Let’s agree that there are more than a handful of restaurant owners who don’t know who James Beard is and that there are even more who cook food that would smack the taste out of any award judge’s mouth. The simple truth is that not everyone opens a restaurant with the intention of winning an award

Subjective approval looks fantastic in a magazine and hanging on the wall, and yes awards can drive new traffic in your doors…but let’s be honest, is that really why you got into this? Isn’t it about the fresh ingredients, the intentional sourcing, the creative technique, the five senses, and the moments of intimate shared delight you create for others? 

But how exactly can you measure your restaurant’s success if you don’t have the coveted James Beard approval (or any award, for that matter)?

two chefs in kitchen preparing food

7 Qualities of a Successful Restaurant

Restaurateurs measure success in varied and personal ways. But to be successful, all restaurants share the same crucial qualities. To “make it,” successful restaurant owners know they need to excel in seven specific categories. 

Concept: Is your idea appealing, does it spark a sentimental feeling or inspire us to venture into something totally unexpected?

Food: Does the food tease the palate? Is it delicious, is it memorable, will patrons leave wanting those same exact flavors assembled in that same precise way?

Experience: Are you creating a novel time and place that can’t be replicated down the street, across town, in another part of the country, or in another part of the world? Is your place uniquely yours?

Cost: Will customers get what they pay for and leave feeling that the money they spent was worth every cent?

Ambiance: Does the flatware match the eclectic acid jazz? Do the freesias detract from the vaulted ceilings?

Cleanliness: It almost goes without saying that if your place isn’t spic and span, it doesn’t matter how pleasing your food is, no one eats at a squalid restaurant.

Service: The right service can make up for what a restaurant may lack in ambiance and concept. Those elements can be refined. What can’t be remedied is surly or undereducated BOH and FOH service.

Your Personal Best

For those not on the awards-track, your personal best can mean different things—sometimes very unexpected things.

Katie Collier of Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria in St. Louis, Missouri, for instance, is experiencing dynamic entrepreneurial growth following a battle with alcoholism and addiction. In 2012, clean and sober, Katie and her husband raised $40,000 via Kickstarter and an additional $400,000 through handshakes and promises to open their pizza restaurant. 

How does she measure success? Katie said: “Once opened, we had and continue to have huge success. Within two years we were able to pay back all of our investors and by Year 4 we had two locations. We are currently working on our third location that we hope to open spring 2020. Both locations’ sales have had continued sales growth year over year, and our yearly gross sales are nearly $8 million. Our Year 5 growth strategy includes more locations throughout the region.” 

That’s not a food award hanging on a wall, but some might argue, it’s far more significant in the greater scheme of things.

two women eating food in busy restaurant

Don’t Hate the Chain

Nick Marsh, the CEO of Chopt, opened his first food and beverage operation Xando Coffee and Bar in 1994 with his brother and four friends. Ten years later he joined Chopt, which at the time was going into its fourth year and looking to expand. Definitely not in it for awards, Chopt is still its own success story. In fact, Chopt now has 57 locations, opening five new ones in 2018. The company is also expecting to debut 8 to 10 shops in 2019. All are company-owned; none are franchised. Its largest number of locations are in New York, followed by North Carolina. 

What are the keys to their success? According to Marsh, 1) The management team is key to growth; you can’t grow without stability; 2) investment and a focus on technology; and, 3) remaining focused on why each guest comes to visit them and continuing to have the best tasting salad around.

A Community at Large

Other restaurant owners measure progress by the positive effects they have on their community. 

Born in Ethiopia, Beejhy Barhany made it to the United States by way of Kenya, Uganda, Europe, Israel, and South America before setting roots in New York City. In 2000, Barhany founded Beta Israel of North America, a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about the culture and heritage of Ethiopian Jews. In 2014, Barhany and her husband Padmore John opened Tsion Café in the historic Harlem district of Sugar Hill. Now 5 years later, the café continues to thrive, serving the community as a place to put differences aside and celebrate the arts over Ethiopian and Israelian-inspired food. 

chef looking at customers

Sometimes achievement is in the eye of the creator—what they set out to make by intention, or change their path to manifest, or even purely make by accident. Is the achievement less so because it’s not recognized by an upper echelon of experts we’ve become reliant on to tell us who the best chef, or the best maker, or the best restaurant is? Perhaps it is more so because of the lucky ones who hold these spots sacred and dear. But regardless of whether you own a restaurant chain offering healthy salads, or a pizza shop that has garnered the exact support it needed from the public, or an Ethiopian café focused on the accomplishments of a community rather than its bottom line, you are the only person who defines your success in the end.


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