Try to remember: What was the last bar or restaurant you walked into without knowing anything about it at all — no recommendations from a friend, no glowing online reviews?
You were out walking around, feeling hungry or thirsty. More than likely, it was on the first or second floor, near a train station, and the interior was clearly visible from the street. If you’re looking for a space for your restaurant, that’s exactly what you’re after.
Unfortunately, the harsh truth is that there is strong competition for those spaces and, as a small business, you’re up against restaurant chains and corporations with restaurant arms. If a large chain makes a bid on a place you’re trying to get a lease to, no landlord would take a chance on you over a sure thing with deep pockets and a national presence.
This is one of the key impossibilities in opening your own restaurant: In order to be successful, you need a perfect location. Unfortunately, the perfect locations are pretty much already taken, or are beyond your means. You’ll need to think about what compromises you’re OK with in order to secure a space.
When you’re weighing the options, remember that restaurants can fail for any number of reasons, and you need to try to avoid some of the biggest of these: poor visibility, lack of accessibility and low foot traffic. No matter what else, you need to find a place that avoids these pitfalls.
In terms of visibility, it’s best to avoid any space higher than the second floor, with first floor being the goal. People are more inclined to walk into a restaurant they can see into from the street than to climb stairs or enter an elevator to a space they don’t know anything about.
The farther you are from a train station, the fewer people will come to your restaurant. The harder it is to find your front door, the less likely anyone will walk through it. The difficulty is that the closer you are to the station, the higher your rent is going to be. If you have a full house every night but can’t make rent, you’re still going to go out of business. You need to find that sweet spot between affordable and sustainable.
Most importantly, you need foot traffic. When my restaurant, Magical Animal, closed, we joined up with another refugee from our building in Aoyama and opened a craft beer/craft meat restaurant together. We found a place in a district known for its bars and close proximity to several business districts. We felt pretty sure we’d be successful there, but we moved too quickly to secure a space, not realizing that the main pathway for pedestrian traffic was actually about two blocks away.
Over there, the streets were usually filled with people, and the bars and restaurants were full. Our front door looked out on a major street, and as time went by, we realized that very few pedestrians walked past. Had we been two or three blocks from where we opened, it’s entirely possible we’d still be in business and I wouldn’t be writing this today.
More than anything, you need to do your homework. Talk to proprietors in the area. Some might brush you off, but I was constantly surprised by how helpful and open bar owners and restaurateurs were when I asked questions.
When you think you’ve found a good space, grab a comfortable spot with a clear view of the shop and start counting people walking by. Check the foot traffic during the hours you think will be key for you.
If you’re hoping to offer lunch, is there enough demand for it? If you’re hoping to open a bar, are there enough people around at night to sustain it? Are there things that would make your space less attractive to customers that aren’t readily noticeable in the daytime? Is there a community garbage collection point in front of your shop?
If the building you rent from has a hostess club, for example, you need to be aware that there will be touts in front of the building all night, every night. We ran into that problem and, later, customers told us they would have come by more often, but they hated being harassed by touts trying to get them to go to the hostess clubs upstairs.
Even if you think you’ve found the perfect space, you need to do your homework, or you might end up locked into a lease on a space that dooms your restaurant even before you open.
This is the second installment of a six-part series that will appear on the first Sunday of every month through March 2018.