Start to Finish: Taking a new concept from drawing board to opening day

David Hopkins

Whole food for the soul — that’s the mantra behind Mary Be Kitchen, where the food is fresh, the dishes are wholesome, and the recipes are good for you. The concept focuses on substance over style, with a menu that allows customers to build their own, healthy meals, selecting from tried-and-true clean proteins like flank steak, salmon and tofu, and pair them with selection of sides, including broccoli with chili-garlic oil, roasted sweet potatoes and sumac-dusted avocado. Owner Sarah Huggins wanted people to be able to enjoy a proper square meal, something nourishing and substantial. The rest follows from that ambition.

Done poorly, build-your-owns invite more stress than choice. We’ve all ended up putting together our own meal only to be met by sticker shock when it comes time to pay. At Mary’s, rather than going by weight or pricing ingredients individually, customers choose from a number of pricing options. They can pay for, say, one protein and two sides, or three sides — it’s hassle-free and convenient. It’s simple and transparent while still making room for customers’ preferences.

Despite the emphasis on substance, the restaurant still doesn’t lack for style. The design is light, bright and features fresh plants all throughout the space, with a custom wallpaper design reminiscent of the tropics. The restaurant is warm and welcoming, creating a personalized experience for diners with small touches that Sarah has incorporated into Mary Be Kitchen.

The Fifteen Group supported Sarah, who goes by @kiwiandbean on Instagram, through its Opening Handholding Program.  The name is apt; Fifteen Group consults on every step of opening a new restaurant, from concept development to operational support and everything in between. Jenny Companion, the vice president of eastern operations at Fifteen Group, led the restaurant opening consulting program and shares with us the factors that new restaurant owners need to consider before and during the program.

Developing a Menu

The ideal restaurant menu offers a balance of unique dishes, old favourites and items that will make your customers hungry for more. Nailing that right balance, and ensuring it maintains fidelity to your vision, is paramount, but it’s also crucial to outline the costs of the ingredients understand how it will affect the your profit margin and desired price point. Another factor to consider is what type of kitchen equipment is required to execute the menu. At Mary’s, it meant structuring a menu that was accessible and easy to understand for guests while still ensuring the restaurant made up its food costs and could turn a profit.

Restaurant Design and Construction

Hire a professional designer to help your restaurant look good and to anticipate potential problems with the flow and composition of the space. For example, where’s the ideal spot for a hood? How much would it cost to change the layout? Most restaurateurs are either focused on food or business; design is rarely their forte. So unless it’s a skill set in your wheelhouse, it can definitely be beneficial to utilize the expertise of a professional designer. But keep in mind the cost for a designer usually doesn’t include the cost for the permits, engineer drawings (mechanical or structural if required). If you decide to hire a designer, don’t let designers choose just for the look. Materials need to be durable and suitable for a space that (hopefully) will see a lot of people coming through.

Site Selection

Whether you’re opening your first full-service restaurant, your third or your fiftieth, it’s important to understand what to look out for when choosing a new restaurant location. What zone does the space fall under? Is it zoned for commercial space? How much would it cost to change that if it isn’t?

And what about the space itself? Does it have the required gas and electrical coming into the building? Is everything up to code? Increasing these services can be expensive if the landlord isn’t providing what is required to the unit, and it can take time, which might mean you’re paying rent, month after month, while you’re completing your build out and bringing everything up to standard.

These opening stages of your restaurant are crucial, and site selection can make or break your restaurant in both the long run and the opening days. If too many capital costs accumulate before you’re turning a profit, your restaurant may be finished before it starts.

Equipment Layout and Sourcing

Effective restaurant equipment layout and sourcing requires years of experience to understand, especially as it relates to local codes, mechanical, plumbing, electrical connections and correct operational flow.

It’s evident that new equipment is expensive but comes with a warranty. Try to avoid a lot of custom work, look for standard pieces of equipment. Designing a kitchen with a chef who understands the flow of a kitchen is important. If the equipment is in the wrong place, moving a suppression system, water and gas is expensive.

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