All of us who have a CIA diploma as an arrow in our quiver of accomplishments already has a lot of what it takes to succeed in many segments of the food and beverage business. We leave school having had a fantastic introduction to the basics of cooking, service, beverages and cost control. Hopefully, we then spend several years honing those skills in various establishments, eventually figuring out which aspects of the business we enjoy the most and at which we are most likely to succeed.
No matter which corner of food and beverage we are most attracted to, the process of advancement is the same. First, we are given smaller, more specific jobs to handle. When we master these, our jobs gradually get larger and more general and, eventually, we find ourselves responsible for an entire segment of the business. Whether an alum goes from peeling potatoes to supervising every aspect of a large, busy kitchen, or stocking cases of wine to running a dining room that seats 250 (with many steps in between in both examples), the process is similar. It is a satisfying feeling to know that you are progressing in your career even though it will involve having more on your plate than is comfortable at times. Whether you reach that point as a line cook, executive chef, bartender or maître d’, it’s fine. The point is to progress as far as you can and make the most of every step.
But what about the person who is never really satisfied with any one particular position? They’ve always got their eye on the bigger picture and, no matter how big their “station” gets, it’s never enough for them to wrap their whole mind around. If you’re the kind of person who is always curious about everything that’s going on around you at work, gladly mastering your current workload, but just as eager to understand and try your hand at what’s going on next to you, then owning your own business might be the perfect vehicle to make the most out of everything you’ve got. For me, the perfect situation was to start a full-service catering company.
I had done everything in F&B from washing dishes (pre-CIA) to waiting tables, being a line cook, tending bar, to eventually becoming an executive chef at a great property. At every point, I saw that I not only wanted to do my best at whatever my job description entailed, but was also very interested in everything that was going on around me. Little by little, I realized that being responsible for as many aspects of an operation as possible would be more fun than just spending my days working a station, no matter how large. I also couldn’t help but notice the financial cap that employers seemed to place on members of my culinary fraternity, and that the owners seemed to endure no such limits.
Starting your own company builds on everything you’ve accomplished so far in your career. To be sure, it entails some things that, to date, you’ve probably not thought about, let alone mastered. But none of them are any harder than things you’ve already done. It’s a finite, doable set of skills and tasks. Start by talking to people who have owned or currently own the kind of establishment you think might be a good fit for you. If you don’t feel like you know any well enough to have a good conversation with them, change that. There are plenty of shy cooks, but no shy entrepreneurs. You’ll be surprised at how willing successful people are to help others eager to work hard to join their ranks. If you come across one that’s not, move on to another and don’t look back.
Live and Learn
Even if you think you’re not quite ready to take that step, you can at least look at your current job in a new light. Start thinking of it as a training ground for opening your own place. Ask yourself the question, “If I had to take over the whole operation tomorrow, what wouldn’t I have a clue about?” It might be the duties of the pastry chef, sommelier, banquet salesmen or bookkeeper. I’m not saying that you’ll ever have to be able to do every job like you’ve been doing it all your life, but at least start to become familiar with what it takes to run the show.
Owning your own place is not something that just happens overnight. I thought about it for years before I took the plunge. If you think it might be for you, it’s never too early to at least start considering it. It’s always good to look ahead to your next step. After running my successful catering company for 13 years, I realized it was time to do something new. I sold it, and am now very happy doing food & beverage consulting, working with start-ups, established concerns and owners looking to sell and move on. One of the nice things about our business is that there’s always an interesting next act if you’re flexible and open to the possibilities.
Essential First Steps
While the things that need to get done before opening a new venture vary based on the business in question, there are some similarities that can’t be denied. Here is a list of some of the essential steps ALL entrepreneurs must go through.
- Be honest with yourself about just what it is in your current situation you’re not satisfied with. If you decide you’d like to work a lot harder for more in return, having your own business might be right for you.
- Research different options to decide which type of business is your best fit.
- Be a sponge and put yourself in a position to learn everything you can about the business you decide on.
- Get help in writing a good business plan. This will address every issue you’ll need to deal with including your concept, personnel, competition, operations, funding, growth and finances.
- Follow the plan, realizing you’ll have to be more flexible, tenacious, patient and work harder and longer than ever before. Believe in yourself, don’t look back and remember, it will be worth it!