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Jackrabbit Filly's Corrie Wang on opening their first restaurant 

Numbers Game

Ruta Smith

Corrie and Shuai Wang stand in the space that will soon be their first restaurant

I recently wrote a check for forty-five thousand dollars.

This didn't actually buy anything. It was a deposit. On a restaurant hood, a walk-in cooler, various refrigeration units, a dish station, and small miscellaneous prep tables.

For people that have money, I know forty-five grand isn't a lot. For me and my husband, Shuai, it's about a third of what we've saved together in our adult lives. Accrued from 20-some combined years waiting tables (me) and working in kitchens (him). Four years running a food truck (us). And too many years to count getting two novels published (me, with his shoulder to cry on).

After that $45K check, in quick successive order, I wrote out a sum of smaller, partial payment checks. $4,685 to the architect. $5,000 to the framer. $10,000 to the electric guy. Another $10,000 to the plumber. An additional $2,500 to the plumber for a concrete slab cut. $3,200 to the guy who filled that slab cut back in.

Over the next few months I'll watch our savings drain away like this. Wood working guys. Floor gals. Tile guys. All paid by semi-large and properly large sums that squeeze out every penny in the bank.

Fact: you'll wait weeks for responses to your emails asking for quotes and account balances but you'll get invoices seconds after your purchases have been made.

As all our restaurant friends tell us, there's no way we'll come in at budget, never mind under. Plan to spend a third over budget, they say, at least. But Shuai and I listen to them the same way we take restaurant recommendations when we travel: dutifully take notes, then ignore them entirely and free fall when our feet hit the pavement. Which means, at some point soon, we'll run out of money.

I keep mentally preparing myself to see zeros in my savings account. Then, it'll be see this hat? See this hand? Here we come begging fam.

Opening this restaurant has become the most intense, stressful, expensive thing I have ever done — and that's considering I also write novels for a living. Come talk to me some time on manuscript draft 247. It's not pretty. But this is worse.

It's also to be expected.

I am, after all, opening a restaurant.

My life — which is normally spent coercing words and phrases and plot lines to snap into place — is now consumed by finagling numbers. And I just can't see past them.

click to enlarge No Spoilers - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • No Spoilers

Lately, I've been thinking about all the things I did as a server. The handfuls of paper towels I used to mop up a tiny spill — 45 cents — when a rag would have sufficed, 10 cents a wash. The house wine that my coworkers used to pour into large water glasses and chug mid service when no one was looking. That at least was the cost of the bottle. The entire rack of wine glasses one of my coworkers dropped. At roughly $5 a glass, that was a $125 moment of clumsiness.

It'll be no different for us. The sums are and will be endless.

The other day, Shuai and I spent a good 20 minutes obsessing over how much an oyster should cost on our menu. The restaurant-world status quo is charging four times the food cost to cover all the restaurant's operating expenses. Which gets tricky when you're serving primarily local and sustainable ingredients. Obviously, the cause and product are 100 percent worth it. Yet the question remains, how much can we reasonably charge for food?

Back to the oysters. On average, local or not, a bag of 100 oysters costs about $95. A steal considering the amount of work that goes into cultivating them and the benefit to our water systems. In the past, we've sold our oysters five-per-order for $13. But in the past, we didn't have a dozen employees. Or an ice machine that produces ice that doesn't really work for oysters and forces us to buy that stringy seaweed instead. Per the industry standard, what we should charge is $20. To eat five oysters.

It's no wonder so many places are closing, neither owner nor customer can afford it.

Never mind that we survive off of our regulars. So many familiar friendly faces. It's not easy to charge them — or anyone, for that matter — prices that keep us open for a few bites of food. Be it oysters, shrimp, seasonal produce. So sometimes you take a loss on certain dishes and make up for it on others.

Like salad.

Eat your salad, men. (See what I did there?) Restaurants love when you order the salad. A case of lettuce costs $25. Yet you, the guest, pay minimally $12.

What does a handful of nuts cost? A sprinkle of cheese? Maybe a whole peach? We love when you order salad. It lets us serve you oysters at $13.

A regular once told me our lunch prices were too inexpensive. (They were between $10 to $12 for a rice bowl). That everyone knew you couldn't eat lunch for under $20 anymore. But I grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where you can still get a Friday fish fry with an enormous piece of beer battered haddock, rye bread, coleslaw, noodle salad, and French fries for around $12 to $14 bucks. This has forever affected my perception of what a meal should cost.

I don't want any of us to have to spend $60 for two people to eat out. But contrary to what it might feel like, most restaurants aren't trying to rob you. We're just trying to make ends meet. When I play with the numbers on our projected sales spreadsheet sometimes it looks like a living. Sometimes it looks like a very bad idea.

Shuai and I keep laughingly asking one another, "Why does anyone do this?" Because once our doors open, it remains a numbers game.

We have 55 seats. To try and deflect burnout, we'll only be open five nights a week. That means, we minimally need to fill every seat one and a half times a night, plus be open for lunch, to be profitable. This does not account for paying back the money we put in or borrowed. This is just to keep up with the costs of operation.

A year of staffing? Runs over $400,000.

Credit card processing fees, about $35,000.

Bi-annual liquor license. Insurance. Alarm. Internet. Floor mats.

Numbers wake me up at night.

Forgetting to put the cost of the toilets into our start-up cost doc shoots me out of bed at 3 a.m. Then the numbers keep me up, so during this time of checks and deposits and loans and lawyers and concrete being dug out and refilled, there's very little sleep to be had.

Number of hours I now sleep soundly a night?

Four.

click to enlarge Corrie and Shuai will keep testing recipes in their home kitchen until Jackrabbit Filly opens - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Corrie and Shuai will keep testing recipes in their home kitchen until Jackrabbit Filly opens

I tell myself that I don't know how many restaurants I'll open in my life. This might be it. One and done. In other words, enjoy these moments. I wanted skin in the game and this is the buy-in price. Be grateful. Not everyone has the ability or luxury to make their dreams a reality. And honestly, I am grateful and extremely excited.

In three months, give or take, the doors will be open and it will be the joy of knowing every face in every seat. Hugs. Toasts. Celebrating your anniversaries and birthdays and having the staff sing that dumb song (or not — we still have to decide). Pictures of our loved ones will be hanging on the walls, while our new loved ones will be tucked into the booths, enjoying plates of ... no spoilers! I am giddy thinking about those perfect nights of service, with a full house and the servers spinning on the floor and our favorite songs popping overhead and Shuai in the kitchen doing what I truly believe he was born to do.

Then? This time of numbers will be a distant, I can't believe we did that memory, like slinging on a food truck, in 100-degree weather, in a dirt parking lot, with no AC or fan.

At least until the walk-in breaks.

Corrie Wang was the co-owner and operator of Short Grain food truck. Her restaurant, Jackrabbit Filly, will open late summer in Park Circle. Her second novel, City of Beasts, comes out in September.

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