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Finding and Hiring a Restaurant Consultant

By Stephen Zagor

Your sales are melting faster than a scoop of mango gelato left on the marble over night. The once exuberant profits your business was throwing off have gone the way of the Welch Rarebit. Your first call every morning is to your bank’s customer hot line to check on the days cash balance. You are not having fun any more. Jarringly the phone rings and you answer expecting a lunch booking when the voice on the other end says, “My name is Joseph is my dry cleaning ready?”

Most operators are often too immersed in the daily battle, too unskilled in new areas, or simply too over confident to call for help.

“No,” you, respond courteously, “You have the wrong number. This is Name Café.”

A long pause on the other end and the voice asks, “Are you a new place in the area?”

“No, we’ve been here for over 3 years,” you answer less warmly.

Exasperation! What is there to do? Do you prepare the patient for death or do you tighten your toque, turn on the burners and gird for a fight?

These choices and many others are the difficult decisions that often put even the most successful food operators into unknown canyons. Whether it is salvaging a business that has gone in the wrong direction, defining or refreshing a brand, developing a plan for expansion of services, or deciding on a new location, most operators are often too immersed in the daily battle, too unskilled in new areas, or simply too over confident to call for help.

Help is on the Way

If help is needed it can take several forms: possibly a call to a friend who has a well intentioned point-of-view; maybe a valued industry colleague can assist; or, what about your mentor who has selflessly helped you in the past. These are all possibilities but the best may be a consultant who is experienced in your area of business and know what you need. In fact, the use of a good consultant – a disposable/temporary help – can be the best of all alternatives. Among the qualities of a good consultant are:

  • Independent – that is, he/she has no other agenda than to help you succeed;
  • Creative – an outsider who is not bound by past efforts or preconceived ideas;
  • Experienced – has not only done it before, but has taught other to do it and has a track record to prove it;
  • Paid a fee – creating a fiduciary arms length value based relationship;
  • Energizing – a fresh new influence shaking up a business/ operator that has been running on autopilot; and,
  • The Bad Guy – in a good cop bad cop world a well placed consultant will absorb the heat and let an operator keep peace among the family.

Where Do You Find a Consultant?

Like hiring a lawyer or doctor, the first stop should always be a personal recommendation.

In today’s world, where do most of us go to find anything? Google. But that may not be the best place to go. Like hiring a lawyer or doctor, the first stop should always be a personal recommendation from friends, associates, acquaintances, etc. Asking around may be the best start, but it’s a good idea to know a few basics before beginning.

  1. Find someone local – he or she knows the market and the competition, and will be there when the engagement ends.
  2. Experience counts – it may cost more but you get what you pay for. Make sure the consultant has intimate knowledge of your type of business and that the results are obtainable quickly.
  3. Compare big names versus little name companies. Often the best consultants are self employed. They will provide the best value and the most experience. A big name will give financial recourse if a job goes wrong, but it still may not be worth it.
  4. Insure the person actually doing the work is the one you want. Often a consultant will network and may only supervise the project.
  5. Get a written proposal with a clear work plan, timing and fee statement. Discuss expenses and maximum, not to exceed amounts.
  6. Look for professionalism. Be sure a consultant is a consultant and not an equipment store, a broker, or a search firm that consults on the side. If you need a surgeon do you want one who also sells hospital beds?
  7. Don’t be afraid to ask for fee back up.
Remember, anything you can do to reduce a consultant's time, either by minimizing the scope of work, or doing some ground work will save money.

If no one you know has used a consultant, try the local restaurant association or even the FSCI – Food Service Consultant International group. Then use Google and see how that works.

How Much is it Worth?

Now for the big question – how much? Consultants either charge by the day, the hour or the project. Occasionally there are engagements where the fee is composed of a company ownership piece, or a percent of sales or savings, but these aren’t the norm. In general the more experienced the consultant the higher the fee. In the end the fee is based on time the project takes. Experience may mean a shorter time frame but not always. Hourly rates that I am familiar with may run from $50 to $350 per hour depending on the type of engagement. Travel time to a site may or may not be included. Basic expenses also may or may not be a part of a fee. Anytime a consultant produces a written document, fees for a project will be higher. Remember, anything you can do to reduce a consultant’s time, either by minimizing the scope of work or you or a member of your team doing some ground work will save money. Also see what the consultant’s current work load is. You need to be the star of their show.

In the End

A good consultant, like a doctor can add experience, knowledge and even motivation to any situation you encounter. To structure a turn around, create a new menu, change a physical look, expand a business, create a brand image, find a new location, develop a plan for financing, tighten an operation or in general – to make more profits, achieve higher sales or both – a consultant can be an important part of a success team in the short and long term.

About Stephen Zagor

Cass Calder
            Smith

Stephen Zagor is the Director of Management Programs at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan and a freelance Restaurant/Specialty Store Consultant. He previously owned and operated several major restaurant and retail food businesses and was Manager of Restaurant and Food Business Consulting for Coopers & Lybrand. He has been an independent consultant for over 15 years.

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