Tasting Success: Careers in Restaurant Consulting

27 Apr

Illustration by Holly Siemon

Like any good entree, a successful restaurant requires a precise blend and balance of the right ingredients. But getting those ingredients to work in harmony, and in turn pleasing customers and making a profit, is a difficult task. (In fact, nearly 60 percent of restaurants will close or transfer ownership within three years of opening, according to a 2005 study published by Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly.)

Behind many of those restaurants that do survive and thrive, from neighborhood bistros to billion-dollar chains, stand restaurant consultants: seasoned industry veterans tasked with creating and updating the eateries we know and love—and rescuing the ones we don’t.

What They Do
“Restaurants fail because they’re underfunded, poorly planned, or mismanaged,” says Danny Bendas, managing partner at Synergy Restaurant Consultants. “Before launching a new restaurant, it’s our job to ensure the concept is viable for a particular market and that it’ll generate the numbers required to keep operations up and running.”

Beyond helping fledgling eateries get off the ground, restaurant consultants pull ailing restaurants out of the red by streamlining operating procedures, cutting food costs, or rebranding to attract a larger or different clientele. They’re also hired by the likes of McDonald’s and Cosi to save a few pennies on each order of French fries (which adds up to big money savings) or incorporate healthy options into the menu. Some consultants specialize in one aspect of a restaurant—menu development, marketing, finance—once they’ve come to understand all the components of a successful restaurant.

Kitchen Smarts
Typically, the first step to becoming a restaurant consultant is completing coursework in culinary arts or hospitality management, either as an undergrad, post-grad, or through a certificate program. But the most important degree, according Mark Mollier, president of The Recipe of Success, is from the school of hard knocks. “You can learn all you want in college, but if you don’t have some real restaurant experience, you won’t be taken seriously by a client, and in turn, a restaurant consulting firm.”

A keen understanding of the back and front of the house is required; those specializing in menu revamp should know how scheduling is handled and be able to analyze a profit and loss statement, while finance gurus need to understand service procedures and kitchen management. Less technical but just as important is common sense, Mollier says. “Perhaps a new elaborate entrée would generate buzz, but if the kitchen is cramped, it doesn’t make sense to add some dish that takes up three burners at a time.”

Getting In
Though there are many entry points into restaurant consulting, two paths in particular stand out. Mollier suggests going the corporate route, working for a chain like Macaroni Grill or Applebee’s, which generally have great management training programs. But keep in mind that smaller, independently owned establishments can offer a great learning environment. Plus, working in a hip restaurant will help you earn street cred in the culinary community, which goes a long way in this industry.

While you job hunt, mentor hunt as well: Find a successful consultant who’s willing to open doors and offer advice. It’s in his best interest: when your cooking puts a corner cafe on the culinary map, his firm stands to benefit too. In no time you’ll be specializing in menu development, you star chef, you.

Emily Callaghan

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