Tales From Behind the Whites: A Few Do’s and Don’ts when opening a restaurant by a man who opened one by accident.

There is no written or scripted way to open a restaurant, no way of cheating, no way of buying your way to success, a restaurant is a constantly evolving and ever-changing beast and if not maintained and respected it can fall apart at the seams. In my short few years opening Farang I have made many mistakes, some respectable and some just outright bonkers but with the correct frame of mind and a positive attitude these mistakes have all contributed to me learning some vital lessons.

Now I am in no way an expert and I am certainly not claiming to be, to be completely honest I would turn my nose at anyone that claims to know everything. You can stick to a set of your own rules and keep looking to improve and that has been working for me so far. There is one simple thing that makes the road towards opening a restaurant a little less rocky than mine and that’s money. I started Farang two years ago with nothing to my name and the best part of a student loan left to pay and its starting to work out, so with some proper hard graft, it is possible to build a restaurant from nothing, however given the choice I would recommend taking a little money, ha!

Let’s go back to those mistakes then shall we.

In the pop-up days, we really were just riding the wave and going with whatever came our way, however I quickly realised that saying ‘yes’ to everything has a shelf life. It has its place at the very beginning to do as much as you can do, as long as it gets more people to try your food. However it’s important to make sure that you do not sell yourself short, even from the very beginning. A few years ago, in London when we started doing pop ups, we came across some absolute arseholes that pretend to support you as a small business but actually just want to make an easy penny out of you. Unfortunately, these arseholes will always exist, and I can happily tell you some big ones to avoid if you are starting off in London, but I’ll keep it private for now. Avoid anything or anyone offering to keep alcohol sales and take a cut of your takings for rent. You need to be consistently busy for a very long time for this to even nearly work. Anyone happy taking this much money away from a start-up business does not care one bit about its success so make sure to backflip out the window as quickly as possible. We have made this mistake a few times and it does not work so tread carefully when agreeing to any long-term residencies or pop-ups and make sure you either really trust the operation you’re getting involved with, or that the contract protects you as much as possible and always, ALWAYS, have a contract.

Another thing that screwed us massively from the start was not having a strict bookings policy. People don’t mean to be shit but unfortunately, we are. We will be late, we will miss trains, we will forget to phone the restaurant and cancel, these are facts. What most people don’t know is that when they book a table at that restaurant and don’t show up or cancel, the restaurant is then obliged to hold the table for them just in case they do turn up, this means they turn away other potential customers, they have also purchased enough food to cook for them and paid for the correct amount of staff to feed them so a strict bookings policy really is the only way forwards unfortunately. In the beginning I was really against the idea of it as I felt that it would turn people away if they had to pay a deposit, or if they were given a stern message with their booking before they have even dined with us. In an ideal world this should not be necessary, but a certain breed of human have ruined it for the rest of us. After a couple of nights with a few large tables not showing up I had had enough so we started telling people that we would hold the table for fifteen minutes and if we hadn’t heard from them after that we couldn’t promise them anything. Fortunately, the majority of people are lovely so they are very happy to conform with this policy, some, of course, bloody hate it but these people are clearly unreasonable and therefore don’t deserve a delicious dinner with great service so not to worry, I bet my puppy that these are the people that don’t phone to cancel their table too.  I would strongly recommend that you follow in my footsteps before taking the hit and staring out at a half empty restaurant, knowing that you just sent enough people to fill it to eat elsewhere an hour ago.

Service charge – This is a MASSIVE grey area across the whole industry and I get why, most people who are not seasoned to hospitality will assume that if all the service charge does not go directly to the staff then the business owner is a big fat greedy bastard sat at home on a golden toilet using £50’s for toilet roll, however this is not always true (although I hope such a ridiculous misuse of wealth exists somewhere). I’ve tried it both ways, when we first opened Farang we charged 10% service on top of every bill and as it was mostly my friends working for me, we split that service between us all fairly based on the hours we had worked, after all I was looking to motivate everyone to make the best food we could, not for myself to become a millionaire overnight. However, it didn’t take very long for me to realise that this admirable decision was a financial disaster. At the very beginning we were far from being a well-oiled machine and every penny truly did count, with the additive of paying my team very well on top of this, I came to realise I had essentially cut a hole in all four of my pockets and done a few cartwheels. About eight months into Farang as a pop-up this was something I had to face as we were pretty close to having to close the doors, despite being busy all the time, purely because I was giving it all away. Now at least I was giving it all to the staff, however it’s no use if it results in them not having a job a few months down the line. In the end I sat everyone down and we all went through the figures, as a collective we decided to up everyone’s salaries to suit their position and keep the service charge in the business, so it can keep us moving forwards. The important thing to remember is to always pay your staff as well as the business can afford and make it clear cut that you are doing so, if people don’t respect, or appreciate you doing this then they are not made from the right stuff anyway.

As I said, I opened this restaurant by accident, a series of things fell into place, a pointless Journalism degree, a love for food, my step-father’s retirement resulting in a restaurant lease and a miraculous ability to keep on going, no matter what, like a dedicated moth to a bright light. The real truth is there is no correct way to open a restaurant, as you can see from my actions there are some hopefully now obvious things to not do, but every restaurant is different, and it takes hard graft, dedication and madness to do it right. There will be more mistakes to come I’m sure, as long as they are not the same ones, I’m happy to take them on the chin. I will make sure to keep you guys updated with any major fuck ups so hopefully I save you the trouble.

Cheers,

Sebby Holmes