One of NYC’s Most Well-Known Restaurateurs Opens Up About His Own Entrepreneurial Challenges
John McDonald, CEO of Mercer Street Hospitality, is the brains behind some of New York City’s hottest restaurants, from Lure Fishbar to Bowery Meat Company. After opening a series of successful establishments, McDonald has experienced his fair share of entrepreneurial challenges, but most importantly, has figured out the equation to running a standout restaurant in a city full of over 45,000 competitors.
What advice does McDonald have for new restaurants? He shares his own experience and wisdom with Fundera below:
What challenges do you face when you open a new restaurant?
JM: While there are many, the first and foremost is the lease or real estate. With pricing so high lately, you have to be laser-focused and realistic about what your concept can truly absorb as base rent. Fooling yourself and being on the hook for a long lease can cause a lot of problems down the line.
What is the best piece of advice about running a business you’ve ever received?
JM: If you don’t love going to work, get out.
You’re no stranger to opening up restaurants, but how did you get your start in the restaurant business, and what was your first job in the industry?
JM: My first job was my first entrepreneurial venture, MercBar in 1992. I was fresh out of college, and had no fear about taking risks and doing things. Luck had it that I picked the right block to open a bar and then once I had the taste of hospitality business I really never thought about anything else. That, in turn, allowed me to expand creatively into other things such as CITY Magazine, Tasting Table, and EBOOST.
When you’re starting a brand new restaurant, what is the first financial investment you make? (Develop the menu? Find a good space? Hire the team?)
JM: The first real investment you make, I would say, is the people. While I may create an idea or concept on paper and plan to develop it, nothing will happen without the key team members that are going to make things hum. Second would be to make sure the design/ambiance (the stage) is set and done right.
A lot of new restaurants struggle with service and hiring the right wait-staff—what do you look for when hiring servers, and how do you train them to consistently provide great service?
JM: This is the biggest challenge. You can have a plan but it only matters if you strictly follow your own guide and uphold your stated standards. This past year for Mercer Street Hospitality restaurants we established a very set path for recruiting, interviewing and training that makes it easier on store managers because they just need to follow it A to Z. We have to recruit just as if we were a sports team, in some aspects. If we create a better place to work with like-minded people, it will attract more of the same and help us do our jobs.
Thank you to John McDonald for sharing such great advice with the Fundera team. What questions would you have liked to see included in this list?
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