The May 16 Saper Law Seminar hosted six heavy-hitters in Chicago’s food and restaurant industry. The panelists discussed several aspects of the food industry, including fine-dining concepts, fast health-food, organic meat distribution, franchising and the importation of global food products.
Our panelists ranged from those who started with extensive food industry experience to those who began with nothing more than a vision and passion for food. Both R.J. Melman and Rakesh Patel, a partner of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and the president of Raja Foods respectively, grew up in the industry; David Grossman, whose latest project is the Freshii restaurant chain in Chicago is a longtime franchise expert. By comparison, Florian Pfaler, founder of Hannah’s Bretzel, with nothing more than a background in advertising, and Matt Matros, the owner and creator of Protein Bar, paved their own paths.
Questions about the trials and tribulations of starting a successful food-based business set the tone for the discussion. In such a tough economy, attendees wanted to know “the secret” to our panelist’s successes. The answer? You can’t be afraid to take a leap of faith. Even if your concept is new, untested and people are telling you that it will never work, stay true to your concept. Also, don’t chase the dollar. Rather, continue to press on. Hannah’s Bretzel, for example, according to Pfahler, was deemed a crazy idea by his friends; they didn’t believe there was a market for a “carb”-based business in the hay-day of the Atkins and South Beach diets. But Florian executed his vision anyways– that fast casual, tasty and healthy, are not mutually exclusive, he explained to the standing-room only crowd on Wednesday. He added that a strong concept based on fresh, organic ingredients, whole grain nutrition and strong environmental business practices, can always be a huge success if executed correctly.
When asked about how important location is, RJ Melman, having something of an expertise as the proprietor of several Chicago hotspots (Hub51, Paris Club and the new RPM Italian), explained that the restaurant concept should come before location. “We come up with a concept and then look for a space that fits that concept,” Melman explained, adding that if you effectively execute a strong concept, the customers will come to you, wherever that may be.
Another substantial tone of the afternoon was to be prepared for a tough industry. Do careful research and write a comprehensive business plan, if for no one other than yourself. Also, mentors are important. Matt Grove, partner and president of Katama Company, the largest organic beef company in the United States, explained how he was selling organic meat out of the back of his pick-up truck when he met his mentor in Northern California. New concepts can be a hard sell, but with passion and willingness to learn, success is achievable. That willingness to learn and roll with the punches was echoed by Matros, “40 things will go wrong today at Protein Bar, but that’s the exciting part of the industry. It’s always a learning experience.”