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Harsh Truths: Failure Is Always on the Table When Opening a Restaurant

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After relocating her hit New York City restaurant, Amanda Cohen asks what role failure plays in the restaurant business.

I sometimes question the wisdom of writing honest articles about being a chef. People love the illusion that's been sold to them by a multi-billion dollar industry, they enjoy pretending they know how restaurants work, so is it actually good for my career to let anyone see me sweat? Whenever I talk about the reality of running a restaurant, I see comments about how I don't know what I'm doing from individuals whose only experience in restaurants is their subscription to Food & Wine. When I meet other chefs at parties, they ask me how it's going and when I actually tell the honest truth they recoil in confusion. I can see it written in their eyes: Did your publicist approve this message? But sometimes, after their first panicked reaction, they settle down and we both start to talk, and that's when I feel less alone with my payroll, my insecurities, my fears, and my debt. We all go through this stuff, but maybe we don't talk about it as much as we should.

Which is why I feel compelled to say I had no idea what I was doing when I opened the new Dirt Candy.

I've helped open two big restaurants. I opened the original Dirt Candy. I've been in this industry for 17 years. When it came time to build a new, bigger Dirt Candy, I thought I knew what I was doing.

"I had no idea what I was doing when I opened the new Dirt Candy."

Wrong.

I knew how to run a restaurant. I did not know how to run this restaurant.

It wasn't the construction. Building this new space was hard, and going from 18 seats and 420 square feet to 60 seats and 2,100 square feet was tough. But it was only when I opened the doors that Dirt Candy started to really kick my butt.

I loved the original Dirt Candy. Sure, it was small. Sure, we could only have eight wines on the list because we had no storage. Sure, when the bathroom door opened it took up half the dining room. But it had an energy that made the dining room a non-stop party. The biggest complaint people had about it was that it was too small. Obvious solution? Open a bigger one.

The problem is, you can't transplant a soul. If you could, Donald Trump would have one by now. The new Dirt Candy opened and everyone seemed to be having a good time, but something wasn't right. People talked about how good the press was, how beautiful the space was, and how great the menu was, but the entire time all I could think was, "This isn't right, this isn't right, this isn't right." I felt like a mother who's convinced something's wrong with her kid and she keeps taking him from doctor to doctor, none of whom are diagnosing his illness. I felt crazy and alone.

What I could see that no one else could were the numbers. We were serving lots of people, almost more than the kitchen could handle, but our checks were low. People weren't drinking enough booze. I was finally able to have a big, gorgeous wine list with a focus on the natural wines that I love, but they weren't selling. People weren't ordering enough food. Here was the menu of my dreams, almost twice as big as the menu at the original Dirt Candy, and too many customers were sharing dishes. Too many people were skipping dessert.

"What I could see that no one else could were the numbers."

My image of the new Dirt Candy was to open a grown-up fine dining restaurant on the Lower East Side that just happened to serve vegetables. I truly believe that dinner is a cocktail, an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert, with at least a bottle of wine, and probably coffee at the end. That's the way I eat and I thought that's the way everyone else wanted to eat, too. I wanted to offer straight-up old school cocktails prepared with no frills. When I go to a restaurant I don't want a Yum Yum Passion Soda made with house bitters. I want a gin and tonic.

My dreams had to die. There was a grumpiness in the room at Dirt Candy. The dark specter of my ambitions hovered over everything. I wanted this place to be a certain way, but no one else did.

The new Dirt Candy. [Photos: Daniel Krieger]

At first, I tried to loosen things up with some simple fixes. There were too many dishes on the menu, and the second I removed an appetizer and an entree, people started to order more. It was classic decision paralysis: too many choices are sometimes as bad as too few. But there was still a logjam. I started to hear a few regulars say wistfully, "I miss the old place." I wanted to murder them. In the old place they always complained about how squashed it was. Now there was more room, more wine, more food, and what was their problem?

"I burned through half my reserve cash in four months to make payroll."

But the old space had a soul, and I wasn't giving the new place a chance to grow one. That sounds abstract and precious, so here's the reality: I burned through half my reserve cash in four months to make payroll. Thank god I didn't have tipping, because if I did, there would have been nights when my servers went home with $100 each and they probably wouldn't have come back. By early April, the numbers said Dirt Candy had until August before I would have to close, repurpose myself as a vegetarian cafeteria, and reopen as one humiliated chef cooking food she didn't believe in.

I had to throw everything in the garbage. The same thing happened six months in at the original Dirt Candy, when I revamped the menu and changed how I ran the kitchen. It was the moment that I found my feet there, but I thought that with seven years of experience since then I could skip that step. Quickbooks was telling me otherwise.

So, painfully, I threw out my old-school cocktail list and added the vegetable cocktails that people were asking for. I made about 5,000 tweaks to the menu, changing everything from the layout to the font size, from how it was presented at the table to pricing to the size of dishes. I changed the layout of the wine list. I realized that natural wines and a lack of meat meant every table needed more guidance, so I dug into the emergency fund again to put more waiters and bussers on the floor.

Running your own business means that sometimes you go to the Great Casino of Life and you take your loans, your credit rating, your apartment, your staff's salaries, their apartments, their families, your family, the reputation you've built for 15 years, and you put it all on red 23 to win. Before I gave up on what I'd built, before I hired another chef to run the place (which was something I was seriously considering), I was going to double down.

Do not be fooled. This was not part of some cosmic plan. I wasn't thinking, "Oh, this is all part of a natural process, kumbaya." I was thinking, "This is failure, I have disappointed everyone in my life and soon I will be running a restaurant I don't believe in, soon I will be telling my general manager to fire everyone or I'll be hiring a different chef."

"Gambling on yourself is not glamorous. It's nauseating."

Gambling on yourself is not glamorous. It's nauseating. I was breaking down in tears on the way home every night. I couldn't sleep. I was throwing up from stress. I was rehearsing the speech I'd give my staff when we closed. My husband was telling me I needed to get on medication or he was leaving.

I had gambled everything on the new Dirt Candy, and I was losing. I have nearly wrecked my marriage over Dirt Candy. I have missed major events in my family's life to be at this restaurant, and if the doors closed all that sacrifice would be a joke. And instead of doing the smart thing, I was gambling.

In mid-April, I spun the wheel.

Over the next two weeks, the numbers changed. The check averages went up and more people were sharing, because a lot of the dishes were now designed to be shared. The kitchen loosened up and started to have fun. The dining room got happier. People were spending more time at their tables, which meant they were ordering more food. I've stopped hearing "I miss the old place." I'm even catching people snorting coke in the bathrooms, which is a sure sign that everyone is feeling a whole lot more relaxed.

"Too often this industry projects the image of the superstar chef who radiates confidence."

Too often this industry projects the image of the superstar chef who radiates confidence. "I will reinvent the food of my childhood and you will eat it and give me a Michelin star," every hot young chef seems to say. Their press photos are portraits of certainty. Their friends in the industry rave about the inevitability of their menus on Twitter and in their columns. Maybe that's how it is for them, but that's not my experience.

Dirt Candy is working now, and financially we're doing well, on the way to doing great, but I almost didn't make it. I'm not writing this to say, "Look at me, I fixed it, whoopee!" I'm writing this to say that when you build something new, when you risk everything on yourself, it is the hardest, loneliest place to be. I know there are people out there doing this right now, not just in restaurants but in other businesses and even in their own lives. I don't know any solutions, I don't have any wisdom. I can only tell you that it is hard, it is painful, and it is never certain. But I do know this: You are not alone.

Dirt Candy

86 Allen Street, Manhattan, NY 10002 (212) 228-7732 Visit Website

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