Out of the Frying Pan (and Into the Wok)
Starting an independent restaurant wasn’t always the plan for Timothy Joseph, who opened the fast-casual concept Wok Chow in Knoxville, Tenn., in 2011. It may not have been his lifelong dream, but the chef did spend years working in the restaurant industry, holding different positions in corporate restaurants for both regional and national chains. Although chain businesses are often cast as the nemeses of mom-and-pop restaurants, Joseph says his experiences in those corporate kitchens set him up for success as a small restaurant owner.
The Corporate Food Chain
Restaurant owners seem to come from a variety of backgrounds, whether they toiled away in kitchens most of their working lives or decided to dive into the industry from an unrelated field. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2017 statistics, as many as 8 in 10 restaurant owners first held entry-level jobs in the industry, so maybe it’s not surprising that Joseph started his career the same way.
“I have no formal training,” says Joseph, who worked his way from a dishwasher to an executive chef before becoming a restaurant owner. “I started when I was 16 years old [because] my dad said I needed to get a job if I was going to have a car. I think this would apply to many jobs, in that basically if you’re a hard worker, it’s possible to work up in the ranks.”
Joseph worked for both Bob Evans and O’Charley’s throughout high school, then joined the Marine Corps Reserve, but returned to restaurant jobs after completing training. He was promoted to his first management job at Connor Concepts, a Southeastern brand that operates The Chop House and Connor’s Steak & Seafood. He recalls putting in as many as 85 hours a week there, something that isn’t actually unusual in the restaurant industry.
Hoping to find a less hectic environment, Joseph partnered with a restaurant recruiter to secure an assistant kitchen manager position with J. Alexander’s, a casual-dining chain based in Nashville, Tenn. He worked at four J. Alexander’s locations in Ohio, Alabama, and Louisiana, eventually being promoted to executive chef at the Baton Rouge, La., location.
“Being in the military at this point, I understood chain of command,” says Joseph. “I liked how structured J. Alexander’s is. That was probably the best move I ever made, going to work for them.”
After a few years, however, he began looking for a job that would allow himself and his wife to return to Knoxville, and ultimately accepted a position with Bravo! Cucina Italiana.
“I was [at Bravo] for five years… and then somehow I ended up accidentally opening a Chinese restaurant,” says Joseph, explaining that he never thought he would want to open his own restaurant. “These guests came in and they knew me very well. They’d always ask me, ‘Tim, when are you going to open your own restaurant?’ and whenever I got asked that question, I would just laugh. [I thought] the dumbest thing I would ever do is open my own restaurant.”
The Big Risks of a Small Restaurant
Between the long-standing myth that most restaurants fail in the first year and the difficulty of keeping up with the unreliable habits of diners, opening a restaurant can be a risky business venture, especially if there’s no corporation backing you. However, paying to franchise an existing concept isn’t always an appealing option.
“I look at these franchises, and I see one benefit in them,” says Joseph. “There’s name recognition, and that is a potential enormous benefit. With my experience with J. Alexander’s, and Bravo, and Chop House, I look at [chain restaurants], and I don’t want to sound braggadocios, but I could do the same thing. It’s all food, and there’s nothing scientific about it whatsoever. I’m not too keen on paying royalties of 6 to 10 percent to these companies just because they happen to have a name already there.”
Joseph says that “absolutely nothing was easier” about opening a restaurant than he’d thought it would be, but says one of the most difficult aspects of it was picking the real estate.
“Finding a location was so much more difficult than I had anticipated,” he explains. “I’m not a millionaire, and I don’t have tons of equity. Landlords do not want to rent to you. There is no recourse for them should I default and not be able to pay my rent because I don’t have anything they can take away from me.”
Aside from actually finding somewhere to put the restaurant, Joseph’s biggest concern was not knowing whether the business would even succeed.
“What we would do in sales when we opened was the biggest unknown, and the scariest factor,” he says. “[I thought], ‘Hey, I’ve done this forever for all these corporate restaurants. We’ll be fine if we do X amount of sales per week.’ And it was a low number. Well, in actuality, we only hit that low number the first four weeks we were open, and then I dropped severely below that number. It was the most depressing two years of my life. But we’ve been here six years now and now everything’s hunky-dory, everything’s great.”
The Secrets of Success
Although he doesn’t regret opening a small restaurant instead of franchising, Joseph believes that not having name recognition had something to do with Wok Chow’s early struggles. Appealing to diners as a new restaurant may have also been more difficult because Asian restaurants can be stigmatized, despite the growing popularity of Asian food over the last two decades.
“I think that the fact that I’m a Chinese restaurant, which already has a horrible stigma on it of being dirty, and the fact that no one recognized my name was the biggest problem hands down,” Joseph says. “We opened to a little fanfare the first four weeks and then our sales just hit the floor, and they were in the floor for like a year. Ever since then, they have always gone up. About two years in was when we really started climbing. The third year we were up 50 percent, the next year we were up like 39 percent, and it just kept going.”
Wok Chow offers dine-in, take out, and delivery, the last of which Joseph credits for keeping the small restaurant in business when sales were tough.
“Offering delivery was only thing that paid my bills for the first several years,” he says. “[It] saved my business. We used to not offer delivery in the afternoons because there just were no orders. Now we deliver any time we’re open and some shifts, we have five or six delivery drivers.”
Staying true to the restaurant’s concept – “providing fresh food at a great value” – and committing to diner satisfaction helped Wok Chow build its name recognition and customer base.
“We’re not perfect, but we try to do great,” Joseph says. “You can never short-change the guest in the hopes of saving a penny today. Down the road, it’s just not going to work. It didn’t matter how much money I was losing when I first opened, I was not going to risk losing a guest and ruining an experience because I was trying to save money or stay open.”
The Fear of Failure
Because of Joseph’s corporate background, his restaurant was designed to operate differently than most independent restaurants. In fact, he started Wok Chow intending to open multiple locations down the road, a plan that, for now, he’s put on hold.
“I’ve had the opportunity lately to open more of these, and I’m too scared to do it,” he says. “I’m totally different now than I was when I opened this restaurant, and I’m so scared of opening [another location] because I’m the only guy on the line. No one else is sharing this burden with me, and I’m so worried about it not being a success that I’ve kind of decided not to open any more right now, even though I’ve got the concept. We’ve opened this thing so I can just go make another one tomorrow – it’d be so easy, everything’s laid out. You would be blown away if you came here and saw how corporate we run this thing.”
Plenty of entrepreneurs find success in the restaurant industry, but Joseph offered words of caution for hopeful restaurant owners who don’t have any experience in the industry.
“If someone I didn’t know [wanted to open a restaurant], I would say, ‘Don’t do it. It’s crazy,'” he says. “I’m friends with many mom-and-pop restaurant [operators] and I look at how they do things and I just scratch my head. It’s totally contradictory to how a corporate restaurant would do it, and the reason those corporate restaurants are successful is because they have those systems in place that ensure methods are followed. I think that’s where people struggle the most [because] people don’t know what they don’t know. I think if they had a corporate background, they would be much more successful.”