When students enter the Culinary Institute of America as freshman, they’re all asked the same question: how many want to open their own restaurant someday? According to Dr. Annette Graham, Dean of Business and Management at the CIA, 95% raise their hands. By the time they begin the Bachelor’s program, that number diminishes. “I think it’s because of exposure — they better understand the challenges of what it takes to open your own restaurant,” says Graham.
The best way to understand the restaurant industry fully is to experience it hands-on, both the culinary side and the business side. That’s where Graham comes in. She’s responsible for all of the business management courses at the CIA, including a concentration called Intrapreneurship, in which students develop and pitch their own restaurant concepts in a competition setting. One concept is selected by a panel of faculty members and experts, and the students go on to flesh out the details: menu and recipe development, HR, accounting, budget, and technology. During their last semester on campus, they bring the restaurant to life in the student dining facility’s Innovation Kitchen.
“They do the staffing, scheduling, all of the ordering,” Graham explains. “They collect customer feedback. They look at their financial performance and make decisions, maybe change menu items. They seek different sourcing if the product they’re getting is not what they quite want. It is the most fantastic opportunity for students who really want to go out and operate, because they’re really getting to practice it in a safe environment.”
Currently the students are operating Meatball City — the name tells all — which is financially successful and actually generating revenue. (Surplus goes towards student scholarships.) All of the Intrapreneurship restaurants are quick-service, which can be a challenge for students to adapt to after being trained in fine dining. The other big challenges? Managing the financials and interpersonal relationships.
Business & Financials
When students pitch their restaurant concepts, the panel looks for many different things: Is it going to be financially feasible? Have they made a valid pitch? Will they be able to maintain a level of freshness and newness throughout the entire semester with the menu?
“Have they done their research and work?” asks Graham. “Sometimes we worry about the menu cost, whether we think they are going to be able to achieve the fiscal responsibility that they need to have within that space.”
For example, a recent Intrapreneurship class operated a ramen noodle concept. In their pitch, they mentioned their broth would need a 14-hour cook; now, it’s down to two hours. A Mexican street food concept was spending too much time and labor cost slicing cabbage for tacos, so they began buying sliced cabbage. Simple changes like these are huge learnings.
“It’s not that you become an expert in accounting,” Graham says. But to be a successful restaurateur you do need to read a financial statement and understand enough to hire the right person. “It’s making good choices about who you surround yourself with to help you in the areas that you may not be strong in. Mostly, that revolves around business.”
And it’s not just financials — it’s also marketing savvy that’s required. Understanding how to use social media to drive traffic to a restaurant can be a powerful tool. The students running Meatball City used social media channels with great success to reach out to other students and faculty and drum up business. They also filmed a commercial and posted it on YouTube to tell their story in a more visual, interactive way.
Along with the business skills, students often need to work on their people skills — to treat their employees and colleagues with kindness and respect. “That’s a reputation of our industry,” Graham says of aggressive kitchen culture. “If employees are personally happy and fulfilled within their work, they’re going to express that to the customers. It’s going to be reflected in the level of service and the quality of food that’s coming out.”
In one of the CIA’s first courses, Professionalism and Life Skills, instructors start a conversation with students about developing their interpersonal and communication skills. But in the Intrapreneurship concentration, they have to figure it out in a real work environment. Sometimes that means sitting down as a group and talking through issues affecting the team. Another important lesson? Your workplace isn’t necessarily the best place to look for friendship, because that can make tough decisions even more awkward.
Interpersonal skills are essential in the classroom, workplace, and beyond. Graham says a big mistake people make when they start to open a restaurant is that they don’t ask for help. “Ask!” she insists. “That’s the one good thing about the hospitality industry: we’re pretty giving. If you find the right person to mentor you, all you’ve got to do is ask for help. It’s there.”
And Finally, Resilience
We asked Dr. Graham to share her #1 piece of advice for aspiring restaurateurs, and the answer may surprise you.
“Don’t be afraid to fail,” she says. “If you really want to do it, you’ve got to jump in and do it. How many of the really successful restaurateurs and people in the hospitality industry failed the first, second, third, fourth time before they really hit it? It takes a special person to do that. But for the people that really want to do it, if they really have a good idea, go for it and don’t be afraid.”
Photos courtesy of the Culinary Institute of America.