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From Restaurant Failure to Culinary Success: How the Recession Is Redefining the Food World

In the Fire

There's no question that opening restaurants has been difficult over the past year. The balance of who is going to make it versus who's going to fold has many chefs contemplating their futures. While every chef has his or her own take on the current economic situation, the harsh reality is that in today's economy, people are spending less time eating out and more time at their own kitchen tables.

When the stock market took a nosedive in October 2008, I was on the cusp of opening a four million dollar restaurant. I played a major role in both the business planning and the design of the restaurant, and was ready to get the ball rolling as soon as humanly possible. But when "D-Day" finally came, my partners decided that putting the project on hold was the best financial move--throwing me for a loop! But I realized that as with any disappointment, you have to pick up the pieces, regroup, and move forward.

Farm Fresh Recession

Soon after my initial setback, I became involved with another restaurateur who had a fantastic vision. We worked together to build on the "farm fresh to table" approach--all set in an old world "New American Bistro." Things started out well, but, unfortunately, the meager profit margins we brought in weren't enough to sustain much of the management's salaries, including my own.

It felt like I had been hit with a double whammy, and was not at all how I expected my year to go. It goes to show, however, that while real estate deals and leases on restaurant space are bargains right now, you still have to bring in enough volume to survive. Lesson learned!

Is Running a Restaurant Right for You?

Going through all of these experiences gave me the chance to digest life, examine my priorities, and figure out what to do next. After all was said and done, I gave myself two weeks to rethink the industry, look at local jobs, and start making short and long term plans. I discovered that's the key: a PLAN!

It's not easy to formulate plans when you're stressed out and in a panic. Take a step back, sit by a pool or some place you find relaxing and just think, write, and brainstorm. Write down anything that comes to mind.

During those two weeks I got over my anxieties about making my mortgage payment, being surrounded by hiring freezes, and even losing my medical insurance. I decided I was going to focus on how to move forward and survive, "weather the economy," as some say, and even enjoy life in the interim.

Travel, Cook, Eat

In addition to cooking, writing has always been a passion of mine. So I figured, why not apply my culinary enthusiasm to the Web? A new site would be a great way to share my upcoming trips abroad and also show visitors to the site how other countries farm, prepare, and enjoy food. Basically, I wanted to show everyone everything that happens beyond the kitchen. After a few days of hashing out the details, the appropriately titled "Beyond the Kitchen" was born, with the tag line "Travel, Cook, & Eat."

Some would say being ultra-conservative during a recession is the smart way to go, but I disagree. It's a time to realize who you really are and what you can do to create positive cash flow-- while still enjoying life. Contrary to popular belief, there is money to be made during a recession. You just need to take a step back and think about how people's spending patterns and behaviors (including yours) have changed. Examine your skill set, passions, and goals. Make them work together in your next endeavor. Here are a few tips I've found to be helpful along the way:

  1. First and foremost, find out what else you can do. If the restaurant game has proven difficult, explore other avenues in the culinary world.
  2. Network, network, network. The more people you know in this business, the better. Join chef communities, reach out to old friends, and even just chat up strangers to make more connections.
  3. Stay positive. Recessions can make things difficult, but nothing is impossible.
  4. Keep the 80/20 rule firmly in mind. In other words, focus on the 20% of life that really matters as it will be responsible for 80% of the results.
  5. Don't plan on becoming a millionaire overnight. That's just not realistic.
  6. Do your homework. Whether it's researching your target demographic or taking a course in marketing, information is key.

If I've learned anything it's to not be afraid to take a leap during a recession. If you have a unique vision, a solid business plan, and a positive attitude, success could be just around the corner.