Somewhere in-between “Two heads are better than one” and “Too many cooks spoil the broth” is the secret to a perfect restaurant partnership. As owners, it can be frustrating at times to have to deal with not just employees, vendors, and customers, but also the demands of a partner to whom you owe your loyalty and responsibility first and foremost.
But while it may often be difficult to come to agreement and work in concert with someone else who has equal stake, it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Working with a partner on building your business can have an enormous impact on your ability to survive — and thrive — in the restaurant industry.
Why even have a partner?
There are variety of reasons why partnering with another owner (whether at the outset or along the line through investment) can be necessary, including:
- Finances: Restaurants are slim-profit margin businesses with large upfront cash demands. Pooling financial resources with a business partner is often the only way to get a new restaurant off the ground.
- Expertise: Someone else inevitably knows areas of the business you don’t, whether as a chef, a chief financial officer, a management guru, or some combination of the above. Pooling expertise is just another way to manage any reasonable deficit in your professional background.
- Work load: Sharing the responsibility (or burden) of a business is sometimes not only preferable, it’s also necessary. No one person can do it all, and whether that other person is an owner, or simply a manager, being able to share the load is critical to keeping business moving in a positive direction
- Fun: Make no mistake, there’s a great deal of enjoyment to be had out of owning your own business, and doing it with a friend or family member at your side can make it even more fun.
However, one of the big dangers to starting off in business with a partner is that fun can quickly give way to the reality of everyday demands. And with that stress can come conflict. With that in mind, we have six ways you and your restaurant partner can avoid clashes upfront and put that energy where it needs to go: into the success of your business.
Set clear expectations for responsibility.
Don’t go into a partnership just saying, “We’ll share it 50/50.” Be specific about roles and responsibilities. Not every part of the business is going to make sense for each partner to have their hands in. Make sure your individual responsibilites are laid out, and in as much detail as possible. The last thing business partners need is for something to fall through the cracks because each thought the other had it covered.
By the same token, don’t use divisions of responsibility as an excuse for standing by while things fall apart. Just because front of house management is your partner’s key responsibility doesn’t mean you can’t lend a hand when things get tough or your partner finds themselves unavailable. Pitch in when necessary, of course, but always as a last resort, not as a matter of course.
Put it all in writing.
Protect yourself. Protect your partner. Protect your family. Your employees. It’s in everyone’s benefit that your partnership be legally described, demarcated, and bound. Hire an attorney or other third party that can execute the contract who has no personal connection to either of you. You don’t want even a perception of bias if there are questions about how the agreement was executed or upheld down the road.
The contract should cover how the finances are divided, who holds what responsibilities, how reporting to the other partner(s) is to be handled, and down to the details of how big decisions are made. Beneficiaries should be designated and defined in terms of their responsibility should it be necessary. And while it may seem morbid upfront, it’s also important to agree on an exit strategy in case the partnership reaches an unresolvable crisis point. Knowing what to do at that point — and being able to identify when you are and are not at that point — is crucial to maintaining your financial and professional security.
Having both emotional and physical boundaries is key for every successful partnership, and that goes whether your business partner is your best friend, your spouse, a family member or strictly a work colleague. Each partner should have their own office/space, either at the establishment or offsite. You will already be spending a lot of time together, both managing your business during open hours and beyond. Having a quiet, separate space to be alone with your thoughts is crucial to making sure that time together is productive and doesn’t overwhelm your patience or attention.
Respect the other’s expertise.
If one of the key rationales behind partnerships is getting more than one set of skills at the top — expertise that balances out any experience that the other simply doesn’t have — then it’s more important than anything to remember and respect those skills. You’re going to learn a lot from each other over the course of your partnership, but maintaining a healthy respect for your partner’s core competencies, even deferring to that knowledge and skill when appropriate, is going to save you a lot of conflict and likely produce the best results for your restaurant.
On top of that, understand upfront what your partner’s limitations are and respect those as well. While you can certainly take time out to teach each other your personal skillset, don’t drop that responsibility on your parter while work should be getting done. If you’re the money guy or gal, don’t look to your partner to balance the books. If they have never set foot in front of a grill or plating area, tapping your business partner in to expedite in the kitchen during a shift could be disasterous. Better to rely on and cultivate competent managers for assistance when things get into the weeds.
Don’t drag other people into it.
Making employees, spouses, vendors, or (god forbid) customers take sides in disagreements is a recipe for disaster. Don’t do it. Like any marriage, the less you show your disagreements in public, the easier they are to resolve in private. As soon as you start to involve people who are not intimately involved in the disagreement (i.e. not contractual business partners with all the responsibility that entails), the messier the situation gets.
That said, it’s important to identify an official mediator if things do start to go south and agreement between partners just isn’t possible without intervention. Early on, establish a ‘how to disagree’ protocol, and consider writing it into your partnership agreement. Who decides when you and your partner have differing and irreconcilable views? It has to be someone both of you can accept as an authority and walk away without resentment or a sense of favor. That could be an attorney, a mentor you both trust, or a professional arbitrator.
Leave your ego out of it.
This is probably the most important thing to remember: Don’t ever let your personal feelings get in the way of a reasonable compromise. When you take on a partner in any endeavor, there’s what you want, what they want, and then there’s what’s best for the business. Leave your ego at the door and come in willing to listen and reach an agreement that’s right for everyone involved, even if it stings.
Never walk into a discussion with a “no” on the tip of your tongue. You don’t have to sign off on everything simply for the value of agreement, by any means. But it’s important to consider both points of views, and when in doubt, bring discussion back to the Triple Bottom Line: People, Profit, and the Planet. One (or more) of those factors should be the guide to a solution to the dilemma.
Keep in mind, not all conflict is bad. Conflict can produce amazing results that no one person could have achieved on their own. The trick is to keep it productive and never let it overtake the value of the partnership.
Want more tips on how to get along better with your restaurant employees — so that your business actually functions better?
How to build rapport