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Diners are general watering holes for locals, so they have the potential to become mainstays in any given town. Restaurant owners can distinguish themselves by a variety of factors: speed, quality of service, price, restaurant theme and menu items. Successful diners are known for giving fast, friendly service.
Who is this business right for?
Owners should have some experience in the food industry. The more positions a person has held in the restaurant world, the more likely it is they will be able to oversee, delegate and perform the many tasks on a to-do list. Owners may not perform a lot of customer service — they may leave the bulk of this to their staff. However, they will need people skills when handling their employees and for any interactions they may have with customers.
What happens during a typical day at a diner?
Owners may find a general day consisting of the following tasks:
- Hiring and managing employees
- Overseeing the cooking process
- Designating and coordinating shifts for all staff
- Ordering inventory and food supplies
- Performing inspections to ensure quality and cleanliness
- Preparing budgets
- Building and equipment maintenance
- Testing and experimenting with new menu items
What is the target market?
An ideal customer is someone who lives in the area, and one who is likely to establish a good rapport with the serving staff. Once a person has positive associations with the diner, they are more likely to bring their friends and to return again and again. Casual eateries are generally profitable only when they’re able to establish a good foundation of ‘regulars.’
How does a diner make money?
Diners make money by charging people for food with a profit margin. The cost of the food items must cover rent, equipment, staff salaries, and restaurant fixtures. Restaurants have some of the highest overhead of any business, so diners may operate at a deficit for many months before starting to see profit.
What is the growth potential for a diner?
Diners aren’t generally known for being large restaurants, though there are exceptions to this rule. A diner may expand in terms of physical space (e.g., buying the building next door and expanding the seating area), or they may become a franchise. Should your diner become extremely popular, with long wait times and enthusiastic prospective customers, then it’s recommended you open another location to accommodate the demand.
You may also wish to start a franchise. For example, popular chains like Denny’s or Ruby’s allow owners to use their name and menu to establish a business. The name recognition and built-in advertising can give owners a leg-up when it comes to getting their first customers.
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful diner?
The best skills an owner can have is being a good multi-tasker. Most tasks on a to-do list may seem simple, but put all of it together and it’s a time-management puzzle that not everyone can solve. You should also be good at reading people and understanding what they want. When diners have legitimate complaints, listening and negotiating skills will become critical to staying in business.
What are the costs involved in opening a diner?
Average start-up costs to open up a restaurant are around $275,000 if you rent, and $425,000 if you buy the building. These fees should include everything, such as kitchen appliances and technology for the building.For further context (when you need to replace items), an industrial fryer will cost around $700, and an average table and chair set will run around $250.
You or the landlord of the building will also need to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy, which states the building is up to code. Your employees and customers will need protection against injury, as slips and burns are common in restaurants. You’ll need OSHA compliant workers’ compensation for employees and safety signage for customers.
If you choose to open up a franchise, such as a 5 and Diner (a 50s themed diner), you’ll need $250,000 in liquid assets and $750,000 net worth (e.g., real estate holdings).
What are the steps to start a diner?
Once you're ready to start your diner, follow these steps to ensure that your business is legally compliant and avoid wasting time and money as your business grows:
- Plan your business. A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. A few important topics to consider are your initial costs, your target market, and how long it will take you to break even.
- Form a legal entity. Establishing a legal business entity prevents you from being personally liable if your diner is sued.
- Register for taxes. You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
- Open a business bank account. A dedicated checking account for your diner keeps your finances organized and makes your business appear more professional to your customers.
- Set up business accounting. Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
- Obtain necessary permits and licenses. Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
- Get business insurance. Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
- Define your brand. Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
- Establish a web presence. A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.
Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.
What are some insider tips for jump starting a diner?
More than anything else, a diner needs to be consistent if it hopes for success. While no business is perfect, uneven service, food quality, or restaurant cleanliness will quickly turn customers off. If people see Yelp reviews that are sometimes good and sometimes bad, they may feel uncomfortable taking a chance. An owner cannot survive in the competitive restaurant world without watching every detail.
You also need to be smart about spending. Look for deals and sales whenever you can. Restaurants that have gone out of business are a good way to pick up perfectly functional equipment at a deep discount. Many owners will overspend before even opening the doors on everything from Facebook ads to redecorating, only to find their sales don’t support the initial enthusiasm.
How to promote & market a diner
Word of mouth is a great way to promote your business, so review sites will be important. You can hold a grand opening with free food to get people interested, or give out free samples to passerbys.
There are more traditional forms of advertisement as well: door flyers, print ads, and even billboards or television. If your diner delivers, door flyers advertising a small discount are highly recommended. You may also want to distinguish and advertise your diner with a given theme, so it stands out to patrons. For example, a 50s diner where waiters dance on counters.
Recommended: A website is essential for promoting your business and attracting customers. Weebly is a great tool.
How to keep customers coming back
Attracting and retaining customers will be a matter of perseverance. When up to 60% of restaurants fail in three years, it can make customers hesitant to give new places a fair chance. You must also be ready to adapt to different tastes. Customers in your area may want new and different, or they may want the classics with a twist, They may demand more vegetarian options, or organic ingredients. Regardless of what’s on the menu though, all food needs to be cooked with a certain amount of expertise (even if it’s just bacon and eggs).
How and when to build a team
The best time to build a team is at the very beginning, before the diner opens. Once the diner becomes popular, it will be difficult to hire and fire simply due to time constraints. Staff turnover often has a more significant impact on profits than owners think. Between trying to fill in the absent person’s shifts and training new people, there’s a lot of potential for major mistakes. While a certain amount of this is unavoidable in a business like a diner, you should really be looking for people who are willing to stick with the organization to make it a success.
Federal Business Licensing Requirements
There are federal regulations regarding what can and cannot be added to, sold as, and processed with food. Attached is a resource from the Food and Drug Administration detailing the process of starting a food business: How to Start a Food Business.
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate a diner. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
Since you plan to sell food at your diner, you will need licensing from a local health department. All establishments serving food are required to pass a health inspection. Tips for faring well on a health inspection can be found here.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, check out our informative guide, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
Certificate of Occupancy
A diner is generally run out of a storefront. Businesses operating out of a physical location typically require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO). A CO confirms that all building codes, zoning laws and government regulations have been met.
- If you plan to lease a location:
- It is generally the landlord’s responsibility to obtain a CO.
- Before leasing, confirm that your landlord has or can obtain a valid CO that is applicable to a diner business.
- After a major renovation, a new CO often needs to be issued. If your place of business will be renovated before opening, it is recommended to include language in your lease agreement stating that lease payments will not commence until a valid CO is issued.
- If you plan to purchase or build a location:
- You will be responsible for obtaining a valid CO from a local government authority.
- Review all building codes and zoning requirements for your business’ location to ensure your diner will be in compliance and able to obtain a CO.
How much can you charge customers?
The standard formula for restaurants is to total the cost of the raw ingredients, and then multiply that by at least 3 to determine the listed menu price. However, each business will be influenced on where they are and who their clientele is. You will need to determine a profitable margin based on your rent price, staff wages, and equipment costs. However, you may also want to check out your competitors’ prices in the area before setting the final dollar amount.
What are the ongoing expenses for a diner?
Any diner will have a variety of ongoing expenses:
- Server salaries
- Equipment maintenance and replacement
- Cost of food
- Administrative items (e.g., computers, office supplies)
How much profit can a diner make?
Profits are dependent on the amount of sales they make in any given day. The profit margins are typically only about 5 to 6% though, so there needs to be a high volume before restaurant owners start seeing major profit. If your restaurant does $500,000 in sales in a year, then your profit would be $27,500.
How can you make your business more profitable?
The best thing an owner can do is determine what people are willing to pay a premium for, whether that’s healthy but delicious food or a trendy new flavor that everyone’s talking about. Even diners can get a little fancy to keep their customers. There’s also the possibility of branching out into merchandising (e.g., T-shirts, hats) or by setting up stands and selling prepared foods at farmer’s markets for further promotion.