How To Go From The Restaurant Employee To Entrepreneur


Notorious for their low bar to entry, restaurant industry jobs are often considered transit stops to bigger and better things. For many these days, “bigger and better” means entrepreneurship. If you work in a restaurant in hopes of someday becoming a business owner yourself (whether of a restaurant or not), here are 8 ways you can take full advantage of your opportunities as a restaurant employee and cash in on your dreams sooner.

1 - Do more than what you’re paid for. As a restaurant general manager, I once confronted a server for giving “good enough” service to a guest. The server told me, “this isn’t my career, you know”. Good enough is not good enough. Even if your job is a temporary means to an end, doing more than you’re paid for will make you more valuable and create opportunities you wouldn't otherwise have. Those who do just enough not to get fired, get paid just enough not to quit, and that’s all they get.

Entrepreneurs who succeed have one thing in common: they constantly give more than what they are paid for. As a result, they get more than what they give. It may sound counterintuitive to selflessly give when you're working for someone else. But entrepreneurship favors those for whom giving more than they are paid for is in fact a selfish act.

2 - Show up to your job as a school. Working in a restaurant is an entrepreneurship university, if you treat it as such. By design, restaurants are a unique business because all its components are gathered under one roof: product creation and development; sales; marketing; service; management; distribution; operations; finances and much more.

If you study the business you’re in, you can shorten a steep entrepreneurial learning curve. This is especially true if restaurant ownership or a business in the food industry is your goal. Too often we take the environment in which we work in for granted and don’t look for learning opportunities.

Show up to work looking to learn from everyone and from every situation. Initiate projects, ask questions and offer help anywhere needed. Remember, the biggest return on your investment of time, energy and focus in your job is not the financial paycheck you earn every two weeks, it’s the life and business lessons you can walk away with daily. 

3 - Apprentice. Whether you want to open your own restaurant, be a chef, or start a business outside of the restaurant industry, find someone who’s where you want to be in business and become their apprentice. Notice, I said become an apprentice, not get a mentor. While getting a mentor to guide and advise you can be helpful, the best type of learning is experiential learning. Experiential learning means learning through reflection on doing. This can shave years off your learning and research.

4 - Build human capital. Take every opportunity to build relationships at work and outside of work. Financial capital is what many of us want, but human capital can often help us get there. Quality relationships you build today can be a path maker to your entrepreneurial goals.

You can’t build quality relationships without adding value to others, which in itself can bring your biggest ROI in business and in life. Building relationships also helps you sharpen your communication and conversation skills. There’s no easier way to meet new people than working in a restaurant.

Set out to connect with at least one new person every day. Think of how you can help them get closer to their goals, and then do so. Pretty soon you’ll have an army of people ready to stand behind you and your goals.

5 - Work on your mind. Being a successful entrepreneur demands a growth mindset and constant and never ending self improvement. The world’s highest achievers will tell you, the way they think has brought them more success and opportunities than what they know. Fortunately, an extraordinary mindset can be developed.

Reading develops your mind, imagination, creativity, verbal abilities, and communication, which are all necessary tools for an entrepreneur. Through reading you gain the experience and knowledge which takes authors years to acquire. Make reading a daily habit. Lacking time is a lame excuse entrepreneurs do not make. Fill your commute time, or any other time when your hands may be busy but your mind isn’t, with listening to personal development books and audios.

6 - Start selling. Selling used to be a dirty word. We’re finally starting to realize, selling is not some manipulative, selfish act. Selling is leading and serving. Selling is simply influence. Selling is how value exchanges hands. The skill of exchanging value is one of the most important skills for an entrepreneur.

You need to be able to sell your product, service or idea, if you want to be in any business. The best way to learn how to sell is to start selling. The fact is, you are a business even before you have an LLC, product or service. Take opportunities to lead and move others into action. You’ll find that people need and want to be led. Start selling now, your current and future business depends on it.

7 - You don’t need permission. Some of us think we need a degree or a certificate to give us permission to do what we want. Some of us think we need more information. Today both of these are frankly stalling techniques. Formal training or a degree is not a prerequisite for entrepreneurship.

Your credibility comes from having an idea which you act on. No amount of training and degrees can teach you and prepare you as well as doing can. Consuming more information is paralyzing more entrepreneurs than all the world’s infectious diseases combined. Stop consuming more information and getting ready to get ready. Your true credibility is in the action you take.

8 - Burn the boats. Some restaurant employees tend to stay in the “biz” longer than they planned. The social nature of the business can suck you in. The convenience of your flexible schedule can lead to getting comfy-cozy, aka stagnation. There comes a time when you need to leave all the familiar and comforting behind. When all the preparation, learning and research leads to commitment. The commitment means to cut off all other possibilities.

If you burn the boats, you will take the island. Harvard Business School uses this definition of entrepreneurship: the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled. It means you’re never going to be ready for entrepreneurship, it means you’re always ready.

This article was also featured in Entrepreneurial Chef Magazine.