When Scott Maitland was in law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1994, he heard that a large chain planned to move into the best restaurant location in town, right on the corner of the main intersection. He decided he couldn't let a chain dominate downtown Chapel Hill, and began figuring out how to start his own restaurant in that spot. Two years later he opened Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery, and it has since turned into a thriving institution in that town.
During the planning process and in the years since "Topo" (as it's affectionately known) opened, Scott has learned many great lessons, including these three:
1. Flip your list of potential investors upside down.
If you are going to raise money, then naturally you will make a list of people you want to pitch your deal to. When you finish your list, flip it upside down, because when you write your list, you will inevitably start your list with your best prospects. Therefore most people start pitching their deal to their best prospects first.
That's what I did, and with no experience with my pitch, I gave lousy presentations, and burned my best prospects. But if you flip your list upside down, then by the time you get to your best prospects, you are going to have a much better presentation, and a much better deal. It’s not just about showmanship. When you make a presentation and you get rejected, you ask “Why?” You can’t get upset, and you have to be honest with yourself and focus on making your deal better.
2. Know your local community intimately
One thing the independent has that no amount of money can replace is an understanding of the local community. A well-funded chain restaurant can blow an independent away with restaurant design, menu design and all of that stuff. But the problem is, by its definition, to justify that type of capital expense it needs to be replicatable, and that is the chains' Achilles' heel. What the money can't do is it can't drill down into one community and understand what that community needs. Chains can't do that. An independent can.
For example, Michael Jordan hooked up with an independent restaurant group out of Chicago to start “23 Restaurant” here in Chapel Hill. They had marketed themselves as the place for fathers and sons to go to before the game. To be frank, I was a little nervous. They were right down the block, and I was thinking it was going to be tough to compete against that. They were advertising it as the place to go to before the game, but the menu didn’t have a hamburger on it. Rather, they were selling $26 rabbit.
I don’t know if I am accurate or not, but I guess rabbit seems fun and exotic in Chicago. Meanwhile, there are plenty of people here in North Carolina who remember hard times, and the only way they got to eat was to go out and shoot a rabbit. So the idea of paying $26 to have a rabbit doesn’t work on many levels. It’s not what you want to eat before a basketball game, and it’s not what this market wants.
3. Your menu is at the center of everything.
Everyone starting a restaurant will tell you that the menu is important, but I don't think people really understand how important the menu is. It drives everything, from staffing and equipment needs, to the type of customers you are going to get, to the whole feel of the restaurant.
So you've got to think long and hard about what it is that you want to offer. We had to make major menu changes in our first year, and I was lucky that we are in a college town and we were able to get a whole new wave of people coming in that next fall. If we hadn't had a second chance to make a first impression, it could have been tough.
Maitland was interviewed by Will Brawley, a partner at Schedulefly. 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.