Becoming a Food Entrepreneur & Restaurateur: What You Should Know Before Taking the Leap

I’m 52 and have spent my entire career (save for a stint in the US Army for training to be a Reservist) in hospitality. My first job was as a dishwasher, and I have spent time in almost every restaurant position. Cook, server, bartender, runner, busser, chef, manager, general manager, area manager, vice president, owner. My education mirrors my experience – Culinary Institute of America, and a BBA in Hospitality Management from James Madison University. I still have a lot to learn – or at least that’s my attitude – but I have also had a lot of time to play “what if?”

What if I had stayed in the military? What if I had chosen Aerospace Engineering as I initially intended (while in my freshman year at Maryland…and cooking in a local restaurant for spending money)? What if I pushed all of my chips into opening a restaurant?

When I was in culinary school I received some great advice from a chef instructor: in response to my assertion that I was going to open my own restaurant as fast as I could, he said, “do it with someone else’s money first… learn the ropes… become really good at it before risking your own money.” While “learning the ropes” it was also time to start a family… and so I did. A mortgage and a couple of car payments, plus another few (wonderful) children, and my path shifted to “provider” more so than “adventurer.” Today my 4thand youngest child is nearing high school graduation, and I am on the other side of “provider” with an option to return to “adventurer,” but I wonder if years of caution and conservative moves has sucked the adventurer out of me. Do I really have what it takes to make the leap? What if I risk it all and it doesn’t work? Will I end up checking receipts in the Walmart lobby or taking tickets at the stadium instead of traveling and enjoying the fruits of a long, steady career?

Truly, I did take a leap back in 2006 when I started my restaurant consulting company – Blue Orbit. I get to do all the things I love about this business: coach, teach, solve problems, help risk takers recover from bad decisions, and create concepts – even though I don’t my own restaurant. I get to see entrepreneurship from a different perspective because I get to work with so many different people and see so many different situations. I get to see incredible successes – whether or not I’m the impetus behind a person’s or group’s incredible success trajectory, I like to think I have something to do with it…and I (or my client) will never know precisely where to lay the credit.

Regardless, I’ve learned a thing or two about what it takes to be a successful restaurateur. Below are my metaphor-laden words of advice for anyone looking to become a food entrepreneur to consider before taking the leap:

  1. Don’t wait. If you are dreaming big when you’re 19, go for it before you turn 20. If you wait too long, you may lose your nerve, and you’ll run out of runway before you get the plane off the ground. The longer the plane stays on the ground, the heavier it gets. So, what if you fail? Falling from a table top doesn’t hurt as much as falling from 30,000 feet…


  1. With that said, don’t fear failure. It’s ok to fail…if you take a big hit, even if it breaks your jaw or knocks you out, you will be able to get back up… you will heal… and you will be less afraid to take another hit. Entrepreneurship will be solidified as part of your soul, and you will get smarter each time.


  1. Learn finance. If you pursue a degree, consider majoring in Finance. Financial wisdom is the game you play in the background of any entrepreneurial pursuit. If nothing else, get really good with Excel… it’ll pay dividends early on as you won’t likely have the funds to buy off-the-shelf, best-in-class operations software …or the funds to pay people to manipulate and manage it (you’ll have to create your own simple systems first).


  1. Share wisely. Don’t share your dreams with your circle of friends and family until you’ve secured funding and are ready to start construction. You’ll burn a lot of calories explaining your vision to naysayers, pessimists, competitors and people who secretly envy your goals. Sometimes the ones closest to you are the ones who want to hold you back the most. It’s like sharing your baby naming ideas…you’ll often get the response you didn’t want: “I think I’ll name him Joseph” … “Oh don’t do that…your Uncle Joseph was a putz.”


  1. Choose valuable partner(s). If you take on a partner, be sure they bring something to the relationship that you don’t have. If you’re the idea guy, then your first partner better be a money guy/gal. If not, check your motives – you may just be trying to partner with someone who keeps you company (like a friend or co-worker) while you row your little boat out of the harbor. If your boat only has 2 or 3 seats, fill one with someone with a motor and the other with someone who knows how to navigate. If it’s just a friend, you’ll both eventually get tired rowing, you won’t get very far, and eventually one of you will eat the other one.
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  1. Get experience. When you are working for someone, climb the ladder to enhance your knowledge, experience and credibility for your entrepreneurial run – not as a safety net for your career. You can’t simultaneously pursue career growth in earnest AND plot your world takeover… but you can use one to facilitate the other. If your goal is to please your boss for the sake of a raise and intra-company status, then you’ve already sold out. Get the experience. Get the street cred. Get out on your own before you get the center door colonial and the Range Rover.


  1. Read books. Here are some good ones to check out: E-Myth by Michael Gerber; Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell; 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al and Laura Ries; Why She Buys by Bridget Brennan; How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie; and Setting the Table by Danny Meyer.


  1. Go easy on yourself. Embarking on a restaurateur’s path comes with more opportunities to fail (see #2 above) than any other professional endeavor. Get a support system around you who will always support you no matter how much you suck. I have a wonderful wife and family, working partners who are forgiving, and I go to a group workout session every morning where the people are incredibly supportive and uplifting. Your support system may involve church or a doting parent or sibling or a mentor.Regardless, you will never be successful in the restaurant business if you don’t replace that “me-monster” neighbor and that rival that always dunks on you when you play one-on-one with people who are there for you whether you’re up or down.


  1. Prepare to give back. The restaurant business is a natural teaching ground. If you don’t like other people or are disinterested in developing people or making others, then you will likely not have the build-in empathy necessary to give your guests what they want. Restaurants are often layover jobs for people on their way to somewhere else. Students, return-to-work parents, young first-jobbers, even ex-convicts returning to the workforce. You should embrace a role as a community leader. If you’re 100% selfish and focused on money and celebrity, then you will eventually be sniffed out and despised…first by your staff, then by the community as that staff spreads the word (because the staff is usually part of the same community that you need to support your restaurant).

So, if you’re ready to take the leap into food entrepreneurship and you want to open a restaurant, make sure you consider the above things first. Then, if you’re still interested in pursuing your passion project, we recommend starting with a Profit Model and Business Plan– get your restaurant opening details down in numbers and so it all “works” on paper before you begin executing anything. That way, you avoid investing thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars in something you haven’t planned out properly.

Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting

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