Getting a restaurant started is hard, but stopping is even harder

by Jeremy Wilgus

Contributing Writer

We’ve gotten this far, and now it’s time for the final lesson: how to hit the ground running, and how to know if it’s time to stop. You’re going to need to make sure that when you open, everything is running right, all the food looks and tastes as good as it can, and that little things like your exhaust fan work.

In essence, you need to do a trial run, known as a soft opening, a couple of days before your big day. You’ll need to have enough people in your place to give you a feel for what a busy night will be like. As much thought as you’ve put into your space, there’s every chance that customers will approach it in a very different way. If something clearly isn’t working, you need to be ready to drop it, no matter how dear it is to you. If customers are repeatedly asking for something you don’t have, it’s important to give careful consideration to making changes to accommodate them. Learning whose voice to heed can be incredibly helpful in the early going.

If you haven’t joined Facebook, Instagram or listed your restaurant on Google Maps or the like, get going. Do your best to make posts about your shop on a daily basis, if possible. Regardless of your feelings about people taking pictures of food, every time a customer posts a picture of your food, you’re reaching new people. More than ever, you need to consider your presentation. Make sure your food looks good enough to take pictures of, and let your customers get the word out.

Whatever you do, in your shop, on social media, never, never gripe. Never post about how empty your restaurant is, or how you feel your customers aren’t supporting you. I shouldn’t have to say it, but I’ve seen too many restaurant and bar owners do this. It’s understandable, if you’re alone in your restaurant, wondering when or if you’ll have customers. You start to feel panicky, and it can quickly spiral out of control. Posting negatively or complaining about a lack of customers only lets potential customers know your place is dead, and nothing kills a shop faster than the feeling that the place isn’t going to last.

And, like I’ve said all along, your shop probably isn’t going to last. In these last six months, I’ve seen at least 10 restaurants I walk past every day close, and I could point you to another four or five that are trying to pretend everything is going to be okay. You need to be prepared for the end, as little as you want to think about it.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen, as well as one of the least followed, is that you should never open a restaurant without a reserve of cash to cover six months of expenses. That means rent, utilities, wages, food costs, everything. After six months, though, if your restaurant isn’t paying for itself, it’s likely never going to.

Unless you understand that, you’ll keep dumping money into your shop until there’s nothing left. As hard as it might be to walk away after all the work you’ve put into your dream, the only thing worse than having to close your restaurant is having no money left when it’s gone.

With that cushion, set a reminder for a month, two months and four months from your opening. A month in, you should have an idea of what’s working and what’s not. Check your sales, your traffic and the reaction to your social media posts. Make a plan with concrete steps for improvement.

At two months, check on what impact your changes have had. If you’re not seeing an uptick, consider paying for advertising, offering loyalty programs, happy hours or the like. Be careful, as actions like this can start to smell of desperation and drive customers away. Avoid any promotion that doesn’t make money, you can’t afford to take on added losses if things aren’t going right.

At four months, if you’re not approaching profitability, it’s probably time to close up. Use the remaining cushion to pay the costs of closing down, and to give yourself time to find what you’ll do next.

If you still want to open a bar or restaurant, I wish you all the luck in the world, and I hope you are successful. It’s going to be a nonstop battle to get where you want to go, but if you’re anything like me, you’re going to love every minute. Losing my restaurant was one of the worst experiences of my life, but only because I’ve never felt better than when hearing a customer tell me how much they enjoyed our place, or how much they loved the food.

To round off this series, here’s a short summary of the Do’s and Don’ts of opening your own restaurant in Japan.


• Your homework. Get a job in a similar restaurant or bar and see what it’s like. Ask lots of questions. Pay attention, and take note of practices that work and practices that need improvement.
• Track all costs, and stick to cost/price ratios that will allow you to pay your non-food expenses.
• Make sure you know your partner if you’re working with one. Get a feel for how much you can rely on them before starting your enterprise. This is a business, and business needs to come first.


• Rush in and sign a lease before you have a clear feel for the space, and the area it’s in.
• Overextend yourself financially. If you throw all of your money into this, and it fails, what will you have left? Never spend more than you can afford to lose.
• Forget your main job is owning the restaurant, not working in it. Your job is running the business, tracking costs, hiring, calling the plumber, and all the rest. If you let yourself get bogged down in the kitchen, it’s easy to lose track of the larger tasks that need to be performed on a regular basis.