Restaurateurs-to-Be Look Before Leaping


By Tracie McMillan

The New York Times • Aug. 8, 2007

PASQUALE VIGGIANO and his wife, Geraldine, thought they knew the restaurant business. Ms. Viggiano had helped her mother run a cafe in Honduras and Mr. Viggiano had grown up hearing his parents’ fond tales of the luncheonette they opened when they came to Brooklyn from Italy.

“They described how they put the restaurant together and it kind of excited me,” Mr. Viggiano said.

They had dreamed of opening one of their own since they met more than a decade ago, and last year they started to put plans into place. It would be a Mexican spot in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with a fine wine list, outdoor seating and tableside mariachi singers.

With the enthusiasm of novices, they figured everything would be ready by the spring. Then they went to Restaurant Management Boot Camp.

Sponsored by the city’s Department of Small Business Services and Seedco, a national community development group, Boot Camp aims to help small restaurants get off the ground and thrive — and strengthen the city’s economy. Through free monthly seminars at the city’s Business Solutions Center, prospective restaurateurs can get help developing business plans, analyzing the market, dealing with health inspections and navigating city bureaucracy.

The Viggianos were floored to learn of the regulations and licenses they would be facing.

They scrapped the mariachis, which would require a cabaret license. They nixed the idea of formal, matching uniforms, because they would be required to provide laundering services for employees. And they decided to postpone the sidewalk tables, which would require architectural sketches and another license.

But rather than demoralizing them, Boot Camp seems to have strengthened their dream.

“It opened up our eyes to what we were starting to do,” said Mr. Viggiano, who has a storefront real estate business in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “We had to say, let’s back off, and make sure we’re doing this right.”

They hope to open their restaurant, the Mexican Piramide, this month.

Restaurants seem to be the most alluring ambition for small entrepreneurs in New York these days. The dining scene is booming in nearly every neighborhood. But according to a study published in the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly in 2005, 60 percent will close within their first three years. The goal of the Boot Camp, and programs connected to it, is to help give new restaurants a stable, sensible foundation. One way is to make people aware of what they’re up against.

“Small mom and pops need to know the regulations much better,” said C. K. Chung, a staff consultant who has met with about 350 hopefuls and helped about a dozen restaurants open since the program began two years ago. “Boot Camp is a portal for them to know how to run a restaurant business.”

José Luis Hernández knows the difficulties, having worked in the business since he was a 15-year-old prep cook fresh from Puebla, Mexico, earning $183 for a 48-hour week. But he wants his own place.

“By the time I’m 35, I want to work for myself,” said Mr. Hernández, who is now 31. “It’s going to be hard because I have to do a good business plan.”

In December, Mr. Hernández left his job as sous-chef at Alfredo of Rome in Midtown to start a restaurant with his life savings of about $100,000. Then his partner pulled out. To buy some time, he joined the kitchen at Morandi in Greenwich Village and moved in with family to save money.

In between English classes and shifts as a line cook Mr. Hernández has been looking for investors and testing his menu on friends and family. He’s proudest of his own creations, inspired by his childhood in Puebla: a rib-eye steak in a hibiscus flower sauce, and traditional torta de maíz, a sweet corn cake.

He’s been working with the Boot Camp and other programs of the restaurant initiative to refine his business plan, work out marketing strategies and find loans.

The program’s expertise has its limits, though.

“An owner has to know all the aspects of a restaurant,” said Bill Guilfoyle, an associate professor in the business management program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Programs there and at other culinary schools cover everything from hiring servers to emptying grease traps, and are taught by experienced professionals. New York City’s program — apparently the nation’s first public effort to train restaurateurs — is run instead by small-business experts. “I’m sure this is helpful, but I don’t think that there’s any way that anyone who’s totally inexperienced in the restaurant industry could really succeed with just this amount of information,” Mr. Guilfoyle said of the program.

Or as Gloria Jean Brown, the owner of a cafe in Harlem, said, “They can’t tell me how to run a kitchen, how to bake a pie.” Still, Ms. Brown is glad she found the Boot Camp.

A part-time caterer for years, Ms. Brown, and her husband, Tommy, a retired baker, used their savings to convert an abandoned beauty parlor into the T&J Bakery and Cafe, in 2005. While locals loved their sweet potato cheesecake, the Browns had underestimated their expenses, and by late 2006, they were struggling to stay open. Mr. Chung helped them get a $65,000 loan from Seedco’s financial arm.

Linking one restaurant owner with a loan might be a small victory, but the idea is that every bit counts, Mr. Chung said.

“We provide a threshold of knowledge for them,” he said. “When they graduate Boot Camp, they have their own way of starting their business.”

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