The Challenges and Benefits of Being Independent
Let’s face it: the life of an independent restaurant operator is not for everyone. There’s no one who would say that it’s easy. You’re all alone, or isolated with a few partners. You’re surrounded by corporate restaurants everywhere in this country. Successes are yours to enjoy, but failure is yours alone also, and the line between the two can be woefully vague and narrow.
This industry is filled with horrible stories of personal failure circulating among current restaurant operators. It’s also full of phoenix-like rise-from-the-ashes stories—with people who’ve failed multiples times climbing back into the operator’s chair once again, eventually finding success.
When you’re an independent restaurant operator, anything can happen and it usually does. But not many people are cut out for the independent life. To know which type of person you are (if you don’t already), ask yourself one question: Are you comfortable writing check after check, day after day, drawn from your personal bank account?
Being an independent implies the freedom to do whatever you think is right for your business, at any time. This can refer to major overhauls, menu changes or just minor tweaks here and there that corporate restaurants aren’t able to make. The corporate framework has the advantage of recognizable branding and formulas for success that have necessarily worked elsewhere. But, obviously, that doesn’t always imply an understanding of your specific clientele or the needs of your town or neighborhood.
Price adjustments by a few dollars here and there are a necessary part of the business, and corporate restaurants are typically on top of commodity price fluctuation and overall demand. But real prices changes that go with concept adjustment are a benefit of running an independent business.
If your upscale concept hasn’t taken off, it may be your clientele telling you to lower prices. If butts are in the seats from open to close, the demand may indicate a price increase. There are instances when price changes are necessary, and this isn’t always an adjustment that a corporate restaurant can make.
Execute Your Vision, Or Don’t
As an independent, everything from the front door to the trash dumpster might be yours. That means you can make the business what you want it to be. Your philosophy and vision can be manifested inside your four walls, and this can lead to great success.
Or, it could lead to a lot of red ink. Independent operation typically means a lot of trial-and-error policies, menus, and hiring. But it’s yours, and you can find success with your vision as long as you are willing to adjust and persevere.
Writing all the checks means taking on all the challenges of the business. It can be overwhelming when the challenges are all in one office—rather than spread among many corporate offices in buildings far, far away. The obstacles that go with independent ownership must be met head on, and with the right strategy.
Harder to Find Competitive Vendor Pricing
Independent ownership means you don’t (usually) benefit from the power of bulk purchasing. Vendors will mark down prices for restaurant ownership groups buying for multiple stores. This means that you must be pro-active on the phones and work to find the best deals for your primary purchasing. It also means you must establish and maintain good relationships with your vendors, and treat them like the close friends and supporters that you want them to be.
Getting the Word Out
When you’re all alone in this business, it’s difficult to spread the word about how great a dining experience can be at your restaurant. In towns with a crowded or thriving restaurant community, it can be easy to fade into the pack after opening.
These days, independents must be inventive about marketing. This means leveraging social media, initiating promos, hosting events and giving charitable contributions to well-attended events in the area. The independent operator must find a way to generate positive word-of-mouth using alternative methods. The widespread need for this is what makes these alternative methods more mainstream everyday.
In some towns, word-of-mouth can go south fast. It’s hard to know what people are saying about you when your days are spent inside the same four walls. Operators must find a way to control what is being said about the business. The best ways to do this involve getting out in front of problems and giving people something positive to talk about.