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So You Want to Be a… Restaurant Owner

by Julius Eason

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As a child, someone probably asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Was your answer to work a dead-end job; to slave for a paycheck? Doubtful. Unfortunately, this is often the case. Not all of us get to become the astronauts, firefighters and doctors we dreamed of being.

Still, we are all deserving of a job that affords us happiness and the opportunity to indulge our passions.

Sam Keen, author and philosopher, once said, “A society in which vocation and job are separated for most people gradually creates an economy that is often devoid of spirit, one that frequently fills our pocketbooks at the cost of emptying our souls.”

There are the fortunate few who have found their calling; they are passionate about their work and are the inspiration behind The Millennial’s feature series “So You Want to Be a…” Here, you will find interviews with people who have the jobs others wish they had. The idea is that, in sharing their perspective and roadmap to success, they can help others in finding their vocation.

For the first installment, we interviewed Mary Kay Smith, longtime owner of the Winds Cafe & Bakery in Yellow Springs, Ohio. From the Winds Wine Cellar just next door, she gave us the inside story on the realities of owning a restaurant.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Beavercreek. I just turned 57. I’ve been doing this for 37 years, 36 as an owner. I started here as a dishwasher. I got called in one night by my friend Kim, who is now my partner in the restaurant. She was cooking, and somebody didn’t show up, so she called me. I had another job at that point, and I had never washed dishes in a restaurant before. I liked the community, the people and got hooked on it. A year later, I quit my job driving a forklift in a warehouse; they were looking for somebody to buy into the restaurant, so that’s what I did. I didn’t have any restaurant experience.

How did you become a restaurant owner?

My story is different—I kind of fell into it. At that time and place in Yellow Springs, you could do that. You cannot do that now. The restaurant business is very different now, with the amount of money, insurance and everything else. A twenty-something couldn’t just fall into owning a restaurant like that.

Did you know it was what you wanted to do at the time?

No, it wasn’t. I liked to cook at home, I was vegetarian then. I was kind of going to college off and on. I was going to art school, and dropped out. I went to film school, and dropped out. Mostly, I liked to work with my hands, so I wasn’t the best student. I enjoyed reading, and was interested in a lot of things, but bookwork not so much. So it fit with my creativity, liking to work with a team and working with my hands.

What’s a typical day for you in the workplace?

I open the restaurant, I check in with all the bakers, the cooks. Set all the specials, count the money, go to the bank, write all the specials, answer phone calls. Today’s the day I work at the wine store, so I come over as soon as there are servers to answer the phone. Today, I’m resetting all of the displays for wine, replacing the summer displays with more of a fall display. And also, between customers, trying to get myself set for the weekend: going over schedules, and answering texts from the general manager and sous chef.

In today’s industry climate, how should one prepare if they wish to own their own restaurant? What skills, experiences and education do you think they need?

First of all, you have to have a great work ethic. There’s always, always going to be something that goes wrong. You’re relying on so many people just to take a plate of food to a customer. So something is not going to come in, an essential piece of equipment is going to break down and you have to be a problem-solver. Also, just not being resentful, as your outside time is going to be taken up with phone calls or something. And in this day in age, I would not open a restaurant unless I was fully funded.

I would go to cooking school, even if you didn’t want to be a chef. Because if you’re at the mercy of the chef as a restaurant owner, you will be in trouble. If you do not know anything about food except for the hospitality part of it, you will be in trouble. A couple of restaurants I’ve seen around here, they like to throw parties, and they’re really good at greeting people. But then their chef leaves, and then what?

More than 13 million people are employed in the restaurant industry, an industry which accounts for nearly $2 billion in sales on a typical day. And yet, many new restaurants close up shop within the first year, or lose money after several years. In your opinion, what separates a successful restaurant from a failure?

Something people don’t realize is that oftentimes when you see that an entree costs $25, you’re making nickels and dimes on that dish. You have to do a huge amount of volume to account for the broken dishes, the rent, your workers compensation, among other things. All of these things figure into that $25, not just the cost of that steak. Not to mention paying the 10 or 15 people it takes per shift to cook it and take it out. Unless you’re able to budget for all of that, you’re never going to make any money.

I think one of the reasons why we’re successful is that we’re not afraid to change. I think our restaurant has changed with the times. We’re certainly not serving the same food that I cooked in 1978, or even the same food that I cooked 2 or 3 years ago. If you’re unwilling to change with the times, you’re never going to grow your clientele. Everybody’s struggling to get a younger clientele, as people my age and older are aging and not going out as much. So it’s about keeping it fresh and interesting, and always changing.

A lot of restaurants that you see on TV have recipes that their mother used in 1958. People just aren’t eating a huge piece of meatloaf and mashed potatoes three times a week anymore. They just aren’t. As you can see, people go out to eat all the time, and it’s a way of life. When I was a kid, it was a very special occasion to go out to eat.

My customers come in three or four times a week. They don’t get a huge spread of food, but they’ll get a salad and a glass of wine, sit at the bar, meet and talk to people and it’s just the way they live. That’s very different than it was in 1978. You went out and got a plate with a large protein in the center of the plate, a big carbohydrate and maybe a vegetable. That was dinner, and living large, but that’s not the way it is now.

What can one expect when opening a restaurant? Take us through some of the Winds Cafe’s history.

Well, it depends on if you’re buying a restaurant that’s already been in service, and just refashioning a bit. The Winds moved here from across the street in 1990. This location was just a bunch of little shops. In our case, it was reinventing a new restaurant. It’s formidable. All-new plumbing and air conditioning for commercial-industry use. Hood fans, lots of things like that. Not to mention the rules and regulations. It’s a big expense.

What would you say is the best part of your job?

There’s more than one. One is the customers. I’ve met so many people from all over. The whole thing about a restaurant is food and community, and that’s a really big part of it for me. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I got engaged here,” and just last week some people came in and had their 19th wedding anniversary here, and they had their first date here. It’s all kinds of things like that that really are quite touching. Somebody will come in and say “I’ve had this dish, and I’ve been at home trying to recreate it.”

And some of my employees have become part of my family—there are people I’ve known for 30 years. I used to work with my peer group, but they really don’t work in restaurants anymore. So now I’m working with young people all the time, and I like that. I feel like it keeps me young.

What is the worst part of your job?

I think the worst part of my job is still the stress of when things go wrong. If somebody accidentally cuts themselves, and has to leave in the middle of a shift, that leaves the rest of us  to regroup. Somebody won’t show up, or the power goes out, or a million other things that could go wrong, and have gone wrong.

And I’ll tell you, it still hurts sometimes when a customer says something bad. I’ve heard it for years, but sometimes there are certain ones that really get to you.

How do you manage the balance between your work, family, and personal life?

It depends on who you ask, some would say I don’t manage it very well. As I’ve aged, I think I’ve learned to manage it a little better. It’s a hard job to have. When my kids are mad at me, they’ve definitely brought up that I haven’t been around some. I think they get it now that they’re older, but it’s never an easy balance.

Any other tips, advice, or commentary you’d like to share?

Know how to cook, know good food, and know how to get good food. If you’re not able to do it all yourself, at least for a short period of time, you’re going to be sunk.

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