Kathy Sidell on Living the American Restaurant Dream

by Susan Johnston on January 23, 2013
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Kathy Sidell grew up in a family of foodies. In 2005, the producer-turned-restaurateur opened the Metropolitan Club in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Since then, she’s expanded the upscale burger bar to four more locations.

Sidell (pictured) also published a book in which she offers insights into the notoriously tough restaurant industry. When I Met Food: Living the American Restaurant Dream mixes recipes, anecdotes from the trenches, and tips for those considering opening an eatery of their own.

Sidell recently dished to the Intuit Small Business Blog about the challenges and rewards of running a restaurant at a time when Yelp reviewers can yield as much influence as traditional food critics.

ISBB: What are the biggest errors that restaurateurs or small-business owners make? How can they avoid these mistakes?

Sidell: The biggest mistake is not having deep enough pockets and not anticipating unexpected costs — over-inflating what you think you will gross. I think a painfully honest pro forma that addresses your downside is critical. Have 10 to 20 percent more in cash to cover unexpected situations.

What would you have done differently earlier in your career?

I might have rolled the burger bars out separately earlier. It was one of the first burger concepts out there, and it is still a sophisticated, cool, upscale concept.

Do think social media and sites like Yelp make it harder or easier for restaurateurs to market themselves? Why?

Easier. I love Yelp, despite not always loving what I read. I think that it is, by and large, a great tool for the restaurateur to hear from guests about their experiences. It allows us the opportunity to respond and to be proactive. Better to know about someone’s bad experience than not.

I do wish there was a site that encouraged good reviews, but people are not as apt to write nice things. In my experience, if they are, they usually come in the form of a handwritten letter!

Have do you deal with negative reviews?

If we get a review on Yelp that is three stars or below, we take that opportunity to engage with the guest. We’ll invite them back in — on the house — to give the restaurant another try. We find this to be an effective tool that many small businesses could replicate.

How have daily deals impacted the industry? Should restaurants discount their prices to attract customers or use other strategies?

It is hard to generalize, and I would say it is concept- and location-driven. But we are living in a time where the public is hyper-cognizant of value. People want to go out and enjoy good food and drinks and not always break the bank. I think when marketing through daily deals, you have to find a balance: You have to be clever and reinforce your brand without diluting it.

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