Bite Me

So you want to be a restaurateur?
Monday, May 7th, 2012

Since the revolution more Cairenes have been spending more money on more dining out than at any other time in the history of this city. Perhaps it's an end-of-days scenario and people want to go out with a bang. Perhaps it's pent up demand after months of being trapped at home eating nothing but chicken and rice. Or perhaps it's the need to escape the responsibility of preventing the parental units, who have also been trapped at home, from tear gassing each other. Although I have no statistics, I'm willing to bet that the birth and divorce rates are at an all time high as well.

Predictably, the urge to eat out has led to its sister desire; the urge to open one's own restaurant. In the past year countless would-be entrepreneurs have emptied their bank accounts in pursuit of that dream. Most of those bank accounts will remain empty, further contributing to the divorce rate but slowing  the birth rate.

What makes them do it? Twenty five percent will fail in the first year and over 50 percent by the third. The answer, as Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, is ego.

Throwing great dinner parties, cooking a kicking risotto, having a passion for food, having wads of cash: these things do not qualify you to bribe health inspectors, unclog grease traps, combat vermin, manage recalcitrant wait staff, coddle irascible customers, or balance the books.

If your friends have been unable to talk sense into you, watch a few episodes of Kitchen Nightmares. You will see English celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay endeavoring to save restaurants run by would-be entrepreneurs who have emptied their bank accounts in pursuit of their dream.

My favorite is in season four when Ramsay visits the Fenwick Arms in rural Lancashire, a business, in its third year of operation that is £250k in debt and losing £1,500 per week.

Its owner, Brian, is on the brink of bankruptcy and has had five heart attacks.

At one point Ramsay takes the chef's inedible, dark brown gravy into the parking lot and uses it to fill potholes.

A similar fate awaits many of those entering Cairo's increasingly competitive food and beverage market including, I suspect, those businesses where gimmicks or guesswork outpaces experience. Restaurants should do one thing really well. Like Blackstone Bistro, whose simple, bread-oriented American fare is a surefire route to success, at least at their well-situated Zamalek location. Chophouse Bistro in Heliopolis is another good example. So too Left Bank in Zamalek.

On the other hand, you really ought to avoid trying to be all things to all customers. This is a mark of desperation. If you're a sushi joint, stick to sushi; don't cook steaks on the side (Fuego). "Pan"-anything, as in Pan-Asian (Saigon), is a formula for pandemonium in the kitchen; combining Indian and Chinese (Maharaja and Zen Zen), the culinary equivalent of the black hole of Calcutta.

Putting pizza in cones (Pizza Conez) wins my nomination for the restaurant Darwin award this year. That this floundering establishment has begun to include "traditional" pizzas on their menu is a sure sign of its impending doom.

Offering Thai, French, Egyptian, Italian and Moroccan food  (Khamsa W Khemesa) is downright suicidal. At least they got the name right but they are going to need all the luck they can get.

There are worse concepts. At Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, Arizona, they make Flatliner Fries (deep fried in pure lard); they don't sell diet soda; they hand out candy cigarettes to kids; and they offer wheelchair service to any customer who finishes their 8,000 calorie Quadruple Bypass Burger.

Very nice, I'm sure, but we won't be hearing about it from their 575-pound spokesman, Blair River, who died last year at the age of 29. Open a place like this and your bank account is sure to go into anaphylactic shock.

There is help. At the end of the month Howard Cannon, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting a Restaurant (2001) and We Are A FOR-PROFIT Restaurant. Any Questions? (2012) is holding a two-day workshop at the J. W. Marriot for those forlorn and afflicted individuals who can't stifle their egos and let go of the idea. If you count yourself among them, fork over the EGP 4,500 and go.

This is less than you will spend on refrigerator repairs in your first month.

Cannon will teach you how to develop your restaurant concept, how to create your menu, how to set up your kitchen and, hopefully, how to save your marriage after your dream goes up in flames on the grill of public opinion.

My advice? Don't do it. Invest your cash in money market funds and sleep peacefully at night. Wake up and play golf. It won't satisfy your ego, but you will die in your bed at a ripe old age.

For those of you whom I have not by now dissuaded, contact me if you want to at http://twitter.com/BiteMeCairo.

I might not know as much about restaurants as Howard Cannon, but I know a heck of a lot more about Cairo.