Chef standing in his kitchen

We asked James Beard Award-nominated restaurateur Kim Bartmann about her top tips for new restaurant owners. Bartmann, who has nine restaurants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, area, offered her expertise on everything from surviving seasonality to dealing with negative customer feedback.

1. What advice would you give to folks trying to open a restaurant?

Kim Bartmann: Get help! You’re probably opening your restaurant because you’re a chef or a front-of-house person. Unless you feel that you’re also a designer, a marketer, a social media maven, an architect, a plumber and a lawyer — seek help. You probably don’t know it all quite yet.

2. How do restaurants survive their first year? What’s most important to keep in mind during year one?

KB: Plan ahead financially! And adjust your concept along the way by listening to your customers. In the first year, that is very important. Make sure you’re tracking the basic costs and labor, and partner with a professional to dig into the profit and loss statements.

3. Is there anything you learned the hard way that you wish you’d known sooner?

KB: It took me a long time to accept that I needed more financial expertise myself, and to seek help in that area. I’m more on the creative end of things. I suspect a lot of restaurant owners are the same way. No one’s an expert at everything. So, again, ask for help. SCORE is a great organization for that.

4. Seasonality can be difficult for those in food service. Is there anything that restaurant owners can do to boost business in slower months of the year?

KB: You have to maintain good marketing. Also, explore catering and delivery, and be sure to plan ahead to be prepared for those slower months. Put on your creative hat and connect your brand with your customers in fresh ways.

5. You mentioned good marketing. What should restaurants be focusing on to market themselves?

KB: Start with internal communications, in addition to external. Train your staff, first and foremost. Make sure they understand your brand. Then communicate your brand to the customers you already have. Carry that through everything you do, in terms of marketing. Your brand should always be apparent. Not only your logo, but also what you stand for as a company.

6. What about reviews on sites like Google, Yelp and TripAdvisor? How do you deal with negative feedback?

KB: Don’t underestimate the importance of those review sites! They might as well be your physical storefront in some peoples’ eyes. Managing and responding to social media is crucial. Be sure to address the negative reviews that come through, quickly and professionally. But don’t ignore the positive reviews, either. Posting a short reply of thanks that expresses your desire to see that customer again can go far with them, and anyone else reading the reviews.

7. Do you have much experience with Bite Squad, Postmates or other online ordering systems? If so, what’s your take?

KB: I’m currently in the middle of exploring these myself! See? You really can’t do everything by yourself, and definitely not all at once.

8. Finding and retaining good employees is difficult in almost every industry. Any advice for restaurant owners who are struggling to find and retain talent?

In this market, retaining employees is crucial. All the usual hiring rules apply. Beyond that, hire to your values as a business. Who will be the best brand ambassador for your restaurant, no matter whether they’re back-of-house or front-of-house?

People want to feel connected to something bigger than just their job. More and more, they want their place of work to share their values.

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