If you ever considered running your own business, no doubt you’ve heard the expression, “Bet on the jockey, not the horse.” For those of you unfamiliar, this means that behind every good idea should be a passionate leader who will steer towards success. Well, you’re going to be surprised to learn that this expression is false. According to three of the food industry’s top professionals at the Taste of Innovation in Chicago, leading with passion is the wrong way to run your business.

Taste of Innovation

Man on New Moon Chicago bike
Server on bike from New Moon Chicago. Photo courtesy of Sean Su Photo|Purple Photo Co.

From the gentleman waiting to greet you on a giant bicycle to the two servers pouring cocktails with a mechanical arm, the Taste of Innovation proved to be a wonderful and unexpected night. Hosted at Tyson Foods Inc. in Chicago’s West Loop, the Taste of Innovation brought together various industry professionals to discover new delicacies and discuss their love of food.

Servers pouring cocktails from mechanical arm.
Servers pouring cocktails from mechanical arm. Photo courtesy of Sean Su Photo|Purple Photo Co.

Courtesy of Limelight Catering, every food table was themed after a different Chicago neighborhood. There was delicious pasta from Little Italy and creamy elote from Pilsen, each dish representing the diversity that makes up the city’s DNA. All of this was organized by the team at Chicago Innovation, who are continuously determined to connect innovators and professionals from all around the city.

Caterers serving pasta from Little Italy, Chicago
Caterers serving pasta from Little Italy, Chicago. Photo courtesy of Sean Su Photo|Purple Photo Co.

Meet the Panelists

Kate Sullivan at Taste of Innovation panel
Kate Sullivan at Taste of Innovation panel. Photo courtesy of Sean Su Photo|Purple Photo Co.

While the food was exquisite, Chicago Innovation had more on the menu for that night. Kate Sullivan, Emmy Award winning journalist and host of To Dine For With Kate Sullivan, led a panel with three of the food industry’s top entrepreneurs. Together, they discussed the secrets of the restaurant business and the pitfalls that lead many new owners to close their doors.

Fabio Viviani

Fabio Viviani is best known for appearing on Top Chef from 2008 – 2011. Owner of Bar Siena in Chicago, Viviani first rose to U.S. fame by opening Café Firenze in Moorpark, California and later expanding to the renowned Osteria at LAX.

Alpana Singh

Host of the Emmy Award-winning review show, Check, Please!, Alpana Singh opened Terra & Vine in 2016. Currently, she serves on the Choose Chicago Board of Directors as well as the Advisory Council for the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Tim McEnery

Tim McEnery, first opened Cooper’s Hawk at the age of 29 and has since expanded his business to 35 restaurants across the U.S. McEnery was named Ernst & Young’s 2014 Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year and has been honored with a 2017 LEAD Award for corporate leadership.

Each of these restaurateurs have achieved admirable success in the food industry, spanning over two decades. They took to the stage to give us insight on how they run their businesses and why it’s so important to give customers a place to unplug.

Why You Should Never Lead Business With Passion

When it comes to starting your business, Viviani says you should look at the numbers first, then find your vision. He compares running a restaurant to a jockey competing in a derby.

“Jockeys are emotional. Jockeys are passionate. Jockeys are people…It doesn’t matter how good the jockey is, it’s the horses and the donkey that actually win the derby.”

Fabio Viviani
Fabio Viviani
Fabio Viviani. Photo courtesy of Sean Su Photo|Purple Photo Co.

Viviani describes the horse as a machine that helps a restaurant operate. No matter how passionate you are about your business, you will never find another person who cares about it as much as you do. That’s why it’s important to find people who are outstanding at their jobs because they will help your business prosper.

“It’s crazy…how little of my day is actually spent talking about food,” says Singh. You have to learn how to deal with vendors, work on accounting, and train your staff. Every single cog in the machine needs to be cared for and innovated, otherwise you will go out of business. As Viviani says, “There’s someone out there working 24/7 to outsmart, outbid, and outwork you.”

Alpana Singh
Alpana Singh. Photo courtesy of Sean Su Photo|Purple Photo Co.

Viviani states that 98% of restaurants close within 24 months, while the remaining 2% don’t necessarily make money. Many reports dispute that high percentage, but what the panelists tell us to consider is still important. Always look at the numbers. If you can’t keep your business running, then your customers won’t have a place to go.

Passion can inspire, but it can also lead you down the wrong path. Anyone can see the potential in a family recipe, but the best strategy is to have a full plan. You need passion to be willing to work 120 hours a week, but in the end, if you don’t work on keeping the doors open, there’s no point. “It’s a balance between passion and fiscal discipline,” says McEnery.

Tim McEnery
Tim McEnery. Photo courtesy of Sean Su Photo|Purple Photo Co.

Building Loyalty With Customers

Once you have the numbers figured out, then you can set your vision. For restaurant owners, that means building an atmosphere where your customers can relax and disconnect from their problems outside. Singh says that when you step into a restaurant feeling anxious, the entire staff can feel it. That’s why it’s her goal to provide customers a place to unwind.

“It’s about creating that warm authentic engagement…A simple how are you?…Let me get that for you…You can really shock someone out of it.”

Alpana Singh

Between work, the news, and our personal lives, there is so much to be anxious about and our attention span is not what it used to be. Singh says that the reason most people are addicted to phones is because so much money is spent trying to get our attention. With social media, texts, and private messaging, our attention is now a product. When done correctly, restaurants can provide the opportunity for people to put their phones away and actually communicate with one another.

Tim McEnery, Fabio Viviani, and Alpana Singh at the Taste of Innovation panel.
Tim McEnery (left) Fabio Viviani (center) and Alpana Singh (right) at the Taste of Innovation panel. Sean Su Photo|Purple Photo Co.

According to the panelists, the best way to get people to come back to your restaurant isn’t by having them Instagram about their experience, but by creating an atmosphere of authenticity. This means being present and not eliminating customer interaction by replacing servers with kiosks. McEnery understands that most people live on their phones and doesn’t want to take that away from them. But he also has no intention of adding to the digital menu trend.

“We created Member Signature where a wine club member would come into Cooper’s Hawk and…never have to basically pull anything out. Just sign out the bill, leave, and have a great time. And the amount of prime that our wine club members have found in this program has been absolutely incredible.”

For Viviani, he still enjoys approaching people’s tables and asking them how they enjoyed their meal. If someone isn’t savvy with social media, he just asks them to use word of mouth because, at the end of the day, it’s the interpersonal experiences that matter and ultimately build customer loyalty.

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What the panelists want you to remember is that planning is the most crucial process of starting your business. Having passion is great. It can drive and inspire. But passion combined with strategy will ensure both you and your customers have a place to eat.