Saturday, 12 September 2009

Buying an existing restaurant


This was a hard-learned lesson, so all you prospective restauranteurs take heed. It's rare for someone to take over an existing restaurant and keep the name and style. And now I know why.

The place we bought had been going for decades: good, well-priced, unpretentious food. What's not to like? We'd been to the place as customers so when we found it on sale when looking for a place of our own, it felt like destiny. Months of haggling later, a little gap of a few days to get our stuff in, and we were up and running.

Only we weren't. People hate change. The customers came, but new people running 'their place' felt like theft to them. They walked through the door with little pursed mouths looking to be disappointed, and often they were. We had the same menu, ingredients and dishes but it didn't help. Somehow we were stealing from them.

OK, we were slow. It took us time to learn the job and the place. Both kitchen and service struggled at peak times. Everything's cooked to order, the kitchen old and cramped, and the equipment nightmareish. A cooker with no thermostat that squirted flames from the controls. My partner had never worked in a restaurant, and I hadn't cooked professionally for twenty-five years.

We had this customer who knocked on the door – he'd been here a couple of nights before. Service is included but he'd added £1.20 to the bill for two (£53). We'd thought nothing of it at the time. Turns out that he didn't realise that service was included (he thought our notice on the menu and bill was too small) and that £1.20 was his tip. He now wanted it back: he felt angry and ripped-off. All right, it didn't help when I laughed at him, but I honestly thought he was joking.

It's taken two years for that type of customer to disappear. “You're new here aren't you?” doesn't get asked any more. There's a delicious irony in all this. With the pursed lips customers the previous owners were talked about with much love and adoration. Yet (apart from a small group of regulars) the previous owners were scathing about their customers and desperate to see the back of them. There's a moral there somewhere.

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