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MoneyFinding a location for your restaurant can be harder than you think

23:36  25 april  2019
23:36  25 april  2019 Source:   thestar.com

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This time, it’s about location , location , location ! If there is someone in Toronto who could give a cautionary tale about finding a restaurant location “ Restaurants are a passion project,” he says. “Some people get lucky and make a good living but for the most part you ’re looking at one of the worst

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Finding a location for your restaurant can be harder than you think© J.P. MOCZULSKI Chef Nick Liu preps in the kitchen at his new restaurant, Dailo, on College. Finding a location for your restaurant can be harder than you think© J.P. MOCZULSKI Chef Nick Liu at his restaurant, Dailo, on College.

This is part three in How To Open a Restaurant, a series on the realities of opening your own restaurant in a city like Toronto. Last time we explored finding the money for your dream neighbourhood spot. This time, it’s about location, location, location!

If there is someone in Toronto who could give a cautionary tale about finding a restaurant location, chef Nick Liu of College St.’s Dailo would be the one. In the two years it took him to find a location, he lost thousands of dollars, business partners, lived in his car and contemplated leaving the country altogether out of frustration.

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“Restaurants are a passion project,” he says. “Some people get lucky and make a good living but for the most part you’re looking at one of the worst business models. It was a tough time. It was two years of unemployment, looking for spaces, looking for partners and then losing locations and investors, and having to do it all again.”

Finding affordable real estate is one of the biggest hurdles for would-be restauranteurs in a hot market such as Toronto. Small, independent spots have to compete with deep-pocketed franchises for the same vacancies; navigate the legal jargon in a lease; and have investors and business partners see no money during the weeks, months or even years it takes to just find a space. And once the lease is up, it’s a new round of negotiations as the landlord surely wants to increase the rent.

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Liu was far from an amateur in the city’s restaurant industry when he decided to open his own place in 2011. He already had about 15 years of experience, doing culinary internships in England and Australia before becoming the sous-chef at the now-closed fine dining institution Splendido on Harbord St. and then the executive chef at Niagara Street Cafe (it’s now where Edulis is).

But the chef wanted to cook more dishes that reflected his Chinese heritage rather than the French-heavy cuisine at the restaurants he previously worked at. He made the announcement of his new venture at Niagara Street Cafe in April 2012, two months after he finished his last service at the restaurant, with a splashy six-course preview dinner attended by industry professionals and local food media complete with a centrepiece of whole-fried lake trout with green curry mayo and soy glaze, and cocktails by his mixologist and business partner who would be managing Liu’s new restaurant. He had the menu and management in place, but the restaurant had no address. To buy more time (and funding), Liu continued to do more pop-ups around the city while they looked for a space.

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“It was a way to put gas in my car to come downtown,” says Liu, adding that the financial strain also contributed to his divorce around that time. “After a few months of trying to open the restaurant I couldn’t pay rent downtown so I bounced from friends to friends’ places, then lived in my aunt’s apartment, and when she needed the place back I lived in my car for a couple of days. I was scared. I didn’t want to go back to my parents’ house in Markham because I thought it would be a sign of failure. After the third day of living in my car, I was at one of the most depressed parts of my life so I went to my parents and told them I didn’t have a place to live. They didn’t say anything about the restaurant and let me stay in my old room.”

Even though Liu is experienced in the kitchen, he quickly learned that opening a restaurant was a whole other world.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing. I got some bad advice telling me that I couldn’t open a restaurant if I was working somewhere else so I quit my job, which I probably shouldn’t have,” he says. “We had people that said they would invest but we didn’t have it on paper. We looked at four places and put down money for one of them right off the bat, but we lost the $10,000 deposit cause we didn’t have the rest of the money to purchase the space at Dundas West and Palmerston.”

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After a deposit was placed on another location in Parkdale, negotiations for the space dragged on for a year between Liu and the landlord. His new investors pulled out, and so did his business partner and mixologist, who sought employment elsewhere. “I was left with a big hole in my pocket and no investors,” he says.

Liu put his location search on hold and did more pop-ups, hoping to raise his profile and catch the eye of more investors. After a few more weeks of no takers, he was ready to take a break and move to Asia for two years. But just as he was ready to pack his bags, in the summer of 2013, he got a call from a hedge fund manager, David Dattels, who was interested in opening an Asian restaurant with his wife, Jen Grant. Dattels had friends in the restaurant industry and when Liu’s name came up, he called the chef.

After looking at a few more spaces, they were told that Grace restaurant, a well-known date spot on College St. at Palmerston Blvd. was closing. Back then, Liu says that area was still a relatively affordable neighbourhood. La Carnita, a popular taco pop-up owned by a friend of Liu’s, just opened its first location next door, attracting new buzz and diners to the area. Liu signed a 10-year lease (with an option to renew for another five years afterwards) and paid $180,000 for the space, including the liquor license and chattels, such as tables and chairs that were repurposed for Dailo. Finally, in August 2014, Liu’s restaurant was open for business. Still, the question of rent will come up once the lease is up.

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“A 10-year lease means our rent stays the same during this time, aside from annual increments which are put in place by the government, but it also means the landlord can’t kick us out, raise the rent or do anything shady like that,” says Liu. “When our lease is up in five years, they can raise the rent to whatever they think is a fair rent based on the average price per square foot on College St.”

Stephen Murphy, founder of OMG Real Estate, a Toronto-based real estate firm that specializes in helping restauranteurs sell or procure spaces, says that lease renewals is one of the biggest hurdles for restaurant operators. He says the norm at the moment for restaurants is a five year lease with an option to renew for another five years, allowing the rent to catch-up with market trends. Landlords want to get as much money out of their property as they can, but by raising rents, eventually the restaurant cannot afford to stay resulting in empty storefronts or a street with generic fast food outlets.

“We had a restaurant that was paying $13 per square foot but the landlord was asking for $72,” he says. “It goes back to the rule of thumb that your occupancy costs shouldn’t be more than 10 per cent of your sales.”

In addition to real estate, Murphy is also a landlord of a dozen other properties around the city. He and his son took over the Skyline Restaurant property in Parkdale about three years ago. While the diner is an investment for Murphy, he sees the importance of keeping the diner, which has been around since 1965, a local fixture for years to come and declined offers from breakfast chain restaurants.

Pitso Chauke: Swapping a bulletproof vest for an apron

Pitso Chauke: Swapping a bulletproof vest for an apron Pitso Chauke is a self-taught chef from Malamulele, 30km from Giyani in Limpopo. When he moved to Cape Town, working as a police officer, he drove around the city looking for food that reminded him of home. When he couldn’t find it, he turned in his bulletproof vest and put on an apron. Today, he runs a popular stall at the Old Biscuit Mill on Saturdays and has partnered with Afro Bar on Long street to offer great local food and drinks all week long. Deep in the food section of the Old Biscuit Mill, I spot Pitso’s Kitchen and make a beeline for it.

“I really wanted to keep it Parkdale because I live in the neighbourhood. I had experienced operators come in and it’s been a win-win-win for us, the owners and the neighbourhood,” he says. “I kept the rent a bit lower because that way no one moves out. I know the costs of vacancies and our firm tries to educate landlords on that.”

By costs he means if there’s no tenant paying rent, the landlord has to pay the taxes, maintenance and insurance, which is called TMI in the industry. Holding out for a tenant that can pay higher rent means that a landlord will likely get a franchise or chain to move in, causing a chain reaction of rents increasing on nearby properties.

Murphy gives the example of the corner property on the northeast corner of Queen St. W. and Denison Ave., a heritage building that was built in 1879. “I’ve sold that place seven times and then it became this great bar and venue called The Hideout,” he says. “They were owned by hardworking brothers but then the landlord raised the price and now it’s a Taco Bell.”

Liu says its essential to have a lawyer look over every lease agreement. “Every lease agreement we got was so one-sided. There are terms that sound good, but if you don’t read it carefully it could ruin your business. Some landlords will give out one to three year leases, but that means they can raise the rent sooner. Every lease you have to negotiate. It can go on for months.”

While Liu made a lot of mistakes when finding his location, he can now tell would-be restaurant owners first-hand the importance of seeing as many different spaces as possible and of having a financial back-up during the months of location scouting.

“I can look back on it now and laugh, but there were times when I just wanted to yell and cry and give up,” says Liu. “But I wouldn’t have changed a thing because those experiences build strength and humility. If everything went amazing right off the bat, I would probably be the biggest douchebag.”

Karon Liu is the Star's food writer and is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @karonliu

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