How to find a restaurant consultant to fit your needs

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restaurant owners


So, you’ve decided to find a restaurant consultant.

You’ve heard they can advise you on a broad spectrum of restaurant-related topics, from location and décor to menu items, operations, and financial set up. Smart decision.

A restaurant consultant can help you make a success out of your new restaurant or point out changes to improve an existing one. But how do you go about selecting the right consultant to suit your particular needs? Where do you even begin your search?

A good place to start when looking for reliable consultants is to get referrals from your own network of professionals in related fields; lawyers, CPAs, software admin services (like Paychex), real estate agents, contractors, and food purveyors, to name a few. Other restaurant owners may have a referral, too.

Just because a website says the consultant does "everything," doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. They may be farming out work to an outside firm that has no experience working with restaurants.

Here are five things to learn before you hire a consultant:

1. What is their area of expertise? Restaurant consultants are comprised of a wide range of experts in a myriad of restaurant-related disciplines. There are specialists in conceptualizing, litigation, real estate, decor, menu planning, and accounting or back of house operations. It’s important to select a consultant who is well versed in the area where you need help.

My own personal expertise falls in the arena of back of house and accounting systems. Having been in the restaurant business for many years, I understand the type of uncomplicated system that a busy restaurant owner needs.

If you’re looking for an expert with accounting systems, find out if the consultant you are interviewing is knowledgeable about the interplay of POS and accounting systems and which systems are most practical and user friendly. A consultant should be able to help you set up an easy-to-operate system that handles daily sales reconciliations, POS report details, human resource records, vendor issues, monthly bank reconciliations, usable financial statements and record keeping. If the consultant you talk to suggests something complicated, you may want to continue your search.

Another thing to consider is whether the consultant is most experienced working with new businesses, which would primarily call for help with planning and build out, or if the majority of their clients are restaurants that have been open for some time. Both situations call on different areas of expertise, and therefore, often different types of consultants. If you got started on the wrong foot and have an accounting or back office mess, can they fix that mess and put a more usable one in place? You should select the consultant who has the most experience in your area of need.

2. What are their qualifications? It’s imperative that you check the qualifications of your potential consultant. Find out how many years they have been consulting and what they were doing prior to their present work. Why did they begin consulting? Do they have a track record of success among their peers in the restaurant field?

Restaurant consultants must have a solid background in the industry — a minimum of five years before consulting. I have 17 years’ experience as a restaurant owner and I am also a CPA. This gives me insight into how profits can be made and how they can slip away. I know first-hand the unacceptable practices that can go on — a restaurant can be in a lot of trouble if no one is minding the financial details. I can help you implement systems and internal controls to track where your revenues are going and to prevent your profits and assets from slipping away.

Keep in mind that in addition to having strong restaurant and food service experience, less tangible skills are also important, such as analytical, communication, and listening skills.

3. How will your personalities mesh? What are your first impressions of this restaurant consultant? Does your "gut" tell you that you will be able to work with this person’s style and personality?

If you’ve been in the workplace long enough, you’ve probably encountered people that you simply don’t get along with. All too often we have no control over the people we work with, but this isn’t the case when hiring a consultant. This time you are in control and picking a person you like and respect is important because you will be interacting with them quite a bit and spending a lot of time with them.

Additionally, you will want to hone in on other personality traits you desire. For instance, does the consultant strike you as assertive and persistent enough to ensure your changes are made? Will they be able to take charge if necessary? And perhaps most important of all, how are their problem solving skills?

You may be contacting them with a problem and so they will need good solutions right from the start. But even if you haven’t yet opened your doors for business, an effective consultant should have a solid plan A and plan B because things often don’t work out the first go-round. Being able to think “outside the box” and creatively solve problems are important parts of consulting.

Great consultants are also strong leaders, with the ability to come up with innovative ideas, take charge of fixing what is broken, and improve what needs to be improved. They should have a number of reasonable plans of attack right out of the running gate.

4. How do they charge? You’re probably wondering how much you will be paying for this service. While hiring a consultant solely based on costs would be a mistake, you do want to get the best results possible at a reasonable price. Restaurant consultants can charge by the day, the hour, or the project. If they charge by the day or hour, with no ceiling, your costs can skyrocket. A project based fee is based on anticipated hours that will be necessary to complete the project. With a project based fee you won’t feel the clock is ticking every time you talk to your consultant.

5. At what stage of the process will they exit? The completion of your time with your consultant really depends on you and what you hope to accomplish with their help. You should mutually decide on the end goal upfront, before the project begins.

Ideally, your consultant will want to not only solve the problem at hand, but also leave you with the tools to handle similar or additional challenges that lie ahead. Teaching you to apply the right technique, to turn to a recommended book, or a trusted professional contact can be just as valuable in the long run as solving the original problem or setting your business up for a great start.

In summary, whether you are looking to find the perfect location for your new restaurant, create an innovative menu, or get your books/back of house systems in order, hiring a competent restaurant consultant can be the key to realizing your business’s success in both the long and short term.

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