The culinary elite will attest that Chicago sits at or near the top of the foodie pecking order in the United States. Revered for everything from sidewalk hot dogs to Asian fusion to flaming Saganaki, the people of the Windy City are not easily impressed, which makes starting a restaurant business there no small order.
Anything is possible, though. If your calling is to bring good food to the people of Chicago, we're not here to stop you. Here are some tips we've learned by studying the foodie scene in a city that takes food very, very seriously. We hope they help.
Know What You're Getting Into
The restaurant business is not easy. Be prepared for long hours and low wages. Yes, you've probably seen some celebrity chef on television who makes seven figures selling their time and cookbooks and endorsements. For every one of those, there are thousands of cooks breaking their backs to win at the food game.
You've got to have a good plan to be successful. There are legal questions you have to ask. Do you need a liquor license? What kind of insurance costs will your restaurant incur? Do you plan on building a brand-new establishment or remodeling something that's already standing? Don't just jump in at the deep end. If you do, you could lose big.
Get the Money
Opening a restaurant requires a lofty initial investment, so you'll need to explore all your options. Maybe you've got just the right compelling appeal-to-emotion to hit it big on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. You could go more traditional and seek help from an angel investor or venture capital group. Maybe you've got a nest egg stored away that you want to invest in your dream storefront. Each approach comes with its own advantages and hurdles, and it's your job to understand them.
Consider Your Position in the Market
Chicago is a city that has something for all palates. If you're going to do fast food, understand how to reach that clientele. You need to know what they're looking for that separates you from the competition and what medium you can use to make them aware. New technologies are making it much easier to reach your customer base online, which could lead to new business from all the way across town if you market yourself well.
Your physical location is equally as important as the way you present yourself to customers. Remember the adage "location, location, location." A spot on the West Loop's restaurant row might be attractive initially, but it comes with lots of serious competition and a high price tag. Would you be better served by finding a trendy, quaint location in Edgewater? Does your business have a cultural flair that makes it appropriate for a more ethnically specific area like the Ukrainian Village?
Have Staying Power
After your two-for-one $5 large pizza special has run out on week three, what's your game plan? A new restaurant evokes at least some response from sheer curiosity. Add to that a decent product, and you might even make a profit. What's going to keep people coming back, though? Guest chefs? A creative menu that changes with the season? An exclusive vibe that makes people feel special even though they're paying a premium for your food?
There are many ways to give your restaurant character, and without it, you will surely fail. Particularly in a city with as much personality as Chicago, you'll want to find out exactly what it is you're good at and harness it. Success in the Windy City is not easy to come by, and it's harder to keep. However, you can have fun doing it and prosperity, when you attain it, will be sweet.
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