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The art of opening restaurants

The art of opening restaurants

As restaurant chains expand their brands into new markets via franchised or company stores, they chug through three broad phases: site selection, construction and opening. While much is known and lots written about where to put and how to build restaurants in new markets, surprisingly little has been said about the art of opening them.

So I talked to five people who know a lot about the process — their cumulative store openings are in excess of 170 units: Treavor Smith, director of New Restaurant Openings, Buffalo Wild Wings; Gregg Godfrey, director and joint venture partner, Panera Bread; Charlie Roff, also a joint venture partner with Panera Bread; Shane Kennedy, lead corporate trainer, Boston Pizza International; and 
Rachel Hartsworm, retail training manager, Paradise Bakery.

The hard-working and passionate people that foodservice chains groom to facilitate new store openings are critical linchpins between the brand, the franchise partner, the vendor, the community and the new marketplace. New store openers must have the patience of Job and the tenacity of a bulldog. They are equal parts 
parent, teacher, coach, psychologist, motivator, team-builder, trainer, hiring guru, vendor 
liaison, systems analyst, brand ambassador, miracle worker, road warrior and definitely one of the industry’s unsung heroes. They displace themselves from home, family and friends for weeks at a time, log tens of thousands of highway and air miles, and stay in more hotel rooms than the Gideon Bible. Their brains and Blackberries are weapons of choice as they direct and align the Freudian smorgasbord of personalities they’re given and quickly learn the markets they have to adapt the brand to. It’s a fantastical set of skills, when you think about it. 

Consider all the jobs necessary to open a restaurant once the walls are up, the driveway is poured and striped, and the equipment and furniture are in place: cleaning, hiring managers and crew, ordering and 
coordinating delivery of food, beverage, marketing materials, office supplies, smallwares, 
software and trash service. In addition, they must then find, train, test and develop the team while placating impatient 
inspectors and connecting with vendors. 

The worst parts of their jobs? The long hours, the repetitive monotony of food ordering, the challenge of staying motivated after the 200th employee interview, and the occasional franchisee acting like an adversary rather than an ally. But worst of all? Having everything ready to go and then getting hit with the unexpected opening delay that forces them to improvise and keep the team engaged and systems aligned while re-jiggering their calendar for the rest of the quarter. Smith agreed: “Coordinating all aspects of the opening process with all of the departments to make sure we hit the target opening date is one of the biggest challenges we face.”

The best parts? Each of the experts I interviewed cited 
hiring, training and inspiring the team as the greatest reward of their job. Godfrey said, 
“Seeing the team grow and 
become a part of our culture, and then watching them shine as they put to work all that they’ve learned is the best part of my job.” Hartsworm identified the most rewarding aspect of her job as “seeing employees develop bonds with both the brand and then each other. We spend a lot of time at work, and it’s so exciting to see new families connect and grow out of new cafes.”

While every company does it differently, opening trainers move in and begin to apply their magic anywhere from two weeks to nine days prior to opening. That makes the openers a 
keystone of any new unit’s team. In the process of training, coaching and coordinating the opening, they form strong bonds with the team, too. Even after they fly off to bring success to a new market, those familial connections can last a lifetime. 

After nearly two weeks of 
total immersion in the new unit, transforming a brand into a business, the openers and operators stage a dress rehearsal with invited guests, a soft opening and then a grand opening. Each of these events tests efficiencies, volume, systems, supervision, service and sales. A thorough de-brief is done after each event, and finally the unit is deemed brand-ready and fit to fly. I asked our experts about the “danger signs” they look for in a new unit that might affect its long-term success. 

“Strong and focused leadership right from the start is key,” said Kennedy. “A new team takes [its] cues from management. Any sign of indecision or uncertainty can create stress, strain the team and ultimately impact the guest experience.”

Roff cited “trying to come in line with food and 
labor standards too quickly, which means you start sacrificing customer service with those brand new guests,” as a chief concern.

Godfrey noted several hazards, including “daily checklists and forms not being filled out consistently, associates and managers not working well together, everyone [being] 
focused on their own or the wrong things, training not 
being done or completed in a timely manner, the team not having a sense of what’s important, and naturally, customer complaints versus ‘We’re so happy you’re here!’”

Finally, I asked each of these committed professionals what their jobs have taught them. 

Smith said, “Open strong to stay strong.” 

Godfrey added, “Make each shift better than the last, don’t repeat mistakes, and do what it takes to make sure your associates and customers are happy!” 

“There is no such thing as a perfectly smooth opening,” Hartsworm responded. “Your success is based on how well you handle the wrenches thrown your way. Make the culture experience a fun one, and make it 
better every day.” 

Roff said, “Your people are an asset greater than the building. Training them well and coaching them properly will always pay off in 

Kennedy had the final word: “Teamwork is beyond essential, passion is beyond crucial, and laughing is invaluable.” 

Jim Sullivan is a popular speaker at management conferences worldwide. You can get his free leadership e-newsletter and product catalog at

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