Both Feet First
Greg Atkinson / September 2011
Here, in the first of a three-part series chronicling his venture from dream to reality, chef/writer/teacher Greg Atkinson jumps into the big Seattle-area restaurant pool wearing only his accomplished résumé as a life jacket.
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back…but the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings, and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.” —William Hutchinson Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition
Hesitancy I spent decades toying with the idea of opening a restaurant of my own. I came close, almost more times than I can count. But something would happen to make me reconsider. Or perhaps I should say nothing happened to push me toward making a commitment.
When I was in my early 30s, I held a very small share in the little cafe where I worked as a chef. The place was ostensibly French, but this was the 1980s; we borrowed from other cuisines and changed the menu almost daily to accommodate locally grown product. The kitchen revolved around a wood-burning broiler, a six-burner range, a stockpot burner, and a convection oven. We baked our own bread, made our own stocks, filleted our own fish. After a few years, I was encouraged by the principal owners to buy them out. I was tempted. The little dining room boasted 14 hand-crafted pinewood tables, silk upholstered banquettes, and ladder-back chairs. It was a sweet place.
“You’re the chef,” they said. “You love this place. Why not make it your own?”
“I’ll tell you why not,” said my wife. “The place doesn’t make any money.”
And she was right. We lived in the very small and very touristy town of Friday Harbor, Washington, where the population tripled in summer, then crept back into its shell every winter. Any small business that wasn’t vital to the survival of the core community sooner or later went belly-up. We had two preschool-aged children to think about. So instead of buying the cafe, we went to work for some family friends to open and manage a small inn with a dining room attached. I had a hand in designing the kitchen, which I modeled more or less after the one at the cafe.
“The rooms will support the dining room,” we were told, “You won’t have to worry about making a profit.” Just about the time it became clear that we did have to worry, I was unexpectedly invited to become executive chef at Canlis, the venerable family-owned restaurant in Seattle that was looking for a breath of fresh air in its 50 year old kitchen. I packed up my family and hopped from Friday Harbor to Bainbridge Island, a mere 35 minute ferry ride away from downtown. Here, we could maintain some semblance of our island lifestyle, and I could play the role of a big city chef. I tweaked the menu to incorporate local ingredients and contemporary techniques, following roughly the pattern I had established in Friday Harbor.
Seasonality After six years at Canlis, I started looking at places on the island where I might open a restaurant of my own. But before I got too far in my planning, I was invited to launch the food and beverage program at an “environmental education center” for children—mostly fifth-graders—who would be housed for a week at a time in a series of lodges built on the 255 acre campus just a stone’s throw from my home. On weekends, the LEED certified dining hall served corporate and government retreats, featuring high-end sustainably raised meals. The place was practically in my backyard; I went for it.
In early 2008, I contemplated opening my own place again. I wrote a business plan, scouted for a location, and started talking to potential investors. I did a little pas de deux with a developer who was renovating an Art Deco mansion on the south end of the island that had already been converted into a restaurant. He wanted me to come in as an owner/operator, and I juggled numbers trying to figure out how I might make it work. The previous business had failed because the rent was too high and the location too remote. It was beautiful and tempting, but if the previous business failed, a new one would too. I was starting to subscribe to the theory posited by Nora Ephron in her anti-memoir I Remember Nothing: “Owning a restaurant is the kind of universal fantasy everyone ought to grow out of, sooner rather than later, or else you will be stuckwith the restaurant.”
Chef-Instructor Then, out of the blue, I was asked if I might be willing to fill in for a semester as a chef-instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy, a part of Seattle Central Community College. “Do it!” said my wife. “You’re a natural teacher, and we’ll have benefits! Think of all those cooking classes you’ve taught. You love to teach!” It was true, I had taught hundreds of classes over the years to supplement my income and promote my books. I did like teaching.
“Why not?” I thought. Wall Street had just collapsed, and teaching at the college would be a safe harbor to wait out the economic storm. The students were engaged and captivating, and the job, both in the classroom and the kitchen constituted some of the most gratifying work I had ever done. While I was there, the entire program underwent a multimillion dollar makeover. I helped plan the fine dining room and developed a new fast-casual concept for the bistro. Before I knew what hit me, three years had gone by, and I was on the brink of tenure. I considered staying on for the rest of my working life, but the siren call of the restaurant business was still beckoning.
Quite suddenly, or so it seemed to me, my sons were approaching adulthood, and I was looking back at my life from the other side of 50. If I ever wanted to open a restaurant, now was the time. No sooner had I begun to dust off that old business plan than I got a call from an old friend in the PR business. She had a client who was looking for a chef. Would I consider getting back into the industry?
Buddha’s Delight “You wouldn’t have to find investors,” she said. “You would have complete control. They want someone to design the kitchen and hire the staff. It’s fine dining in the heart of downtown Seattle. This is big!” she said. “Huge!” Wow, this could be just the thing. I could be the executive chef in a kitchen of my own design, but I wouldn’t have to risk my own family’s financial security. “You’ll be making bank!” said the PR friend.
“There’s just one little caveat,” she continued. “It has to be completely vegetarian.”
“I’m not a vegetarian,” I answered.
“Doesn’t matter,” she went on. The owners liked my reputation, she said. They trusted my sensibilities, expressed confidence in my ability to help them realize their dream of a place perched high in the Seattle skyline, like a little enclave in the Himalayas, after which the place would be named. A consultant friend was working on the financial side of the project. He said the numbers looked good and that I should go for it.
I tried not to think about what Anthony Bourdain would say. I decided to sign on, and if, after the place opened, I didn’t like it, I would bail and pursue having a place of my own. I wrote into my contract that, if for any reason the vegetarian Shangri-la failed to open, I would be guaranteed my consulting fee for six months. “I’m leaving a state job,” I said, “with benefits.”
One month later, the would-have-been restaurateurs bailed. So there I was. I had left the college. The vegetarian thing wasn’t going to happen. It was time to start my own restaurant.
The point of no return I knew I wanted a neighborhood place close to home, a Northwest bistro informed by French technique. I wanted to serve French onion soup and steak-frites, but also grilled wild salmon and chilled local oysters. I wanted to garnish plates with herbs from my own garden, fill vases with leaves from my wife’s fig trees. Basically, I wanted to re-create all the best features of the place where I first caught the restaurant bug. I wanted to resurrect the little cafe in Friday Harbor, only in a more prosperous and steadily populated community, a place that didn’t roll up its streets every fall.
I looked at every available space on Bainbridge Island and came around eventually to one I had looked at a few years before. It had never been a restaurant, but it had potential. A French antiques store had moved out, and the space looked like it could use a little love. Situated halfway between the town’s main drag and city hall, adjacent to the parking lot that hosts the island’s weekly farmers’ market, it was quite literally in the heart of town, but discreetly tucked away. Downhill from the market and set slightly off the lane, it’s a freestanding building of mid-century design, 2,000 square feet, surrounded by larger buildings that house multiple small businesses, a coffee shop, an art gallery, an ice cream store, and a place that sells home decor. I could see the whole thing in its glory: people dining on the deck, drinking in the bar, conversing on the banquette seating. It would be called Restaurant Marché, after the farmers’ market. The food would be seasonal, the atmosphere simultaneously casual and chic.
I called the owners. It was as if they had been waiting for me. They had recently hired an architect to sketch out how the place might be converted into a restaurant. They were in the process of installing new sewer lines and had plans to build on accessible restrooms. They were planning to construct a deck. Something inside me clicked and, in less than a month, I had signed a lease.
Investors There was just one major stumbling block—I had no money. I certainly didn’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars I would need to open the kind of restaurant where I would want to work. So I visited an accountant and asked about the advantages of a limited liability company as compared to sole proprietorship or an “S Corporation,” things I knew very little about. She persuaded me that an LLC was the way to go. “That’s what I was thinking!” I said. “And why do we like that?” I asked.
With an LLC, your personal property is not at risk. The business is a tax entity in itself. So if it fails, the owners of the company are not personally liable. If it succeeds, then I, as a “member,” might benefit. Typically, founders of an LLC offer shares in the company, and to persuade potential shareholders or investors that this is a viable enterprise, they present a business plan that outlines exactly how the company will operate.
In the case of my business plan, I included a general description of the type of restaurant I had in mind, detailed some demographics of the island community and the location of the building, mentioned the design, the menu, and some of my thoughts about plate presentation. I summarized my ideas about seasonality and sustainability. I provided a biography of myself and sample menus. In broad strokes, I outlined start-up costs and pitched some investor benefits. I called on a friend in the consulting business who helped me draft a sales expense pro-forma, a detailed spreadsheet that lists exactly what the expenses will be and calculates how many seats will be filled multiplied by the average guest check. In short, it’s an elaborate equation that determines whether or not the place can make enough money to keep going. If you’re in the restaurant business and you don’t have one of these, then get one. If you’re thinking about investing in a restaurant, demand to see one.
I took everything to an accountant, who charged me a few hundred dollars to look it over. Then I delivered the whole package to a lawyer, who charged a few more hundreds to craft a series of appendices to the plan. That lawyer referred me to another lawyer, who helped draft the subscription agreement, which is what investors sign, acknowledging that they’re going to invest and that they understand the risks involved in investing in a restaurant. By a happy twist of fate, this particular lawyer was a fan of my cooking and my newspaper articles, and he had once taken a cooking class from me. He waived his fee because he really wanted to see me succeed and really wanted to eat in my restaurant. A place at the best table in the house is forever reserved in his name.
Ordinarily with an LLC, investors buy a limited partnership in the business and they receive a percentage of the profits for all time. I wanted to try something different. I offered unsecured loans with the promise of dedicating 80 percent of the profits to a fund that would pay back investors their original investment plus 10 percent within five years. The sales expense pro-forma demonstrated how much profit there would be. To sweeten the pot, I offered to donate a dinner for eight to the 501 (c)(3) (tax-exempt charity or educational organization) of their choice.
I sent the plan to 14 likely candidates, people I knew and trusted and a few friends that the first investors recommended. There was no more than a single degree of separation between any of them and me. Part of their motivation, according to several individuals who subscribed to the plan, was the idea of being able to put their money into something they could see and touch.
“We’re not looking to make millions of dollars here,” said one couple, “We already did that. We just want to support you and support our local community.” In fact, 10 out of 12 investors live in my own small town. Most have eaten my food and at least half have called upon me to cook or donate auction items at fund-raising events for their favorite charities. In a way it was like a circle of mutual support.
Why are you doing this? When news got out that I was going to open my own restaurant, local papers and regional magazines wanted to know more. I started getting phone calls and emails from reporters. One, from a small local newspaper, interviewed me in my office. We were surrounded by my cookbooks, by blueprints of the building, paint chips and samples of the fabric that will eventually cover the banquettes in the dining room. She had more or less finished the interview when she asked me a particularly probing question.
“You’re as old as I am,” she said, putting her pen down on the table. I am 52 years old. “How will you handle the long hours, the hard work? I mean restaurant people work harder than anyone on earth. Why are you doing this?” My investors had asked me pretty much the same thing. I had asked myself the same kinds of questions at 3 a.m., when I routinely woke up and stared at the ceiling.
“I could say it’s because I am carefully trying to strategize how I will get my second son through college, or that I am confident that I can make a successful business venture out of this,” I told her. “I have been working in restaurants, writing about restaurants, and teaching other people how to work in restaurants for about 30 years.” Somehow I avoided using the “P” word. I hate it when restaurant people talk about their passion. “I’ve cooked for all sorts of charities and raised money for all sorts of causes. I’ve built up a certain amount of reputational capital, and now I need to utilize that to fund my own family’s security. And as far as the work goes, I can hire help.
“But the truth of the matter is,” I told the reporter, “the bottom line is, that this is what I want to do. If I don’t do it now, I never will, and I really want to do this thing.”