So you're ready to open up a restaurant. You've thought about your team and your concept and your menu… but what about the restaurant space?
We asked chef Dale Talde—creative director at Buddakan, former Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars contestant, and chef-owner of upcoming restaurant Talde—his advice for restaurateurs looking for a future home.
1. Keep an open mind
You may be able to envision the neighborhood (or even street!) where you want to locate your restaurant, but keep an open mind; a spot may appear that's nothing like you pictured, but perfectly suited to your project. "I had to be sold on Brooklyn," says Talde, whose restaurant will be in the borough's neighborhood of Park Slope. "I'm a Manhattan guy. I'd always envisioned putting down roots in Manhattan. But my partners said 'Give it a chance; it's going to grow on you.' We found this spot with huge windows, on a corner, the right rent, the right space—and that was it."
2. Know your city traffic patterns
"Location, location, location" is what's often said, but go a little deeper than that; think beyond cities and neighborhoods, down to corners and addresses. One side of a city street might get foot traffic, while another doesn't; one block may have hundreds of cars pass an hour, while the next block doesn't have the same flow. "Every time the F train pulls in," says Talde of his restaurant, "boom, you've got thirty new people walking by. Maybe more." Don't just look at a space and stroll around the neighborhood: look hard at where people are moving and whether they're likely to cross your restaurant's path. "We spent three or four weeks just driving around the neighborhood," said Talde, "before we even really looked inside. You have to get to know the neighborhood first."
3. Do your due diligence
"Before we signed the lease," says Talde of his new restaurant, "we sat outside for three hours one day and counted all the people who walked by. And not just people, but what kind of people—whether they'd be our customers or not." Not all foot traffic is created equal. "If you're looking at babysitters with strollers," he said, "they're not going to stop into my restaurant. But when doctors walk by on their lunch break from the hospital nearby? Hipster couples who live around there? Those were the people we counted."
Keep an eye out for major customer sources; in Talde's case, it might be that subway stop or that hospital; in yours, it might be an office park, an apartment complex, a school or a sports field. And if you're planning delivery, say? Take an even closer look at the streets surrounding your restaurant, getting a sense of where your customers might come from, and how best to reach them.
4. Learn and benefit from other restaurants
If you're looking at a space that has been a restaurant in the past, take the time to learn about that establishment—and how it did or didn't succeed. Talde considered one space that "had had a restaurant operating for 20 years," he said; "From that, you know a community can really support a place." On the other hand, if it's turned over three times in the last four years, learn what you can about each of those failures. Does it seem as if the location played a role?
One more step: consider how your restaurant will interact with other establishments in your immediate neighborhood; they should be a major consideration in where you locate. They're competition, yes; but they're also potentially beneficial. "Overflow traffic from busy nights? That's nothing but a good thing," says Talde. And the perception of your area as a good one for restaurants benefits everyone. That said, it is important to consider the need for your services; if there are three pizzerias in two blocks, does the area need a fourth? "There was nothing like what we're trying to do," said Talde, "and that makes me feel even better about the space."
5. Know what you can afford
"One rule of thumb I've never forgotten," says Talde: "You should be able to make up your rent in one day of sales." It's critical to understand how much your restaurant will realistically bring in the door before you commit to a space. "That's absolutely key to surviving," Talde says. "If the rent is ridiculous, then walk. You might be tempted to reach for that awesome space. But keeping rent reasonable is key to your restaurant actually working. Rent and space, that's what matters in the end."