by Beau Hebert
Dear The Beauster,
My sister and I are budding chefs who love to cook and throw dinner parties and are seriously thinking about opening our own restaurant. She’s great with soups and breads and I’m sort of famous for my Mediterranean cuisine. People go gaga over my spanikopita. I know you operate a couple of restaurants and so I thought you might have some advice for us.
Sincerely, South Seattle Foodie for Life.
Dear S S F-ie for L,
Thank you for your inquiry. As a restaurant owner and long-time service industry person, I do, indeed, have strong feelings on this topic. If, as you say, you are someone who loves food and throwing dinner parties then DO NOT OPEN A RESTAURANT!!! Speed-dial the nearest priest to rush over now and exorcise from your skull whatever romantic notion you have of the restaurant world. Nothing will turn your love of food into a festering heap of dislodged cat heads faster than actually owning a restaurant.
Operating a restaurant is not like throwing a dinner party on a night-in and night-out basis. Your cuisine will not be met with exhortations of joy between witticisms from your charming guests as they slurp varietal wines hand-selected by you to complement the food that you lovingly prepared and laid before them on a candle-lit table. Rather, you’ll be dealing with the public at large…and their phones on which they mete out ratings, and stars, and Yelp! reviews like little Zagat emperors even when they often can’t differentiate between a zucchini and a cucumber. Restaurant cooking, as well, is a different creature than home cooking. “Dice two onions” in home-cooking can be translated as “Dice fifty onions at a rate of speed that would make Bruce Lee dizzy,” in restaurant cooking. Your beloved spanakopita will turn into a WTF-akopita as you weep onion-vapor tears into the basins of your three-compartment sink.
Oh yeah – Sinks! The health department is obsessed with them. Here’s what you’ll need in sinks just to get your license to operate: a hand sink, a mop sink, a meat preparation sink, a vegetable preparation sink and a three-compartment sink in which each sink basin is large enough to accommodate your largest pot. You will have sunk a BMW’s-worth of sinks into your place before even considering cooking appliances, small wares, plates, point-of-sale system, furniture, signage, etc. An Aspergers-level passion for sinks would be a more useful trait for a restauranteur than passion for food.
Do you love your sister? You won’t for long if you open a restaurant with her. In fact, you will quickly hate her and the experience of co-owning a restaurant with her will do irreparable damage to your relationship. Do you enjoy earning a living wage? Don’t expect to if you open a restaurant, with its notoriously slim margins and high failure rate. Do you like dining out at other restaurants? That joy will be forever lost to you as every dish you ever again order will become a reflexive food-cost calculation. Do you like officious low-level government officials and regulations? I’m sure not, but the restaurant business is riddled with them like a money-leaching pox.
One other thing: You are not a chef, and neither is your sister. Enjoying cooking or having a few go-to recipes does not a chef make. In fact, almost nobody is a chef. In the military, there are millions of infantry and precious few generals. That’s how it is with restaurants too, so please quit referring to yourself as a chef.
Well, I hope I’ve turned your dream of being a restauranteur into a graying, mottled head of bib lettuce to be tossed into the compost bin. If you and your sister do insist on opening a restaurant I would advise that you purchase one that is already licensed and operating, because a build-out from scratch is crushingly expensive. Come to think of it, I happen to know an advice columnist for the South Seattle Emerald who might want to unload a restaurant or two…
Prescription from the back bar pharmacy at Jude’s Old Town: The Mars-Tini – House strawberry-infused vodka, Elderflower Liqueur, fresh lemon juice & a whisper of Créme de Viollette. Shaken and served up in a coupe glass. This cocktail will be featured at the Bike Works auction on Sunday, March 26.
Overheard at the bar: “Is Portland the new Seattle, or is Seattle the old Portland? Or, I don’t know, San Francisco?”
Beau Hebert is the owner of Jude’s Old Town in Rainier Beach and Lottie’s Lounge in Columbia City.
Featured image by Alex Garland