Nina And Tim Zagat Warn: Don't Open A Restaurant! Food lovers often dream of owning their own restaurants. Being your own boss, living your passion — what's not to like? Plenty, say Nina and Tim Zagat, co-founders of the Zagat restaurant surveys. Simply being a good cook, they say, is not nearly enough to keep your venture afloat.

Nina And Tim Zagat Warn: Don't Open A Restaurant!

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Legions of food lovers dream of opening their own restaurant - a quaint corner bistro, perhaps, that draws in regulars who become more friends than customers, or maybe a flashy hotspot that will wow the critics with inventive cuisine. And in the appeal of being your own boss, setting your own hours, what's not to like?

Well, plenty, according to Nina and Tim Zagat. The founders of the Zagat Survey Restaurant Guide say those rosy scenarios are mostly pipe dreams. Being a good cook is nowhere near enough to ensure a success in the restaurant business.

If you've tried your hand at opening a restaurant, if you're thinking about doing it, call and tell us your story. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Let me try that again. 800-989-8255. Email us: There's also a conversation underway at our website. Go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Nina and Tim Zagat's op-ed "So You're Thinking of Opening a Restaurant" ran in The Wall Street Journal, and they join us now from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. NINA ZAGAT (Co-founder, Zagat Survey Restaurant Guide): Thank you, Neal.

Mr. TIM ZAGAT (Co-founder, Zagat Survey Restaurant Guide): Great to be with you.

CONAN: And you've built your careers in the restaurant industry. Your number one piece of advice, though, to aspiring restaurateurs is don't do it.

Mr. ZAGAT: Well, I think that you have to understand all the different problems, and it's not a piece of cake to do restaurants. You really have to be a good real estate person because you - obviously, a location at the right price. You have to be a good designer because people are going to be sitting there, and if they don't like the way it looks, they won't come back. You have to be a good PR person. You have to be adequately capitalized. You have to be a good buyer, and buying is done early in the morning, and selling is done late at night, and it's usually six to seven days a week.

And on top of that, you really are facing enormous issues. Even you have to probably be a good plumber because if the sink goes down while you're there and there is no other person, you better be able to fix it.

Ms. ZAGAT: And you better be a good leader because you've got to build a staff for the restaurant and get people to do their jobs and have them be hospitable to all the people that come in. There's a lot going on.

Mr. ZAGAT: That's the biggest problem in the industry, actually. Sixty-seven percent of all complaints relate to staff and the service you get.

And so you have to know a lot of separate things, and you have to work very hard, very long. And then if you do all that, there's a 60 percent chance you'll fail in the first three years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You guys make it sound like radio news is a pretty good business.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZAGAT: It is. But the - that - but the thing that causes us to admire successful restaurateurs - and obviously there are a lot of them. New York alone has 17,000 full service restaurants. They've done it. And the - you know, there are many restaurant people who do it and pull it off and do all of these things well.

CONAN: Well, some of them are more corporate. There's no one person doing all of those things, but there are so many people...

Ms. ZAGAT: Well, wait a minute. It depends on the size of the restaurant. If you're starting off with a modest place, you're going to be doing a lot of them.

CONAN: Yeah. No, that's just what I was going to say. There are so many people who think: I can just start small. And - well, it's not going to be, you know, that big a management problem. It's just going to be me, and I'll be doing the cooking and the - my spouse will be out front, greeting the customers. And - well, how much more is involved in that?

Mr. ZAGAT: Well, a lot. A lot.

CONAN: And have you ever had the experience of opening a restaurant?

Ms. ZAGAT: No.

Mr. ZAGAT: You know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZAGAT: ...Nina is the smarter one of us. We've been married for a long time. But I always thought it would be fun to have a restaurant. Nina said, don't do it. And once I really learned how many different skills are necessary and how the hours go, how long they are, it just -I wouldn't advise any friend of mine to open a restaurant.

CONAN: I was wondering if you could tell us a story of somebody who went in and despite all the odds succeeded. Can you give us an illustration?

Mr. ZAGAT: You know, there are so many. I mean, when you think of any of the best restaurants, I think of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who is -came to the United States about 20 years ago as a young chef and worked at the Swiss Drake Hotel. And, today, he owns 29 restaurants, and his name the restaurant, eponymous restaurant, Jean Georges, happens to be right across Columbus Circle from our office. We go there a lot. But this guy has managed to do it 29 times, and I suspect he'll do 29 more before he's through. And so there are people who make a great success, thank God.

Ms. ZAGAT: And he does it in a very intelligent way. He has a partner who really handles the business side. And so that enables him to focus on having wonderful, imaginative new things on the menu all the time and training chefs for all the restaurants.

Mr. ZAGAT: And he has his younger brother running the front of the house, who does that very well.

CONAN: And Nina Zagat, I was wondering if you could tell us the story of someone who went in with stars in their eyes and crashed and burned.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZAGAT: I know lots of them, but I'm not sure I want to mention names.

CONAN: Well, we'll call them George.

Mr. ZAGAT: George started a Chinese restaurant. He knew a lot about Chinese food. And he was - he had a little problem in the first week. They had a fire, and they had to reopen a month later. And then he didn't seem to have any publicity. And the matter - I went there about three months later, and I was practically the only person in the restaurant. And you know that a restaurant has problems when nobody is there. And six month later I read that it had closed.

Ms. ZAGAT: And I can think of a situation where Tim and I went to a restaurant that's near our office, and it was brand new. We just saw it, so we went in to have lunch and nobody was there. And we had a wonderful lunch. And so we decided to call every restaurant critic we knew and asked them to go try the place, because we thought that they'd really enjoy it. And we knew at that time - this was quite a while ago - that we didn't have a way to get the information out fast enough. And lots of critics went, gave it great reviews, and the place is a big success today.

Mr. ZAGAT: Yup. And thank God because it's a really great restaurant.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We'd like to hear from those of you who opened restaurants. How did it go for you? Did you have a problem? And how do you respond to the advice of Nina and Tim Zagat, that probably the best idea, if this idea pops into your head, is to think of something else to do.

Let's see if we could start with Jan(ph), and Jan's with us - she's on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.

JAN (Caller): Oh, thank you. By the way, I really enjoy your program. I listen to you every day.

CONAN: Oh, thank you for that.

JAN: And - absolutely. And I just wanted - absolutely, working with food is a lot like work. It's redundant. You fix it up, clean it up, serve it out and then - so somebody can eat it and do it all over again the next day.

I used to manage and design health food stores and restaurants in Minneapolis and ultimately left that to become a massage therapist. But one of the things that I did with my work that was rewarding for me is that I would hire people right out of halfway houses. And I found that by using it to create a healthy social environment, that for me was really more than - meant more to me than the meager - I mean, I didn't end up making a lot of money.

It was relatively successful, but it was not - I didn't set Minneapolis on fire, but it was very socially successful for me. People come back to me later and thank me because - particularly when you're just newly getting sober and you're so vulnerable.

CONAN: I wonder, Jan, are you one of those people who love to cook but found that it was - when you're doing it every day for hundreds of people, it's less fun?

JAN: Oh, God, yes. And, you know, and - because I catered privately for a while and it's nothing like what - it's - how to take the fun out of it is turn it into a business.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAN: If you love to cook ,then just cook, you know?

Ms. ZAGAT: Well, that's a good way of putting it.

JAN: Yeah. It's - and I think that people don't realize how tough a business is. It's not glamorous. It's really getting in there and unstopping toilets and, you know, all the stuff that goes with it. I mean, it's a very tough business. And I'm just - I'm glad I did it and -but I definitely would not do it again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So now, in your new...

JAN: But I'm not doing it now. I'm a massage therapist now and for me that's more rewarding. And in fact, my next - I'm getting close to 65. And when I hit that age, I'm going on to my next career, which is I'm going back to school to become a rabbi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, good luck with that. I wonder though at night, after your experience in the restaurant business, do you cook for yourself or do you order in?

JAN: Well, quite honestly I eat very simple and do very little cooking. I just eat mostly whole foods and fresh foods. And I'm mostly a fruitatarian(ph) right now.

CONAN: Well, good luck in your new endeavor.

JAN: Thanks so much.


JAN: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we - that illustrates a point, by the way, you made in your op-ed, that everybody thinks, gee, I made this fantastic dinner for eight of my friends, how much more work could a restaurant be?

Ms. ZAGAT: Right.

Mr. ZAGAT: Yeah. Try making it 150 times a night.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Josh, and Josh is with us from San Antonio.

JOSH (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

JOSH: Good. I used to - I opened up a restaurant about three and a half years ago, just recently closed. And I had worked in New York for Mario Batali and Danny Myer. I worked in Paris for Alain Ducasse.

Mr. ZAGAT: You worked for some very, very good people and at least you knew what you are doing.

JOSH: And I figured, I said, hey, I ran, you know, I ran a three-star Michelin restaurant, I was a sous chef at a three-star Michelin restaurant, how could this possibly go wrong? And then, you know, the next three years were probably the longest and toughest of my life.

CONAN: What went wrong?

JOSH: It was like the longest and toughest of my life. And I remember a joke that someone told me right before I opened it. So how do you make a small fortune in the restaurant business? You start out with a very large one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: If there was one mistake you made, Josh, what was it?

JOSH: I had a Spanish restaurant in San Antonio and we got fantastic reviews. We were named one of the top 10 best restaurants in Texas. I was named one of the top 10 chefs in San Antonio. I mean, everything was going right, but I also opened up about three weeks before the market fell, so that probably influenced things.

CONAN: Yeah. I bet that didn't help. Well...

JOSH: Yeah.

CONAN: Josh, are you working now?

JOSH: Actually, I'm - it's kind of funny, I'm working on opening up another restaurant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: They never learn.

Ms. ZAGAT: Well, good luck.

JOSH: So what's your definition(ph)...

Mr. ZAGAT: Good luck. And you certainly sound like you've got both the background and the talent. If you're one of the top 10 restaurants, even if you didn't make it this time, you ought to go again.

Ms. ZAGAT: And Josh, let us know when you open your new restaurant. We'll try to put something up about it on

JOSH: I appreciate that. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: All right. Good luck, Josh. We're talking with Nina and Tim Zagat about the op-ed that they wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "So You're Thinking of Opening a Restaurant." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I wonder, a couple of those people that Josh just mentioned have shows on TV. How much do you think the programs on places like the Food Channel have influenced people to say, well, I can do that, I can open a restaurant?

Mr. ZAGAT: I think it clearly does. People are impressed by what they see on television. And I think there's a wonderful feeling about - you mentioned it earlier, about opening a restaurant. It's like giving a party for many people, like giving a party every night and getting paid for it. Just it's a nice feeling.

And then you've been told how great you are and your friends always say, gee, you're such a wonderful cook. Have you ever thought of opening a restaurant? And so many people, solely on the basis of that, try it, and all we're trying to say is, don't do it without opening your eyes to all the problems. We really respect the people who do it and succeed, but you can get into a lot of trouble if you don't know what you're doing.

Ms. ZAGAT: But also if you layer on top of the feeling that, well, it's like giving a party, the idea of The Food Channel and people think, gee, and I can become a celebrity too, then you're just blowing up the - what you think are the possibilities without necessarily facing the realities.

CONAN: We have this email from Bell Starr. I own Belle Starr's Great Food Cheap Beer on Donner Summit in California. The best of day of my life was the day I closed my cafe.

Let's see if we go next to Tim, and Tim's with us from Reno.

TIM (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I'm Tim and I had an interesting experience with a restaurant. I actually didn't go in to open and run it myself. I was a 747 captain at that time and things were booming here in Reno. And a neighbor of mine was a bartender and I've had dinner in his house and his wife, and (unintelligible) interested in opening a small little restaurant. And there was a place available. We live on a lake in Reno, if you can imagine that.

And so there was a building that was on the lake, had a view of the mountains. It looked like a great spot. Lots of people walking by, and I thought, well, okay, you know, I'll give, you know, go in here and get some money. And so they designed the place from the ground up, built the bar, built everything, and it was absolutely beautiful. The two of them were artists. The food was wonderful. It was a coffee shop/wine bar restaurant. We sat about 35 people inside and out and, you know, our numbers were going up every month.

And I didn't realize there was a problem at first until he bounced a check. And so I said, you know, what's going on with the checkbook, you know? And I looked at the checkbook, he says, oh, well, I keep it all in my head.


TIM: And so, yeah. So I took over the checkbook and I started to poke around, and then I went into the kitchen and I said, so okay, we're selling this cheese platter. You know, it's 12 bucks, as I recall. And I said, how much do we have into it? He says, well, what do you mean? You got to know how much this stuff costs. I mean, what if it costs 13 and we're selling it for 12?

And so it kind of was going down that path, and he quit his job to run it. I was still working in this kind of sort of not-so-silent partner anymore. And he needed the money, so he wouldn't hire - there was not enough staff. If somebody came in there, they couldn't get served in time. And we went from nothing to $30,000 gross a month and then it just started to fall off because if you went in there, you'd sit there for 30 minutes and nobody'd even say hi to you.

So at that point, you know, we were making a little bit of money and he ended up buying me out. We remained friends. But within a year it closed because people just stopped coming, not because the food wasn't good or it was too expensive, but he had to take the money and he didn't know what his costs were, and he wouldn't spend the money on the wait staff so that people could get help in a decent amount of time.

CONAN: Tim Zagat, one of the many skills you're going to need if you're going to open a restaurant.

TIM: Yeah.

Mr. ZAGAT: Keeping track of how much food is going to cost. And by the way, if you order too much, you're going to be throwing it out two or three days from now. And if you order too little, what are you going to sell? You probably - you said you were a pilot for 747?

CONAN: He's left us, but yes.

Mr. ZAGAT: Oh. Well, then he should have - when he opened the restaurant, learned how to crash.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Nina and Tim Zagat, your business has done anything but crash. We thank you for your time today.

Ms. ZAGAT: Well, thank you.

Mr. ZAGAT: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Nina and Tim Zagat, co-founders and co-chairs of the Zagat survey guides. They joined us today from our bureau in New York. You can find a link to their Wall Street Journal op-ed at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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