Restaurant Series – What I’ve Learned

I don’t know if my situation is unique for the restaurant business, but I think it is. I mean, I don’t come from a culinary background of any kind. The closest thing I have to restaurant experience is working as a cashier at Chuck E. Cheese haha! When I went to go work for Ninong’s full time I had a LOT to learn, and that’s an understatement. I had to learn and adapt as I went, I thought about efficiency, the customer experience, scheduling, everything. And eventually I kind of got the hang of it! Though moving to a larger space is now a new ball game, I thought I’d share the top 10 things I’ve learned working and running our family restaurant.

This is going to be a list of the things that I just realized or came to terms with as my time in the restaurant business continued. The next post I have planned in a couple days will be a post that’s about what to expect when opening and running a restaurant. So, let’s dive in!

1. Whatever you do, do it well. This relates to the comment I made in my last post about having a signature product. Have a product that you will be known for, and do it really well. Start with 1 and the branch out into others. There’s that saying that you can do 2 things 100%, and it’s true to some degree. To get on the map, you’ve got to be known for 1 thing and branching out into other products after will be so much easier.

2. Keep your head down and do the work. I make this statement often to colleagues. Because if you don’t keep your head in your own game, comparison and copying start to creep in. Comparison is the enemy here. Believe in your ideas, creativity, ingenuity, and experience. It’s easy to wish for the success that you see others have, but what’s the point? Why do that to yourself? Even if you wished for that success and tried to copy someone else’s idea you’re still not going to ride the same wave of success that they are. Be known for something you came up with, it’ll be a way bigger accomplishment in the end.

3. Don’t be afraid to change as you try, test, and grow. I have such a hard time with these this point. I always think that when I put something out into the universe it’s finite and it can’t be changed. But I’m so wrong. Adapt, learn, grow, change – it’s all for the better! Tried something and it didn’t work? Replace it with your next idea! Layout of your space not working? Rearrange the furniture! Worried that it won’t work? Well, you won’t know until you try.

4. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. I’ve said it before: owning a business is hard. Running a restaurant is hard. When you’re an entrepreneur you do what you have to do to keep the car running. If that means pulling an all nighter, working 80 hours a week, putting in your own money to keep your business afloat, you do it! Why? I’m sure everyone has their own reasons. But for me, it’s because I love what I do. Which leads me to my next point…

5. You’ve got to have passion for it. If you don’t love what you do, you’re going to burn out fast. Imagine having to go through everything I’ve mentioned in #4. Would you do that if you didn’t have passion? Probably not. At some point it’ll probably get too hard, too expensive, or too tiring (or all of the above). But that passion in your heart for your business will push you through some of the most difficult experiences. Trust me, I’ve experienced all of the above and I would never trade those moments for the world.

6. Don’t shut out constructive criticism, it will only make you better. It’s easy to take the hate and bad reviews out there and just return hate back. The service industries are one of the toughest industries to work in. Everyone is a critic, everyone knows better than you. Those people that don’t care about your business and just want to spew their anger and hate on someone just let them be. But then there will be the ones that actually want to give you constructive criticism because they want to see you succeed. Don’t shut them out just because you think they don’t understand. Feedback and listening to feedback is extremely important. You can pick and choose your battles, of course, but don’t just stay stagnant. Think about their comments and try to see if it’s something you can fix. Your future self with thank you.

7. Do what works for you. People will tell you how to do things, and while it’s important to listen to advice, pick and choose your battles like I said before. You’re going to come across a lot of people telling you what you should make, what you should sell, what ingredients you should use, but if you don’t think that’s on brand or fits with your business don’t do it!

8. Don’t let money be the only driving reason. I mean let’s be real, it is the reason to start a business. To make money. But don’t let it be the only or the main reason why you want to start a business. Greed is never the right approach. Your motives will show and customers will see right through you. Yes, making money is important but you have the story, the passion, the drive to serve.

9. The customer isn’t always right, but you’re not either. I know this may seem like blasphemy to say, on both ends in fact. The motto the customer is always right isn’t always true. Sometimes they just don’t understand and that’s ok! But remember, you’re not always right either. Don’t make your business about your ego. Sometimes you’ll run into a customer that just absolutely hates everything you’re about or the experience they had. Some will even demand things of you that are unreasonable. We’ve seen them all. But at the same time, don’t let those people harden your heart and lose compassion for your customers. There are times where you’re going to make a mistake, you’re only human. Don’t be afraid to try to apologize and rectify your error. There’s no shame in making a mistake. Don’t let your ego get in the way.

10. You can’t please everyone, so just do you best every time. This coincides with #9, but one of the things I’ve learned the most is that I have a really “thin skin.” When people aren’t pleased with me I take it extremely personally. Even at my old retail jobs, when someone would want to return something that I sold them I would feel so guilty. But being an owner of a restaurant has taught me that I can’t take it personally every time. I can’t please everyone, and even though that kills me inside it’s the reality. So, the only solution is to do the best that I can every time. My best may not always be good enough, but at least I know it was the best I could do with the tools and knowledge I was given.

I hope this helps someone out there in internet land. No matter whether you’re opening a restaurant or any other business really, it’s hard but so worth it. These tips are useful for any industry, as I’ve applied them to my other businesses too!

xoxo,

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Restaurant Series – Planning a Menu

A menu will make or break a restaurant. After all, it’s all about the food – the appearance, the taste, the quality, and the variety. These factors are the basis of your menu and your pricing. I thought I’d take you down the road of my thought process when putting a menu together. I think the theme for menu planning is a balance. There has to be a balance with a lot of key factors.

Too much on the menu gets overwhelming, too little on the menu feels restrained. You don’t want to buy too many different ingredients, you don’t want things to go to waste and take up space in your kitchen. Here comes that theme of balance. The key here is to be strategic. It’s about that balance between what your restaurant can handle and what the customer can absorb.

So, let’s talk about the operations side of menu planning. First you want to think about how your restaurant is going to be set up – quick service (almost like fast food), modified quick service (you order at the counter and they serve you food), or sit down?

My personal opinion is the quicker the service style, the smaller your menu should be. The last thing you want is people standing and staring at the menu FOREVER when you’re trying to keep the line moving. Think simple. Bigger menus and variety is great for sit down service. It creates more interaction and a personalized service from your servers.

Secondly, you want to think about how much labor is going to go into your dishes. Labor is one of the biggest expenses for any business. Try to think of ways to utilize less labor and ingredients to complete your dishes. This will be a big factor when you get to the pricing. If it takes 3 individuals vs 1 to complete a dish it makes it more expensive.

Lastly, on the operations side let’s talk about pricing. Now I can do a whole series on pricing strategies, but today I’ll just talk about pricing when it comes to menu planning. My biggest piece of advice when it comes to pricing is – don’t just look at your competition and copy or charge $1 less. This will not work! It’s extremely important you do your homework on your costs. When it comes to menu pricing, try to get your costs to fall between 30%-35% and you should be good. If you can get more, even better! I’d say after you do your pricing calculations, it would be safe to say that you can look at your competition and price it competitively. After all, you don’t want to be charging $4 for a sandwich if the competition is selling
it for $8!

Now that we’re done with considering operations, let’s talk about your dishes. Question #1: What is your signature product or signature dish? This is extremely important. What do you want to be known for? What is going to be your specialty? When we first started Ninong’s we got caught up in the let’s serve everyone game. Big mistake. What we should have done was ask the questions above so we could revolve our marketing around it. Lesson learned.

Next! Once you have your signature dish, revolve your menu around that signature product. Create dishes that are a good pairing, heighten that product with good supporting items! For example, our signature product is our Ube Pancakes. Because that is a sweet breakfast item we serve a lot of savory dishes to accompany the pancakes. We also serve “breakfast” dishes through the day instead of just in the morning.

Lastly, think not just about what people would want to eat but what you would be proud to serve! The last thing you want is to have a dish on the menu that you hate to cook. Trust me, I’ve been there lol! Create dishes that represent you and help you tell your story. Remember, owning a restaurant is extremely personal. Your passion and drive will shine through the food. It’s your way to share a piece of your journey with the public!

xoxo,

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Restaurant Series – POS Systems

Brace yourselves for a lot of information! I guess I have a lot to share about this topic haha!

There are tons of POS systems that are geared toward the restaurant and retail industries. For just the restaurant industry alone I can name 5 different choices off the top of my head. POS stands for “Point of Sale” system, basically your cash register/cash handling system. There are simple systems and more complex systems, it all depends on the type of tracking, security, and features you’re looking for. I’m going to be sharing with you what we personally use at Ninong’s and why we use it.

TBH, it all depends on your preference. Every POS system has its pros and cons, and in all honesty, I don’t think there is a “perfect” system out there. Because each restaurant is so different and has specific needs it’s really hard to find something that hits every need to the T.

  • Some systems have monthly maintenance or extra fees
  • Some charge higher credit card fees than the average competitor
  • Some systems don’t include credit card services so you need to get another merchant aside from your cash register system
Photo Courtesy of Square

For Ninong’s we use Square. Though it’s not absolute perfect system (none of them are) let me tell you the main reasons why we’ve been using them for almost 5 years.

  1. When we first opened we used to use a merchant service that the previous tenants of our location used, it was grandfathered in when we bought their business. When I started working at Ninong’s full time I was trying to make sense of the credit card transaction reports, the fees they would take out, the deposits they would put into our account, etc. and couldn’t figure it out. The merchant would deposit money into our account and then take money out so I never knew how much we actually had that was usable income. It drove me crazy! I called their customer service to ask them to explain to me the process so I can track our income and keep track with our bookkeeping. They couldn’t even explain it to me or give me a straight answer! This was a no no for me.
  2. I’m not gonna lie, Square’s credit card fees are steep. BUT it has a lot of pros that still made it worth the fees for us.  It was extremely important to me that I knew how much we had in our bank account. I know, it seems like a really basic request right?! I didn’t want any surprise withdrawals. Square did exactly that, they would only deposit the net amount. No withdrawals.
  3. Over time I realized that we needed more from Square’s POS system. But lucky enough as we grew, so did Square’s POS system. It was perfect timing.
  4. As we grew in sales, Square would have an annual phone meeting with me and I would have an opportunity to negotiate a lower credit card fee rate with them. Don’t be afraid to ask!
  5. I’ve honestly looked into various different systems just to make sure Square is what is best for our business. And currently, it still is. Some other companies charge a monthly fee to use their POS system, Square doesn’t charge. So if a competitor wants to charge me a monthly fee of $30 a month with lower credit card fees but Square doesn’t charge a monthly fee and I spend $30 or less in credit card fees I’d rather go with Square.
  6. Some POS systems require you to use a merchant service associated with their POS system. I like that Square has a register system so that the credit card reader and the cash register are streamlined, and Square is their own merchant service. I hate having extra machines on the counter, I like a cleaner look.
  7. Some POS systems are confusing and tricky to use. Square system is so easy, our employees pick it up very quickly so little to no training is needed.
  8. Square also doesn’t have any contracts. To start using Square all you need to do is register an account, link your bank account and you’re ready to go! To stop, just stop! 
  9. Square has the Square Capital Program. This is by far one of the most useful features that Square offers. We all know the conventional way of financing – loans, credit cards, etc. Square has changed the way small businesses can borrow and pay back loans. If you need some extra capital to invest in your business, Square can loan you the money. They will charge an interest on the amount you borrow and they will deduct a percentage from your daily sales instead of the normal monthly payments. For example, if our agreed payback amount is 10% of daily sales and I sell $100 one day, they will take $10 from my daily sales and put it toward the loan. If I sell $10,000 that day they will take $1000 of my daily sales and put it toward my loan. For us, it was the most efficient way to pay back a loan since we didn’t “feel” the blow of a large monthly payment. They would even deduct the amount before they deposit the funds into your account and give you a daily report.

For us, Square has been the way to go. For now. I’m not a die hard Square user, if someone else is out there I’m always happy to test it out but Square has been a great service for us. Like I said, every system does have its pros and its cons but I can live with Square’s faults for now. Their pros definitely outweigh their cons!

The new Square Register, photo by Square

My advice to anyone that’s looking into the ideal point of sale system for their business is to do research, take note of the pros and cons of each service, and weigh out the pricing. Don’t let sales people push you over because of sales talk. Take a look at the bottom line and see what you’re willing to spend along with the services you’ll be getting. Some businesses will need something more complex, and some businesses can work off of a calculator. Neither is wrong, just do what is best for your business!

xoxo,

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