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Small businesses endure notoriously small margins of error. The lack of a distinctive product, a failure to effectively communicate with their customer base, and ineffective leadership with half-cooked business models result in a 25% failure rate within the first year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
Still, those figures are the envy of the restaurant industry, where saturated markets and profit margins that hover around 10% often spell doom for even the most refined providers of haute cuisine. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. restaurants don’t survive their first year. Within the first 5 years, the success rate nosedives to 20%.
We checked in with 2 restaurant entrepreneurs who bucked the trends, to find out why their menus attract the tastebuds of loyal clientele and why their management style has kept them thriving past the 1-year mark.
Dustin Ronspies, owner and chef of Art of the Table in Seattle, seems to have deciphered the message the dismal small-business numbers provide. His restaurant is an essential dining experience in Seattle, according to Zagat, combining farm fresh food, an attentive staff, and comfortable yet quirky décor. But those ingredients would not have amounted to much, says Ronspies, unless he had started out with a clear focus and lean budget. His low overhead was matched by an equally reduced rent during the crucial first year.
A small ego also helped. Ronspies did—and still does—everything in that first year to stay afloat, including washing dishes. He says that experience taught him to know exactly what he wants for Art of the Table, and to convey that message effectively to his 12 employees. That includes the gravity of hospitality.
“Taking care of your employees and customers—that’s what I can’t stress enough,” he says. “Everyone who walks in the door is like a guest in our house. That has a lot do with why I have the regulars that I do, and why people keep coming back.”
Then there’s the food. Art of the Table stands out in a cluttered market with a changing menu that responds to a full scope of seasonal offerings from Seattle-area farms, wineries, and breweries. The menu varies from hormone and antibiotic-free duck and lamb, to organic vegetables, to award-winning cheeses.
Ronspies has formed a bond with several farm owners and believes he should support them. He does not care if ingredients cost more, he says. He’s always on the lookout for the best food he can find.
“It could be a very simple meal,” says Ronspies. “But that sense of place, the person you’re with, and the food is what I always wanted to encompass in one place.”
That sense of place—the evocation of a certain region or ambiance—has also proved a winning recipe for Cameron Grant, chef and co-owner of Osteria Langhe in Chicago. Named among 2015’s top Italian restaurants in America by Time Out magazine, Osteria Langhe has turned heads in a city inundated with Italian fare by focusing exclusively on cuisine inspired by Piemonte, the subregion in northwestern Italy.
After living, and cooking, in Piemonte for nearly 3 years, Grant brought the region’s celebrated wines, cheeses, and egg-rich pastas to Chicago’s Logan Square. Grant’s spotlight on Piemonte’s unique antipasti, risotos and sparkling wines have helped him and business partner Aldo Zaninotto stand out in a market saturated with Italian food.
“We thought it was a good idea to look at one region and do something different because we had fallen in love with the wines and food from the region,” says Grant. “And though Chicago was such a great foodie town with so many Italian restaurants, we wanted to do something different. It’s all about translating that idea to the guests.
“We don’t serve classic Italian food but focus instead on one region,” he adds. “That stands us apart.”
That specificity help generate buzz in the first year, says Grant. But he chalks up success to several factors. Self-promotion and a savvy social media editor helped bring people through the door.
A good location in a vibrant, developing neighborhood also helps, says Grant. Once seated, the goal is to make sure his team at Osteria Langhe is on point, able to make as many people as happy as possible with best ingredients he can find.
That mantra extends to the employees, he says. “Without a happy staff, you have nothing,” Grant says. “The happiness of your guest walking through the door is the only reason a restaurant will succeed.”
But for Grant, like Ronspies of Art of the Table, success boils down to the food, to doing something he loves. It’s about making sure that every day, everyone around you and everyone you serve feel that. That, he says, is the game changer.
“If you do something you believe in, if you follow your heart and passion, the money will follow,” Grant says. “If you walk into a business and all you care about is money, you’re heading down the wrong path.”