by WALTER RAPETSKI

Asheville SCORE

What is it that drives people to open a food-related business? The instant gratification we receive when we see people enjoying the food we just prepared can be intoxicating. Regardless of the reason, it is still a business that must have several fundamentals in place to be successful.

The driving force behind any business start-up is, of course, an entrepreneur determined to overcoming the myriad obstacles, many unanticipated, that will arise.

An added degree of complexity when starting a food business is to fully understand that one is now part of the hospitality industry, a service industry. The demands in the hospitality industry are quite different than those in other industries. Our product is not just food, but the entire guest experience. Indeed, we have no product until the guest joins us.

More so than any other industry, the attitude, personality and presence of such an individual is a large part of our product. The owner/chef/manager must be able to take care of guests, manage a staff and handle any issues with a mastery of social graces. We manage people, not the food. A positive, empathetic attitude is a major part of our business as is the food and beverage.

In broad strokes, there are four areas that must be mastered before starting a food-related business:

Business plan. The first is a business plan that looks at a specific concept and how well it fits into a specific market. The marketing plan component of the business plan must ascertain whether or not the local demographics support such a venture.

Capital. The second area is having enough capital to open such a business. This must be addressed in a feasibility study which has to be part of the business plan as well. What are the initial expenses that will be incurred, and what are the operational norms for food, beverage, and labor cost percentage, and other expenses? Is there enough seed money to start this venture, or are we borrowing too much so that debt cost and financial payments will cripple cash flow and cause bankruptcy?

Experience. The third area is having industry experience. There is a greater level of business failure when well-meaning people who have had success in other industries open a restaurant having little or no hospitality industry experience. One must first have worked extensively in this industry to fully understand all the machinations involved.

It is highly recommended that one go work for a national chain to learn standard operating procedures necessary for success, and see firsthand why a chain rarely closes an outlet as opposed to the high failure rate of independent restaurants. Additional education in a culinary/hospitality program at a college is an excellent supplement to formal training and experience in the hospitality industry.

Emotional capacity. The fourth component is one that is often overlooked: having the emotional capital for starting your own business.

Our product is a very personalized experience where guests get to customize their preference every time they order a meal. There is a lot of emotional engagement between the server and guest on top of the stark reality that one mistake can close your business and wipe out your life savings (if not more).

An individual who can enjoy life while operating under such auspices is truly emotionally ready to open up a food business. Unfortunately, many are unaware of such demands until it is too late. Sadly our industry is rife with many owners who have proven unable to handle such stress.

There are many personal assessment tools out there that can aid people in determining if this is truly an emotionally healthy venture worth pursuing. If all these elements are in line then one can begin the start-up process and be confident of the future success to come.

Walter Rapetski is a SCORE volunteer mentor and teacher at A-B Tech’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Education Department and has owned restaurants and worked in the industry for years. To learn more, contact asheville.score.org.

Keys to Success in Starting a Food Business