Stem + Glory's founder on how to ensure your start-up restaurant enjoys taste of success
An alarming number of restaurants fail... here's some sage advice from the entrepreneur behind the Cambridge vegan restaurants to ensure yours doesn't
From Jamie Oliver’s mission to boost healthy eating, to what appears to be James Martin’s mission to single-handedly boost butter sales, telly chefs front many of the UK’s favourite programmes. Currently – as it has been for a while now – cooking is cool. Where once upon a not-so-long-ago, running a pub was a common fantasy, these days the dream is of opening a restaurant.
But with an alarming number of restaurants failing in recent times, it would be understandable if the dream-to-nightmare ratio were to put you off pursuing your own passion. However, as the founder of an award-winning, trend-busting restaurant, let me assure you that you can make it work.
First, focus on that passion. Regardless of the type of food at the core of your ambitions, passion is the most important ingredient for any restaurateur. If you’re not a fan of spicy foods, don’t open a curry shop. But if you do love creating exciting blends of spices, a sandwich shop isn’t going to make you happy, or keep you interested enough to see you through any tough times.
Stem + Glory, a vegan brand restaurant, was born out of my passion for plant-based cuisine. That passion wasn’t the result of any recent fad, it’s rooted in a 35-year love affair. Ask yourself, if you’re Ross, who (what) is your Rachel?
Ah, you may say, but what if you spot a gap in the market? After all, that’s what entrepreneurs do. And if your passion is having a pile of cash to invest in someone else’s passion, go ahead. But if your aim is actually to run the restaurant, merely spotting a gap in the market is rarely enough. If you love something, you’ll understand it more than someone who merely appreciates the commercial potential. You’ll come up with innovations a moneyman won’t see.
These innovations should be found in two key areas of your business: your menu and your marketing. While just having good food can sometimes be enough (depending on the degree of ambition), there is a direct relationship between marketing and success.
Someone, somewhere is currently crying, but I have a limited budget!
Then get creative. Let’s say you have a country-pub style establishment, where your customers need a car to get to you, then offer deals for designated drivers. That’s a likely word-of-mouth winner. And if Monday is usually a quiet night, piggy-back the Meat Free Mondays hashtag to bring in fresh customers or intrigue regulars with a special, well thought-out vegetarian/vegan menu (we’re talking more than baked beans on a baked potato and mac & cheese).
Any chef worth their seasoning should relish the opportunity to show off their skills and imagination to create water-cooler conversation cuisine. So give them the opportunity. Often.
Special events and themed nights are a great way to let your kitchen shine. There are the classics – Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day – but don’t restrict yourself. Scour the calendar for hooks to hang your apron on. Not every special day will suit you, but whether it’s Burns Night or Bastille Day, there will be something that allows you to create either specials or special menus (perhaps with fixed prices for two and three courses).
If you’re creating a whole menu for your event, trail it weeks in advance by adding special taster elements to your regular menu. Not only does this increase the chances of word-of-mouth, it gives you more to talk about on your social media platforms.
However, you mustn’t get too carried away with the excitement of special events. Remember, you have a passion. And to do that justice you need to identify and hone your USP.
Every business must have a USP. How do you find yours? I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you how we got ours.
Stem + Glory is a vegan brand. But vegan isn’t our USP. There are many eateries serving vegan dishes. But my experience has been that all too often the dishes offered are merely meh! So, in a marketplace awash with bland and boring, Stem + Glory chose as its USP: delicious.
Yes, Stem + Glory serves the growing number of people looking for plant-based food, but we’re also serving people who love gourmet food. We wholeheartedly support the principles, but we’re going for your tastebuds.
Basically, we didn’t mistake our part of the restaurant Venn diagram for our USP. Make sure you think beyond your own Venn diagram location.
However, your physical location is important. Or rather, it can be, but having a mechanism to drive people to your location is even more important.
The location of the first Stem + Glory – on Mitcham’s Corner, Chesterton Road – was (and still is) unusual. It’s above a cycle shop on a traffic island in what doesn’t qualify as the best part of Cambridge. And we had to work for our customers. Perhaps we wouldn’t have been quite as successful if we’d relied on a high-footfall location. Perhaps that’s a factor in why so many high-footfall-located chains are struggling. Wherever you find yourself, remember, you don’t want to be somewhere people pass, you want to be their destination.
And when they arrive, treat them well. Outstanding customer service is a must. When you’re recruiting look for competence, confidence and a kind disposition. You can teach the rest.
Finally, two quick points. One that involves spending money, the other that aims to save you money.
Getting your opening hours right will be a money-saver. Analyse your sales per hour and costs to open. Remember that every location has unique rhythms and flows. Get to know yours and respond appropriately.
And with the money you save, invest in good photography. Social media is driven by images. Good images. A quick snap using your phone where the carrots are an odd colour and your thumb obscured most of the plate will do you more harm than good.
Being successful is as much about you as it is your product. Be authentic. Be ambitious. Be bold. Be passionate.
About Stem + Glory
Stem + Glory, in Chesterton Road and in King Street, serves gourmet vegan food made on site from locally-sourced ingredients, which is available to eat in or take away. It runs tasting menu evenings and special event menus. And it features an extensive vegan bar, offering craft beers and wines, alongside cocktails, mocktails and smart drinks. It won Best Restaurant in Cambridge at the British Restaurant Awards 2018.