Food, Life and Love

In the Beginning…the financial stress of opening a restaurant

No one opens a business dreaming of the day you close the doors. Yet that is a reality for many small businesses, especially restaurants. We talked about the flatware and if we wanted mirror or matte finish. We analyzed the name for months, volleying between possibilities. It took us two years of actively searching to find the ideal location. The volume of pillow talk consumed by potential staffing candidates was absurd. Yet, we spoke very little about the reality of opening a restaurant and the deep potential that it could fail.

The first night Kevin and I discussed using our home as collateral on the lease, we felt the pressure. The reality. Our tones might have sounded like we were picking out our next set of bathroom towels, but neither of us slept that night. We we were all in.

When opening day drew near, we both fantasied about the doors swinging open to a line and an hour wait. While we budgeted for a more realistic picture, I have to admit, there was small bit of me that was disappointed that we weren’t bombarded with reservations. “It’s a slow grow. It is better this way. More sustainable.” I always nodded and agreed with a smile but at home spent hours crunching the numbers. A looming construction bill hovering above my head.

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The first truly slow night hurt. It was a Tuesday. We had been open a little over a week and the buzz from the soft opening had worn off. It was a ghost town. We barely scraped together $1,500 that night. Staff anxiously pacing, their gaze never leaving the street, as if their focus could draw in customers.

Kevin and I didn’t talk much that night. We just reinterred the mantra, “It’s a slow grow. It is better this way. More sustainable.” I woke up in the middle of the night to find Kevin sitting on the edge of the bed. His hands folded in his lap as he stared somewhere in the dark. I gently placed my hand on his back and he quietly laid back down. We held each other that night, and eventually fell back asleep.

The holidays combined with unordinary weather patterns made weekly comparisons difficult, which made predicting revenue challenging. At the beginning of the week I would pull the accounts payable report. “Ok we have to pay US Foods or they wont deliver. The wine company is a must so we don’t get dinged by the TABC. Sales Tax is due next week, so how much do I need in the bank account this week?” Some weeks I guessed right on and others resulted in small beads of sweat collecting on my brow. The hardest part about working with small farms is that you know that the $300 is just as important to them as it is to you.

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We started seeing trends of small increases from week to week. We took active measures to control costs, including forgoing Kevin’s paycheck. Overtime, a common occurrence in kitchens, became monitored heavily and every expenditure scrutinized. About a month after opening, again on a Tuesday, the night resulted in barely hurdling the $1,600 mark.  Kevin and I realized we could repeat our consumption of dread or we could move forward. We sat in the office, each on a computer. He started emailing every event planner in town and I updated social media accounts and registered with any obscure directory I could find. There was no way in hell we would go down without a fight.

I thought I was handling it well and maintaining an upbeat attitude. Then I took a trip to visit my family back in Phoenix. Payroll was coming up and the first of the year tax payments. Kevin and I had both maxed out our credit cards with restaurant expenses. We chose to pay vendors first and eventually we would pay ourselves back. Of course the credit card companies didn’t agree with our system.

Kevin’s American Express was frozen. Not realizing my plan of payroll and taxes he paid his credit card bill. It wiped out our account and meant that unless we had record breaking sales we would be extremely short for payroll.

I hung up the phone and emerged from my childhood bedroom to join my family in the kitchen. I looked at my sister-in-law and my mom and I lost it. I started sobbing. The exhaustion, fear, and worry came pouring out as I explained the situation. I knew this was a great restaurant and I knew this is what Kevin and I were meant to be doing, but at that moment I felt lost. I felt uncertain how to move from point A to point B. I knew all the steps we were taking to cut costs and increase foot traffic but at that moment, it was as if I was being asked to do the impossible.

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My family passed me around giving me hugs and words of encouragement. Most of them being entrepreneurs themselves, it was as if I had joined some secret society. They kept telling me their “oh shit” stories and moments of robbing Peter to pay Paul. By the end of it we were frantically dancing in the living room to any upbeat song we could find determined to stay positive…. there also might have been lots of beer involved. After my family had gone to bed, I stayed up a few extra hours combing through Quickbooks and strategizing how I could pull this off. In the end, we made payroll that week. Thanks to record breaking sales.

That’s the funny thing about business. Some of it is calculated risks and strategic planning, while some of it is just dumb luck. There was the time where one patron purchased $5000 in gift cards just in time for a few liquor checks to go out. Or New Year’s Eve falling at just the right time in our 30 day accounts payable window. Or the unknown series of events that leads to the busiest Saturday you have ever had after your husband had to pay his credit card bill.  You can plan all you want but some of it is just holding onto that spark of faith that led you to open the business in the first place.

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