Over two decades in the business, Big Red F founder Dave Query has learned three rules: College towns rock; partner in haste/repent in leisure; and don’t be a jerk with your staff.
Query has built a dynamic Denver-area portfolio that includes Zolo Southwestern Grill, LoLa Coastal Mexican, Jax Fish House, West End Tavern, Centro Latin Kitchen & Refreshment Palace, Happy and The Bitter Bar. His restaurants are consistently some of the most popular and well-regarded in the area. The colorful Query has learned quite a few valuable lessons in the last two decades, including these three:
University towns are great places to own restaurants.
“Man, the college environment in this town, and in a lot of towns where universities are thriving—like Ann Arbor, Madison and Austin—is a fantastic scenario for restaurant success. You’ve got 5,000 to 10,000 new kids coming in every year, and their 20,000 parents. Every year you get all of these new kids, and they’ve got mom and dad’s gold card, and they’re trying the restaurants to see what’s what, and their parents are coming in to visit them, and then they finally turn 21 as a junior, and then they’re really ready to see what it’s all about. It's nuts. It’s awesome.”
Choose your investors wisely.
“Well, it’s like going out on a first date. If you’re in your mid-twenties, or thirties, and you’re dating with something bigger in mind, that’s the same as finding an investor. So when you get those weird hits, and those weird personality charges, and those weird ego comments, run fast and run far, because that stuff will only get worse.
So you’ve really got to think about your long-term success when you’re interviewing these investors, because much different than a tech firm or something that you might be investing in, this is a very interactive investment for these people. They’re in your place, representing your brand, walking around the community, telling people that they are your partner and an owner. Man, if they’re not walking the high line that you expect them to, then you could be in a really bad situation.
For a lot of people, all they’ve ever wanted to do is own a restaurant. So they are a 10% owner, and they are walking around there like they own the joint, and the staff is drawing straws to see who has to wait on them. It can be a nightmare. I have so many friends with restaurant investors, and it can be just a complete nightmare.
It’s like marrying into a family. You’re going to spend time with these people. They’re going to see you at your worst. They’re going to see you at your best. You’re going to have to deliver tough news sometimes. They have to trust you explicitly. And vice versa.”
Treat your staff righteously.
“We’ve never run into issues with people quitting and storming out. By the time someone’s about to be fired, you know, it’s a mutual thing. We’re shaking hands, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t work for us. We’re good. You can roll on and we’ll actually help you get your next job.’ If we’re assholes to our employees, we wouldn’t have anybody. You can’t be a jerk. I know so many restaurant people that have their ego as the driving force behind what they are doing, and then they pay for it when people do things like steal from them.
We don’t have any of those issues, because it’s just a big family. We don’t have security cameras in the restaurants. We don’t check cash drawers and pull drawers in the middle of shifts like a lot of places do, or check backpacks as employees head out the door at night. I just can’t believe that. Employee theft is just not even on our radar. How could somebody want to clip you when you’ve just done them so righteously all of the time?”
Query was interviewed by Will Brawley, a partner at Schedulefly (www.schedulefly.com). His company provides restaurants with a web-based staff scheduling and communication application. Brawley recently interviewed 20 successful restaurant owners from all over the U.S., and published those interviews in his book, Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success.