Part II: The Food Trucker’s Guide to Running a Restaurant

food truck turned restaurant

Dec. 01, 2017 | 4

Last year we talked with Peter Gabriele, owner of Pete’s Frites, a food-truck-turned-restaurant that specializes in fresh, natural hamburgers and Belgian-style Pommes Fri. At the time, Gabriele had just traded in his wheels for a brick and mortar location and was in the process of opening his doors to the public.

He shared with us his careful fiscal plans and intentions for customer service, detailed here in The Food Trucker’s Guide to Opening a Restaurant.

Today, we catch up with Gabriele to see how his first year went, what he learned, and what he would do differently in Part II: The Food Trucker’s Guide to Running a Business. You’ll find that even with careful planning, inexperience with running a restaurant can present an unexpected set of problems.

The Realities of Running a Restaurant After a Food Truck

In July 2017, Gabriele made the tough decision to close Pete’s Frites. A surprising move considering that by all accounts, Pete’s Frites was a success story. From the get-go, the new restaurant had a great turn out that developed into a loyal customer base.

The Albuquerque, New Mexico community embraced Pete’s Frites, and word spread fast about the premium burgers. The restaurant was busy Fridays and Saturdays, with steady customer flows the rest of the week. Daily sales goals were met. Its Facebook followers were engaged and supportive.  On Yelp, the restaurant had a rarely seen 4.5-star approval rating, with nearly 150 rave reviews.

The many five-star reviews were a result of Gabriele’s dedication to the customer experience. Before opening, he made two major decisions about the way Pete’s Frites would run:

  1. Serving only the freshest, most delicious burgers and fries. (Gabriele makes his own patties with four different types of choice meat, which are never frozen.)
  2. Giving excellent customer service.

So, what went wrong? Gabriele shares a candid analysis of his first attempt at opening and running a restaurant below.

Location, Location, Location

Every restaurant owner has heard the same thing about location: It can make or break you. Gabriele spent an incredible amount of time and effort looking for the right location for his first restaurant, but ultimately, it was the property on the location that led to his decision to close. 

“We picked the right location,” says Gabriele. “[We] did our homework on demographics, chose the right part of town to be in, but what we overlooked was the actual property itself. That was [because of] my inexperience.” He listed the limitations of the property: the size of the kitchen, how many seats could fit in the front of the house, and its age and condition.

The property was an older restaurant space and came with second-hand kitchen appliances. The previous tenants did not invest in top-notch appliances. Only after setting up shop did Gabriele realize what that meant in terms of quality.

“A lot of their build-out was not good,” he reveals, “and I spent a lot of money fixing and putting band-aids on things that were breaking, such as plumbing, electrical work, the exhaust hood, the walk-in…. Everything [that they had purchased] was second-hand, and now was super old and in very bad shape.”

If the financial strain of repairing his kitchen wasn’t bad enough, Gabriele also learned that the layout worked against his cooking process, and held him back during rush hours.

“The fact that I did not get to design my own kitchen for the flow of my restaurant really hurt us the most. That was our downfall in the end.”

“The flow was an afterthought,” he continued. “I was just looking at the space and thinking ‘It has the ventilation hood’—that’s a lot of money. I was just thinking we’ll figure out how to adapt to what they built.”

There came a point, Gabriele said, when he realized that his kitchen couldn’t support the demand of the restaurant. It led to extremely stressful work conditions during peak hours. Wait periods could stretch to 40 minutes. Ringing phones with customers hoping to place to-go orders were ignored, as he and his staff were so overwhelmed. The demand was intense, and they could not meet it.

This brings us to perhaps the most important lesson of owning a restaurant: Plan for success. Be ready to scale.

“I looked at the space to get the concept into a restaurant, but I didn’t really anticipate success. And not anticipating success can ultimately be your downfall. Had I known that I would be successful or had a true feeling that we were going to do so well, I could have spent more money and converted this space properly, and would still be there as a restaurant now.

If you set up a place that can’t handle the success of your demands, ultimately, you’re going to be in trouble. "All that maintenance of that equipment was really frustrating. At the end, that’s what did us in. The kitchen was too small.”

Taking with him the experiences of this last year, Gabriele is now on the hunt for a new and better location for Pete’s Frites. We wish him the best of luck!

Lessons of a Former Food Truck Owner Turned Restaurant Owner

If you’re considering turning your successful food truck into a brick-and-mortar location, take some advice from Peter Gabriele.

On Using Your Food Truck POS Inventory System

Use your food truck POS in its entirety as a support system for your business. “That’s a warning I would give people: You’re not a food truck anymore. If you buy a point-of-sale system, really sit down and learn it. Get it set up to the best you can.

I thought my food costs were one thing, (I didn’t have time to compile my books and I’m a CPA!), and my food costs were 7% higher than I thought. And now looking back, I have no idea what was costing so much money. I think I know what it was, but I would literally have to go back into my papers and expense reports from my distributors.”

On Considering a Property with a Second-Generation Kitchen  

“This might be the area where—if you’re not an expert on this stuff—be inventive and see if you can get some help on this. If you have a network of other guys who worked on other kitchens, or who were plumbers or electricians, get their eyes on it. Seek expert advice if it’s within your budget, and if it isn’t, think of a way to creatively do it without spending money.”

On Hiring Staff

“Don’t discount it. It’s important. Don’t treat hiring as an afterthought; your employees are the face of your business. Take it seriously. But also, after hiring, don’t be scared to fire guys. Don’t let staff ruin your business.”

On Scheduling

“Do it! If there’s a system out there, do it. Don’t try to do it by the seat of your pants because I did that, and it is difficult. Everyone should know the days they work, so people can be held accountable for their days.”

On Food Prep

“For most food truckers, this is probably one of their strengths. As prepping in the food truck is something that you can’t make up on the fly because you don’t have a lot of room. But obviously, in the kitchen, you have more room to do more prep in the store.”

On Customer Experience

“Understand that the customer experience isn’t just the food. I would think that most owners of food trucks are producers of food –either chefs or cooks—but there is a part of customer experience that only has to do with service, not the food.

If you’re not an expert on it, this is the place to spend money on a manager to make sure that the FOH is tight. Your manager can’t make bad food taste better, but poor management can ruin the experience of good food.”

On Delegating Tasks

“This goes back to hiring. If you have the right people at the right job, it will be easier to delegate. But if hiring staff was an afterthought, or you didn’t hire the correct staff, it’s going to be difficult to delegate as your staff is not going to be prepared to take on the tasks you want to delegate.

Then, you’ll fall into the trap. It might not ruin your restaurant, but it’s going to ruin your life because you’ll end up doing tasks that you shouldn’t be doing, and the hours are going to accumulate very quickly. It did to me [Laughs].

Your staff will surprise you … a little bit of supervision and a little bit of education [goes a long way]. One way or another, figure out how to delegate.”

On Managing Inventory

“Don’t overlook it.

In the end, you’re going to waste money and time if you don’t set up a strong inventory system. I think that is a place that you can spend money, and it may hurt in the beginning because it takes a certain amount of your capital, but it’s not going to put you out of business. At the end of the day, you are going to wish that you had an inventory management system.”

Making the decision to open a restaurant is a major decision. Seek advice, plan carefully, and invest in the right tools.

Read the first half of Gabriele’s interview here.

Dec. 01, 2017 | BY Emma Alois

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