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The Insanity of Opening a Restaurant

May 22, 2019

I suffer from RCS (Restaurateur Compassion Syndrome)

I can't help but notice if a restaurant is empty. 
I feel the helplessness and anxiety of the owner 
as he contemplates the hourly payroll. 
Certain restaurants are on my deathwatch.
I silently pray for them but am relieved when 
they go to a `better place. I don't eat out 
very often, not because of the food. 
I object to their business model.

(See below- Response from restaurateurs who thank me for this free therapy. ) 

(Updated from April 15, 2018)
by Henry Makow PhD.

If I were starting out in life again, I would become a psychologist instead of a writer.

I would specialize in the peculiar mental derangement that causes people to open a restaurant. This mania infects thousands.

Approximately 60% of restaurants fail within three years.  And no wonder. There are tons of restaurants competing for business. 

Indeed, restaurants compete with everyone who has a kitchen and a cookbook, which is almost everyone.

My cooking is as good as most restaurants. They advertise "home cooking." Why not eat at home? One of my great pleasures in life, for which I am grateful, is being able to indulge my changing appetite.  Appetite is the body's way of telling you what it needs. 

When I consider the cost of food, equipment, furnishings, rent, advertising, labor, taxes, utilities, etc. I can't understand how restaurants survive. When I eat out, I am conscious that the owner's profit is the difference between what I pay and all of these items. No wonder I often feel ripped off in terms of quality and quantity. (My advice is to charge a bit more and provide generous portions.) 

For me, opening a restaurant would be like renting, furnishing and staffing a reading room where people buy my books and then sit down and enjoy them. I would go broke.

Never sell anything that can't be mass produced. Once I've finished a book, it's done. But a restaurant must manufacture its product anew every time, to exacting standards or face the indignation of the customer and a scathing online review. 

Not just one product, there are dozens on a menu! You are at the mercy of your cooks.

Did I mention the hard work and long hours? The city health inspectors? How just one bad review can spoil your business? How food goes bad? Imagine if someone gets food poisoning?

When I'm one of only a few customers, I feel the owner's anxiety. 

Yet nothing can stop this open-a-restaurant lunacy. In Montreal, they had to pass a law restricting their number. 

What's so great about cooking for strangers? They are rarely grateful. 

My sister owns a successful restaurant. The margin is 5%. You must do a lot of business for that to pay. My brother-in-law says it's like preparing to give a concert every night, and not knowing if anyone will show up.

I've noticed that successful restaurants serve a niche. They give people what they already eat, only better. The market for people curious about Eritrean food is limited.

What inspires people to get into this labor of love? 

Throw a dinner party and get it out of your system! At least the customers are your friends and you won't go broke!

Ok, I confess I will still eat at restaurants because I like to get out. In my dotage, the quest for food perfection, like finding the best cigar, hamburger, gyro or coffee gives life challenge. So buy a drink and leave a generous tip for the selfless souls who sacrifice their mental and financial stability for you. 

---------- Restaurant Owners- What I wish I had Known! 


Comment from PJ:

I was born into the restaurant business. For 40 years my family has managed to control this beast of a career. I know all about the missed holidays, the horrible hours, the late nights, and the crazy staff members. I'm not here to crush anyone's dream about owning a restaurant but this business isn't for anyone normal...You have to be a little insane. It takes lots of money, passion, determination and grit just to get through a lunch rush. Employees calling in and training someone to cook is a whole new level of hell. Every day I ask myself how in the F did I end up doing this?? I've got a degree from college and I've landed a career that isn't much respected. Yes, I'm the boss, but I'm more of an employee. The money is decent and I've got bills so....I'm stuck. Ahh, it just feels good to vent and read what others have written. Good luck to everyone. You'll need it eventually.

Comment from AQ:

it's midnight and I just finished reading your article about the restaurant business.
well, I have opened a pizza joint with Mediterranean food five years ago and now I'm closing doors after i have depleted my savings trying to revive it. I am surrounded by big-name corporations, papa jones, pizza hut, dominos and the likes. they have been crushing since I opened; it is a war, they have guns and tanks and I have knives and sticks. guess who is winning. I entered the restaurant business because I  Iike to cook.

and now I have no choice but to close doors. I'm by myself by the way and I don't deliver pizza.

but taxes, licenses, insurance, dumpster fees, health inspectors and the rising food cost are killing me. just yesterday I had to pay the sanitation department $950.00 for grease trap fees alone or they were going to shut off my water.  had to borrow half of the money from my son. he did not ask for collateral by the way.
anyway, I'm finished, saddened, and old with no skill and nobody would hire me.
I guess i'll deliver for papa jones.

thanks, Henry for hastening my decision and helping me cut down my losses.
by the way on the same street, there are little caesars, papa jones, pizza hut, dominos, and 2 other locally - owned joints.
well i'd better get some sleep and figure out a way to store my stuff until I sell it.
good night

CR writes:

I wish I had read this article 15 years ago.  I went to cooking school with hopes to one day open my own restaurant, if only I had known what I was getting myself into.  Needless to say, I never opened a restaurant.  Little did I realize that here in Ottawa to open a simple restaurant with 20 seats or so would cost around $250,000 and no bank will give you a loan because of the excessively high risk.  Unless you or your business partners have the money you will need to find private investors, which is not easy at all. 
Most people who open a restaurant are motivated by the fact that they "like cooking" and think it will be "fun".  Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant can tell you that there is very little about it that is fun or to be liked.  I enjoy cooking at home, but a restaurant environment is something completely different.  When it's busy, you are under constant stress.  When it's not busy, you are either stuck scraping some grease in the corner or you are going home.  It's a business in which employee's rights are rarely recognized - no overtime pay, no holiday pay, no breaks (even though they deduct money for them), no chance to eat even though you are working with food all day long.  

Not all restaurants are equally bad, but these are regular things to expect. The next thing is wages - although minimum wage (in Ontario) has gone up by nearly $4 in the last few years, the average restaurant wages have barely increased.  When I look at job ads they are offering the same wages I was making in 2008.  In most restaurants, there are maybe one or two people (chef and sous-chef) who get a decent salary, but often they are working 60-80 hours a week for no extra pay over what they would have made for 40 hours.  There are few cooks and waiters over 35 years old, most are single and childless, many have drinking and/or drug problems.  You wonder why.  Those who have their heads on somewhat straight are often motivated by a misguided sense of pride, "look at me, I'm a cook in a fancy restaurant but I live in my mom's basement".  Currently, I cook for a nursing home and also as a personal trainer.  Nursing homes are far from glamorous, but the hourly wage is a lot more than what most restaurant cooks make.
On a side note, I try to avoid eating from restaurants as much as possible.  After seeing what goes on in there I don't want to take the risk.  "What?  There's no time to wash your hands!",  "Just pick it up off the floor, we can't throw out steaks", "No need to wash the lettuce, there's black pepper in the salad dressing, nobody will know the difference".  These are not imaginary stories.  Speaking of lettuce, most restaurants I have worked in use the same sink to wash lettuce (the ones that actually do) and dump the water from the mop bucket.  Is salad really a healthy option?  If you are hungry and don't have time to cook you are better grabbing a burger at McDonald's or something like that, it's greasy and doesn't taste so great but you won't spend the night on the toilet.  If you are worried about your weight then skip the fries and soft drink, eat some fruit when you get home instead.

Scruples - the game of moral dillemas

Comments for "The Insanity of Opening a Restaurant "

Gerry said (May 23, 2019):

Guess what popped up in the local newspaper, The Province, but a story headlined, ‘It’s been a pleasure’ Jamie Oliver’s bankrupt restaurant empire marinated in red ink.

LOL, not even celebrities can catch a break and why any celebrity would want to open a restaurant is beyond me. Jamie however, won’t be suffering with apparently a 400 - million fortune?

And as much as I understand his bankruptcy I’m still trying to get over the news in same paper of rents for a 2 bedroom apartment going for 3000 dollars a month here in Vancouver? Tell me really who can afford such and imagine this isn’t commercial? This whole sticking shite is going to collapse and sooner than anyone realizes!

David C said (May 22, 2019):

I moved to Portland (OR) to attend the Western Culinary Institute, because I always loved cooking, and thought it would be a good career for me.

After I got a job working in a resteraunt for awhile, however, that changed my mind. Cooking for other people, using set recipes, took all the fun out of it, plus it's hard work. Executive chefs at expensive restaurants make good money, but they also work their butts off, and those jobs are very difficult to get.

I rarely eat out anymore, but prefer an open kitchen when I do. It's fun watching the food get prepared, and you can appreciate how hard they work. We have many "pod" food businesses now, clusters of food pods, which offer a variety of options, which seems to be a phenomena in most large cities.

Unfortunately the food usually isn't very good, but usually not bad either. I like restaurants that offer recipes I don't usually cook myself, and we have plenty of variety here in Portland, possibly the highest proportion of restaurants per capita. Then too we have some food businesses that are thriving, for reasons I can't fathom. "Voodoo Donuts" (supposedly owned by pedophiles) often has huge lines outside, like it's a social scene to wait in line for designer donuts here now - wtf?

I enjoy cooking for my dog now, who eats the same food as me, except he gets some meat I wouldn't eat, and raw bones. Cooking for your dog or cat is actually less expensive, and much healthier for them, plus it saves on vet bills. I've developed a repetroir of doggie dishes, approved by Renji-sama, my faithful service dog, spirit guide, guardian angel, and doggie jitsu master. I'm considering making a website specializing in cooking for dogs and cats, because the food in pet stores is getting VERY expensive, and it's mostly low-quality food. Our beloved fur babies deserve to eat the same quality food as their service humans eat. Food is the most important medicine! "Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food" ~ Hippocrates (father of holistic medicine).

Paul said (May 22, 2019):

The main reason I don't go to restaurants is that as a minimum-wage earner, I'm not going to tip a server (and there goes my refills). So I go to the counters such as Subway, Tim Horton's, McDonalds, etc. I hate it though because I'm supporting big companies that get massive tax breaks but I can trust the portions and the hours and most of those that work in chain restaurants get benefits that match other corporate places. I honestly don't know how independent restaurants do it but the following are reasons that people do get into the restaurant business:

1) In owning one's own business there are tax breaks people can take advantage of.

2) One can be creative on many different levels.

3) The compliments one can receive for good service and presentation can be rewarding.

4) If they cater to the niche they themselves are a part of, the owners now are surrounded by a group of friends.

5) On the off-chance something clicks, millions might be made.

That said, restaurants are hellholes and only the insane last but are often lifelong addicts of one kind or another.

When I was young I worked in restaurants because they reinforced my view that life was totally out of control. Now I avoid working in them or giving them my money.

Chad said (May 22, 2019):

I would definitely eat out more, if more restaurants had organic and non-GMO selections. That’s unfortunately, unfeasible for most establishments, given the cost of these foods.

John said (April 6, 2018):

Been eating at particular restaurant for more than 17 years plus in South Bay and surrounded by four hotels they have always been busy for breakfast and lunch meals. Have seen plenty of waitresses come and go. They even have another restaurant just north several miles with same the menu. The problem with Diner's is they have the same thing repeatedly as pointed out in this article. I particularly target restaurant for one or two items on the menu and that is it and do the same for the rest of eateries that are visited. In the end you have to eat somewhere beside at home. Occasionally, food poisoning issues occur. It is thankless job at times but someone has to do.

Robert K said (April 5, 2018):

Overall only one in ten businesses survive ten years. They are fighting an economic environment designed by puritanical economists according to the principle that economics is the study of “the use of scarce resources”. And the primary resource in short supply is non-debt money—a situation that drives people into the thrall of banker-created debt.

Imagine the waste involved in the effort to build viable businesses in an inherently adverse financial environment. Sisyphus would understand!

M said (April 5, 2018):

This is why Chinese restaurants employ their entire family and keep slaves (either other Asians or illegal Mexicans) in the kitchens and pay off health inspectors. They grew up in a communist county and know how the corrupt 'system' works.

It's the same in the USA and "Immigration" or whatever they call them now usually turn a blind eye due to kickbacks. It's almost impossible for an independent restauranteur to "play by the rules" and survive. If you don't bribe the health inspector and every other government leech, you won't last long.

Duane said (April 5, 2018):

The only thing MORE dumb than opening a restaurant is FREQUENTING them....

JG said (April 5, 2018):

Resteraunts today have fallen victim to the new two-tier economy. We have the millionaires and billionaires, and then we have everybody else who is living week to week.
Bars are also taking a big hit. The days of the average young man working hard all week and then going out to the bar on the weekend to meet some women or blow off some steam are fading fast. Joe Six Pack went broke also.

My grandfather who was a combat WW1 veteran who had a restaurant during the depression. He was stunned one day when an out of work lawyer applied for a job as a dishwasher at his diner.

We're not too far away from a total crash of the economy we once knew. Marxist economics is like a game of monopoly. Sooner or later one man and his multiple holdings winds up with all the money.

Patrick N said (April 5, 2018):

I always loved this article and its comments because it reminds me of the b.s. about "reaching for the stars" and "being anything that you want to be" that we're fed from our youth. They will usually cite a handful of successful examples of overcoming the odds (the beneficiaries usually being predetermined or guided dupes) while never mentioning the countless sincere all-in attempts that ultimately end up in failure.

It reminds me that what we're taught it means to be successful in this world is not worth pursuing.

Derek V said (April 17, 2015):

have often pondered the explosion of sushi restaurants on every street corner many of which look desolate. An explanation that somebody served to me was that as part of the provincial nominee program would be permanent resident seekers with money can agree to "invest" in local business which often translates into opening a sushi restaurant and keeping it running for the required time period. The success of the establishment isn't the main objective.

Adrian said (April 16, 2015):

What you describe can be summarized as:don't open a restaurant in a "developed" nation where taxes and government meddling ruin any hope of self determination. As evidence, just take a look in Asia: Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. There, TOTAL taxes are around the 25% mark and oppressive meddling not yet arrived. Result: 20 times more successful restaurants than in "developed" nations. Often the cooking is "right in front of your eyes", so there are no worries about quality.

Joe said (April 15, 2015):

Like so many other Americans my first job as a young teenager was in a restaurant (a pizzeria in the small town I grew up in). I loved it - made a little money, kept busy, responsibilities, etc., but I quickly realized the pros and cons of owning a restaurant. Realizing the cons had greater weight; the seed was planted to never purse that idea. The owners were burnt out after several years and no matter what they could not control who would come through the doors. Memories I wouldn't change.

Fast forward twenty years to present day and I abhor eating out in restaurants. Why? The entire setting is phony. Your waiter/waitress is rushed to seat you, they spill out the same speech introducing themselves and how they will take care of you (by this point I'm usually ready to leave). They next throw menus in front of you and want to take your order within 1 minute! Your meal comes later and maybe it's good or maybe it's not. Maybe it's warm or maybe it's not. When you're close to finishing the meal the waiter/waitress brings the bill (because in their mind they're done with you) and you're expected to pay (and leave a tip) and get the hell out of there! And did I mention the food is mostly not healthy?

What I described above is the typical American restaurant. It's not meant to be enjoyable. It's not meant to be relaxing. They want you in and they want you out - nothing more.

I've been very lucky in life as I have been to Europe and other foreign places many times and I have experienced real restaurants (even small pizzerias) and real service. If you want to stay and drink and enjoy life you do. No worries. Nobody is pushing you out the door. A very different point of view that what we have in America.

Good luck to all people who want to open a restaurant. But don't count on me eating there - I've already been boycotting you for years.

Tony B said (April 15, 2015):

Wow! I've lived too long. Have done too many different things in my life. One of those things was managing the soda fountain of a restaurant when I was 17. But before I turned 18 I was, by default of others, made the night short order cook and then the chef. I learned on the job in the days when restaurants had stock pots, ovens and hot tables instead of everything coming out of five gallon buckets (mostly full of soy beans with a little flavor added) as they are today. We used real food and prepared it. We even made our own fries in those days and all deep fries also used real food - lard; not unhealthy soy bean oil.

Some of the things I learned:

1. You are married to a restaurant job. But you hate your spouse.

2. As a man who had a radio show on making money (forget his name) periodically mentioned, most people who want a restaurant are thinking of manning the cash register, greeting customers and taking money. His advice to them (the great majority asking about this business were school teachers) was to take a job as a dish washer and learn the business, then see if they still wanted to do it. This made most of those inquirers irate but he knew whereof he spoke.

3. You do not "manage" a restaurant from a distance or you will be broke almost instantly. Much more food will walk out the back door than will be sold to customers.

4. You will be giving up most all the holidays that your family wants you to celebrate at home.

5. Some customers will use you as a foil to show off to others how much better they can prepare food by sending it back for redoing when it is fine.

6. You will be called in on your day off anytime someone else doesn't show up because you are trained for that particular restaurant while strangers would be lost.

7. No matter how much better than your customers you understand good food you had better give them what they are used to or you will be running a mausoleum in no time.

The list could go on and on. Not the happiest way to make a living.

SS said (April 15, 2015):

Allow me to make some observations about buffet clientele. Of course the vast majority are white Americans. Of the obese, women are the majority.

I see more fat women and skinnier husbands than I care to. Of course there are obese men, but far fewer than women, at least in the buffets I attend. Needless to say, some people have lost control. Moving on to the overweight division, women lead that class too.

I believe it is in large part due to the entitlement demographic, basically doing nothing but sitting around waiting for the next stipend.

Besides gaining weight, Americans are cheap. Most leave no tip. Many waste food, some shamefully a lot. Water is the new restaurant beverage. Why? Because it's free. I hope the restaurant industry starts charging for water. You can't go into a convenience store and get it for free except in the bathroom sink, how nice.

And last but not least, on Sunday, all my Christian brethren gather to extoll the virtues they've learned in fellowship at church in one final demonstration of breaking bread at the Chinese buffet by eating like pigs, wasting food and leaving virtually no tip or worst yet dropping pocket change, at least here in Missouri. I am ashamed.

But, just another day in Paradise, Henry.

Henry Makow received his Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Toronto in 1982. He welcomes your comments at