March 1, 2024

You’re the Boss Blog: Fishonomics: How Southfork Kitchen Did This Summer

A striped bass does its part.Chris KoszykA striped bass does its part.

Start-Up Chronicle

Getting a restaurant off the ground.

Let us now praise money. I’d sooner talk religion or politics or New York center fielders, past and present, but we have just finished the high season in the Hamptons and I have money on the mind and money on the table, and some dear readers think that divulging hard numbers will somehow help owners of florist shops in Tallahassee and microbreweries in Oshkosh.

Needless to say, there are smarter investments than a restaurant. Practically all investments are smarter, including florist shops and microbreweries. But I have always thought that if you started off with a socially worthy project, did undue diligence, worked ridiculously hard, hired wisely, found a niche and cashed in some luck chips, the financial issues would take care of themselves. And you would sleep soundly a few hours each night. It is a naïve stance, I know, and it does not always work out — and yet, money means more, and less, when it’s the byproduct of satisfaction, not a goal itself. Who could resist the chance to entertain neighbors, Mother Earth and oneself all at the same time — with the possibility of making money and an eco-statement too? We save the fish, fish save the oceans, oceans save the planet. A triple play! Are we talkin’ baseball yet?

None of this hifalutin stuff, I rush to add, devalues or undermines profit in any way. Nor does it patronize anyone who is in business just for the money — everyone likes money, the more the merrier.

Let us now mince no words. We are in a hole. We might find oil before we find profit. (Olive oil would come in handy.) Let’s review. Instead of opening in the spring or summer of 2010 and squirreling away some nuts for the long, cruel winter, we reversed the process, and not on purpose. Construction was slow, permits were stubborn, time slipped away. (I was a green builder, and I don’t mean that in a good way.)

It would have been counterproductive to open with scant experience last summer; our pretensions and prices allow us but one chance to make a good impression, lest we lose guests permanently. So we limped through the worst part of the business year to get to the best, culling staff and testing dishes, changing public relations firms and prices and pastry chefs. When the summer commenced, we were properly seasoned and ready to roll. We had a small fire in the kitchen wall. We lost Memorial Day weekend and all of June. We focused on the garden and anomie (not anemone). We reopened for July Fourth weekend, just in time to take full advantage of what we had learned over the first nine months — our gestation period.

Now some numbers. Gentlemen, start your calculators.

In July and August, we averaged 90 guests a night, six nights a week, at $100 per person. We took in about a half million dollars in 56 working nights, including one forgettable Thursday and one disruptive visitor named Irene. Had we been open in June, with an additional 24 days, we could have added another $200,000 and wound up at $700,000 for the summer. (For those keeping score at home, all numbers have been rounded off for your convenience and our deniability.)

To cover our expenses for the fire — construction, lost inventory, business interruption — we have asked a pair of insurance companies for $100,000. We had no history to lean on and no archival evidence to corroborate our June traffic, so we estimated the loss and had to wait for July data to submit. When we will receive the checks, and for what amounts, is anyone’s guess; insurance companies are in no rush to pay up.

So before anyone takes anything to the bank, let us remember that a restaurant is working well when working at a 10 percent profit margin. (The National Restaurant Association puts the average margin at 4 to 6 percent.) During a compressed time, a heightened season, productivity climbs, waste diminishes, and that percentage can reach 15. That would put the takeaway at $1,350 a night; had there been no fire, $107,000 might now be sitting in our summer checking account.

Next summer, more people will know us. Next summer, we will be open seven days a week, we will start no fires, invite no hurricanes and maybe do a Sunday brunch. Serving four courses is under consideration. Wine pairings will be expanded. And we will surely know the precise number of staff needed in the front and back. We will do better next summer.

In the meantime, we will stay open until Jan. 2, 2012. All of the diets begun on New Year’s Eve will force the restaurant to tighten its belt. The earth will be frozen and the farmers will be in Florida and families will need time to return Christmas gifts. The staff, having worked summer, fall, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, will deserve an extended break.

Arctic char with yuzu emulsion.Chris KoszykArctic char with yuzu emulsion.

When I look around the Hamptons and see boats on the bay, children in schoolyards and fishermen on the shoreline, with mansions in the background, I am more convinced than ever that this community can sustain a sustainable seafood place. Of course, as Chef Joe is fond of saying, sustainability starts at home. We will seek other streams of revenue now, like wedding rehearsals, Christmas parties, perhaps some catering. And while many restaurants have come and gone in the Hamptons, the best ones have, by and large, endured, confirming some ineffable connection between quality and longevity. Not always, no guarantees, but paying attention to every nut and bolt can construct something larger than a mere edifice. We can evolve from brand new to trusted brand.

We will not be in the black come our first anniversary. We are newbies. We have made newbie errors. We have seen fire and rain. We keep in mind that many winning restaurants were slow out of the gate, while many short-lived nags were quick to take the lead. How long does it take to create a culture, to find your rhythm and your audience? Do we get two years? Three? Will the money hold out? The energy? The dedication?

Let us now praise famous men. Neither my accountant nor business manager nor lawyer nor executive chef nor chief tea leaf reader can extrapolate or interpret the accumulated numbers with any conviction. The future is here and yet unknown. We need more data. It arrives nightly and remains shrouded by fog. We feel confident that we are on a right path, buoyed by enthusiasm from critics and guests, but dear readers, you and I will have to wait until the late autumn to harvest the ripe integers, to pore over a year’s worth of ledgers with unjaundiced eye, and then pour a glass of fiesty pinot blanc to drink with the crow — or to crow about the eatery that will be one year old in October.

And then we can sit down and watch Curtis Granderson in the World Series.

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