BY ED THANHOUSER
I've been stuck in restaurant hell for months and I need to get out.
We closed Renard down more than nine months ago, but every night (and often early in the morning), first thing after waking up, I lie there and write the story of my failure over, and over and over again.
Two and a half years ago, I put every cent available to me on the line to open a restaurant in one of the so-called "hottest" restaurant markets in the country. Two and a half years ago, everyone in Portland was talking about opening a restaurant.
There was a new concept, a new pop-up, a new New York Times feature on some rising Portland star every day, it seemed. I'd worked several jobs in all kinds of food; I had capital from my grandfather's estate; I had experienced server/kitchen friend-folk, and a very talented pastry chef wife, not to mention a family investor with nearly a decade of management in the biz.
These were some of the hundreds of rationales I gave myself to start the task everyone will go out of their way to tell you is doomed. Our project was different. Ours would succeed. It had to succeed, we'd just do it 'better.' I told myself what I'm sure every single novice restauranteur tells themselves: I'll be in the 1 percent that make it, by sheer will.
It started with writing. I wrote a huge, overly-detailed business plan. Then, I scrapped it and re-wrote it. Then I changed concept entirely and started again. I strategized and spent hours on the phone or traveling across the country to consult with my family partner and do research. I charted neighborhood demographics and sat down with mentors from the Small Business Association. Friends, family, qualified strangers, nobody was safe from my prying, plying questions and doe-eyed investment proposals.
A broker, the landlord and I bandied and argued endless revisions of a lease for a beautiful space on a hot corner. I negotiated for more than four months just to feel like I'd hashed every single detail. In the end, I was still a greenhorn with more money than sense and I didn't get a great deal.
The hyped, overpriced corner we got was run by an person who refused to do anything that would cost any money. He insisted we certify our plans with engineers—engineers we paid for—and inspected everything we did personally.
Furthermore, he lived next door.
Meanwhile, everything under the skin of the charming little building was in shambles. The electrical was an expensive mess, but that was nothing compared to bringing the plumbing up to code. $20,000 later we had a huge pit, filled with the gigantic, state-of-the-art grease trap the city now requires—all of which now benefit not us, but the landlord and his next tenant.
After our unexpectedly expensive renovations, we set out to run the tightest ship we could. This proved easier said than done. Our chef refused to help in day-to-day costing and inventory, insisting she was just too busy.
By any normal standard, she was busy.
I don't see how anyone takes a job in the kitchen, especially in a new place. The hours (upwards of 80 a week at least for a startup) are insane and the pay generally sucks. People talk about "labor shortages" in kitchens. It's not labor that we're short on—it's suckers. You'd have to be stupid, insane, or just green to work in most kitchens. Maybe you're just so excited at the next, hypothetical future thing that you'll put up with whatever on your way "there." That, and the stress! You have to love stress to work in a kitchen. Have you ever stared down a line of Friday night dinner tickets after your sous just walked out of the shift crying because her mom died? No? Then you don't know stress.
At an impasse to control costs, manage logistics and agree on staffing, we had to change chefs in our first few months. We survived, but barely. The new chef took over and all we had to do was make enough to break even.
Related: WW's Review of Renard
They say the bigger the risk, the bigger the potential reward. What was that reward, exactly? Was it the 3 percent profit margin many restaurants consider success?
Maybe that was my problem. I didn't even want the bigger reward. I just wanted to keep going, to break even. Forget branded cookbooks, new concepts and status, I just wanted to go on making zero dollars, working seven days a week and keep my staff in place.
Turns out it was impossible. Months of staring at the numbers, eliminating every unnecessary cost and even raising prices a hair—nothing could stop our inevitable closure.
Mostly, it's labor. Not only does $9.50 hourly, plus tips work out to a fair amount of money for front of house staff (my partner was horrified to learn we could not do a tip credit). But the more the front of house makes, the more our valuable back-of-house staff demands in pay (or tipshare tribute). At a premium, you can't afford to lose your core cook staff, you have no room to negotiate salaries down 'until we get stabilized,' and meanwhile they have three other prime job offers waiting. The labor costs alone were enough to sink us, especially once we got to the taxes.
But then, of course, there are the people who complain that your $29 chicken dish is "amazing… but it's too expensive for chicken."
That chicken is a confit (with duck fat, aka $$), then served with a stock/stew that takes days (of labor dollars) to prepare, plus cost of employees to serve, stuff to serve it on and rent to pay, not to mention the utilities (the water bills on that cursed grease trap were the opposite of "the gift that keeps on giving"). That damned chicken should be $40! But people won't pay $40 for chicken, so it's $29.
And on you just go until you have no capital left to absorb the losses. In a few months we managed to cut the gap of our losses considerably, but never even come close to our 'break even.'
I remember clearly the day when the accountant showed me that we could effectively double our monthly sales and still not have enough to meet our eventual payroll obligations and that's about when you just finally sink into it: You're done.
You never worked harder, longer hours in your life. You've lost almost 15 pounds and you're fighting with your wife every day. You hate your home city and it's stupid invaders who tell you they "just moved from LA last month and oh my god I just love it here!" You get drunk with your staff on the last night and cry afterwards in the empty kitchen, with nothing to do but sell the equipment for pennies on the dollar. And you think, well, that's it. At least it's over and done with… but it isn't.
It's not wrapping up the complicated taxes, or getting screwed on your credit, or the fear of some creditor or other chasing you to the ends of the earth that really does it.. it's the hours you spend lying awake wondering where you screwed up the worst.
What I really should have done is….you know, if we'd maybe tried…. I always thought that gourmet burger was too cheap… I should have cut down the day labor sooner! …. this goes on, that is, until you get it: what I really should have done is never have started a restaurant at all. And that's the most true thing.
But it's too late. Your head is officially screwed with. You can't even go out. You sit down and you judge the napkins. You think how goddamn sick you are of this 'industrial warehouse' look that every hip place goes for.
Maybe if our design had been more industrial…
Then, you think to yourself, We had more exciting wines…. man, our service was so much better…. our take on this dish was way better. I wish they hadn't chosen these chairs… and on and on.
Until you sit back and realize, Oh god, what's wrong with me? I'm a monster!
And then you quietly try to enjoy what's left of the meal.