With a cooking style that blends pork pyrotechnics — a Vermont pork trio of suckling confit, grilled belly and spice-crusted rib, for example — and a deep knowledge of New England fishing and farming, Tony Maws has become one of Boston's kitchen heroes. And with awards from the James Beard Foundation (Best Chef Northeast 2011) and Food & Wine (Best New Chef 2005), the country has taken notice as well. His Craigie on Main in Cambridge has roots in France, where Maws worked before opening the smaller Bistrot in 2002. This is his monthly letter from Boston.
I’m not big into superlatives. Always declaring something “the best” or “most” or “least [insert item here] ever” is a fool’s game. Just is. But now is a time to play that game because I’m going on record to declare that opening a restaurant is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, period. Months of being diplomatic and stoic have finally worn me down and I gotta come clean. I’ll put it this way. Opening a restaurant is like watching a movie staring Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Leslie Nielsen, all at the same time. It’s true.
As the self-appointed project manager during the creation of The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, my new restaurant a mile down the road from my other home, Craigie on Main, I’ve been strong, deliberate and measured in my approach as I navigated my team through the triple black diamond slopes that started with lease negotiations back in December and culminated in our opening the doors after Labor Day. A new place with a different menu, big wood grill, so much beer and no valet parking. It’s the other kind of food I like to cook.
Perhaps many of you have entertained the thought of opening your own restaurant. You might still hold on to this very dream with visions of a line out your front door, a dining room filled with a great buzz and food effortlessly flowing from the harmonious and calm kitchen to the eager and content diners. If you’re lucky — and I mean very, very lucky, like winning the lottery lucky — you might actually realize this goal. But whether or not the restaurant gods are smiling on you, there is a rugged, Kilimanjaro-esque path for which no book or seminar can prepare you. But I’m going to try.
So before I get to the hurdles that appear when opening your own restaurant, let me state one important fact clearly: I love it. I really do. Sure, it’s a masochistic, chew off all your nails and pull your hair out kind of love. But after decades spent getting my butt kicked, I’m still madly in love with restaurants. There have been many moments spent slamming phones down and looking skyward for any help whatsoever, but I’ve never said woe is me or wondered why I chose to open a second restaurant.
Before you start your own bistro or coffee shop or taco stand or, here are 5 things you didn’t know about opening a restaurant.
- Restaurants need to be designed and built to make real money. This reality seems to irk some people who never want to believe that a restaurant is actually a living and breathing business, but rather a romantic hearth of creativity and deliciousness. But in the real world, few people strive to open a business where a profit margin of 6-8% is reality. Most would run far away in any direction. But this is the case in craft-oriented restaurants like mine, where any small stumble can have a disastrous effect. Simply put, zero profit means zero restaurant. The list of things that contributes to the success of a place is much more than the simple proclamation of “good food” and/or “good service.” Every decision can impact the bottom line and how well the restaurant will operate, from where to put the coffee machine to the size of the table in the dish room to the amount of space allowed between tables.
The original project spread sheet for The Kirkland Tap and Trotter had 300 line items of varying degrees of enormity and complexity, and many of those items have their own sub-lists. And those lists grew as we continued the project.
- You build a budget for your business that needs to take every glass, coat hook and light bulb into account. The single biggest decision you will make is choosing a general contractor to help you achieve the goal of actually being able to open on opening night. If you have ever built a house you can begin to relate. Now take that kitchen rebuild or bedroom addition and multiply it by 50. Plumbers, carpenters, masons, electricians, equipment installers, multiple engineers of every specialty, architects, HVAC experts, designers, painters, tilers, floor layers, window installers, sign hangers, computer wirers, telephone technicians, point of sale system programmers: all working in the same building, often at the same time, and their collective efforts need to be coordinated — this is the job of the general contractor.
Hopefully you hired an individual or company that respects your agreed-upon timeline along with the budget and standards. I was lucky. Good luck to you!
- You don’t know what you don’t know. Curveballs? That would be easy. Surprise after unexpected surprise are lobbed in like fluttering Tim Wakefield knuckleballs. Every time a wall is knocked down, you run the risk of discovering a bad joist. Rip open old flooring and find rotted wood. Install new plumbing only to disrupt the old lines and watch helplessly as they spring a leak.
Or maybe it’s people who don’t show up or suddenly take long weekends without telling you. Perhaps the city office from which you need an approval decides to observe an odd Puritan holiday and closes at noon. Lots of promises are made but most are founded on wishful thinking. Proclamations that are loudly ”guaranteed” will only be blamed on someone else when the crap hits the fan.
- Most of your fancy new equipment will break within the first couple of nights, most likely when you actually feel busy for the first time. Big, heavy pieces, no matter how bright and fancy, aren’t meant to travel, but that’s what they do to reach their future home. Then add multiple gas, plumbing and electrical hook-ups and inevitably something cracks or springs a leak. Plumbers know a secret that they don’t like to talk about: the only way to tell if a fitting is tight is to turn on the water and see what happens. Funny how that works. Then you run around trying to find a solution for the flood while prepping for the dinner service ahead.
- Most of the people who will work for you have never worked for you before. Read these simple words and then think a few layers below the surface. A night of service in a restaurant is highly choreographed and race car–fast-paced, with the intensity of playoff baseball (Go Sox!). Our staff at Craigie on Main takes many weeks to prepare to serve and months to become great — and that’s with savvy and skilled veterans who provide tons of direction and leadership.
Opening The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, we recruited a phenomenal, hardworking and eager group of people with great potential, but who had never spoken “our language,” used our techniques or worked within our systems. We don’t have spring training or loads of rehearsals leading up to opening day. Our budget only allowed for a weekend of smaller “soft openings” before we opened the doors to the public. Good news: we were busy right out of the gate! But being busy brings challenges and, with our guests' expectations sky high, the kitchen was expected to perform at levels that normally take months to achieve. We have to be “Go! Go!” all the time with some measured expectations about who we are right now. Teams take months to mold but few of our guests really care. They want “Now! Now!”
The first six weeks have taken all of us on a wild ride. I look around the dining room and I’m amazed and proud of what we built. The place is rocking and people are leaving happy, content and full. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves and our guests that The Kirkland Tap & Trotter is not just another Craigie on Main.
As we continue to define (and refine) our personality, we reshape and mold the correlating systems and see what works best in this, our more casual, more rustic place with no tasting menus and no swooshes on the plate. Over the last 11 years at Craigie on Main, we’ve been fortunate to have a good deal of success. Starting over is sometimes as frustrating for me as it is for our guests. I want Kirkland to be perfectly “Go, go go!” and “Now, now, now!” immediately, too. But then I remember some of the early days at Craigie on Main. The days we changed things up, the days we got new equipment or faced new and daunting challenges, and I know I need a little more patience. Oops, there’s a leak in the dishroom, gotta run… but I’ve gotta put on my apron, man the grill, and think about what dish we’ll try next, looking forward for the next decade at Kirkland.