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How to start a BBQ restaurant
Today's Restaurant Florida Edition
Thursday, 07 April 2011 21:25

AMueller_FLtopby Annie Mueller

So you dream about stacks of perfectly smoked ribs and spend your days off experimenting with the perfect BBQ sauce; maybe it's time. If the idea of opening your own BBQ restaurant haunts you like the scent of wood smoke, what are you waiting for?

1. Spend a little time dreaming.

Before you get into the nitty gritty of financing, legal structures, and business taxes, sit down with a blank notebook and a little time. Pretend you have no limits, no budget, and no chance of failure, and imagine the kind of BBQ restaurant you'd like to run. What would it look like? Where would it be located? What kind of people would you attract? What kind of BBQ would you serve? What would be fun, new, interesting, and unique about your restaurant? Would you interact with the customers, help in the kitchen, or oversee the staff? Give yourself no limits and sketch out an idea of your dream BBQ restaurant.

2. Write a business plan.

Now it's time to tackle the paperwork, to translate those BBQ visions into something you can turn into your very own restaurant. A business plan may sound intimidating, but it's basically a paper that describes your restaurant and (this is the really important part) breaks down what you need to make it work, in terms of start-up capital and ongoing cash flow, plus how you expect it to operate on a day-to-day basis. You can write your own business plan from scratch, or download a template from the Internet, or hire someone to help you write a business plan. This is an essential part of the work, however; it makes you look at the finances and answer some of the basic questions of how the restaurant will work before you start investing money and time into it.

3. Set up your legal structure and apply for licenses.

You'll need to get a legal business structure in place for your restaurant so you can start operating under your restaurant's name as you set up shop. So do your research, decide what sort of legal structure you need (LLC or other type of corporation), and get the paperwork moving. Depending on the time you have available and your comfort level with this type of work, you can research and do the paperwork yourself, in most cases, or hire a lawyer to get it done for you.

You'll also need to find out about federal, state, and local licensing requirements for your restaurant. The sooner you get these guidelines and start applying for the licenses, the better, as some can take time. Talk to someone at your local Chamber of Commerce to get started.

4. Take a look at the competition.

Competition is an undeniable part of being in the restaurant business. Find the local restaurants you'll be competing with, and go check them out. Drive by or, better yet, go in for a meal. Notice the location, the decor, the service, the menu, the customers, and the overall experience. Take notes. What stands out about the experience at each restaurant? You'll need to offer something better and/or different to draw customers from your competitors to your own BBQ restaurant.

5. Decide what makes your restaurant unique.

Pull out those initial notes of your dream restaurant and compare with the notes you've taken about your competitors. You're on the hunt to find the unique offering your restaurant will provide that will draw people in. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What type of BBQ will you serve?
  • What's your specialty?
  • What sides will you offer?
  • How big will your menu be?
  • Will you offer entrees other than BBQ?
  • What will be the price range of your menu?
  • Where will you get your food supplies?
  • Who will want to eat in your restaurant?
  • Will your restaurant have a theme?
  • What kind of decor will your restaurant have?
  • Will your restaurant be family-friendly?
  • Will your restaurant have entertainment?

6. Identify your best customers.

From what you've decided about your restaurant's unique offering you can figure out who will be most attracted to your restaurant. For example, if you're going to have a casual, kid-friendly space, then young families will be among your best customers. Perhaps you're going more upscale, with a swank atmosphere and gourmet offerings; you'll be looking at a different set of customers. A hip BBQ joint with live entertainment will draw in students and singles.

7. Find a location.

Or find several possible locations. Search in areas based on the customers you're most likely to attract; if you're going to be family-friendly, then look at the shopping centers, strip malls, and other places in the area where young families go to shop and find entertainment. An urban area offers a totally different set of possibilities than a rural area. You'll need to look for possible locations based on the type of restaurant you want to open, the type of customers you hope to attract, and your building budget.

8. Figure out financing.

Once you have some numbers on how much it will cost to purchase, rent, and/or remodel your location, you can come up with definite figures for how much start-up capital you will need. Don't forget to add in the cost of all the kitchen equipment, food inventory, and restaurant supplies. Think about how much you plan to pay the staff you'll hire, from managers to busboys. Once you have a definite idea of how much money you need, you can pursue your financing options. You might be in a position to finance the restaurant yourself, or you might need to seek investors. Either way, having a definite amount is very important.

9. Create a social networking strategy.

Social networking has changed the face of marketing, and for most small businesses - such as BBQ restaurants - this is great news. No longer do you have to pay hundreds of dollars to get an advertisement in the local paper, on the radio station, or in another media venue. Instead, you can set up your website and Facebook page, then start spending a little money on very targeted advertising and spend time, not money, on networking via social media. So take some time as you get set up to do a little research into the options for social networking, decide if you'll need to spend money on a website or build your own, and figure out what your strategy will be for connecting with customers online.

10. Set up shop.

The fun part, finally: purchasing the equipment for your new restaurant, installing seating and decor, putting your unique twist on your new BBQ restaurant and then stocking up on food inventory. You'll also need to advertise for and hire enough staff members to run your restaurant efficiently. Give yourself a time line to follow, a count down to opening day, and spend the time setting up the restaurant, training the staff, getting the word out, and dealing with last-minute details. When the big day comes, you'll be ready.

Annie Mueller works at the intersection of small business and writing, producing content to help small businesses succeed. You can find her - and lots of small business resources - online at or follow her on Twitter: @AnnieMueller.