Back in 1996, my good friend Jen (not this Jenn) and I decided that we needed to open our own restaurant. So, in January of 1998, we did. Then, in 2003, we sold it to a group of investors and went on to the next thing.
I don’t remember precisely where we were or what we we doing when I mentioned to Jen that I wanted to open a restaurant, but I do remember that she seemed intrigued, and that the next day she said, “You know, I think we ought to open that restaurant together.” She was right, so together we began to plot our awkward course toward restaurant ownership.
Paul Jarvis sometimes refers to “internet woodshedding“. This term refers to the practice of working on a skill and developing your chops privately, and intensely, so that you’re kicking ass when you finally put yourself, and your work, out there. Jen and I did this by working in as many food-related jobs as we could get hired to do. We were both experienced servers and bartenders, and I was a pretty badass line cook. But with our goal of restaurant ownership in mind, we took food retail jobs and catering gigs, Jen managed a health food store and was a waitress and innkeeper by night, and I cobbled together fine dining, bar and kitchen work. We both did whatever we could get hired to do* in the interest of learning as much as we possibly could. Of course this wasn’t a private preparation—we were very publicly working at several businesses around town—but we were private about our plans, at least at first. We were gathering skills. We were watching owners, managers and co-workers, and learning from them whenever possible. We were finding our strengths, improving on our existing skills, and deciding what our business partnership and division of labor were going to look like.
Eventually, we made it official. We told everyone we knew, and then we went to LA for no particular reason. While we were there, we made lots of plans, talked about our ideas and came back ready to build a menu, find a space, save a bunch of money and open our doors—somewhere, sometime. It was all still pretty vague, but we knew we were going forward.
Once word was out, people generally had one of three things to say to us.
- This is a stupid idea, and you’ll lose your shirts.
- This is so exciting! I can’t wait to come eat there.
- Oh my god, you’re SO BRAVE. I could never do something like that.
brave (brāv) adjective : ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage. “a brave soldier”.
Oy. Let’s be clear: we weren’t brave. We were, however, confident, hardworking, determined, and willing. These are attributes that anyone can cultivate, and they have nothing to do with bravery.
But the important point here isn’t whether facing pain or danger is a required element of bravery, but rather that you know that being confident, hardworking, determined, and willing to bust your ass—not being brave!—is what’s required to open your business, sell your art, book your band, do that launch, or whatever it is that you put your mind to doing. Simply put, forget about bravery and focus on working your ass off.
Anyway, opening day was epic. Busy. Disorganized. Endless. Exhilarating! Exhausting. And despite all our woodshedding, we were still about 60% unprepared. Like a lot of brand-new entrepreneurs, we couldn’t have known the extent of what we didn’t know. In fact, “stumbling into restaurant ownership” is a much better description of our debut than “having a successful opening weekend”. (Broken water heater? Yup. Slammed beyond description? Uh-huh. Did people walk out after waiting far too long for their meal? Ay-yup.) Turns out, when we were focusing on things like whether we should bake our own bread, or the tabletop decor, we maybe should have focused instead on things like organizing a soft opening event, or making sure the kitchen staff got some practice with the menu. Huh.
Here’s where being confident, hardworking, determined, and willing come in. After a (partially) disastrous opening day and night, we didn’t die of embarrassment, or drink ourselves into a stupor, or have a crisis of confidence. We celebrated what went right with our supportive, amazing friends (more on the exceptional power of community and support in a forthcoming post) and then we went home, got a couple of hours of sleep, and showed up the next day, ready to do better. We knew that we’d stumble some more, but we also knew that, just maybe, we’d stumble a little bit less every day. Eventually, we’d stop stumbling, and we’d be on our way. And we did, and we were.
So, don’t think you’re brave? So what? Bravery isn’t required. Instead of worrying about bravery, cultivate confidence, a capacity for hard work, a sense of focused determination, and a willingness to go out there and kick ass. Be willing to fuck up in public, and then keep going. Repeat.
You’ve got this.
* Do you want to know all about how I didn’t get hired to be a cook in a hip new Italian place with a wood-burning pizza oven because “women cry under stress, and this will be a very stressful kitchen”? Actually, that’s pretty much the whole story. Thankfully the dickhead who enlightened me about women’s innate sensitivity and propensity toward weeping went out of business within a year of opening.
Featured image is not my restaurant.