Starting a Restaurant

Interview with Entrepreneur Monique Hayward

Starting a new restaurant concept that succeeds is a challenging task. Monique Hayward explains how to do it right. Her company Nouveau Connoisseurs Corporation has launched a very strong dining and entertainment concept called Dessert Noir Café & Bar.

Thinking about starting a restaurant or creating a new kind of dining and entertainment business?

If so, Monique Hayward's entrepreneurial story will inform and inspire you. We corresponded with her from her based in Beverton, Oregon to learn a little more about her company.

Monique, thanks for joining us for one of our entrepreneur interviews. Why don't you start by telling us a little about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

Sure. The name of the company is Nouveau Connoisseurs Corp., and we specialize in taking evening entertainment to a higher level of indulgence and sophistication.

With plans to operate multiple concepts in the dining and entertainment businesses, we create sophisticated, welcoming places for an evening out.

The company's first concept, Dessert Noir Café & Bar, has been open a little over three and a half years, and I've been working very hard, as most entrepreneurs do, to establish the brand, build my customer base, and achieve profitability.

Located at a newly-revitalized suburban shopping center next to a 16-screen multiplex, Dessert Noir Café & Bar leads the trend of single-concept restaurants and brings a unique dining experience to our suburban clientele, carving out a niche between fine-dining independents and casual-dining chains. We offer fine dining's fresh and creative dishes, great service, and cool ambiance with corporate casual's value and consistency.

We have excelled at generating positive press coverage, landing well over 30 local and national press stories in print, radio, TV, and online media. In addition to delivering great desserts, fantastic cocktails, and delectable savory dishes, we focus on supporting the local community and being "the place" in Beaverton for live music, local art, and special events. (And a few celebrity appearances from Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman, comedian Sinbad, screenwriter Mike Rich, Columbia Sportswear's chairman Gert Boyle, and others have helped generate buzz, too.)

With Dessert Noir Café & Bar's success, Nouveau Connoisseurs Corp. will be well-positioned to continue to invest in the company, maintaining the single location of Dessert Noir Café & Bar in Beaverton and pursuing locations in markets outside of the Portland area for expansion. Given the current downturn in the U.S. economy, the company's management is looking abroad, particularly to Dubai and other emerging markets in the Middle East. The company also has additional concepts on the drawing board that could potentially be successful in these markets, including an upscale restaurant/ultra-lounge aimed primarily at the female audience.

When did you start the business?

I founded Nouveau Connoisseurs Corp. in Apr. 2004 and launched Dessert Noir Café & Bar in Jan. 2005.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

This is my first business. Before starting my company, I worked (and still do) as a senior marketing manager for a Fortune 100 high-technology company.

Where did you get the startup money?

I financed the business with a combination of my own savings, personal credit lines, a business loan, and friends and family investments.

Who are your main competitors? How do you compete against them?

Dessert Noir Café & Bar's direct competition lies mainly with two types of establishments: 1) Upscale formal or casual restaurants with a strong bar, good food quality, and late hours; and 2) Traditional coffee and pastry shops with late hours.

Our advantage against other restaurants, particularly corporate chains, is that we are a small company that can move quickly. We can experiment easily, get immediate feedback from our customers on our ideas, and change course as needed or run with a hit if it's hot. Also, we have a seasonal menu with inventive food that keeps customers interested and excited, and we focus on creative, unique, and inspiring special events and marketing to keep concept fresh and innovative.

As for coffee and pastry shops, we view these venues as "dessert of last resort" for people who may not realize they have better options for their money and their calories. Besides, who wants this morning's croissant, coffee cake, or donut in the evening? Therefore, we offer great service in an atmosphere that's warm and inviting rather than one that encourages people to eat and run. Also, our full liquor license gives our customers the option of pairing a cocktail, wine, or beer with their food selections, a key benefit when you're on a romantic date or celebrating a special occasion with family and friends.

Sounds like a phenomenal niche. So, how has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?

It has been a painfully slow and steady climb with as many steps forward as backward.

Restaurant businesses generally don't break even for a few years, and I've been trying to beat the odds and close this gap sooner rather than later. Between Years 1 and 2, we saw revenues increase by 20 percent; however, the last two years have been tough as the economy continues to weaken.

Nonetheless, we have focused on being lean and efficient and have cut our losses dramatically despite declining revenue. Still, my middle-to-upper income suburban customers endure the onslaught of bad news week after week, month after month. The meltdown on Wall Street was definitely something I did not see coming when I first conceived of this business in late 2003/early 2004.

Our strategy to get the word out has been paying off and we have great customers, many of whom have been supporting us since the beginning. One thing that remains a challenge for me, even before the economy began to tank, is that we can't get hot and stay hot. I ask myself every day, "With so many press stories, great word of mouth, consistent marketing, and growing recognition, why is there still not a line out the door of Dessert Noir Cafe & Bar?"

Great places take a long time to get "discovered" and there is a lot of competition for people's mouths. I understood that and was prepared for a long haul. However, it never occurred to me that I would need to consider so many factors that are beyond my control -- energy prices, layoffs, war, weather, suburban lifestyle patterns, Hollywood's dearth of exciting movie releases -- that get in the way of my customers' decision to patronize my restaurant.

I thought that no matter what, I'd always be able to count on a steady, predictable flow of customers that would generate at least breakeven sales every day. It doesn't happen that way in the suburbs, where bedroom communities are "cocoons" for families who don't think they can come out before the weekend. Unlike chains with enough locations to take the good with the bad, my single location is at the mercy of everyone who chooses to come or not come there to eat. That makes managing the day-to-day commitments very challenging.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Money, money, money, money, money! Inevitably, as the breakeven target moves farther away, the business costs more to operate than I originally anticipated. Everyone who runs a small business warns against this, but no one is ever prepared. It is at these times when I have not had help from banks or elusive angel investors, and I have essentially had to dig deep into my own pockets and lean on my real "angels" who are watching over me -- i.e., friends and family -- to stay in business. Also, where the banks have walked away from entrepreneurs, other grey-market and alternative financiers have stepped in to fill the void, and I have been forced to explore creative (and often very expensive) financing options to meet my commitments and keep the business running.

With that said, I wish I had a better handle on the costs to ramp the business at the beginning because I paid a heavy price for the "learning curve." If I had even a fraction of the money I spent on costly start-up mistakes, I wouldn't be "hustling" nearly as much as I am to keep the business going, especially given the impact of the current economic climate on my operation.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

Externally, I have reached out to fellow entrepreneurs, particularly women, to collaborate on special events and activities that jointly promote our businesses. For example, my restaurant is located next to the major movie theater in our town. When Sex and the City was released at the end of May, I collaborated with a local spa on opening-night promotions, including $10 gift cards from the spa, free chair massages at the restaurant, prize giveaways, and $5 Cosmopolitan cocktails. We had our best sales day ever, and the spa got a lot of good, high-quality leads on new customers.

Internally, I have invested in the training and professional development of my young staff. Upon the departure in August 2007 of my last executive chef/general manager, who was doing a poor job of managing the business to my expectations, I decided that I would not replace him mainly because I could not tolerate another angry chef whose competence didn't rise to the level of his arrogance.

Instead, I gave members of my team the opportunity to step up, and much to my delight, they embraced the challenge enthusiastically and bought into my mandate to get back to basics and execute the original vision that I laid out for this business: we provide our customers with delicious desserts, great specialty drinks and cocktails, and tasty small plates and appetizers. They have jumped on board with basic management-skills training, setting monthly goals for their respective areas, and collaborating on new ideas for the menu and our service that we can test with customers. This has helped to keep the staff motivated through this difficult period of uncertainty about the future of the economy.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

I strongly encourage entrepreneurs who are considering the restaurant business to be clear about their sense of purpose. Everyone says restaurants are tough, and they can be for a variety of reasons, a lot of which may be factors that are outside of the owner's control. Our journey as entrepreneurs can be a long, difficult one, and there will be days when you ask, "Exactly why did I do this to myself?" The stress and anxiety will keep you awake at night because you carry a huge burden most people with whom you interact cannot appreciate or understand. After all, most people don't have the courage to take the risk that we're taking and are collecting paychecks at their jobs that they complain about constantly and don't really like doing.

Your purpose is the light that illuminates the path when you cannot see. When you focus on your purpose, your inspiration for being in business in the first place and stay true to your dream of success, the day-to-day trials and tribulations become easier to manage. I live by this philosophy: God does not give me any more than I can handle, and when I wake up in the morning, I express my gratitude to Him and those who've helped me along the way and ask for the strength and guidance to manage my business, make good decisions, and face the challenges without fear or lack of faith and confidence. I can only pay one bill at a time, solve one problem at a time, address one issue at time. Otherwise, I get overwhelmed. You'll find your own approach that will work for you to keep going.

I've learned three very important lessons about running a successful business:

  • 1) You can never have enough money.
  • 2) Your business is only as good as the people you hire.
  • 3) When there's a will, there's a way. If you believe what you're doing is the right course for you to take and you can visualize yourself at the end of the journey having achieved your goal, then you will do it.

That's great advice. Thanks so much for sharing your entrepreneurial experience with us, and good luck in growing your business.

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What's your perspective on this entrepreneurial story? Has reading it inspired you to become an entrepreneur? We welcome all comments, questions and suggestions.

  • posted on 10/20/2008
    What a terrific article! Monique is an inspiration for entrepreneurs at every stage of their business. I'd love to hear more from her!!

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