Dish

First-Time Restaurant Owners Talk About What It Takes

With rising real estate prices, a labor shortage and plenty of competition for diners, new restaurants face tough challenges in Denver. And those challenges become even tougher for optimistic entrepreneurs who’ve never owned a restaurant. Still, this city’s restaurant scene continues to explode, with no end in sight.

We caught up with five of these new proprietors to talk about the lessons they learned during their first foray into ownership — and ask what advice they’d give would-be restaurateurs considering picking up a lease.

click to enlarge
Caroline Glover added the cozy and charming Annette to the Stanley Marketplace this year.
Courtesy Caroline Glover
Caroline Glover
Annette
2501 Dallas Street, Aurora
“All the cliché things you hear are true,” says Caroline Glover, who opened Annette in Stanley Marketplace in February. “It’s going to take longer than you think, and it’s going to cost way more than expected. The more you hear that, the better.” Get everything in writing, she advises; that’s even more essential if you’re opening in a place where several buildouts are happening at once, as was the case with Annette.

Glover had spent plenty of time in high-profile kitchens — including a three-year stint at Acorn — but that didn’t completely prepare her for owning her own place. In particular, she wasn’t ready for the emotional investment that goes along with having your name attached to a project. “Getting a thicker skin has been the hardest thing for me,” she says. “You’re putting yourself on the line, making food in an intimate spot for a crowd of people.
They’re paying for it, and you hope they all love it, and they don’t all love it. You have to take what you can from criticism and keep moving forward. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you’ve got to toughen up and listen to the gut.”

After she spent months obsessing over her online reviews, for example, Glover was banned from reading Yelp by her husband. And now she’d advise any new restaurateur to let a loved one handle that aspect of the business, bringing issues to an owner’s attention only when they spot a pattern.

Despite the criticism, Glover’s glad she’s stuck to her guns when it came to the menu. “I got a rough review, and it made me step back and think, are people not getting it?,” she recalls. “From the neighborhood I’m in, I’ve heard, ‘You should take this off, this is too crazy.’ But sticking to our guns has proven to be good: People have tried things they wouldn’t have tried before.”

That dovetails with one of her biggest lessons: “Listening to your gut is really important,” she emphasizes. “I never really understood that before opening a restaurant.”

Glover says she found her rhythm after about six months, and running the restaurant continues to get easier. But would she do it again? “I’m not opening a next one,” she says. “I’m not going to do it again. I’m not a big restaurateur. This is my life. I’ve made it into a lifestyle, and I can’t imagine not being here every day. I can’t imagine going through this again. This is exactly what I wanted.”

click to enlarge
Chef-owner Alex Figura divides seeded sourdough into baking portions.
Danielle Lirette
Spencer White and Alex Figura
Dio Mio Handmade Pasta
3264 Larimer street
Dio Mio had a tight launch budget, and as a result, Spencer White and Alex Figura were on site almost constantly during the buildout of their space at 3264 Larimer Street. Luckily, that’s something they wouldn’t change for the world. “If we did do it again, we’d still be there every day,” says White. “It’s helpful to watch the process from beginning to end, to see who’s doing what, to watch the whole thing come together. A lot of people don’t do that. We really enjoyed the whole thing and thought it was really interesting.”

Both partners came from fine-dining restaurants — Figura is an alum of Vetri, Blue Hill Stone Barns and Frasca, while White was raised in Frank Bonanno’s empire, and they cooked together at the now-shuttered Lower48 Kitchen. So much of their learning curve was about taking the skills they’d learned through those experiences and adapting them to a fast-casual restaurant. “Counter service was a huge learning curve for us,” says White. “It’s something we tried to wrap our brains around before opening but had to experience to get it dialed in. We’re still working on it.”

“We’re not general managers, so it was learning how to be more hands-off but really mimic the great experience you can get at a high-end restaurant,” adds Figura. “At the beginning, that was a struggle. We wanted to do more, but we couldn’t. There’s only three of us working on a really busy night, so it’s about how to balance and create a great experience.”

It took the chefs a couple of months to find their groove after they opened last November, and even now, they say they’re still working on fine-tuning, tweaking the balance of the menu so they don’t overwhelm their cooks, and educating all of their employees to handle all parts of the operation instead of sticking to defined front-of-house or back-of-house roles.

Their advice for would-be owners? “Do your research,” says Figura. “Study the demographic, read how they eat, think about how your restaurant is going to function, and think about how that’s all going to work together to create a successful restaurant.”