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the top tens

Every day, people around the world are romanced by the dream of opening their own restaurant. The story goes something like this: "We'll open our own restaurant, cook the food that we like, hang out with our friends, franchise it and make lots of money."

The reality is that it takes a great deal of hard work, lots of money and business acumen to initially get a business off the ground and even more to keep it growing. After 35-plus years in the food and beverage business, I've experienced just about every conceivable concept and pitfall and have learned what the key elements are for creating sustainable success in the restaurant business. The following are my top ten tips to help you grow your restaurant business:

1. Know thy customer. Take the time to get to know what makes yours customers tick. The best restaurateurs can recall first and last names, spouse's name, where they live, work, play, what car they drive and most importantly, what they like to eat and drink. Knowing your guests personal favourites also allows you the ability to "up-sell" (restaurant-speak for suggestive selling of higher priced and additional items) to them. Update your local demographic information periodically as the type of person you marketed to five years ago may have changed dramatically. As a result, you need to stay current about who your potential customers may be. Many restaurants also use reservation databases to track preference information to enhance their knowledge of how and what you like to eat and drink, when customers were last at the restaurant and what they ordered, etc.

2. Create signature items. In large cities there are thousands of places to eat, so give customers a reason to pick yours on a consistent basis. Become famous for just one or two items and ensure that these key items are premium quality, easily produced and profitable. Talk about these items when speaking to the media, advertising or creating any type of marketing or PR plan. If you create a demand for the very best [fill in the blank]in town and can produce it consistently, people will drive across the city for it again and again.

3. Treat your customers like gold. There's an old expression in the restaurant business: "If you have a great dining experience you may tell your close family and maybe a couple of people at work that you had a great dinner last night. If you have a bad meal/service/experience you will make a point of telling everyone you know how bad it was." Most local marketing yields only a 2 to 3 per cent capture rate of customers who will actually try your place, so you need to look after the ones you already have. Get to know their likes and dislikes and cater to their needs. Everybody wants to be welcomed when they walk into your restaurant. Train your team to treat everyone like they are special and the word will spread that the service (which is 30 to 40 per cent of the dining overall experience) is great.

4. Continually train your staff to excel. Restaurant employees are generally happier when they are learning something new and subsequently give better service to your customers. By providing better service, they also make better tips – which makes up the majority of their income. Their jobs can become repetitive so train them constantly to learn their job to the highest standard and the jobs of everyone else. Cross-training allows you to be able cover the various tasks in your business and can help you create a build a team of future management candidates.

5. Listen to customer complaints and do something about what they say. It's easy to assume that you know more about food and drinks than your customers do. However, if your customers take the time and effort to let you know that something isn't right or could be better listen to their comments, thank them for their feedback and bring it up with the management and implement changes as needed. You will only hear about 10 per cent of what your customers really think about, so listen carefully.

6. Keep your menu current. The menu is the key element from which all other details revolve. Research other restaurants in your style of cuisine in all markets to see what they're doing, study menus, trade magazine and hire consultants to help your restaurant become a leader, not a follower.

7. Promote your team. If your chef, manager or staff members come with a great idea, make sure you reward them and recognize their achievements not only internally but in marketing you create. By recognizing great work, you will be viewed as someone who is surrounded by talented people. In turn, your staff will work harder because you took the time to recognize their contribution in a public forum.

8. Be authentic. If your concept is Paella, then research every element of what it takes to make the very best Paella, hire staff who speak Spanish and have cooked this dish since their childhood. Don't use shortcuts or substitute ingredients to make a Paella-like rice dish. Others in the business will create a better product than you and steal your customers and business.

9. Create a welcoming and clean environment. The average life span of the dining area of a restaurant is 7 to 10 years, so buy the best quality you can afford and keep it repaired, painted and polished. As your customers wait for dinner to arrive, many look at your decorations, artwork etc. Chipped paint or dirty baseboards stand out and can taint the overall experience and why they will or will not return to your restaurant. Many women choose their restaurant based on how clean the washroom is, so make sure you have a plan to service this area on a regular basis. Talk to professional, experienced restaurant designers and the equipment specialists to ensure any upgrades are going to maximize your space and customer dining experience.

10. Keep on doing it and love what you do. Don't sit back and think that now that you have a good business that your work is done and it's time to retire in the Bahamas. It takes just a few loyal customers having one bad experience to kill the reputation that took years to earn. You don't want your business being blacklisted overnight. Keep your finger on the pulse of your business, encourage your teams to excel and you will reap the long-term rewards.

Building a great restaurant takes years of blood, sweat and tears and the financial rewards are generally smaller than most people imagine. If you don't love the food business and all that it entails, don't get into it. It's a vocation, not a vacation.

Mark Wilson is a Toronto based culinary consultant serving the restaurant and food manufacturing industry. For more information go to