‘Gee, Sally really cooks a mean plate of pasta, I’ll bet we could make a bundle starting a restaurant.”
This is an ancient and wistful plan. But consultant and 25-year restaurateur Harris Eckstut offers would-be food entrepreneurs a list that gives them pause. On it are the 24 basic job skills required to survive as a restaurateur, including plumber, electrician, labor negotiator, accountant, dishwasher, community leader, busperson, marketing director ... and last of all, boss.
Today, with nearly 75 percent of Americans eating at least one meal out every day, dining is a burgeoning industry. But like all fields, few endure and only the best thrive. Burlington County College has engaged Eckstut to present a four-course series beginning with “Dollars and Sense of Owning a Restaurant” on Monday, March 21, at 6 p.m. Cost: $99.
Following this introduction, Eckstut will teach a restaurant management trifecta, including “Funding and Financing Your Restaurant” on Tuesday, April 5, at 2 p.m.; “Controlling Costs While Keeping Quality” on Wednesday, April 6, at 2 p.m.; and “Promoting Today’s Restaurant” on Thursday, April 7, at 2 p.m. All courses are held on Burlington County College’s Mount Laurel Campus; the three latter courses are $49 each. Visit www.bcc.edu.
Eckstut entered his restaurant career in the most conventional way: through the theater. A Philadelphia native, Eckstut was raised by a widowed mother who had a grocery store and meat market. He also has a brother (an architect) and a sister (a writer of ESL books). “I stayed home to work in the family store and went to college while they went away to school,” he says.
Eckstut attended Villanova University and immediately after graduating in 1969 with his bachelor’s in philosophy was drafted into service in Vietnam. “I was in intelligence,” he jokes, “which means it was our job to feed unheeded information to the generals.”
Eckstut returned to Philadelphia to study as a playwright. To make ends meet, he washed dishes and waited tables at several Germantown restaurants. Eventually realizing that the dining room held greater promise than the stage, he became general manager of a Belgian waffle house on Long Beach Island. In 1980 he opened Mont Serrat Restaurant in downtown Philadelphia’s most competitive dining hub: South Street. For 23 years his eclectic American cuisine was a hit and, under Eckstut’s careful management, Mont Serrat thrived. He now shares his keys to fine dining prosperity through Philadelphia-based Eckstut Consulting www.eckstutconsulting.com).
“Restaurant managing is a retail business,” says Eckstut, “but it is nearly unique in that it manufactures the product at the point and time of sale.” This demands an inherently rushed, precise work flow thatmust be monitored and flawless right to the product delivery. You only get one shot at service.
Cost controls. Ever wonder why a restaurant can be mobbed for months and still fail? When trying to frighten, enlighten, and instruct would-be restaurateurs, Eckstut cites the three primary cost killers that can devour all his profit.
First, coming before even opening the doors, is rent and debt service. Eckstut allows only 8 percent of the gross for these two items. “With all the inspections and equipment demanded, if you cannot work a deal with the landlord and your banker, it is fatal,” Eckstut says. “You will go under. Count on it.”
After the doors open the costs of labor and product take the forefront of the owner’s attention — and become the main reasons for failure. Scheduling the precise amount of staff to fill the differing seasons, weekends, hours, and days is a complex task that experience teaches, alas, too late.
“Do you know the busiest day in a restaurant’s year?” asks Eckstut. “The first warm Saturday after winter breaks. Everyone has cabin fever.” Restaurants often see three times the normal Saturday traffic, with 13 turnovers in seats all demanding wait staff, chefs, and kitchen staff.
The money restaurants spend on food might surprise diners too. Pizzerias might spend 20 percent of its budget on food and ingredients, while a fine steak house may spend 40 percent. Either way, this would allow for a hefty profit margin, were it not for the costs of service and equipment. Food buying, notes Eckstut, is a true art that must factor in the undulating waves of customers and trendy demands, alongside the ceaseless battle against perishability. It’s always good to have a lip-smacking fish stew ready for those slow Fridays when the tilapia didn’t move.
Menu pricing. All of the above primary costs, plus the scores of other incidentals, may only be recovered on the dinner plate and in the beverage glass. This means that every expense must be factored into the right hand side of your menu. The devil lurks in the details. In addition to the salmon, how much did the sauce cost? A $30 sauce that fed 100 patrons means 30 cents added to each plate. How much salt, how much pepper, ketchup, salad dressing is used per average customer? Salad bars typically mean another $6 or $7 per customer meal.
Many old-time restaurateurs, particularly ethnic ones, can give you each item’s cost and usage figures right off the top of their head. But whether recorded in the brain or on the software, these figures are the lifeblood of a successful restaurant. “The major cause I see of restaurant going broke is failing to consider all these expenses and have them reflected properly in the menu pricing,” says Eckstut.
Liquor provides enormous advantages — and equal-sized headaches — for the restaurant owner. A good wine cellar can make up to one half of an establishment’s total profits. Eckstut insists that BYOB and fine dining are a recipe for disaster. However, liquor licenses are never cheap and exceedingly difficult to obtain. The last one issued in Camden County went for $1.2 million. In Philadelphia one may expect a more “reasonable” $250,000 price tag.
New Jerseyans can get around this hurdle using a law that allows for the sale of any one New Jersey winery’s wine without a license on premises. There is also no law against giving wine away as a complimentary part of the meal.
Woes with watrons. The watron (the current gender-neutral term for waitress and waiter) handles the delicate role of presenting the chef’s masterpiece to an expectant customer. Myth has it that an enchanting watron can make customers smile while they are dining on tofu and shredded cardboard. Most owners are a bit more skeptical of their wait staff’s powers.
Eckstut’s three main keys to being the ideal watron are simple: Eat a breath mint; smile; always maintain eye contact.
To these he adds two codicils. First, be professional and always talk about the food (not yourself). If a patron asks what is good, never, never say “Everything is good.” Rather, be honest, and tell them what you like best. If you are a vegan in a steak house, tell them what others have praised or are frequently ordering.
The owner’s keys to handling his wait staff are not merely so simple. Unlike the old days, each state now has laws stating how much of the minimum wage may come from tips and how much must be made up by the employer. Typically this runs about a 40/60 split either way.
A further problem has come with the dawn of credit cards. Nowadays, 80 percent of all restaurant bills and 75 percent of all bar tabs are paid by credit card. The tip is now recorded, meaning the owner must pay FICA, Social Security, and all the other employee taxes. No more watron as private contractor.