How To Open a Chain Restaurant
It’s all about finding the right size of chicken wing.
Once they find a location they like, it’s time to bring in Steak & Lube corporate, “for their blessing,” as Combs puts it. If the home office is happy with the location and the site, they offer several different building plans, and Combs has a contract with an architect who is approved by corporate and has built other Lube restaurants.
The three restaurants in the Cincinnati area are between 8,000 and 11,000 square feet, and the larger ones can set more than 400 people at a time. They employ from 75 to 150 people each. To build and open a restaurant of that size, Combs tells me, costs a little more than $4 million. Because of the build-to-suit arrangement, his group needs to raise only $1.2 million of that, to fund the equipment and furnishings and to hire and train the staff.
Once ground finally breaks on the building, Combs said, the restaurant group is in the home stretch: It takes six months for construction. They hope to have their managers in place 12 weeks before the opening, and they start hiring hourly employees with six weeks to go.
Opening a restaurant the size of a Lube requires a couple of hundred servers, cooks, managers, and support staff. But because their group has developed a reputation as a good place to work, Combs says, people with experience seek them out. And then those employees get a lot of hands-on guidance. “You have to have people who take pride in what they do, in the presentation of the food on the plate, in how it looks and how it’s going to taste,” Mills says. The system takes work, but it produces better results than places where “you get a guy that, to be honest, is not making a ton of money, some of these guys who are cooking, and no one follows up with them. You end up with a mediocre product.”
Then there is the all-important matter of wing quality control. As Mills likes to explain, there is a sweet spot with wings, and it’s about seven wings per pound. Too big, and customers feel they’re not getting enough in an order; too small, and there’s not enough meat on the bones. And it doesn’t take much to mess with that ideal: “Right now wings are running bigger,” Mills explains. “That happens sometimes due to holidays. [Farmers] have down times, where they aren’t killing so the birds live longer and they get bigger.”
Mills’ emphasis on quality control comes from his 20-plus years in the industry. He learned his trade before the advent of “convenience foods”—all those frozen cheese sticks and French fries and chicken tenders—and brings that mentality to the Lube. “When I started, we cooked everything from scratch. Back in Friday’s in 1982, we made our own potato skins, our own soups and sauces and dressings. Not too many people today make their own dressings.”
Mills looks for chances for the Lube to serve homemade food: a hand-breaded fish sandwich for a Lent special, homemade soups on the lunch buffet. It’s not inexpensive, but it helps bring diners to the restaurant, he says.
One other task that must be fit into the final weeks and months: Acquiring, and then hanging, car bodies and motorcycles—and, in the case of one restaurant, a racing boat—from the ceiling. One restaurant features an intact 1964 Corvette. As Combs talks about how they source these conversation pieces, you begin to understand that his talk about people loving the restaurant isn’t just a businessman’s bluster.
“A guy walked in the door one day and offered us the dragster that is hanging in the foyer,” Combs says. “His daughter grew up and doesn’t drive it any more. It’s been sitting in his garage. He felt like, shucks, let me take it over there and let those guys hang it up.” A friend bought an Indy Car shell and gave it to the group, and another family has supplied dozens motorcycles for the three restaurants. Combs now has a guy with a background in construction who comes in with his sons to hang everything. “But in the first restaurant, [Jim Mills] and I and a couple other guys did it. He falls off ladders,” Combs says, chuckling and pointing at Mills, “and I get dizzy. It’s not as hard as it seems, but it’s work.”
That wasn’t all that Combs and Mills did by themselves in opening that first restaurant back in 2006. “When we opened [the] Milford [location], we opened that restaurant with five managers. Two of them were Jim and I,” Mills said. “Jim … is not a real morning person. So he decided he’d work nights. He’d come in at noon, and closing the restaurant at midnight or 1 every night. We did that for the first I don’t know how many months.”
So, why do it? Profits are nice—and Combs’ group won’t agree to a deal with a developer unless it has reason to believe the location can hit a certain revenue threshold—but there are months, if not years, before the profits roll in, and it takes crazy long hours to get there.
“The day you open the door, that’s what it’s really all about,” Combs explains. “You’ve got people coming in here and telling you they love the place, and they love the food, and you’ve worked very hard to get to that point. The passion we put behind serving a burger or rack of ribs or wings or whatever … if you don’t have that, you shouldn’t be in this business.”
Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.