Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting
The term “consultant” – restaurant or otherwise – conjures images of slickster snake oil salesman preying on businesses in distress, bent on draining precious cash reserves before an inevitable failure. Indeed, there are some out there that make a living by cooking up problems that don’t exist, scaring their targets to death while holding up their services as the “only possible solution.” Like a crooked auto mechanic who invents unnecessary repairs, these types of restaurant consultants can only get so far before they’re sniffed out and exposed.
There are plenty of myths out there about the nature, philosophy and methodology of business consultants, but a reputable restaurant consultant can really save your bacon and change a restaurant’s trajectory to introduce immediate and perpetual profit. Here are 20 of the most common myths about restaurant consultants that we must overcome when seeking work:
- Restaurant consultants only want to work with big clients – False. We thrive on problem solving, and some of our best work is done when working with smaller clients. We derive a great deal of satisfaction from helping a family-owned restaurant thrive, and the solutions feed our ability to work with bigger projects.
- It’s really expensive to hire a restaurant consulting firm – False. It does us no good to prescribe a solution that is expensive for the sake of our scoring a big project. If you fail because we drained your bank account, then our reputation is in the mud and we can’t point to you as a success story. Instead, most of our projects begin with either profit modeling (for new restaurant concepts) or an assessment (for existing concepts needing help). The result of this “Phase 1” work is to lay out the solution going forward. If you can take it from there, GREAT! If you can’t and need help, we can craft a scope of work that allows you to do as much as possible while working within your budget.
- Restaurant consultants can bring me a fish but can’t teach me to fish – True and False. We can do all the work for you and turn over a successful restaurant, or even open one for you, while you sip Mai Tai’s on the beach. That’ll be $350k. Instead, we know you’ll be more successful the more you know about what we’re doing, so our goal is to teach you how and why we are doing what we’re doing. When you’re involved and productive on your own solution, you spend less, learn more and are more successful. The more you do with us, the better the results and the cheaper the service.
- Restaurant consulting firms will make me dependent on them – False. While we take on management contracts and are willing to stick around as long as you need us, our goal is to eventually ween you off of us. We never set out to be a permanent line item on your income statement. It runs counter to the main reason we exist: to help restaurateurs start, grow and thrive. Being a parasite on your business does not promote fiscal health, so we don’t want you to become addicted to – or dependent on – us. We do, however, want to be your go-to resource when you get stuck or need help.
- Restaurant consultants are supposed to have the answers – False and True. A good consultant is good because they know how to solve issues iteratively… through close collaboration with the client…not because we are know-it-alls. We have seen a lot and can steer the solution-finding process, but we must get to know you – your goals, likes, passions, capabilities, and needs – before we can develop solutions. And – news flash – our best solutions are borne from revisions made while collaborating with our clients. It would be foolish to discount or undervalue our clients’ experience and knowledge, so we seek to incorporate it into our solutions. They stick better and are more likely to succeed this way.
- Restaurant consultants will laugh at my ideas – False. We love big dreams – the zanier, the better. Restaurants are often passion projects and get their start because someone dared to dream. Our role is to refine the dream into something that will make money. The creative process is thrilling, and we love to facilitate, referee and guide raw ideas into new businesses. Your ideas spawn new concepts and lead consultant and client alike into new territory.
- Restaurant consulting groups want to own the whole project – False. We are hired guns. We are not around to bully anyone into our way of thinking or to shove the client aside, using their money to experiment with our dreams. Our dream is to thrill clients and help them achieve their dreams.
- Restaurant consultants teach because they can’t do – False and True. Consultants are often more “doer” than “dreamer.” We’ve spent our careers working through positions to high levels by bringing an entrepreneur’s dream to life. We are the managers and executives that drive daily brand delivery while the entrepreneur cooks up new ideas. We’ve done the heavy lifting for companies like Brinker International, Darden, Ford Fry Restaurants and Chevy’s. We’ve been trusted with the keys and rewarded for making concepts hum. Our skillset has been honed as teachers, trainers, coaches and leaders… indispensable qualities every entrepreneur needs – and usually outsources – to turn their passions into reality.
- Restaurant consulting fees are based on what the client can afford, not the service they provide – False and True. There are many forks in the road on a project’s journey. The first phase of any project is to identify subsequent phases’ trajectories. Phase 1 work (assessments and profit models) are relatively inexpensive entry points. The work that is prescribed after that is, ideally, executable by the client. If, however, the client doesn’t have the skillset to execute the plan, they can hire us to do some or all of the work…depending on their budget, capabilities and willingness to get their hands dirty.
- Restaurant consultants seek the glory for opening my restaurant concept – False (or should be false). Our role on a new restaurant concept is heavy on the front end – the planning, developing, training. Our goal by the end of the project is for the owner to be self-sufficient…so they don’t need us anymore. By the time the camera crews and media descend on the new concept, our clients should feel confident and in control, which appropriately leads to our fading into the background. Jumping in front of the camera to take credit for the restaurant’s concept development doesn’t help the client, and the media generally struggle to understand our role. They want to write about the owner or the chef or the mixologist…but not the business leader who helped develop and turn over the winning concept. It does us no good to snatch the glory from our clients.
- When the meter isn’t running, restaurant consultants won’t answer my questions – False. We make friends for life. While, yes, our product for sale is our advice, we don’t have a problem helping our clients after a project to correct course or help them see something clearly. Often, we’ve been engaged for a period of time and have established relationships with our clients that transcends the scopes of work we were hired for so we’re happy to answer questions. We’ll always let you know when the meter is about to run.
- Restaurant consulting firms will pressure me to take on more work than I can afford – False. Our goal on any project is to ensure, first, that our recommendations will immediately pay for the cost of our services. From there, we want successive solutions to generate new profit. We’d rather list a successful restaurant on our website than one that has closed.
- It’s best to engage a restaurant consultant for larger services once the project is underway – False-ish. We approach every project with a goal of outlining a solution set that is easy to execute by the owner/operator. In an ideal world, the client would get enough information and guidance during Phase 1 to complete subsequent phases on their own. The truth is, however, that our clients are engaging us because they don’t know the answers and need help getting there, so larger engagements are likely… but we are just as proud, if not prouder, of projects where the client has been able to succeed with minimal investment in food and beverage consulting services. The earlier we can get involved in a project, the more money we can save our clients.
- Restaurant consultants use cookie cutter solutions to solve problems – False. Every situation is different. Every restaurant is different. Every leadership team, org structure, reasons for going into business, or set of long term goals is different. While we pull from our experience as restaurateurs and consultants to quickly identify problems and solutions, we insist on collaborating, postulating, and refining our ideas to make sure the solution is tailored to the client’s need. We’re not cheap, but our answers get results and generate perpetual profit that quickly dwarf our fees.
- It will cost me more to hire a restaurant consulting firm than the savings they will generate – False. As the adage states, fail to plan and you plan to fail. For new restaurant openings, we provide the feasibility check and conservative cost proformas to ensure that the new opening is on solid ground. Engaging us on the front end ensures a trajectory that will yield a straight line to long term success. While it’s more expensive in the short run to hire us than to not hire us, the project doesn’t encounter funding shortages, bad lease deals, flawed operating assumptions and longer-than-is-sustainable ramp up periods. For existing restaurants that are underperforming, restaurant owners can only afford so many guesses for why their concept isn’t working. Those guesses will either spook the community, driving them out of business faster, or they will squander resources on experimentation. Hiring a consultant is like buying a map to show the way out of the wilderness.
- Restaurant consultants will only tell me what I want to hear – False. A good consultant will tell the truth, even if it means to close the restaurant. We’ve told several clients that closing their restaurant would be wiser than keeping it open. We often do so in the context of an alternative that keeps the restaurant open but are able to show the cost differential. We also often identify owners as the root of the problems the business is facing. When we see it, we call it out as the main problem to solve then we set course for fixing the owner’s behavior.
- It’s cheaper to hire a chef to create a menu internally than to hire a restaurant consultant to create one – False. It’s easy to look at a chef’s salary – say $75k/year – and believe you’ll have a competent creator capable of perpetually delivering amazing new menu items to your guests year in and year out. Menu engineering is part art and part math, and many chefs neglect the financial discipline needed to bring a product line to market. As a measure of job security, chefs often fail to document and cost their recipes, knowing that, if you fire them, they’ll take your business’ product line with them. Imagine a plant manager at Toyota being capable of shutting down the production line by quitting… would never happen. The chef that can engineer a great tasting menu that maximizes labor efficiency and equipment is often different from the chef that can develop systems to deliver profit, ensure consistency, control cost, and ensure continuity if they get hit by a bus. Since seasonal menus truly happen only two to four times per year, it’s usually less expensive to hire a chef that can flawlessly execute your recipes while outsourcing menu engineering a couple of times a year to a professional consulting chef paid to align with your goals. You’ll save a lot of money while removing your dependence on any one employee.
- Restaurant consulting firms will recommend the right things, but I’ll be too overwhelmed to implement…so I’ll have paid for advice I can’t heed – False. A goal of any good restaurant consultant is to prescribe solutions in a sequence, pace and complexity that will compound to yield more time for the client to implement successively more solutions. We are keenly aware that, for many clients, operations gobble up entirely too much of the operator’s time, so adding more solutions to their plate is the last thing they need. Our recommendations must first ease the operational burden, then increase profits quickly before more detailed and time-consuming solutions can be started.
- Restaurant consultants can’t possibly understand our complex leadership and relationship issues – False. Because we’re operators before consultants, we understand – and have wrestled with – the countless emotional struggles inherent in a restaurant business. Nepotism, sexual harassment, drug use, discrimination, company culture, inmates-running-the-asylum, and hostile work environment, to name a few. Whether we like it or not, a chunk of our role on EVERY project is managing relationships among staff and management, owners and management, or owners and staff. Restaurant consultants with experience are, by default, adept at resolving an amazing array of internal cultural and relationship issues, which sometimes become the focus of the solution.
- Restaurant consultants have been out of the operations game too long to understand my issues – False. Although consultants are not on any particular restaurant’s payroll, we are deeply involved in a variety of Food and Beverage operations at a level where our livelihoods depend on our understanding of the latest trends, tools and tactics. In fact, restaurant consultants are uniquely qualified to see more of what’s out there than any one operation can expose an employee to. We see the latest technology, in action. We know the ups and downs of different types of reservation software packages; the latest iPad based point of sale systems; the best ways to use enterprise software – and how not to use it; the most efficient way to use time and attendance software to manage labor with discipline; what dish machines work best in high volume environments; the most practical recycling program setups; the latest environmentally-friendly packaging products; and even the most effective ways to deploy social media for restaurants. We can even teach you how to build an effective social media strategy that you can run internally for free. These things can’t be learned while operating one restaurant for 60 to 70 hours per week. There’s no time to scout today’s latest systems, methods, hardware and software. We see something new every day and are the best source for best practices.
Restaurant consulting is perhaps not the most lucrative career. To be good at it, one truly has to love it. There are probably easier ways to make money, but to us, there is nothing more satisfying than to have a client point to us and say, “they’re wonderful and we couldn’t have done it without them.” Short-term money can be made by hoodwinking clients into buying more services than they need, but we’d rather earn every penny and sleep well at night.
Additionally, we often collaborate with other consultants when we don’t know the answer. If we know another consultant specializes in a particular area we will either pull them into the project or outright recommend them instead of us. We get more street cred that way.
Sadly, we also understand that many people are suspicious of restaurant consultants and that their suspicion is not completely unjustified. Talk with the restaurant consultant you are considering hiring. During your conversation you should be able to glean some actionable information that helps you…for free. And beware the consultant who wants to start you out on a complete solution package without a smaller up-front engagement to get you to that first fork in the road.