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Last Updated: Monday, 13 December, 2004, 09:04 GMT
Why cooking for a living is no picnic
By Will Smale
BBC News business reporter

Gordon Ramsey and Angela Hartnett
Could you be the next Gordon Ramsey?
With only one in three UK restaurants surviving beyond two years, getting the menu right is only one part of the battle for would-be restaurateurs.

Add the rent or mortgage, business and water rates, wages for staff, VAT, and refurbishment costs, and whether or not the sauce goes well with the fish could be the least of your worries.

But the public remains undeterred: opening a cafe or restaurant is among the most cherished ambitions of jaded mid-career wage slaves.

So what advice do successful restaurateurs have for would-be Gordon Ramseys?

No free lunch

"Research everything as thoroughly as possible," says Robin Couling, co-owner and chef at The Falcon Inn, an award-winning pub and restaurant in the Gloucestershire village of Poulton.
Woman in restaurant
Is your menu priced correctly?

"A lot of people have a romantic idea of running a pub or restaurant. They expect it to be a nice lifestyle change from a 9 to 5 job, but in reality, it is a lot of hard work."

For Mr Couling, the most important thing to realise is that you have to commit your complete life to it.

"You are not going to succeed if you don't give it your all. I know that sounds a bit obvious, but to be successful it will take up all your time."

Food for thought

This opinion is completely shared by Huw Fowler, founder and owner of Hamburger Union, an upmarket hamburger diner which has two outlets in central London.

"If you think you can be an absentee owner and the business will survive, you are completely mistaken," he says.

"When we opened the first restaurant I was on the till myself and doing 16-hour days for the first three months.

"You have to be completely hands-on."

Paying the bill

But even if you have the commitment and drive, the next hurdle to face is finding start-up cash.

Huw Fowler, owner of Hamburger Union
Even the best restaurant can fail if it is in the wrong location
Huw Fowler

As a general rule, think carefully about how much money you will need - and then double it.

"You need to be much more capitalised than you think, as cash flow can be tight to start with," said Mr Couling.

"Owning a restaurant is not an easy way to make money.

"You only have to look at the failure rate to see that."

For Mr Fowler, cash flow is particularly pertinent because with one restaurant in Soho and another in Covent Garden, he is paying among the highest rents in the UK.

"Rent is a huge problem... we've got to make 200,000 a year before we can even open the doors."

Seating plan

To make money, Hamburger Union needs a lot of bums on seats.

Hamburger Union cheese burger
Burgers can be upmarket these days

But as Mr Fowler says, any restaurant's business plan must never be over-ambitious about the projected "plate count" or number of diners.

"You need to be very conservative with your projections," he says.

"And if you beat them, then that's great."

Cafe society

One crucial factor here is where you locate.

"Even the best restaurant can fail if it is in the wrong location," says Mr Fowler.

Central London obviously offers a great many potential customers; the Outer Hebrides, for example, rather fewer.

On the other hand, the rents are far lower in rural Scotland.

Ingredients of success

The next factor is which suppliers to choose.

"Having a good long term relationship with your supplier is vital," says Mr Fowler.

"A lot of businesses make the mistake of going with the cheapest, but someone more expensive may not only provide better ingredients, but also a better service.

"And always, always pay on time.

"You need to look after your supplier, so that if - heaven forbid - you ever find yourself in a tight squeeze, they will be much more willing to help out."

Service charge

So, you have the cash, you have the menu, you have the perfect location, the next factor is staffing. How many staff do you need and how much will you pay them?

"You can fall down if you skimp on staff training," says Mr Fowler.

"They are your customer's first impression, and bad staff is a real turn-off."

With so many hurdles to jump, it makes you wonder why anyone wants to go into the restaurant market.

The reason it remains so popular is simple, says Mr Couling, "get it right and it is very rewarding."

"The sense of personal satisfaction is very high."


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