)

Eddy Sujak, owner

Sofia Restaurant, Englewood, New Jersey

On hard work: “My family and I have been in the restaurant business for more than 25 years, and the greatest lesson that I learned in my first year is that you have to be hands-on at all times from the kitchen to the ambiance. Many people have this notion of owning a restaurant without knowing the hard work that is involved on a daily basis.”


(Photo: Fig Tree)

Greg and Sara Zanitsch, owners

The Fig Tree Restaurant, Charlotte, North Carolina

On design (Greg): “Our biggest failure was design. We put the bar in the wrong place. It was in the biggest room, with couches to make it into a lounge, but it made the least amount of money. It was wasted space. A few years later, we spent $20,000 to put the bar in a smaller room and use the larger room as one of our dining rooms. That was an expensive error, but fixing it has paid off greatly.”

On training employees (Sara): “Top notch service goes a very long way…We knew that is one thing that would set us apart when we opened, and it’s paid off. Our employees go through a fairly rigorous training process, including a week’s worth of shifts shadowing another member of the service staff. We make sure that an employee is more than ready before taking care of tables on his or her own.”

Mohamed ElSayed, founder

Horus Café and Kebab House, New York, NY

On delegating: “Sometimes it is best to leave the creative genius to the people that specialize in each craft. I’m a businessman. While I focus on branding my restaurants, the amazing chefs I’ve hired can take my family recipes and ideas and give them a second life on our menus. It’s really all about putting faith into who you hire, and giving them the assets that will set them up for success.”

Vijay of Bite Catering

(Photo: Vijay Goel)

Vijay Goel, co-owner

Bite Catering Couture, Los Angeles, California

On food portions: “Your chefs will all interpret portion sizes differently if you don’t clarify. It doesn’t make sense to save 5 percent on ingredients and then serve 50 percent more than you’re supposed to.”

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