Shawn McBride interviewed TJ Topper, an entrepreneur, about his experience in the restaurant industry on November 22, 2016.
You can find the full interview here:
Shawn McBride: Welcome, Shawn McBride here. We’re gonna spend some time here talking to my good friend TJ Topper about the restaurant world. He spent a lot of time in that industry. Got to know a lot of people. He’s seen the ups and downs and what goes on in that space. There’s some unique things . . . it’s not the same as running a business in other places because the restaurant industry has a lot of unique challenges.
TJ, let’s start out, let’s talk a little bit about that. What have you noticed that’s a little bit different with working in the restaurant world verses the rest of the business world.
TJ: Well it’s a good point Shawn, I mean you know really in the restaurant world, different than day to day business, there’s always a challenge and I always like to say the key to succeeding in the restaurant world is really not whether you’re going to make money that day. What you have to figure out is, why you’re not going to make money that day. Is it too nice outside, are we going into a holiday, are people on vacation, is it raining, or snowing? I mean up here in the Mid-Atlantic obviously, we deal with the colder weather, we’re getting into that season. There’s a lot of different variables that go into that, that you really have to know what you’re dealing with depending on where you’re located. Are you in a strip mall? Are you in a remote location? How is your accessibility to the public? And how will the volume be dictated by your current situation?
Shawn McBride: I think that’s been my experience when I’ve worked with people and clients in the restaurant world is, you get a lot more variability I guess than in other businesses. We all have seasonality, we have times our customers are showing up and times they’re not but in the restaurant world, it seems like people have extremes. You’ll have days where you’ll be packed and then you’ll have days when you are not having nearly as much traffic coming into your business.
TJ: Oh absolutely, and really, it’s a daily equation that goes into that and you have to know what days are going to be busy, when are you going to be at your peak operation hours, when does your staff have to be at its maximum, when will you be at your times when you need to cut back on your staffing because your labor is obviously going to affect your bottom line, ordering your product. Keeping fresh product in the house at all times. You can’t have things go bad. There’s a lot of different equations that will go into that. You really have to know every angle of that business because there is very, very little room for error when it comes to making money in the restaurant industry and the carry out business, whatever it may be. There’s a lot of different things that go into that.
Shawn McBride: Where do people start in that process? If you’re going to start a restaurant, you’re trying to do projections, you’re trying to build a brand-new business, where do you start on knowing how to staff or how to project when you’re going to be busy and when you’re not going to be busy?
TJ: I think a lot of that is dictated by the location . . . what kind of business you’re doing. Whether it’s going to be a 200-seat restaurant, or is it a 20-seat carry out, that might have some seating up front. That’s really going to dictate a lot of what goes into the planning, the forecasting for that kind of business. A lot of times the banks are gonna want to see, what are your projections, what’s your 6-month projection, 1 year, 2 years, 3 years? Where are you gonna be in 5 years, what’s the plan for growth? How do you deal with the slower times verses the busier times? When to spend money . . . when to hold onto money. There’s a lot of things that go into that for sure.
Shawn McBride: And you’re more than just a consultant in this case. You’ve built a couple of restaurants over the years.
TJ: Yeah, I mean I’ve been in this industry since I was 12 years old. I started papering bushel baskets at a local seafood place here in Maryland. I know that sounds crazy, 12 years old but I was getting ready to go into high school and I wanted to work and we had family in the business, so I started working and that’s kind of where I started and I’ve been through everything from privately owned, smaller places like that to big corporations. I was with TGI Fridays for some years, probably about 5 years to be exact. Went with a privately-owned restaurant after TGI Fridays and was actually part of the opening team there. I got to see what it was like to open a privately owned multi-functional place. It was a brew pub and a restaurant, over 400 seats, so we went from working in a smaller place to a big place. They were very successful, still in business 19 years later. One of the best operators I know in the business. Learned a lot from him.
Worked with McCormick and Schmick’s in downtown Baltimore. After that, I actually opened up my own place. Had two locations with that and then most recently opened a New Market Deli and Catering company, from the table concept up in the northern Hartford County area. I’ve been around it for a long time. I’m actually now on the other side of the table of it as well with DePaul and Sons in Baltimore Maryland. We do restaurant equipment and paper chemical supplies. We design, we install restaurants pretty much from the ground up. It’s kind of nice to have both ends of the spectrum, because you see it from an operator’s standpoint. Now I’m dealing with it from the end user and being in the sales side of it. So, I bring a lot to the table when it comes to that. Because I’ve already kind of been through it on different levels.
Shawn McBride: You’ve seen some profitable restaurants over the years. It’s not that everybody who gets in there struggles. It’s a matter of building your customer base and getting the right mix of things working together.
TJ: Oh absolutely. I’ve worked with some of the most successful restaurants in the state. I have friends that run phenomenally profitable restaurants, bars, catering companies, some of the biggest around. It’s a great business but it’s not for everybody and you really need to know what you’re getting involved with before you make a substantial investment, not only of money but of time, because this business, this is not a Monday through Friday 9-5 job. This is 7 days a week when you’re working, and when you’re not working. There’s perks to both sides of that end of the spectrum but it’s not for somebody who thinks there’re going to go in and there’re gonna open a place and within 3 months they’re gonna have somebody running it and they’re just gonna collect checks. It’s not that type of set up.
Shawn McBride: I guess that’s part of the process. If you’re going to work with the client or work with another restaurant owner trying to get to the level of success you had, your goal is to build this business to where eventually that restaurant runs itself and you can kind of think about future locations and expansion and these issues rather than more of the day to day.
TJ: Sure, because you want to have that future growth. You want to be able to look forward . . . what are your goals . . . what are you trying to accomplish? Is this a location deal? Are you trying to have multiple locations? Are you trying to do multiple locations with different concepts? There’s a lot of different things that you can do. The key is once you really know the business and you know how to make money, then you can take different concepts and apply them in different locations. You can apply them in different towns. I know a lot of people who have had businesses here in Baltimore that have taken them down to the beach, down to resort areas, different states . . . it doesn’t matter because once you learn it, it’s duplicatable. It is a duplicatable system and that’s important in a lot of businesses. If you can duplicate that and you can manage your time and you can manage everything that’s going on around you, (which is one of my favorite things is multi task), then you can really build a nice business.
Shawn McBride: Yeah, exactly. All right, so starting out, let’s talk realistically. A lot of my followers are successful private business owners. These are people who have done it before, often in one industry, sometimes we get people who have worked for a company for 25, 30 years, maybe an executive role, and they’ve been in the business, let’s say they’re not real familiar with the restaurant industry and they’re getting ready to take that first step. They’re saying I’ve always dreamed of having a restaurant. I think this might be the next phase for me in my business life. I want to try to apply my management skills in this new area. What would you tell them, what kind of things would you have them think about and possibly go into a new area of endeavor?
TJ: Well the most important thing is gonna be location. You hear that in a lot of business. And location is very, very key to running a successful business because you have to be located in a place where you’re gonna be visible to the public. You’re gonna have a captured audience. Depending on the type of restaurant, or type of bar, carry out, catering, whatever you might be venturing into in this industry, location is very important. That would be the number one thing.
Shawn McBride: I’ve seen a lot of restaurants that have been located for somewhere that I guess the lease comes up for renewal and then I guess the landlord has a lot of negotiating leverage because they see a successful restaurant in there, landlord thinks well I can bring another successful restaurant in there and then pricing becomes tough. What kind of suggestions would you have for a restaurant owner as far as managing that risk or making sure that if they do find a successful location, that they have the ability to stay there to capitalize on that customer stream they’ve built?
TJ: Well a lot of people in the beginning, they’re going to go into a lease situation where they’re gonna rent a place, they’re gonna get the business started, really see if it takes off without investing a ton of money in a property right out of the gate. That’s good and bad, obviously for what you just said, the landlord sees, oh man they’re doing a phenomenal business and they have that upper hand. Some people will say you know I signed 5-year lease with a 5-year option, you know after that 5 years, at year 4, I might be looking to buy a piece of property at this point because we’ve got an equation that’s working, we’ve built up a great business, we have a great foundation, I could move 2 miles down the street and be just as successful. But now you own that piece of property, so you’re now building not only the asset of the business but the asset of the property, so you’re not just throwing money away at renting each month. Then if something goes wrong and you gotta fix something, it’s not that big of a deal because you’re fixing your own property, which is your investment, and that becomes more when your building something, that’s a more substantial asset than just the business.
Shawn McBride: Yeah. So, you see a lot of people that will be part of your planning early on is wondering at what time are we possibly going to do these transition points. How are we gonna make this thing safer and stronger as time goes on and part of that might be moving from being a tenant to being an owner of a piece of property.
TJ: Sure, and you see that a lot where people have gotten into a place and they’ve settled in and they either try and buy the piece of property, if that’s an option with the landlord, or they’re gonna look to move that business to their own piece of property. I’ve seen some very successful places start out in a very small location, maybe it is just a carry out with a catering as well built into that but then down the road they’re like you know, I want to expand this. I want a full- service restaurant. What we’ve got is working, we’re building, we’re increasing our volume, we need more space. Let’s find a nice place to build a place. You’ll see that a lot. You really can’t plan too far ahead, you want to get through that first 1 to 3 years really in the beginning and make sure that you’re doing the right thing and that you’re making money and you’re paying down your debt service and things of that nature. Then you can start worrying about that stuff. That’s a good problem to have.
Shawn McBride: It’s a good problem to have. What’s the key to getting to that first 1 to 3 years from your perspective? What makes a difference between that company that makes it 1 to 3 years and one that doesn’t make it 3 years?
TJ: I think the major key is gonna be smart spending. Continuing to reinvest in your business. Continuing to advertise and build. Build that volume. Just being really conservative with what you’re doing in the day to day operations. Every dollar is important. If you’re irresponsibly spending or your buying something that you don’t necessarily need to, these things are all gonna drive down the bottom line, which makes the day to day and the month to month get a little tighter. You never know what’s gonna happen. You can have down time. You can have a string of bad weather. There’s so many different things that go into play with that. People start to make some money and then they just start to buy things. Next thing you know they’re driving a new car or they’re doing this. And sure, that can all happen in time but let’s get through the first year or second year, because once you hit that third year, that’s really when, (if you’ve made it three years in the restaurant industry), you’re doing pretty well. I’m not saying you’re going to retire after year four but the first three years are very, very crucial for sure.
Shawn McBride: You touched on advertising and promotion and getting people out to the business. What kind of tips would you have for somebody as far as just getting the name of the restaurant out there, getting that initial customer traffic, building that core client base?
TJ: Well I’ll tell you, advertising is definitely important. Obviously now, everything’s driven by the internet. There’s a lot of good advertising companies out there that will be very beneficial to the restaurant industry. There’s a lot of things that are just so-so. Even today as much as it sounds crazy, we’ve had great success with mailers, menus that go out and some of the higher end advertising firms. They’ll put together a nice mailer for you. Those things still work. You got to remember Google, search engine optimization of the business. You’ve got to be visible on the internet. They’ve got to be able to find you. There’s plenty of good web developers out there. Even years back, I use to think it was a little far-fetched that the amount of money that you pay for some of these things, but the return on investments is what is important and there’s not a whole lot that we’ve done (advertising wise) where we haven’t seen that return on investment.
Shawn McBride: For those of you joining late, we’re visiting with TJ Topper who is a serial entrepreneur in the restaurant space and he’s sharing some tips with us on things he’s seen.
You’ve built several restaurants. What’s some things that you wish you knew sooner than later? Things that if you could go backwards and tell yourself now, what you had known when you were first getting into the industry, what would you tell yourself?
TJ: I’ve always lived by the motto do it right the first time or don’t do it at all. I learned from my first ventures to where I am now, a lot of what I just touched on about the responsible spending, things that you have to open the doors and things that you can get a couple of months in, that aren’t necessities to get your business up and running. That’s very important. You have to be very conscience about what you’re spending money on in the beginning part of it, of the business that’s for sure.
Shawn McBride: Okay, perfect. Well thank you for being on here today. I know you’ve both worked on your restaurants and you occasionally work with restaurant owners. How can people reach out to you if they want to get a hold of you?
TJ: They can click on the www.McBride For Business/tjtopper.com and I believe contact through that. That’s probably the best way to get me.Shawn McBride: Perfect and feel free to visit McBride For Business, we have a blog, we talk about a lot of business topics and things we see in the business world and we also have a business value check list. If you scroll through our website, you’ll see a link to download that checklist. It applies to businesses both in the restaurant industry and beyond and we welcome your calls. Feel free to reach out to us. TJ is available to help you with your restaurant needs if that’s ever something of need and I’m available as well.
Thank you for checking in with us today and we look forward to seeing you again soon. Thank you.
TJ: Thanks Shawn.
Shawn McBride: Thanks TJ.
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About the Author
Shawn McBride is the Chief Innovation Officer at McBride For Business, LLC. His signature keynote, The 3 Laws of Empowerment (www.rshawnmcbridelive.com ), gives audiences an entertaining look at how they can prepare, plan and protect themselves. You can reach R. Shawn McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org or (214) 418-0258.
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