Previous Post
It’s Not Me, It’s You
Next Post

No…Really? A Restaurant?

Thinking of opening your very own restaurant? Our resident foodie David Blanks has some advice for you: don’t.

People open restaurants for all sorts of ill-conceived reasons. Some are encouraged by their friends, who tell them that they are great cooks and that they throw the best dinner parties, filling their heads with fantasies of culinary stardom. Others just have a love of the industry, have always dreamed of owning their own place, and with no particular training or qualifications, sink all their money into buying the failing falafel shop on the corner and turning it into the next big thing, and the flagships for their chain will soon be opening in Dubai and London.

And then there are those who find themselves looking for an outlet for their money, a place to invest it, without having any fixed aim or dream. Opening a café seems like a good idea. We’ll get shisha and make some salads and sandwiches and we can name it something cute and get your cousin to do the interior design because, remember, she did that great project for art class and always dreamed of going to design school in London.

These are all formulas for disaster.

Since the revolution, more Cairenes have been spending more money on more dining out than at any other time in the history of this city. Perhaps it’s an end-of-days scenario and people want to go out with a bang. Perhaps it’s pent up demand after months of being trapped at home eating nothing but chicken and rice. Or perhaps it’s the need to escape the responsibility of preventing the parental units, who have also been trapped at home, from tear-gassing each other. I have no statistics, but I’m willing to bet that both the birth and the divorce rates in Egypt are at an all time high as well.

Predictably, the urge to eat out has led to its sister desire, the urge to open one’s own restaurant, and in the past two years, countless would-be entrepreneurs have emptied their bank accounts in pursuit of that dream. Most of those bank accounts will remain empty, further contributing to the divorce rate but, arguably, slowing the birth rate.

What makes them do it? 25% will fail in the first year and over 50% by the third. The answer, as Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, is ego.

Throwing great dinner parties, cooking a kicking risotto, having a passion for food, having wads of cash: these things do not qualify you to bribe health inspectors, unclog grease traps, combat vermin, manage recalcitrant wait staff, coddle irascible customers, or balance the books.

If your friends have been unable to talk sense into you, watch a few episodes of Kitchen Nightmares. Every week you will see English celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay endeavoring to save restaurants run by would-be entrepreneurs who have emptied their bank accounts in pursuit of their dream.

My favorite is in season 4 when Ramsay visits the Fenwick Arms in rural Lancashire, a business, in its third year of operation, that is £250k in debt, losing £1,500 per week, and whose owner, Brian, on the brink of bankruptcy, has had five heart attacks. At one point, Ramsay takes the chef’s inedible dark brown gravy into the parking lot and uses it to fill potholes.

A similar fate awaits many of those entering Cairo’s increasingly competitive food and beverage market including, I suspect, those businesses where gimmicks or guesswork outpaces experience. Pizza in cones. Seriously? That won my nomination for the restaurant Darwin Award this year. Offering Thai, French, Egyptian, Italian and Moroccan food in one place is equally suicidal. A restaurant has to do one thing really well.

There are worse concepts. At Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, Arizona, they make Flatliner Fries (deep fried in pure lard); they don’t sell diet soda; they hand out candy cigarettes to kids; and they offer wheel chair service to any customer who finishes their 8000 calorie Quadruple Bypass Burger. Very nice, I’m sure, but we won’t be hearing about it from their 575-pound spokesman, Blair River, who died last year at the age of 29. Open a place like this, and your bank account is sure to go into anaphylactic shock.

My advice? Don’t do it. Invest your cash in money market funds and sleep peacefully at night. Wake up and play golf. It won’t satisfy your ego, but you will die in your bed at a ripe old age.