So you want to open a restaurant, and you don't have millions of dollars to spend. This is your dream, your passion, and a goal you want to achieve, but you don't know where to start. Thousands of books can tell you how to start a business, succeed in the food and beverage industry, and achieve your aspirations and purpose. So what makes this one different? The Food & Beverage Magazine Guide to Restaurant Success is all of those books rolled into one.

This book will show you how to

  • Determine if you are ready, willing, and able to open a restaurant
  • Select the best location, menu, and staff
  • Understand step-by-step how to open a restaurant
  • Market your new restaurant
  • Make smart decisions about where to invest your money to grow your business

“Experts” and naysayers will urge you not to open that business until you have millions of dollars to back you up. Clearly, you're not going to listen to them, because you're reading this book. Good for you.

The Most Important Thing to Remember

To begin, you must read this section over and over to understand this book.

If you are going to open and operate a successful restaurant, you must understand that it is a business, and you are now an entrepreneur. It doesn't matter if you are a mechanic, office worker, chef, sommelier, or foodie. Restaurateur is a nice label, but you must become an entrepreneur as well as use your other skills to open and then operate a successful restaurant.


What is an entrepreneur?

Do you watch popular television shows where people pitch business ideas, or successful entrepreneurs work with startups? While viewing these programs, do you yell at the screen or tell yourself you could do so much better? These shows are entertaining (or they wouldn't be on the air), but this is not what an entrepreneur does to become successful.

According to Forbes magazine, an entrepreneur is more than someone who owns and operates a business. That person is both a leader and a manager. As a leader, you find the solution to every problem, including hiring the right people to solve a particular issue. As a manager, you handle the day-to-day operations (until the situation changes). You understand the difference between finance and accounting. You recognize how marketing and sales are very different but that both are needed to be successful. You work long hours, get dirty, become frustrated, and would not live any differently. As an entrepreneur, you want autonomy, purpose, and flexibility, while making money and ultimately leaving a legacy. Most importantly, you are willing to pay the price in sacrifice, failure, and hard work with faith in yourself and what you want to accomplish.

My Start as an Entrepreneur

Usually, other “experts” would begin their book by telling you about their many successes in the food and beverage industry, hospitality industry, and business in general.

I am very successful, but more importantly, I want you to understand me as a person and entrepreneur. Using my guidance, you can open a restaurant without having millions of dollars to spend. I can open one today for as little as $25,000.

How? The steps will be explained throughout the book. For now, let's start at the beginning.

I was 8 years old, and I found a way to sell greeting and holiday cards. If I sold enough cards, I got points to pick a prize. Something inside of me said that I could move these cards by lugging boxes and selling them door-to-door. Making money this way, I would get to pick whatever prize I wanted.

I selected a shiny, new, brass-plated trumpet—and I have no idea why I picked that trumpet or what happened to it. My eye was on the prize, and while I remember the feeling of the importance of selling enough cards to select a reward, I can barely remember the prize itself.

As an entrepreneur, even at such a young age, that feeling kept me going. I realized that if I could sell those cards, I'd get that prize and much more. That was a defining moment that influences my life to this day.

However, my parents urged me to pursue a career as a professional. I do wonder where I would be today if I had become a lawyer or doctor. My dad (and everyone else) told me to do a lot of soul searching when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do as a career. I was a little envious of others at the time; many people in my world already knew what they wanted to do and where their paths were going to take them.

I love and respect my family, especially my father, so I decided to attend college and obtain a degree. I had no plans or goals professionally; I was focused on getting an education. My personal plan was to attend college, learn everything I could, and hang out with my friends. What's more important than friends, fast cars, motorcycles, and good times?

Then a funny thing happened. I graduated from high school and planned to attend college, but I needed to make money, and I didn't want a job. Now I am going to show my age, but before the internet, there were classified advertisements in newspapers. They were like apps for buying and selling, except printed on paper. I always read the classifieds, especially businesses for sale. I can't explain why, but I loved reading that section daily. One day, I discovered an ad looking for people to rent an ice cream truck.

“Wow, that would be fun,” I thought. “I can drive around all day.” Gas prices at the time ranged from 89 cents to 99 cents per gallon. I wanted to do this, so I managed to get my best friend and cousin, Mark Mandel, involved (even though at the time he was not as inspired as I was by the idea and just wanted to sleep the summer away).

I had to go to an area that was not desirable to rent the truck, but I could keep the truck at my place. I was on my way.

Then I realized I had to buy the product wholesale to sell it retail. I called my friends and discovered that Alex Mates, my friend Paula Kaufman's boyfriend (now husband), operated a frozen foods business that supplied ice cream products to big grocery store chains. I knew I had to meet him.

I got my products from him wholesale, and I thought my ice cream truck was the greatest business ever. We loaded up the truck and used a loudspeaker to get people's attention by playing music. I even had friends who would breakdance on the roof. I offered raffles, so when you bought something, you got a raffle ticket. One of the prizes I offered was a doll from the movie Gremlins. Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard lived in one of the neighborhoods where I drove the ice cream truck, and his son Ray Jr. won the toy. Ray and I are still close friends, and he swears he doesn't remember any of this. We just laugh about it now.

That is the fun part of the story.

On the other hand, people would break into the truck and steal food and other items late at night. I soon realized that it was my responsibility if the truck broke down, I didn't get the right product, or people didn't feel like working that day. At the end of the summer, we had made enough to cover our product costs and pay for gas.

I loved it. I learned about commerce, people, food, licensing, and being my own boss. Since that experience gave me access to other frozen food products at wholesale prices, I offered other products to customers for retail prices. Operating this business taught me a lot about that aspect of the food and beverage industry.

Then I attended the University of Maryland as a hotshot freshman at the age of 18, and somehow I ended up in the t-shirt business. I sold t-shirts across the campus from a backpack. Once I transferred to the American University Kogod School of Business in Washington, D.C., I started a flower business. I sold roses for $9.99, walking around with the same backpack, this time full of flyers that I stapled to the bulletin boards around school, and made sales. I even enlisted two of my fraternity brothers, Eric Simkin and Lee Perlman, to help facilitate sales in the business.

I knew then that I was going to become an entrepreneur. I planned to build vast wealth on my own by selling products, coming up with ideas, and creating and developing new ways to earn money. I didn't know the specifics yet. I just knew that I didn't want to become a lawyer or doctor when I could be an entrepreneur instead.

I went to school, graduated, and got my bachelor of science degree in business administration from the Kogod School of Business at American University.

Once I moved on from the floral industry, I realized that I understood the concept of marketing for the restaurant and hospitality industries. I decided at that point to publish a magazine for the food and beverage industry. It was the perfect target audience for a target advertiser such as myself.

Fast-forward to 30 years later.

I consulted with many people about opening restaurants. But after reading and learning about the successes (and failures) of many restaurants in my magazine, blogs, and marketing and consulting businesses, I wanted to delve into owning and operating a restaurant.

Growing up back east, my dad had a friend, Chuck Rossler, who owned and operated a restaurant called Celebrity Deli. Chuck was the greatest guy ever. We would go to this small hole-in-the-wall in a strip center, and Chuck was bigger than life. His kids, Julie and Jon, and I were friends, and I loved going there. After my teenage years, it became my place to meet people to expand my flower business. I witnessed Chuck hustling and moving all the time. There were lines out the door, and I saw Chuck as a rock star. He was one of the many restaurateurs I observed celebrating the joy of owning a restaurant, regardless of its size or scope.

Almost 25 years later, in 2012, I decided to invest $25,000 to open a fast food–style restaurant that was not part of a franchise. I knew I needed to find a second-generation restaurant with equipment. I also needed to select a restaurant that would fulfill a need in a specific community or neighborhood.

I chose a restaurant located in a gas station in the north part of Las Vegas. I developed the concept of specialty mini burgers that were not offered anywhere else in the valley. My idea came from Little Tavern in Washington, D.C., which made burgers using little balls of meat with onions; the mini burgers were flattened with a spatula, grilled, put on a small bun, and placed in a steaming machine. My friends and I loved this place and its food, and I wanted to re-create it.

I had the concept, found the location, and got my licenses. I paid $3,500 a month in rent, which included everything. However, the location in the gas station was not conducive to capturing every customer coming into the business. While there were lines out the door, the neighborhood was considered sketchy, and I realized selecting that location was not my best decision. I decided to move the restaurant and started another one with the same budget of $25,000.

I am a great marketer, and I can get people in the door. However, I discovered that I was not as knowledgeable about back-of-house operations and keeping up with demand. I also selected the wrong partner to help with that aspect, and his philosophy was different from mine.

I eventually got it right and opened four more locations offering burgers (with or without cheese), fries, chicken sandwiches, chili, birthday cake (everyone loves a birthday cake), and milkshakes (vanilla or chocolate syrup poured in, but not stirred). My chili was called 239 Bean Chili: when someone asked about the number, the answer was that adding one more bean would make it too farty. That was an old joke my dad used to tell us—it was a great marketing tool and added to the chili's success on the menu.

Soon after, I decided to sell the business.

I owned and operated many businesses in the food and beverage industry. Some were more successful than others. I sold some and closed others. When you are an entrepreneur, you are willing to give up your current businesses to pursue new challenges. I always like to live like a creek: when the water hits a rock, it jumps in another direction instead of pooling and becoming stagnant.

Restaurateur as Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs jump into any business that tickles them, reaches their core, and becomes more than another goal. Most of the time, there's not a lot of soul searching needed. Entrepreneurs just know. They have decided what to do, how they want to do it, and where they want to go.

The problem is, they don't know what paths to take. They know where they want to be as well as the outcome. I think that's what happens when people jump into any business, especially the food and beverage industry.

You have a fantastic family recipe for your grandma's pasta sauce or great carrot cake or a trend-setting gin cocktail. Should you find a manufacturer and distributor to package and sell that sauce? What about topping off some pasta with that sauce in a restaurant? Should you open a bakery?

You want to share this culinary delight with the world and make money doing it. How do you make that happen? You need to be both a restaurateur and an entrepreneur.

I will guide you, help you learn the steps, and figure out how you can make that restaurant, bakery, food truck, or other food establishment become a reality. You are going to learn from my and everybody else's failures. Over the decades of owning, operating, and publishing Food & Beverage Magazine, I have witnessed it all. I've seen thousands of failures and hundreds of successes.

I believe we can learn more from the failures than the successes. Yes, many successful businesses started with a huge bankroll or big celebrity name. But that's not necessarily the secret ingredient for success or the cure for failure.

You do need to do some soul searching about what you want. Is it a career, a second career, the opportunity to be your own boss, or a side job? Do you want to do this for the love of food or the love of money? Do you want to build something for your future or your children's future? What's the reason? Do you love to serve people? Do you want to clean their dirty dishes? What is your ideal end result?

Reality Check for Your Dreams

Reading this book, you might be saying, “Yes, I want to own a restaurant.”

Let me tell you the fantasy that many people have when they say that. In this vision, you show up when you want to (after all, you are the boss). You go from table to table, talking to the customers, or sit at the bar and socialize. You have a dedicated staff that takes care of every detail. You can account for all of your revenue. You constantly vacation because your presence is not required, and you make a lot of money. Your restaurant is a well-oiled machine that can operate almost on its own.

Nice dream.

In my own experience, the glamour dissipates very fast after opening a restaurant, especially if you're working with friends. If there are no customers, your money dissolves even faster. You are on call 24/7 (regardless of the hours the business is open), you clean bathrooms, you take out the garbage, and you cover shifts while cash and products “walk” out of the door.

You need to think about finding your way through life's questions. What is it that I want to do? How am I going to do this? Am I willing to put in the work? Am I willing to fail? Am I willing to take that risk, fail, and realize what failure means? Most importantly, what does failure mean to me?

Everyone's failure is different. Sometimes it can be financial; sometimes it is an attack on your character. That's something only you know. Personally, my failure is not always monetary. I like longevity. That is why I consider the Food & Beverage Magazine a success after being in business for over 20 years.

The magazine has had its ups and downs financially. One of the things I am going to talk about throughout the book is riding out these ups and downs. Life is a roller coaster, and if you don't get enough momentum going down, you'll never get up that next hill. So slamming on the brakes on the way down will not help you whatsoever. That is one lesson you will learn quickly.

These are some of the many things an entrepreneur (restaurateur) needs to consider. I have a passion for being of service to people in the hospitality industry. Hearing success stories growing up, all I ever wanted to do was read Entrepreneur or Inc. magazine about how to become successful. I wanted to be one of those guys. When I was 27, I finally had my chance, and I was listed in Entrepreneur magazine as one of the top 40 entrepreneurs under 40 years old in the country. While that was a highlight of my career, I was going to make sure it was not the only highlight of my life.

Can you be of service to your staff, suppliers, and customers as well as yourself? Being an entrepreneur comes with its own set of rules and values. Entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Mark Cuban have fans and people who want to live just like them. It is not about fame and fortune (although financial success is terrific). It is about admiration and the desire to craft your life just like theirs as an entrepreneur (restaurateur). When you were a little kid, did you want to go to McDonald's to meet Ronald McDonald because you thought he owned it? That is the spirit of an entrepreneur.

If you are ready, let's continue. I look forward to eating and drinking at your new establishment soon.

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