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5 surprising tips from successful independent owners

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Over the last two years I’ve traveled all over the country interviewing successful restaurant owners for Schedulefly’s “Restaurant Owners Uncorked” video series. Without fail, each owner we film offers a piece of advice that not only seems unconventional or thought-provoking at first, but that also has been a key part of why they’ve been successful. Here are five of those tips along with the corresponding videos.

Roll the dice.

Julian Siegel, The Riverside Market & Café, Ft. Lauderdale, FL

“Finding people in this industry is really hard. And sometimes we do get in a jam. We do get understaffed. And everyone says, 'Oh, just put it on Facebook' or 'Put a sign on the door.' There’s nothing worse that I can imagine than walking into a restaurant with a Help Wanted sign on the door.

“It’s not like it’s a lumber yard. When people walk up to your restaurant, you kind of want them to think that you’ve got everything under control here. So the Help Wanted sign on the door doesn’t work. Same with social media. I couldn’t imagine putting an ad on Facebook: 'We need servers. We need help.' Because you want to kind of always feel that you’re secure in your business and you don’t need help; good help will come to you.

“Some of our best employees have come to us via accident, just walking through the door. I think . . . there’s always a network. You’re always going to run into situations such as 'Oh, my sister’s friend’s cousin is in town and she’s really good.' Or 'Oh, my best friend’s son; he’ll work out. He’s a dream.' You know, you get a lot of referrals, which is great because at least there’s a level of connection. And every time we’ve gone ahead doing advertising through employment firms, I mean, they’ll have a thousand resumes. They’ll set up a hundred interviews. Ten will show up. One is qualified. I prefer just to roll the dice and let the right person walk in the door.”

Cook with happiness.

Katsuya Fukushima, Daikaya, Washington, DC

“I always tell my cooks you have to be in a good place. You have to be happy. You have to be positive. Because if you’re not, it’s going to relay into the food.

“You know, a happy cook makes happy food. And, when people eat that food it’s just going to make them happy. A good example is that movie, Like Water for Chocolate, where the girl was crying when she was making mole. So people started eating it and they all started crying because that was the emotion she felt when she was cooking it. I think that’s a great example. Because you have to have a positive approach to cooking, and you have to love what you’re doing because . . . it’s a hard business and if you put that energy into a plate, how can someone not appreciate what you’ve done when they eat it?”

Inexperience is a positive.

Mike Schatzman, Union Sushi Barbeque Bar, Chicago

“It’s an industry of negatives and positives. You know, people (might have a) negative experience in all the restaurants that they work in, and that’s going to carry them through to any other establishment where they work. So there’s lack of hope or lack of growth. And some people may not necessarily view it as a career path.

“I think for me the fresh perspective was great because I had no preconceived notions coming in here. I didn’t have any negative experiences. I didn’t have any positive experiences. So, everything here was based on hope that we were going to do something good, but also creating a positive environment. And then just doing things differently.

“It may not necessarily be an industry that’s adaptive. So, it’s very interesting because people are set in their own ways. Unlike Corporate America right now, (which is) all about how fast you can move, how fast you can change. And a lot of companies have been very adaptive…with technology, embracing new ways of doing things, scheduling, all that type of stuff. But I think that perspective allowed me to excel because I had no preconceived notions. And my goal was to do things the most efficient and cost-effective way possible. Not necessarily following a so-called unwritten rule of ‘Here’s how it works in this industry and here’s how you need to get it done.’”

Grow half as fast as you think you should.

Daniel Holzman, The Meatball Shop, Brooklyn, NY

“When you’re moving forward, it seems like you’re crawling at a snail’s pace. Everything seems like it’s too slow. And from the outside there’s a ton of pressure to open more restaurants, and strike while the iron’s hot. But from the inside looking back, we feel like we’re moving so quickly—almost too quickly. Looking back, we think ‘Wow, we’ve only been open for two years. We have three restaurants and we have another one on the way.’

“There are a bunch of things that you’re not going to realize have fallen through through the cracks until they’ve fallen through the cracks. And the only way that you can kind of minimize the mistakes that you make is by moving a little bit more slowly than you would feel comfortable with. So, you know, however fast you think you can move, if you cut it in half, you have a better chance of catching things before they’re out of control.”

Mistakes are good.

Marilyn Schlossbach, Langosta Lounge, Asbury Park, NJ

“In my career, many failures come my way. Any time you grow a business, there’s a lot of challenges. And when I opened my first restaurant, my parents had both passed so I had no mentors to help me. My brothers had all moved out of the area. And I was kind of on my own. And I am a very driven, passionate person, so I tend not to think about consequences all the time—which is good and bad. So I made a lot of leaps of faith to do things that I thought were great ideas, or wonderful concepts, or just wanting to feed people things that I thought they would love. And I’ve never had issues with the food end of my world, but on the business end, when you’re creative your challenges don’t always get worked out in your mind very quickly. So, I’ve had to learn to be the scheduler, the accountant, the bookkeeper, the trainer, the design person, as well as the chef. And, you know, I never went to hospitality school; I never went to culinary school; I never finished college; I never went to business school. So, all of these things are learned day-to-day.

“And back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, we didn’t have the Internet. So you couldn’t go Google something like 'How do I make a schedule?' You had to figure it all out. And sometimes it works and a lot of times it didn’t. I ran into issues like bad locations, or agreeing to a rent that was too high, or leases not being negotiated well, which is a huge problem in our industry. But you learn from these mistakes, and it makes you stronger.”

Wil Brawley is a partner at Schedulefly, a company that provides restaurants with Web-based staff-scheduling and communication software. He is the author of the book Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success and producer of the  Restaurant Owners Uncorked video series.

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