Opening a Restaurant: Assembling the Team

There is a lot of planning necessary to open a new restaurant. The first step is preparing a realistic budget, followed by assembling a team of professionals. The third step in this process is developing an accurate timeline.

In order to establish a realistic opening date and construction schedule, all of the following must be firmly in place:

  1. Financing, including bank loans, SBA guarantees, private capital and investment funds;
  2. Finished plans, including architectural, kitchen equipment and interior design;
  3. A signed lease or purchase and sale agreement;
  4. A signed agreement with a general contractor;
  5. A signed order with the kitchen equipment supplier, including furniture and decor items.

Whether the project is a remodel or ground-up construction, without these five elements in place, an opening date is only at best a guess.

If in fact you have accomplished all of these steps, the next hurdle to overcome is the permitting process. You will need the help of your architect, general contractor, kitchen equipment supplier, and attorney to guide you through this procedure.

The first challenge is a liquor license. When applying for a new or transferred liquor license (if one is even available), you will discover that not only does the local hearing board meet only once a month, but typically they must advertise your application, and your proposal must be on their agenda at least 30 to 60 days before they meet. The same may be true with the local architectural review board, especially if you are contemplating making any changes to the exterior of an existing building or, for new construction, within any sort of historical district.

A sign permit can be a long and arduous process. Depending on the local building inspector, and how busy they department is, the issuance of a building permit could take anywhere from 30 to 60 days. A demolition permit is far easier to obtain, and may allow work to begin while waiting for the building permit to be issued.

You must receive board of health approval for the kitchen plans, which may or may not require some modifications. The plumbing inspector will have some comments on handicap issues, as will the building department. Hopefully, any changes required will be minimal and not delay the project. Eventually, however, the permitting process will be complete, and by working closely with your general contractor and kitchen equipment supplier, an accurate opening date can then be agreed upon.

The way we like to approach a realistic opening date is by working backwards. Let's say as the owner, your desire is to open your new restaurant on June 1. The reasons for choosing this date may vary from negotiated rent arrangements, to wanting to be open for a specific season or holiday, to investor or bank commitments, or be contingent on closing an existing business. Regardless of why, it is always best to take the desired opening date and work backwards.

The first point to consider is exactly what kind of opening will you have. A soft opening, with little or no advertising, that may include various parties for investors, bankers, the press, politicians, friends, etc., or opening immediately to the general public? How much training time would you like, both for your kitchen staff and waitstaff? How many weeks does the general contractor need for the build-out? What are the lead times on the kitchen equipment, furniture, HVAC equipment, etc.?

As a general rule of thumb, we like to allow ten days to two weeks for training, parties, punch list items, etc. If June 1 is the projected opening date, that brings us back to May 15. A good estimate for the build-out of an existing space, providing the remodeling work is not too extensive, is ten to twelve weeks, although we have seen it done in eight.

Currently, the lead times on kitchen equipment, stainless steel fabrication, exhaust hoods and walk-in coolers are running eight weeks or better. Furniture can take even longer than that. Plugging this into our timeline, it would then seem that for a restaurant to open on June 1, construction must start at the latest by March 1. Kitchen equipment and furniture certainly should be on order by that date, and the permitting process should be completed. Although this may sound like a long time prior to opening, in reality it is not.

We also suggest building in some time for unknown contingencies: a field condition may occur that could not be anticipated which will delay construction; a piece of kitchen equipment may become unavailable and have to be ordered from a different manufacturer; something may arrive broken or damaged and need to be repaired.

The importance of this stage of the project cannot be overemphasized. Setting an accurate timeline and opening date is critical to the initial success of the restaurant. Without setting a deadline, the project will seem to never end. Setting too ambitious a schedule may cause mistakes, unnecessary stress, budget overruns, and air freight as well as overtime charges.

When opening a new restaurant, the public and the press are very unforgiving. It is crucial that you put your best foot forward. No one wants their opening to be marred by unfinished construction details, borrowed furniture, missing equipment or a poorly trained staff. It is only by setting a realistic date and working with your contractors and suppliers as a team that these pitfalls can be avoided.

Jerry Hyman, President
TriMark United East Foodservice Supply Co.

For more information, contact Jerry at jhyman@trimarkusa.com.

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