Welcome to In the Weeds, our series in which Dallas restaurateurs explain the behind-the-scenes aspects of the food service business—parts of the job that customers never see.
Today, our panelists are discussing the challenges of moving from one restaurant in one location to owning multiple businesses. They recounted their wide-ranging experiences as owners of multiple businesses, from the creators of growing regional chains to the operators of some of the most successful booths in Texas.
Meet our experts:
- Sawsan Abublan, co-owner of fast casual chain Shawarma Press
- Tanner Agar, co-owner of upscale restaurant Rye and cocktail bar Apothecary
- Jon Alexis, restaurateur behind TJ’s Seafood, Malibu Poke, Escondido and Ramble Room
- JR Muñoz, owner of bars Will Call and Elm Street Saloon
- Khanh Nguyen, restaurateur behind ZaLat Pizza and DaLat
- Brent and Juan Reaves, co-owners of Smokey John’s Bar-BQ and the Smokey John’s and Ruth’s Tamale House booth at the Texas State Fair
Each of them spoke about the growing pains of moving from one restaurant to two (or dozens). Here’s what they had to say. (My comments and topic transitions are in italics.)
Read part one: What must happen before a restaurant opens?
Part II: How to choose a restaurant location?
Part Three: What Are the Most Surprising Hidden Costs in the Restaurant Industry?
Part Four: How and when does a restaurant decide to raise prices?
Part Five: What is the Right Number of Employees for a Restaurant?
So what happens when you open the second location?
JR Munoz: More questions!
Sosan Abbrand: Of course, the stress level doubles.
Jon Alexis: I remember being told that your work will not be doubled, it will be proportional. This is real.
Tanner agar: I don’t think there’s anything more difficult than opening the first one. I was wrong. Opening the second is much more difficult.this [first] Restaurants are still very dependent on us to help run them every day. So we had to take time out of running restaurants every day to build new restaurants, hire people, and get resources ready.
Qing Nguyen: Great if you run a restaurant. This is your whole life. You don’t have any corporate functions, you don’t have anyone who doesn’t have a full-time job working in a restaurant. Now you’re going to have to figure out how to set it up with the vendor, design the space. Where are you going to get the ability to do all of these things?
Sosan Abbrand: You cannot clone yourself. You cannot be in both positions at the same time. You have to trust your leaders. I think that’s why the stress level is a little bit higher, because you really want to be in both places 24 hours a day.
Brent Reeves: The hardest thing is staffing. Look for someone who is capable and really enjoys the industry. BBQ is not burgers. Everyone can flip the burger because it’s uniform and each patty takes the same cooking time. But when it comes to BBQ, no two briskets are the same, and no two ribs are the same. If you want to have a quality product, you need someone who actually cares about the product and wants it to be good.
The most troublesome thing for us is the State Fair. You are looking for someone who is available 24 days. This is actually crazy. This year we have 18 executives attending the show. Just arranging the calendar, the schedule, is more of a headache than anything else. [This interview took place shortly before the 2022 State Fair.]
it gets harder but then gets easier
Oddly, many of our restaurateurs find that as you continue to expand your business, things get easier, not harder. Both because they gain experience and because they are able to move up a level, from day-to-day hands-on operations to overseeing a competent leadership team.
Jon Alexis: There are definitely economies of scale. Oddly enough, it’s easier to own four or five restaurants than one. But having two is harder than having one. This is a stepping stone.
Not only when you go from one to two to five, yeah, it gets easier, but if you do, you’re 10 years smarter. Well, I haven’t gotten any wiser yet.I have people who have worked for me for 10 years solve all these problems [before].
Tanner agar: If you have 10 restaurants, you have a company that isn’t with you. That’s our biggest problem. Our company feels more like a startup. I tell guests it’s more like a band.
Sosan Abbrand: I think things get easier, not harder, because the second you know what’s going to happen. If your process breaks, you’ve learned from your mistakes and it’s smoother now.
Another thing I’ve noticed that is also easier is that your supplier knows you. You have an existing relationship. So when you’re going to start signing contracts with food companies, or you want to buy furniture, you already have those relationships.
JR Munoz: Honestly, it does get easier. Everyone was like, “Oh my god, you must be overwhelmed,” and I was like, “No, actually my schedule is a little bit more balanced now because I’m not behind a bar five nights a week.”
i still like bartending here [at Will Call] On Wednesdays, because we have acoustic artists. My regulars know they can come to me for drinks on those days. I do this on Saturday because it’s the busiest day. It’s funny because if it’s a Saturday night, I’ll be showing off behind the bar, doing some moves, and I’ll be pouring from behind or something. But if the next time someone comes over and I’m just pouring a drink on a regular basis, they’re like “Dude, I just told my friends you throw bottles and shit.” Gun back.”
But it does get easier, especially when all my concepts are in the same block. We almost opened Will Call in Fort Worth, and I’m glad we didn’t. As much as I really want to, I can’t imagine going back and forth. If I need something at the Elm Street Saloon, it’s 200 yards away. The fact that everything is on the same block makes it even easier.
Jon Alexis: You don’t have to absorb every cost twice. You start adding income tiers without cost tiers, and in theory the extra income allows you to add tiers. You can’t have a director of accounting in a restaurant who makes your life easier. You can’t have a CFO. The more you have, the more you can add the parts needed to run them better. Larger boats won’t rock as much in the water.
Brian Reinhart to become D Magazine’s food and beverage critic in 2022 after six years writing about restaurants in America dallas observer and Dallas Morning News.
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