The worst thing you can do in business is to fall in love with your own ideas. This is an issue for all of us who are self-employed, but it’s especially common in the restaurant business. It has happened to me more than once. Often it has led me down a road of narrowing options. Once on that road, my pride usually prevents me from checking the map, and I go further and further until there are no alternative roads left. More times than not, these roads lead to dead ends and I have to back the whole way out.
There is nothing wrong with loving your own ideas, in fact, you should. But falling in love is much different than love itself. Falling in love is that infatuated, unconditional, blissful feeling of almighty goodness where nothing can go wrong. Falling in love is a place where questioning your motives becomes an insult to the purity and greatness of your feelings, where the questions of others are trite and born out of the ignorance of the true fulfillment which only those who feel the love can enjoy. Falling in love with your own ideas is that place where you know with all your heart that you are right and ripe for greatness and you are perhaps the only one who has ever had this knowledge in the world, which is why most others can’t understand how right you are. It is that overwhelming sense of confidence that you have got it figured out and if you can just line up all the pieces in front of you then nothing but greatness and success can possibly follow. When you feel this feeling you should probably stop, it is vanity dressing up as passion, and if there is a business broker or a real estate agent in front of you at the time, you should definitely stop.
Good business brokers and real estate agents are geniuses at making us fall in love with our own ideas. That doesn’t make them bad people; it makes them good at their job. There are a whole host of other professionals who use this tactic as a sales technique. However, I find that my worst adversary, when it comes to falling in love with my own ideas, is myself. As I look back on the times that I have fallen in love with my own ideas, it has usually involved a sense that what I was doing was a no brainer. This type of thinking falls into to the category of “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is”.
One time I had a real estate mogul, whom I held in very high regard for being a leader in Portland, Maine’s 1980′s downtown revitalization, telling me how good my restaurant concept would work in a certain region which was devoid of it or anything new and independent for that matter. He was the owner of about 1/4 of the downtown in this area where there were many beautiful early 20th century buildings waiting to be restored. He helped me fall in love with my own idea (and his) that this downtown was especially ripe for growth and, like I had done in other developing areas, I could be a business anchor for this one. I loved being a big fish in a little pond, and this developer offered to build my pond. He had just the building, with a deck over the river. He had several other complimentary businesses planed for nearby. He would develop the property himself and lease it below cost for the first two years. He had me convinced it was a perfect and sure a road to success. This was so good, and such an opportunity, that I was even willing to double the space of my other two restaurants (same concept) and doing so I would more than triple my profits.
Then, I had a moment of clarity. A pencil and a calculator became my friend. The math worked only if I operated at the high capacity threshold of my business. The downtown was a morgue at night and there was no indication that we could fill a large space nightly without a very significant marketing campaign. I was lucky to realize that I couldn’t afford the advertising I would need; and more so, I couldn’t afford this operation at 1/2 capacity.
My once friend, the developer, was very unhappy when I pulled out of the deal. I think, perhaps, he was so deeply in love with his own ideas that he didn’t see how bankrupting a tenant would harm him as much as me. Still, I was so set on this area that I found a new idea to fall in love with. This time it was buying my own building at a rock bottom price and being the developer myself. I knew that the developer I’d been dealing with was determined to bring up the neighborhood, and I had seen his awesome plans for 6 of the local buildings. I would ride his coattails to both restaurant and real estate success. I knew the working downtown would pay my mortgage with lunch business, and I already had state and community development money at my fingertips. I was like a hormone riddled teenager willing to fall in love with anything that walked in front of me. Something inside me always pulls me to do things to keep insanely busy, sometimes anything. I was aching for a new project and another home run in a short series of restaurant successes. However, this time I would saturate my business acumen with real estate development and take my success to a whole new level! I was in love.
After a hugely successful renovation and restaurant opening, several good articles and reviews praising our efforts, and a couple of months of lines out the door for both lunch and dinner, I really thought I was a genius. Unfortunately, the buzz trickled out and so did the dinner business. I spent two years of working with the town to relocate a teen center where kids smoked dope and harassed pedestrians at night on the main street, close down a seedy club that sold more heroine than booze next door, and form a business association to get grants for downtown promotion and building improvements. The place finally started to come back up and so did the area — somewhat. In the end we became an anchor for our end of town, but building ownership costs became an anchor to my business model and downtown development a distraction to my passion. I would have done much better attaching my business to a more hospitable neighborhood and renting a developed space.
I have fallen in love with my own ideas enough times to understand the pattern and hopefully warn myself off from this problem. A dream is a good thing to follow, but one should not fit their dreams into a container that will not let the dream grow. Business decisions, like any decisions, should be made with the intent of maintaining options and not narrowing them, or one finds oneself on that one way street with nowhere to turn.
There was a place that opened exclusively to serve dessert and coffee in Portland, Maine a while back. These folks were in love with their own ideas. They actually believed that people, after a delicious meal in a nearby restaurant, were going to get up and walk to their establishment for coffee and dessert. It may be true that a body in motion tends to stay that way, but a human body at rest after dinner is not likely to go into motion for dessert when a perfectly good one can be carried to the table. Even if the people were willing to abandon the restaurant they thought was adequate for diner, but not good enough for dessert, there is an inherently flawed business assumption that you can market reasonable desserts to diners from other restaurants. Dessert is the most cost inefficient course to offer. The labor to make a good dessert is expensive because they are delicate and precise, and the ingredients are expensive because they require top quality intensely flavored items which are very pricey. This is why most restaurants offer so few dessert options compared to other courses. Good coffee is also an expensive item. Generally speaking, restaurants offer dessert as a sort of lost leader, a higher cost items that you gleefully sell low because you already made your money on drinks and dinner. So to make money and have an appropriate cost structure, these folks would have to charge more than most restaurants for their desserts, a lot more because their per person average would be very low and their product cost would be very high in comparison to their neighboring full service restaurants. Even worse, because their square foot cost would be the same as their full meal counterparts, they would have to do a really high volume of desserts just to pay the rent. They survived for a few months until their cash reserves ran out and then became the poster child for the local newspaper’s angle on how hard it is to make it in the Portland restaurant market — yeah, I say, especially if you are stupid.
In theater there is a concept called verisimilitude which refers to unity of time, place and action. Restaurants are very theatrical and sometimes the difference of a really great restaurant idea and a really bad one is a simple matter of what I call restaurant verisimilitude. The comings and goings of two businesses in a nice little retail corner in Bath, Maine, where I operate one of my restaurants, presented me with an ideal example of this.
Bath is a small town but a busy town because it is home to Maine’s biggest employer and a financial and legal center for the region. Some folks, friends and patrons of mine, decided to sell the family oceanfront B&B and open businesses that their kids could run. One was a wine bar just down the street from me. I was surprised that they never came to me for advice, because they knew I had enjoyed success in the business, but they didn’t. I watched them make mistake after mistake and it was all because they had wonderful ideas, really they did, but unfortunately they were too in love with these ideas to let reality mold them. First they used a very pretentious name that no one understood. Then they split their bar, one into each corner of a square room and each had a 90 degree angle sticking out into the room, and then they covered the lovely large street-side windows with full bamboo curtains. Only strip clubs and hard core bars should cover their windows fully. They offered mostly just wine in a town of beer drinking shipbuilders, and for food it was expensive olives and finicky small plates. Perhaps worst of all, the manager and sommelier of the wine bar was not even legal drinking age on the day it opened — highly lacking in authenticity. These folks had a very focused vision of what they wanted to do. They were so focused that they ran headlong into failure.
The next tenant of this space, less than a year later, opened the windows, squished the bars together as one, put in a deep fryer and griddle, added 30 taps, and went Irish pub for the win. It was probably the single most successful restaurant concept to open in Bath in 15 years. Now the owner of the Irish pub probably loved his own ideas, but he was also smart enough to find the right venue for them. He also came to me on signing the lease, we are friends too, and I gave him all the advice I could, however he was not new to the business and I know he talked to everyone he could and used all the input available to mold his ideas. Had the former tenant been so in love with the idea of a wine bar, there are places within 50 miles where it probably could have worked (though I fear if they still fancied themselves restaurant designers they may have failed equally at that). Or, had the former tenant been in love with the space, they could have asked someone who would have told them that what the town needed was indeed an adult drinking and munching venue, but one that was approachable by shipbuilders, lawyers, bankers and service employees alike.
It is easy to see in the above example how two similar ideas, a Wine Bar & an Irish Pub, really just nuances of a fermented beverage theme, can translate very differently when it comes to economic viability. I tell people all the time that there are two ways to approach a restaurant venture for the first time. One is location, the other is theme. The two must work together, so when you fall in love with one, you must staunchly vet the other for compatibility. Timing completes the package of restaurant verisimilitude: unity of time, place and theme (action). The theme includes the concept, the décor and the cuisine. In my last example, the wine bar concept, the pretentious decor and name, and the esoterically compiled small plates did not match the place, which is an unpretentious beer drinking town without a lot of cultural diversity. The place for the wine bar would have been down the road in Portland, where several wine bars do very well; however, the time for a new drinking establishment in Bath was ripe, as the Irish Pub demonstrated. Unfortunately, the blinders of falling in love make us stubborn and single minded. When we are in love with our own ideas it is the time we most need the input of others but are least open to it.
I find small commercial bankers to be quite helpful, especially when I have unsecured loans from them. They tend to have a lot of clarity about the markets in which they loan money and the viability of ideas. I highly recommend that people starting a business borrow money from a local bank even if they don’t need to. A banker won’t loan money to people with blatantly bad ideas — a real locally invested banker, that is. If you can convince the bank to loan you money, then you probably have a good idea. It is also good to have your tail on the line with someone who will help you stay focused. Almost all of the worst restaurant failures occur on self or unconventionally financed businesses. A few weeks before I opened my first restaurant my banker stopped by, I remember the conversation well. I was on a ladder wiring lights; he was below me taking some pictures of the progress. This was back in the days when we still had the option of smoking sections. At the time, my meat and beer, BBQ theme seemed appropriate for a smoking section. My banker asked me if we were going to allow smoking. “Only at the bar” I replied. It was only a 5 seat bar in a 2000 square foot dining room. He looked around and then back at me and said. “This is a small place; if you have smoking anywhere you have a smoking restaurant”. He was dead on right, but he didn’t say it because he was a non-smoker. He said it because he knew the town. It was his town, he knew the people and he knew who would be my clientele; he knew who they would be before I knew. He knew that there was a smoking clientele in town and there was a non-smoking clientele, and he knew for which ones the time was right for a new restaurant. Even though I was a smoker at the time, I chose to go totally non-smoking because my focus was on food. I am 100% sure that if I had not made that choice, my business would have failed.
If the worst thing you can do in business is to fall in love with your own ideas, then the best thing you can do is have a long engagement with those ideas before you consummate them. Let falling in love lead to being in love, and let the relationship develop into one of mature respect and enthusiasm opposed to one of anxious excitement. Date the idea, introduce it to your friends and family, your business associates; take your time. If you are embarrassed to share it with your friends and family, maybe you should ask why. If it is the real thing, it will follow you, or you can follow it, but it won’t go away with time. All true love begins with falling in love, but all falling in love does not end in true love.