A few months after I got back from Murphysboro, my wife and I opened our restaurant, The Pompous Pig, in December 2008. After almost 9 years in business, here are some of the lessons I've learned:
1) Think Outside the Pit
I learned early on that if it's meat, smoke it! Steaks, salmon, chicken wings, rack of lamb, prime rib, hamburgers, hot dogs, sausage, beef and pork tenderloin, beef ribs, pork chops and grilled vegetables are all delicious options in addition to the standard pork, chicken, ribs and brisket. Our catering menu lets customers know they can special order any meat if they don't see it on the menu. During the holiday season we smoke turkeys and hams. We recently fed a concert crew backstage with smoked pork loin and sliced brisket, and they loved it. We've served cedar plank salmon smoked on site at a wedding. We've pre-smoked and grilled hamburgers and hot dogs on site. Most barbecue restaurants limit themselves by only doing one thing. Thinking outside of the pit keeps us experimenting, perfecting, and always evolving. Being flexible with our menu helps us turn a profit. When you say "no" you lose business and won't be first in mind for the next job. Instead of saying, no, I don't cook steak, go buy a grill and say yes!
2) Find Solutions to the Problem & Plan for the Worst
We were chosen to cater a large outdoor corporate event serving 3,250 people within a two-hour time frame. The first challenge? We had to order food, rent equipment, find staff, and prepare everything with less than two weeks' notice! When people say something can't be done, my military background kicks in and I will move heaven and earth to prove they're wrong. Work the problem! Think about what can go wrong and develop a plan for contingencies. Logistical planning is everything in catering!
For this (and other very large caterings) we contracted for dining and serving tents, tables and chairs, and supervised their installation on site (correct placement for efficient traffic flow is critical!). We used our two smoker trailers, and rented a large lift gate box truck (included in the budget of our bid) to transport the prepared food and equipment. We leased a refrigerated food truck from our main vendor to store and transport food. (Since we bought ALL the food from the vendor they covered the cost of the truck lease.) We rented food holding and transportation equipment and eight large gas grills. (For the grills, always order more than you think you'll need! We figured we needed six grills, so... we rented eight and took two extra grills for backup. At the event three of the rented grills did not work properly and were taken out of service. By preparing for the worst we were covered and the event went on without a hitch!)
We recruit a small army of cooks and servers from other local area restaurants in addition to our restaurant staff to successfully complete jobs on this scale. (It pays to get to know other restaurant owners and managers! And always over-staff, as you will have a few no-shows.) We closed our restaurant the day of the event and one day before the event to prep the food, gather and pack the paper goods and serving equipment, etc. Most importantly, HAVE A PLAN! Create your to-do list, packing list, and timeline as detailed as possible, and always factor in extra "fudge time" to counter delays and allow time to solve unexpected problems. With careful planning we were able to grill 2,600 pre-smoked ribeye steaks on site, smoke 650 chicken breasts on site, and serve them together with sides, desserts and beverages in less than two hours!
Sometimes things come down to going with your gut. You have to be flexible in this business and if something isn't working don't be afraid to change it. Go with what works!
3) Pinching Too Many Pennies Can Hurt You
Don't base your business decisions solely on "the money"! Does it make sense to pinch pennies by purchasing a Ford Pinto, knowing the gas tank could explode? When you take financial shortcuts you cut yourself short. If you're cutting corners you won't deliver your best, and the client will know it! You're risking your reputation and future business. Always offer a quality product. Good business decisions doesn't just look at immediate profit - always think of it as a long term investment, because it is!
4) Determine When to Make An Investment
We've catered several large company events serving steaks. For one of these events we bought pre-cut vacuum sealed steaks. These are much more expensive than buying whole rib eyes or New Your strips that are uncut. It took days for several staff to cut open each of the bags (high labor cost). When our next steak event came around, we ordered uncut filet tenderloins (lower food cost) and cut the steaks using a newly purchased industrial meat slicer. Instead of paying someone else to slice the steaks for us, a $4,000 investment in a slicer saved us over $5,000 of paying for precut steaks. It took a fraction of the time for our staff to cut the steaks using the slicer instead of days cutting each steak out of a plastic bag. A single catering job paid for the slicer based on the volume we were doing, and this investment has continued to save us money on many other events. Pay attention to your process and find better, faster and more economical ways of doing things!
5) Come Up With A Catchy Restaurant Name
My wife and I were brainstorming barbecue restaurant names when she came up with The Pompous Pig, and it just clicked with us. The name makes people giggle and grabs their attention. We've had first time customers come in and say when they saw the name on our sign they had to come in and try the restaurant. It's also important for a business name to describe its product or service, so our logo and signs read "The Pompous Pig Barbeque." Barbecue is all about family and having fun together, and our name embraces that sense of humor. Plus my wife gets to tell customers that she is married to The Pompous Pig!
6) How Do You Make A Small Fortune in the Restaurant Business? Start with a Large Fortune!
I first heard that statement from Mike Mills. Whatever cash reserves you think you will need to start a restaurant, double or triple that amount. You can have all the numbers and formulas on paper or in your head for running a tight ship, but there will always be unexpected expenses. Do your homework and make sure you're aware of all the licenses, fees, DHEC and buildout/conversion requirements, taxes, and all the seemingly insignificant startup expenses that add up to a big expense. Expenses are so much more than equipment purchases, food costs, labor and rent! And there's always an unplanned expense -- a refrigerator or freezer on the fritz and spoiled food that has to be tossed, a leaking toilet, HVAC maintenance, ansul system inspections, grease trap maintenance, a delivery vehicle repair, etc. It's always something!
My last word of advice, you have to have a true passion for this business to succeed! You will never have enough money, time, sleep, or headache-free days! Yes, you will truly be married to your business, so make sure you (and your family) are committed to it and love it!