Like it or not, every independent restaurant owner enrolls in the school of hard knocks when he or she opens a new location. Jon Myerow, proprietor of Philadelphia hot spots Tria and Biba, shares some of the key lessons he has learned about running a successful restaurant/wine bar.
Jon Myerow didn’t come from money. He's a guy who took on equity and debt to start his first Tria location in 2004, and he's worked very hard every year since to build popular, profitable restaurants. He has learned to blend style and creativity with hard work and savvy business decisions. Along the way, he has created Philadelphia's most popular wine, cheese and beer cafés, featuring artisanal products made by passionate people. Both Tria (two locations) and Biba are simple concepts, executed extremely well.
Here are three lessons Myerow has learned as an independent owner.
Your business plan isn’t just for the outside world.
“You know, you don’t do a business plan just for the outside world. You do it for yourself. You have to have some discipline. And it’s like, “Wait, I projected that there’d be two people in the kitchen, and there’s three. And it’s a little bit slow tonight, so it’s completely throwing our labor budget out of line, so we have to make some adjustments.
“You don’t really have a boss, or somebody to report to. But if you have a business plan to report to, it does give you the discipline you need.”
Partnerships are like marriages.
“Well, it really is like getting married. Having complementary strengths is great, but many partnerships don’t work out. My advice would be not to become partners with someone unless you have already worked with them. My partner Michael was an employee for several years before we felt comfortable making him a partner.
“I actually started out with a potential partner, who was a wine person, and that ended up in litigation before we even opened. So I know all too well what can happen. You need to make sure your lawyers have a plan when things go sour. If things are not able to be reconciled, there should be an exit strategy in place before you need it.”
Be ready to be mentally tough.
“There were times when I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I worked without a salary for two years. I had influential business people tell me my idea was stupid, and that nobody would go. Banks laughed at me. It’s a very lonely road.
“The funny thing is, in Pennsylvania there’s no such thing as a beer and wine license. So pretty much every restaurant that has alcohol has distilled spirits, as well as wine and beer, because you can. Other states have beer and wine licenses. The day we opened, my lawyer partner said, ‘What the hell are we doing opening up a bar in Rittenhouse Square – which is a very influential part of the city – with no martinis?’ The first customer to ever walk in said, ‘Where’s the martini?’ and then walked out because we didn’t have one. I just wanted to shoot myself.
“It took time, because there were no other wine bars like this in Philadelphia. There were plenty of times where I was thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ In spite of that, I always believed in the concept. It was a place that I would want to go. I didn’t believe that other people wouldn’t want to go there as well, because I don’t think my tastes are that insane.
“You have to believe in what you’re doing, and you have to stay true to it. The Phillies have been doing really well every year, and part of our concept is that we don’t have TVs. It’s a place to go and talk to your friends. It’s pretty basic. Well, the last three years during the baseball playoffs, man, I wish I had a big TV. Because during the playoffs, once the Phillies games start, the place empties out. But you can’t sell yourself out. You have to keep true to your concept. Or else, no one’s going to know what you stand for.”
Myerow was interviewed by Wil Brawley, a partner at Schedulefly. Brawley’s 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., then published those interviews in his book, Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success.