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How to Run a Restaurant

London has a huge amount of restaurants, but Andrew Wilson-Smith's has a distinct twist.

Running a restaurant is known as one of the most demanding, yet rewarding experiences. But what does it actually take to keep a restaurant ticking-over and paying its way.

Here we give our guide to the basic rules of running a profitable restaurant with useful advice from successful new restauranteur Andrew Wilson-Smith. Andrew’s restaurant is in South West London and is firmly aimed at the family market.

Establish your USP

It goes without saying that all restaurants should deliver good food and provide a clean and relaxed environment for its guests but your business will only truly prosper and come into its own if it offers something unique.

It is important to recognise exactly why your customers want to visit your restaurant. Do they come for the exceptional food? Do they come for the beautiful surroundings? Do they come because it’s good value? Are most diners’ drop-in visitors, there because your restaurant is in a prime location? What is bringing in the customers?

You should know what makes your restaurant different to others. Only if you are offering something clearly defined will you have continuous and returning customers. If you think you don’t have a unique selling point - it is time to find one.

Andrew’s restaurant is a child-friendly restaurant aimed at the family market. It’s this unique selling point that has helped his business grow and get ahead of the competition.

Andrew explains that his idea for the restaurant was well thought out; “it took about five years to plan. Originally we wanted to open a tea room, but it has ended up becoming a child-friendly restaurant”.

Andrew knew this idea would be unique – he told us “I have never come across anywhere similar to our place and I always struggle to think of anywhere to compare it to”.

Andrew knew from experience that it can be stressful bringing up a family so he “wanted to provide a place where parents can sit down for half an hour and have something nice to eat and drink. That's the basic idea”.

Make sure you know exactly what you are offering and what the central idea behind your restaurant is, ideally even before you buy a restaurant.

Bring in your target audience

Once you know what your restaurant is offering, and why customers might choose it over other restaurants, you can make new attempts to bring in this target audience.

If you’re known for being good value, make sure your marketing reflects this and reach out to those looking for a good deal. If your restaurant suits families make sure they know you exist. Whatever your customer base don’t expect them to hear about you through word-of-mouth, or find you by accident.

If you don’t know much about your target audience get to know them better. Before purchasing his restaurant, Andrew knew the area well as he’d lived there for 10 years.

He knew his local target audience and safely knew that “there are a lot of mums around here”. He knew they wanted areas the children were safe and happy but where they could also relax – he, therefore, added a play area to the restaurant.

Andrew says that the parents who come to his restaurant “they go out feeling better than when they came in”.

If you want new customers, you need to reach out and be proactive. Make sure you have a marketing campaign of some kind, have a website, are using social media and engaging with local press. And when new customers do try your restaurant make sure you make a lasting impression (for the right reasons).

Keep your established customers

To keep your existing regular customers, you need to ensure that all the cogs in the restaurant machine are running smoothly and that you are delivering what your loyal customers have come to expect. You need to ensure that there is constant quality assurance.

You need to be constantly re-evaluating your offer and your service and you need to keep asking: is the food as good? Is the restaurant looking tired? Are the staff happy and polite? Are your prices competitive?

If you do not ensure that standards remain high, and that you are meeting the expectations of both new guests and regular guests your business will slowly fall into decline.

Build on your success

So, you’re bringing in new customers, keeping your regulars happy, and ensuring standards remain high, but you still shouldn’t sit back and relax.

Andrew has continued to develop his offer and his restaurant now offers organic additive-free food. Responding to the needs and wishes of his target audience Andrew said his customers can now “relax about the food and they can relax about the environment”.

His customers are safe in the knowledge that their children are eating healthy locally made food, but this is also an additional revenue source for the restaurant.

Establish a life work balance

Running a restaurant business can be exhausting, unrelenting, and all-consuming however there are ways to establish a healthier work-life balance and you should try to carve out time for yourself and your family.

Andrew says of running a restaurant businessIt's pretty hard work. It's full-on. It's all the hours that God sends. I wouldn't recommend it for everyone by any means”.

Andrew admits that being a father and running a business is an additional challenge; “it's not easy, but I enjoy it. I look after my kids quite a lot because that is what I want to do. I have to manage the shop, so it is hard, but I have a manager who helps me a lot.”

Andrew relies on experienced core staff who he trusts. He currently has 10 staff but eventually wants to have more. The restaurant is open 7 days a week, from 9 in the morning until 6 at night.

Andrew explains: “I do believe in delegation. There's that classic thing where you work on the business, not just in the business. I do a two-day week, working 12 hours in the restaurant, but in addition to that I spend time working to improve the business - trying to find better ingredients, products and so on”.

Consider what elements of your business you can delegate and whether you can take on additional staff to ease your workload. If you can’t take on new staff now, when might you be able to and how much more revenue would you need to do so.

Your workload will also feel lighter if you are surrounded by a team who are efficient and who you trust – do you have the right staff currently in place?  How might you re-structure your team to ensure the most effective workflow? 

Remain informed and realistic

The restaurant industry is always changing; new restaurants will open and close and the public’s tastes and expectations will change.

If you want a restaurant which can survive all challenges and changes then you need to remain informed and remain realistic.

You also need to be aware of the ever-shifting legal and health and safety landscape.

Andrew told us that his move into freshly made food products brought with it new hurdles. There are already a lot of rules and regulations when running a restaurant but there are additional advisory measures to address when feeding babies.

Andrew explains that when he first made their own baby food they called Trading Standards to get it tested. Andrew told us “normally they'll come in a year after you start selling, but I thought: ‘We're not going to do that, we're going to be safer than that’. It was a pre-emptive move and they said we were the first company to have done it”.

Be aware of all the regular rules and regulations, but as Andrew proved, it is sometimes worthwhile to think ahead and be pre-emptive.

It seems like Andrew takes running a business in his stride but was it always this easy? Andrew says that starting the restaurant was expensive, “my life savings have gone into it, we remortgaged the house and we raised everything we could. We invested about £200k altogether”.  

The running of the restaurant also continues to be expensive. Andrew explains that establishing the restaurant cost more than expected, and took longer. “We had a budget and we stuck to it. We literally didn't have any more money at one point, and when you're in that situation - when you haven't even got a single penny to call on - you need to make compromises”.

When the money ran out Andrew had to think strategically about what cuts they could make. The big decision they made was to delay installing air conditioning – they waited for a year.

It’s important to remember that however much you plan and predict things still won’t work out quite as you expect, and this is why you need to think quickly and respond accordingly to any problems that arise. If you are going through a challenging patch also be realistic and pragmatic if you need to wait or find more money. Do.

Andrew’s restaurant recently received an award, which Andrew said was “nice”. However, he’s realistic about the future “we still have to pay back all our start-up costs before we can talk about profit. It is a very long-term commitment. It's going well so far, but there's still a lot to do”.

Andrew would like to open another restaurant eventually, with a bigger kitchen so they can make all of their own produce and only then would he consider further expansion.

Stay passionate

Despite the financial challenges and the long working hours Andrew still loves running his own business. 

He loves being in charge of his own life. “One exciting bit is to think of new things that you can do, spend time to get them working and then see the results. Some things do not work as well as others, of course, but a number of things have really worked well and made a huge difference”.

Andrew still loves what he does and because of this he is always considering what he can improve and what he can add – and this is the sign of a truly successful restauranteur. If you're not currently happy in your role, find a way to reconnect with your work, and your restaurant. 

Andrew’s last bit of advice: “make sure you are passionate about it because it will take over your life”.

Sophie Mitchell

About the author

Sophie has contributed to, and over the two years she worked at Dynamis House.

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