Opening A Restaurant: Beyond Hospitality
There are a lot of different perspectives & opinions on how to open a restaurant or just to start one in the first place. Deciding to become a restaurateur is a dream to some, easy decision to others, but to some hospitality professionals it’s a difficult step and not one taken lightly. When I knew I needed to be, not wanted to be, a restaurateur is when my vision of hospitality could only be realized by constructing a team, environment, & atmosphere to deliver an experience that only exists in one place in the world……my restaurant.
Becoming a restaurateur is something many people have always dreamed of…the glory, the attention of entertaining as a job, the feeling of delivering joy to people everyday, or the challenge of running one of the most difficult small businesses period. I think the later is overlooked and the glory and excitement of food & beverage is just too much to pass up. Industry professionals know that running a restaurant is more difficult than satisfying. It’s a necessary evil to accomplish your hospitality goals.
One of the best industry professionals on earth happens to be a good friend of mine. We have been through a lot in the restaurant industry and no one has taken as many steps forward in his career than Chad Micheal George. He grew up in St. Louis and spent most of his life there. He quickly learned wine to become a certified sommelier, drank enough whiskey and snapped enough tins to graduate from the prestigious B.A.R. 5 day program and is one of the most well rounded industry professionals in the world. He moved to Colorado a few years back and has made his mark and runs the local Bartenders Guild as president.
He recently took the step to open his own restaurant. This was not an easy decision. I know Chad likes to live his life full of travel, consulting, and working in the industry on his own terms. Opening a restaurant for the first time is something of a marriage without all the sex and a shit ton of laundry. Knowing that, I sat down with Chad to ask how such an accomplished professional faired while opening his own place. Keep in mind the challenges for Chad are not hospitality related because he is a seasoned professional. The challenges are largely personal and business related and are unknown until you take the plunge into restaurteurialship.
“Opening a restaurant is like a new marriage without all the sex and a shit ton of laundry.”
How did you get into the restaurant industry?
“It was a chance meeting with a guy name Jeff Orbin in Las Vegas. I was into wine at the time and we ended up sharing a bottle and talking about the industry. He offered me a job at his restaurant in St. Louis called Monarch. I laughed it off as a joke. four times more than he could afford to pay me and I knew he knew that. I was making three to I reflected on his offer in the coming weeks after our trip to Vegas. I hated my cubicle, the restrictions imposed by corporate America and how unhappy I really was with what I was doing. Shortly after that I called Jeff and asked if the position was still available. The rest is history.”
I can understand taking that job and getting out of a cubicle but what made you choose a career in the industry?
“After I got used to the 75% pay cut the industry really took hold of me. What was different about the hospitality industry is that everyone who takes in seriously is drawn to it for similar motivations. This provides a synergy that corporate America doesn’t. These common interests allow for great relationships. We all enjoy good food, wine and entertaining for a living. This career has been fulfilling and very enjoyable but I’m glad I have the corporate perspective to appreciate it as much as I do.”
What moved you from wine to bartending?
“Honestly it was you and Ted Kilgore. It’s a grind to stay relevant and profitable. Your love for an idea is not enough to make it a successful business.
I wanted to know more about what you guys were doing. No one back then including me really ever looked at cocktails as an art or something that could be crafted. There was a mountain of information that I knew nothing about and that drew me in. Choosing a bottle of wine for someone that they love is a skill but I didn’t really do anything. When you create a cocktail you put so much more creative effort into it and it becomes and experience for me and my guest. crafted the cocktail and put myself out there to be judged. I didn’t make the wine I just opened it. If I get it right it’s because I listened, understood and used my skills to build an experience. Don’t get me wrong…..it takes a lot of knowledge and expertise to understand wine but the creative experience is what I enjoy about cocktails.”
Why do you think the restaurant industry is a community of people and do you think it is more popular now? If so why and if not why?
“I think it is more publicized now. The concept of “Foodie”, which is a term I hate, has taken over television and brought what was the passion of a few to the masses. More people are into knowing where their food comes from, how wine and alcohol are made and how to prepare what they eat then ever before. I don’t think the industry is more popular to work in but the food and beverage as a whole is more popular so choosing a career in the restaurant industry is more acceptable and sometimes honorable than in the past.”
When did you know you wanted to start your own restaurant?
did you know you wanted to start your own restaurant? “If you are in the industry and are serious about your career it has crossed your mind at some point. Serious industry professionals have a vision on some level that they want to execute. You only have full control over that execution when you open your own restaurant. That doesn’t mean we all want to open our own place but that it crosses your mind. danger is when you feel like you have to. right time with the right people. I think the I was always waiting for the right moment and the I would’t take on my own restaurant without the right partners. There are two schools of thought on that but I personally didn’t want to do it on my own.”
Name the most influential restaurateur you know and how have they made an impact on you and your restaurant?
“A Denver guy named Dan Barber from a conceptual perspective had the biggest local influence. He really has a great understand of flow, execution and vision. Everybody I’ve ever worked with has contributed a little to influence me. Even people I didn’t respect in the industry thought me who I didn’t want to be and how I didn’t want to treat other people. Danny Meyer, of course, was the biggest front of house service influence on my career. He made caring cool and showed everyone through action how it could be if we focused on the right things.”
What is one myth you have debunked in your first 6 months of being a restaurant owner?
“It’s all about the food. Don’t get me wrong, the food is of critical importance, but our early success, I feel, is much more based on our attitude and hospitality. We are as focused as we can be on giving every guest that walks through the door the experience that THEY are looking for?”
What skill or skills do you feel you need improvement on as a restaurateur?
skill or skills do you feel you need improvement on as a restaurateur? “It is tough to focus on the bigger picture when you’re the one paying the bills. Nightly sales really doesn’t matter. Weekly sales, sure. Monthly or quarterly? That’s what I should be focusing on. The long game, the macro.”
“It is also hard, especially in a small restaurant, to become “the boss” and not everyone’s best friend. We’re a tight-knit group and we enjoy each others company outside of work as well. Wearing the friend hat and the boss hat at the same time is a tricky situation. At the same time, my partners and I feel very strongly about the personal relationships we have with our staff. We’re family.”
We’ve been friends for awhile….you are liked by many. How do you plan on balancing this all important skill?
“Every few months or even weeks I have to reset and get the team together to remind them what we are doing and why we are doing it. I literally have to look at myself in the mirror and remind myself that I’m a business owner today and I need to behave in that way. It is a change for me so I actively remind myself of that. I can’t let the staff take advantage of our friendship. No one will intentionally do that but if I let it happen it’s only human nature. I have to be ok with not being the most liked and I have to constantly earn their respect through actions.”
What has been your biggest challenge personally and in the business?
“Finding a good, healthy life balance has been tough. I love this place and I feel completely comfortable waking up every day and going straight to work, but that’s not healthy. You have to take time for yourself to do whatever it is you enjoy and clear your head. Take a hike, go for a run or a bike ride, go to the gym. Whatever it is. I’m blown away when I talk to restaurant owners that have gone YEARS without taking a vacation. Luckily there are three of us at TWB and we have a great staff, so taking time off is doable.”
What is one trait that you possess that can get you in trouble as a restaurateur?
“I like to drink. It’s a tough balance in this business. I’ve seen a lot of friends fail professionally and/or personally because of alcohol. Again, it goes back to balance. If you can’t find that balance, it’ll destroy you.”
*It’s hard to entertain for a living and not partake. What is your plan for balance?
“I don’t drink at work or at least while I’m working. I try to limit my drinking with people I work with. It’s a struggle but I constantly remind myself that there is a time and a place. I’m not perfect but I’m working toward a balance all the time.”
Why do you think most restaurants struggle?
“It’s a hard business with incredibly slim margins. There’s a reason most banks won’t even consider investing in restaurants. I also think that most people that haven’t worked in the business take for granted what a grind it is to stay relevant and profitable. Your own love for an idea isn’t enough to make it a successful business.”
What makes a successful restaurant in your eyes?
“Filling a need in your area, or convincing people they need what you’re offering. Justin Cucci, whom I used to work for, is a master of that. Building a great staff and a culture that puts hospitality first, upfront and center. Great service trumps all. It makes average food and drinks taste amazing. It brings guests back time and time again.”
Where do you see restaurants going in the next 10 years?
“I think upscale casual dining will continue to grow. I think a lot of markets are just now grasping onto that idea. Think white table-cloth-esque service without the stuffy touches and neighborhood restaurant prices and attitudes. There will always be room for the special occasion places, but that middle segment is going to continue to grow.”
Explain your vision for The Way Back starting with food.
“Our vision is to very gently, possibly change the way people eat and how they think about what they eat. Dan Barber has been a huge inspiration for all of us. The chefs do a lot of research on every item we source. A perfect example was a local bass we had on our menu at the beginning. We procured it from a local and reputable supplier, but we did a little digging and found out the company used incarcerated prisoners to break down the fish and paid them 75 cents/hour. Slave labor. No thanks. It’s not just about the quality of the end product, but how it is raised/farmed/processed etc.
Our squid comes from the only company in North America that catches and processes on this continent. Every other company sends it overseas to be processed.” Customer service? “It’s their experience. They dictate it and we deliver it. It’s that simple (complicated.)” Staff? “They’re family. They deserve a quality of life that we all pursue. We provide health insurance and do our best to nullify the gap between FOH and BOH earnings.” Drink? “Our cocktail philosophy mimics our kitchen ideals. We use local, quality, responsibly made products as much as possible. Our cocktails focus on seasonality. Our wine list is probably 95% organic, biodynamic and/or sustainable. I also don’t charge an arm and a leg for wine. Our markups are probably the lowest in town on our by-the-bottle list.”
If your restaurant were to fail in the future what would you guess the reason would be?
“Maybe we became too ambitious? We pushed the boundaries too hard and people don’t understand what we’re trying to do? It’s something we are very cognizant of every day. Are we approachable? That’s a daily question.”
What adjustments are you willing to make to your vision to ensure you are going to succeed in your community?
“Honestly we made our concession in the begging with anticipation that TWB is a new concept for our neighborhood. If we can build up trust with what we are doing we can execute our full vision down the road. If we have to make more concessions to survive I would rather move the business and put it somewhere for a better fit. Forcing too much change for a location demotivates employees who signed up for the vision you believe in.”
If your restaurant succeeds long term what do you think the reason/reasons are?
“The people inside these four walls that come in every day and share our passion for delivering an experience. That is #1.
Give one piece of inspirational advice to someone who wants to start a new restaurant.
“Find the right partners….they make all the difference.
Define hospitality for me in 5 words or less.
“Attentive. Agreeable. Gracious. Welcoming. Excellence.
What is your favorite V.H.S movie?
What was your first cassette tape?
Favorite 80’s movie other then Top Gun?
And what is your favorite 80’s artist?
“Hall & Oates”