From Mortgage Broker to Restaurant Entrepreneur: The Tale of Opening a Restaurant

When you Google, “Tips for starting a restaurant” you’re more likely to get “100 Reasons to Throw in the Towel” than anything vaguely helpful. It’s nothing new to hear the horrors of restaurant failures, treacherous health scores, and impossible hired help. Why then is the industry adding around 4,500 new locations each year? And not only are there 4,500 opening their doors every year, there are nearly as many closing them for good. To understand, I decided to go to the source: A new restaurant owner.

Joe Consumo, the new owner of Café du Soleil in Downtown Knoxville, Tennessee agreed to meet and shed some light on his opening experience. When I found out that Consumo had previously been a mortgage broker, I knew his insight would be ideal. Honestly, how does someone who made a career of reducing risk go into a business essentially built on risk? With the human variable, fluctuating food costs, and the fickle wants and desires of the consumer, if the restaurant business were a human and had walked through the door at his mortgage firm, I doubt he would have written it a contract. Despite all that, he did it anyway.

Opening a Restaurant: From Risk Averse to “Go For It”

Joe Consumo has been a resident of Downtown Knoxville for just over four years, he’s made the trek past his now restaurant hundreds of times, and until a friend suggested they head there for dinner, he’d never really considered stopping in. It was a late spring afternoon and he met two friends for a meal that actually was life changing.

The group of three opted to sit on the porch and was pleasantly greeted by James, the server who provided Consumo with what he describes as, “The best, most knowledgeable service I’ve ever received.” Several days after his meal, he was still talking about it and sharing the experience with friends. A few more trips to the restaurant and he began preparing to make a purchase.

He spoke with his venture capitalist friend, Chris Dillon, and in just a matter of weeks, the two were well on their way to becoming the owners of Café du Soleil.

As a mortgage broker and venture capitalist team, they were well aware that they would need to rely heavily on the culinary know-how of an industry expert. Determined to enhance the restaurant’s exposure without hurting its menu quality or service, Consumo worked with the staff to guarantee that they would all remain after the purchase.

The Value of a Chef

Consumo knew it was a delicate balance of chef and service that had sustained the restaurant thus far and was prepared to do whatever it took to keep Chef David Franchuk. The two met to discuss the future of the location and ultimately, Consumo handed over the kitchen, menu, and sourcing to Chef David. With this exciting proposition before him, the chef opted out of heading to New York to pursue his culinary career.

Café du Soleil’s First Days

The food and service were covered which led Consumo to focus in on the logistics and daily business management. As an industry novice, there were many lessons learned along the way. Lesson #1: Never assume anything will come together as quickly as anticipated. The initial assumption was that acquiring a liquor license would be a rather quick process, which proved complex. As a French restaurant, it’s of great importance to offer wine service. Aware that they must find a workaround, Consumo was well on his way to Lesson #2: Be creative.

Instead of delaying the opening of the restaurant, the owners decided to implement a BYOB policy and tack on a minimal corking fee. With a solution in hand, they opened for their first dinner service. Within the first few days, their POS system began malfunctioning – a common point of frustration for new restaurant owners. Thus we have Lesson #3: Expect the unexpected, especially where technology is involved and always have a backup plan.

Lastly we have Lesson #4: Don’t overwhelm your staff. Working in a restaurant can be highly stressful – you have a menu to memorize, you bounce from table to table trying to make your customers feel well taken care of, you often work long hours, and you are always on your feet. Consumo decided the best way to combat overwhelming his staff and still provide unbeatable service while operating at a bare minimum staffing level was to limit seating and encourage reservations. In a few cases, they have had to turn down patrons or schedule reservations to guarantee a great experience in the future.

Though some restaurant veterans would balk at the idea of turning away paying guests, ensuring a perfect experience is part of the Café du Soleil brand. If turning a customer away before providing a subpar experience is necessary, they’re confident it’s the best business decision.

With the few kinks worked out Consumo has reflected on those first days and is most proud of the incredible feedback he and the team have received. Despite the issue with liquor licensing, POS systems, and seating restrictions, the team has received a deluge of complements and positive feedback. They are already seeing many familiar faces returning and the community has been very welcoming.

The Café du Soleil Way

Looking toward the future, Consumo is working with the staff to develop unique ways to differentiate themselves in a market saturated with restaurants. So far, they have tapped into a convenience tool to provide diners with greater ease of access to their slightly removed location. Just a few blocks from the center of the city, there was a focus on getting folks to the restaurant. To combat this, they offer a pickup service for the many city-dwelling patrons of Café du Soleil.

To take advantage of the service, you’ll need to live within a few miles of the restaurant, have a minimum of two guests, and purchase an entrée. Aside from that, the cab fare is on the house, both to and from your residence.

As business continues to grow, Consumo and Chef Dave are looking to recruit a sous chef who will eventually aid in the development of a brunch and lunch service. The most immediate change Consumo is looking to make is to his marketing.

He finds that social media has been exceptionally beneficial but is hoping to diversify and promote his budding business at the Bijou and Tennessee Theaters. In utilizing a good mix of media outlets, Consumo is looking to increase exposure amongst a wide variety of restaurant goers in the community.

Joe Consumo: No Regrets

If you had asked Joe Consumo if he would own a restaurant a year ago, he probably would have laughed. If you had asked him where the best place to get classic French food was, he wouldn’t have known. Now, just a few months in, he couldn’t imagine making a different decision. A few bumps along the way, perseverance and creativity have been key. For those looking to follow in his and many others’ steps, he will offer this advice, “Have a stockpile of working capital and know that opening a restaurant is a process. It’s not an event.”

Be sure to stop into Café du Soleil the next time you are in the area. It’s located at 416 Clinch Ave, Knoxville, TN. If you get the chance, take a seat on the patio and experience why Joe Consumo went from patron to owner as quickly as he could. For more information, visit www.CafeDS.com .

Chelsea B. Sanz
Chelsea B. Sanz

Chelsea Sanz has lived in East Tennessee since her family moved here from South Florida just before she started high school. While she initially begrudged her new home state, she eventually realized she had come to not only love it, but to “bleed orange” as University of Tennessee Volunteers fans here like to say. She and her boyfriend Hunter, a trail worker for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoy exploring the nation’s most visited national park and coming up with their own farm-to-table recipes.

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