Restaurant Guide of KC™ - Kansas City Food + Travel Blog

Life of a Restaurateur

The Glitzy and Glamorous Life of a Restaurateur

Comfortably ensconced in my padded chair, I daintily sip a glass of good summer rosé and peruse the elegant menu.  Ooh, I think, I could own a restaurant like this.  It would be sooo cool. So very fab.

So glamorous. So glitzy.  So satisfying.  Surrounded by creative people, I would oversee delicious food and drink and my customers, no, guests, would heap praise upon me by the giant spoonful.  I would go all over the world tasting other menus.  I would hob nob with the rich and famous.  Maybe a TV show even.  Of course a cookbook.  At least on the radio.
Cindy McClain and her team have been injecting energy in the Independence Square since 1999.

Aaaawk!  Screeeeech! Crash! Stop. 

That’s the sound of reality breaking the window glass of my dreams.
Ask any restaurant owner, any executive chef, about the glamour and excitement of running a restaurant -- and they’ll laugh.  Somewhat hysterically.  Other than for the sacred few on the grueling Food or Cooking Channels, the Travel Channel, the Food Network, the Asian Food Channel and who knows how many others, my visions are not even close to the actual restaurant world.

It’s Hard Work  

If you’ve been in a restaurant at a happy time, with patrons smiling, food being devoured, polite camaraderie surrounding you (and who hasn’t in Kansas City?), you might think this surface is what the business is all about.  It’s so much more – and this final happy eater scene is the culmination of more time and work than most of us can imagine.  And I’m not even talking about starting a restaurant here, especially since the numbers indicate that 60% fail in their first three years, I’m just talking about what it takes to run one.

I’m also not going to talk about capital requirements to keep a restaurant running.  That’s inevitably an issue for any restaurant, even those that seem to be thriving.  Starting a restaurant runs from around $3,000 to $4,000 per seat, according to one restaurant survey at One owner I spoke with for this article said he was stunned over what it took to build out a space now.  Rent is a huge nut to crack sometimes and practically always one of the top three expenses.

It's Long Hours

But to really begin, just look at time.  Most restaurants are open at least six days a week.  Many, seven.  If they’re not open for breakfast at six or seven in the morning, they’re open by 11 a.m. for lunch.  And they close at ten or 11:00 p.m., later on weekends usually.  The owner, executive chef, or key manager is there for most of those hours.  And if they own more than one, while it may not be double, I guarantee it’s still more hours.  Unless maybe, you own five or more – and then you have “people” – and then, I hear, your problems are sometimes slightly different – but they’re definitely still problems and stress and sleepless nights.

Your work is all-consuming and it ranges from hiring, a continual process, planning the changing menus, sourcing the food and drink, maintaining and updating your space to getting the compressors fixed and responding to complaints.  There’s much, much more.

It’s the Menu

First, the menu.  This seems simple.  If you’re a steak restaurant, you serve steak.  If you’re a sushi, you serve fish.  If you’re down-home country food, that’s what you fix. The executive chef determines the menu and then it’s served, right?  No, not exactly.  There are a hundred complexities tied up in these decisions. One of the biggest is cost and what you can charge.

Once you’ve decided what you think you want to serve, you then face a myriad of issues.  Pricing, for instance, is key.  One owner I know has different drink prices among his several restaurants because liquor taxes vary in each county.  Another, Chris Cozzi, managing partner of two BD’s Mongolian Grill locations on both sides of the state line, wryly notes he (or anyone) can only predict food costs to a certain extent. If there are unforeseen natural events such a flood or drought, that impacts produce costs, he doesn’t change pricing.  But he says, “I don’t pull any items if the price increases because I want the guests to have the experience that they are used to.  I just eat the cost.”  He continues, “I used to worry about it but I can’t change anything, so now I worry about it less.  It is what it is.”  And both his restaurants have the exact same pricing, even if taxes and labor costs are different, which they are.  He says he doesn’t want to confuse or upset his guests.

Pricing may also affect portions if restaurants feel they can’t raise the price enough to cover their costs.  This became very clear to me the other night.  Three friends and I were dining at a good restaurant with an extensive wine list.  All three of them got the same trendy salad – which for $9 each, were about the size of a small saucer.  What I don’t know is if that were a conscious pricing and sizing decision or they’d run out of salad. I do know my friends were not happy.

Another chef I know says that when she came to town, she was startled by the amount of food Midwesterners not only could eat, but what they seemed to demand.  She continued serving relatively small amounts of food (at high prices at this high-end restaurant) and she shrugged and said, “I will always give them more if they ask.”  Of course, we typically don’t ask (too polite I suppose or we don’t want to seem piggy) but instead, after enough complaints, the portions became larger.  Pricing, sizing, sourcing, menu breadth, availability, tradition, changes to keep a menu fresh, seasonal variations – all are important decisions even before the ingredients and preparations are resolved.
Another is keeping up with the trends.  Remember when suddenly every salad in the world was kale?  How did that happen and how much kale do you order?  If Brussel sprouts are suddenly on every menu, or mac and cheese or molten chocolate cake?  What’s next? Restaurants now have to keep up with ever-changing trends.  Steak houses now serve merlot cut (cow’s heel) or the Las Vegas strip (oh heresy, but this is the cow’s shoulder).  Vegetables are suddenly centerfolds. Street food becomes new inspiration.  Restaurants have to pay attention to what their patrons may be seeing on TV or in their travels.
No, It’s the Staff

Most restaurant owners agree that their number one issue is staffing.  It probably always has been but some owners find it even more arduous today.   Cindy McClain, co-owner of ten establishments in  Indepen-dence Square and in the business for twenty years beginning with their signature restaurant, Ophelia’s, is blunt.  “The Millennial issue is real.  They just don’t want to work as much others used to.  They’re fine.  They’re smart.  They have good ideas and do a great job when they’re here.  But when they’re done, they’re done. No extra shifts.  Nothing but what they were hired for.  That’s definitely an attitude change I’ve seen over the years.”  She’s working on their learning curve and the “job as experience” – as long as there’s something new, something to learn, they stay, she says.

Another owner, who declined to be identified, also agreed with her assessment.  He believes the work ethic has changed substantially.  Climbing up from dishwasher through the ranks doing every job, working extra hours are not typically something people are willing to do. He also bemoans cell phones and trying to keep employees from using them instead of instantly paying attention to customers.  But he points out how very integral training and team work are in his business because without it, “. . . even if the food is great, if it arrives cold or out of order, if their glass is left empty, people are unhappy.”   None of these owners disagree with that.
Chris Youngers, co-owner of Café Trio, affirms that the labor pool has changed, but notes something different.  He says his people like the typical line cook are “. . .  more driven.  More proud. They want more. That’s both good and bad.  They’re very serious and often want to quickly move on to some place that serves more cutting-edge food with a ‘celebrity chef’ they feel they can learn from.”  Another issue is that there is a labor shortage, especially of experienced staff. “Even five years ago, if someone was great with customers but not a good employee especially (unreliable, causing strife, not being a team player), I could move them along because I had someone good waiting.  Not true now.”

Another permutation is that independent restaurants may have special needs.  Gary Worden, who owns Piropos with wife Cristina, notes that chain restaurants may have more resources, can sometimes offer more benefits, but also don’t often don’t have such a personal touch with their employees – there it’s more “burn and churn.”  “We need people to understand authentic Argentinian food,” he says.  “As a specialty restaurant, our patrons may expect more.”  He also gives a shout-out to his ‘older’ servers – “They don’t go out and party late into the night, they go home, they come to work on time, and they earn good money.” He admits to generalizing. 

It’s the Customers  

In the restaurant business, that customer service must make the customer happy is a no brainer.  A good server can make a mediocre meal acceptable and come-backable.  That takes us back to selection, training, and keeping the staff person happy as well.

From the diner who asks a thousand questions about one dish and then chooses another to the perpetually dissatisfied grump (why is he eating out anyway if only his mother can fix this dish?), dealing with people is a huge part of the job.

Youngers says that when he got into the business in 2004, “We thought food was most important.  That’s just the price of admission.  It all comes down to running the business well and the service.”  He repeated what is often said, “Good food can’t save a bad experience.”

It’s the Talk

Sometimes I’ll mention a restaurant to a friend and he’ll say, “Gosh, we haven’t been there for years.  I never think to go there.”  And they like the restaurant. That’s where marketing comes in and that has certainly changed in the last 20 years.  And now, technology has changed the marketing as well.

A lasting restaurant has a specific position in the marketplace. That begins with a business plan and then costs must be controlled, profit margins managed, and a million business decisions must be made, almost every day.  The very first thought item goes back, probably, to those food choices, because most restaurants want to be known – their brand is their unique food.

Serving fabulous French food like Café Provence or Le Fou Frog or with a bit of a twist like Charisse or Tatsu’s, for instance, is a distinction that attracts. People are willing to try different cultures’ recipes more and more every day in Kansas City – which has, some say, been promulgated by all the food shows on TV. Others can add additional features – being in a beautiful and historic train station for instance, like Pierpont’s.  Or having a fabulous location overlooking the Plaza with a year-round enclosed patio now, like Café Trio. Or Piropos’ view of the city.

It's no longer just word-of-mouth.  Now it's a fearsome development called Yelp or a site like it.  Sometimes a restaurant may deserve a bad review, true.   But basing a judgment on just one experience really isn’t fair. And sometimes diners seem to be absolutely unforgiving.
Technology has played an increasingly big role in the last ten years. “Social media is a game changer.  We used to have written comment cards, which are still valuable,” said Worden.  “But there must be 20 sites now where people leave comments.  Some want to be a food critic but don’t understand the restaurant business, but that’s true in all things.  Some people seem to live to write on the internet.  Sometimes they’re correct – when you’re serving 60-70,000 meals a year, even a 1% fail rate hurts.  You try to make corrections on site but some people really do hide until they get to their computer.”

Reservations have changed as well – it’s so easy to make them electronically. People make reservations for a special night at five restaurants, then choose one and don’t tell the four they’re not coming.  “Restaurants compensate by overbooking, just like the airlines. And two people eat faster than four.  And four faster than six. Or Mondays are usually slow but suddenly, for no reason, there’s 100 people here instead of 40. There’s a real art to forecasting, but you’re just not always right.”
So if your reserved table isn’t available the second you enter the restaurant, have a little empathy.  Or have you ever been late to your table, holding up the next diners?  Obviously, even a simple thing like a reserved table isn’t that simple.

It’s a Dance 

So with all the hard work, the long hours, the people challenges, the changes and trends, the search to keep and find new customers, is it really glamorous to own a restaurant?  Although he laughed when I asked him this question, Worden who also owns a monthly magazine called Restaurant Start Up & Growth which he uses sometimes to solve his own restaurant challenges, told me, “Well, it can be great from an ego and social point of view.  Some guys do hit it big, but they usually own several restaurants at least.  I get to meet a whole lot of people.  I’m glad we did this, but we had no concept of what we’d be doing.  Cristina still wants to slap me for saying before we bought in, ‘What can be so hard about owning a restaurant?’ We’ve found out.”

Chris Youngers smiled and said, “It’s been more than I thought.  We were 30 when we got into it.  It’s taken time to come to grasp all it takes.  We’re still here every moment.  Our social life is our customers and our staff.  I wouldn’t trade that. But if I had a son or daughter, I’d say no . . . go find something else.  You do make a sacrifice in your personal life.” 

I liked how Cindy McClain of Indepen-dence Square summed it up when she said, after talking about all the problems, the issues, the people, the challenges, “I have to have eyes in the back of my head.  My head has to swivel like Sybil’s.  It’s 24-7, 7 days a week.  But if you’re an adrenaline junkie, it's fun, it's fast.  It's a dance.


Half of all adults have worked in the restaurant industry at some point during their lives.
• 1 in 3 Americans got their first job experience in a restaurant.
• There are 1 million + restaurant locations in the United States.
• 9 in 10 restaurants have fewer than 50 employees.
• 7 in 10 restaurants are single-unit operations.

 Source: National Restaurant Association web site


Anonymous said...

Great Read...and enjoyed the perspective from many from owners/patrons/employees


Anonymous said...

I think dining is an adventure . Six of us go out for lunch every 2 months and if it isn't the corner cafe, not that there is anything wrong with that, its out of their relm of thinking. I wanted to take the street car down to the market and find a restaurant along the way. So many are available but it wasn't the Corner Cafe.

I go out by myself to new cafes and enjoy every minute, listen to the Jass and enjoy the ambiance.

I feel sorry they are missing out on an experience.


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