Timing is everything when you own a restaurant. When do you add seating? Is it time to hire new employees? Does it make sense to extend hours? Is there a need to launch a new marketing campaign?
Managing growth is a challenge for many small business owners—particularly for owners trying to decide whether they should finance that growth. Ian Bramson, owner of Eclectic Kitchen in Portland, OR, suggests asking yourself two questions to determine if it’s time to add staff, additional seating, or otherwise grow:
Do you really know how busy you are?
Like many restaurant owners, Bramson spends a lot of time in the kitchen making sure the food served at his restaurant keeps his diners coming back. He opened Eclectic Kitchen in 2009 with 32 seats and a focus on breakfast and lunch. “We rely on our regulars to keep us busy,” he says.
With that in mind, he adds, “it’s important to step out of the kitchen to get a feel for what’s really happening in the dining room. You can learn a lot from talking to your customers and giving the servers a hand.”
Ian suggests paying attention to how many people you have waiting, and how long they need to wait. “If people are waiting for food, it’s not a good thing,” he said. “If they’re waiting to be seated, that isn’t good, either,” he added.
While waiting is often just part of the restaurant experience, how your restaurant grows can be an important part of how you manage the wait and will likely influence your decisions about whether it’s time to hire a new server or an additional cook. It might also be an indicator of the right time to expand seating or stay open more hours.
He also suggests noting the seasonal nature of your restaurant. “We get really busy in the fall,” he says. “But our sales are up for this time of year, so we’re expecting to be busy this fall.”
Do you have a strategy to accommodate growth?
“We’re planning to increase seating with an outdoor dining area as well as adding more seating inside the restaurant to prepare for the fall,” Bramson says. “We’re also thinking about adding dinner to our menu.”
Bramson has an expansion plan for the next few months and knows that he not only wants to increase the number of tables he can serve, but will need additional staff and refrigeration to accommodate growth in the kitchen, too. “Growth in the dining room impacts everything else in the restaurant,” he says. “You need to plan for that.”
“We really depend on word-of-mouth advertising,” he says. “We focus on really good food and great coffee to make our new customers happy, keep our regular customers coming back and give them all a reason to tell their friends. In addition to food made with fresh, local ingredients, we even use a local coffee roaster our customers seem to like, Trailhead Coffee, to help set the tone for a great breakfast.”
Bramson suggests it’s important for independent restaurant owners to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the dining room, as well as the kitchen, to know when the time is right to hire new staff or otherwise expand. With that said, you need to plan for how you’re going to accommodate growth when the timing’s right.
Ty Kiisel is a contributing author focusing on small business financing at OnDeck, a technology company solving small business’s biggest challenge: access to capital.