Work: Waiter, there's a fly in my soup...

...and the chef is drunk and your only customer won't pay up. Starting up a restaurant isn't always as fun as it sounds, says HESTER LACEY
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When friends come to dinner, they're always so appreciative. "It's as good as eating in a restaurant!" they gush. You've had meals out and thought, "I can cook as well as this." What could be more appealing than the dream of opening your own little place? Clients would flock to spend lots of money with you smiling front-of-house and simultaneously whipping up gastronomic masterpieces in the kitchen.

Dream on. Becoming rich and famous through running a restaurant is the preserve of very few. Eighty per cent of new restaurants fail within the first two years. Breaking even or turning a modest profit is something many are very happy with.

Jonathan and Maggi Hewitt run the Red Lion, a pub and restaurant in the village of Chalgrove near Oxford, which they took on in 1995. Their initial nightmare was a chef who resigned two days before the restaurant opened. Since then, says Maggi, it has been extraordinarily hard work. "It's awfully hard to carry on life outside when you're in this line," she says. "It's constant, like being on stage. When you open the doors you don't know who's coming in and you have to always be the same." As well as the relentless timetable, it is not a profession that leads to riches. Although the Red Lion was busy and popular, the Hewitts simply weren't making enough profit, says Jonathan.

Kwizaan in Blackpool was started last year by brothers-in-law Marco Calle- Calatayud and Tony Beswick. They both had a background in the catering trade, so, says Marco, they were under no illusions about the amount of hard labour involved.

Marco says that Kwizaan suffers from a perception problem. "If people go to a branded pub and they then see what we charge, the pub food is perceived as cheaper." His pet hate is people who don't book. This makes it hard to estimate how much food is needed. "We serve fresh food and it doesn't just appear from nowhere," he says.

When Channel 4 offered the Hewitts and Marco and Tony the services of restaurant consultant Pat McDonald, they jumped at the chance. Pat is a veteran of the industry with a CV that includes working with Anton Mosimann, running his own extremely successful Michelin-starred restaurant, and developing Harvey Nichols's restaurant outlets. "People have this dream of opening a restaurant thinking it'll be like having a big dinner party each night," he says. "They come in from a totally different trade thinking they'll do it all themselves, then realise they need to take on a chef. They don't understand about profit margins. They do nothing about marketing or advertising. And then they lose confidence in themselves, and their customers lose confidence in them."

Some of the vital points that Pat looks at include the menu. Over-egging the puddings, and all the other courses too, is a frequent mistake. "Some food marriages are made in heaven," he says. "There are exceptions in the modern style of cooking, like sea bass with vanilla jus, which works. But then you get a chef who is not as skilled serving up salmon with a mango jus - appalling!" The feel of the restaurant, too, is important, he explains. "Does it look nice? Does it smell? Lots of places do. If they are not busy they can get musty." This kind of failing, he says, is relatively easy to rectify. Much more difficult is when the basic problem lies with the owners. "Perhaps the owner is being too controlling, trying to do it all. I once had to tell one man his cooking was the problem - he just wasn't a very good cook."

Location, he says, is less important than many believe. "If your product is good, people will come," he says. But this doesn't mean he would set up a 500-seater restaurant in a tiny village: the client base has to be within reach. "You can set up a restaurant in the middle of nowhere but you have to do your sums. How many covers will you have? How many people will come in? Does it all stack up? If it doesn't, look elsewhere." Many restaurateurs, he says, hopelessly underestimate the importance of marketing. "People don't walk through the door for no reason. Even your loyal clientele doesn't come in all the time. You have to keep pitching for more and more business."

Having to call in the likes of Pat McDonald to turn around a business that is struggling is something that Caroline Waldegrave and Martin Bicknell at Leith's School of Food and Wine hope to help fledgling restaurateurs avoid. They are starting a unique new course, Planning a Successful Food Business. The first fortnight-long session runs from 1 November, and will provide professional training for anyone looking to set up a business in the food and drink industry. Caroline and Martin don't mince their words. Their initial advice to anyone starry-eyed about catering is to spend six months working in the kind of restaurant they want to start. "You need enthusiasm for food to keep you going through what can be really hellish," warns Martin. "If you go in just to make money or just to have fun you'll fail. Combining the two is essential."

The emphasis is firmly on the practical, and successful restaurateurs will be divulging the secrets of their triumphs. But as well as menu planning, sorting out the wine list and designing the kitchen and restaurant, the course will cover the bread and butter of the trade. This will include less creative but equally vital issues such as dealing with health and hygiene issues, the implications of the minimum wage and GM food, finding premises and negotiating leases, necessary insurance and so on. This will be an eye-opener for anyone who thinks it's all whisking up haute cuisine and collecting the accolades. "To be honest," says Caroline Waldegrave, "we won't feel we've failed if we put some people off." (Though there will also be guidelines on publicity for those who make it. It is a mistake, apparently, to get the critics in too early. The thing to do is have a trial week and practise on friends, who, says Caroline Waldegrave, have a lovely time while you lose money.)

Both the Hewitts and Marco and Tony felt that Pat made a positive contribution to their businesses. "He made me refocus on the kitchen, which was very important," says Marco. "But he wanted us to change the name, and we wouldn't do that - like it or hate it, you remember it!"

The Hewitts were advised that they needed more continuity in the kitchen, and that they needed to increase the margins on their food sales. "Pat was very positive about how clean and neat the pub is, and that was a big plus," says Jonathan. The Hewitts are now guardedly optimistic. Things, he says, are improving. "But we're not out of the woods yet."

'If You Can't Stand The Heat' begins 6 October on Channel 4. Leith's School of Food and Wine (tel: 0171 229 0177).

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