Welcome to “Small Business, Big Mistake,” where small-business owners face up to their biggest mistakes and share advice to help your company avoid the same fate. Check back with On Small Business every other Monday for the latest entry.
Twenty-four years ago, I was driving home from a catering gig when I noticed a “for lease” sign on a building that used to be a gas station, just two blocks from our house. I thought, “Jackpot! The perfect location to run my catering company, and maybe open a restaurant to boot.” We contacted an architect and went to see the place the very next week.
The architect gave us a ballpark figure on how much we would need to get the place up and running; it was within our means, so we took over the lease on the building. I applied for a liquor license (I was told that liquor licenses took the longest amount of time), filed corporation papers with the state and began the process of acquiring permits.
In less than a month, we received our liquor license, our corporation papers and had architectural drawings to submit to the city. Things were looking pretty sweet.
This is when “biggest mistake” No. 1 comes in.
I walked through the drawings with city officials myself to save money. If you hire an architect to do the drawings, spend a little more to have the architect submit the plans. They know what they are doing when it comes to City Hall. Because I didn’t know what I was doing, getting the permits took more than five months.
This is where “biggest mistake” No. 2 comes in.
We were paying a rather hefty rent on an empty building that we could not start to remodel without permits. Our restaurant nest egg was dwindling rapidly, and I began to panic. We were so close to opening, yet our money was running out.
I finally wised up and went to see the Small Business Administration to get a loan. I took my business plan, our proposed menu, corporation papers and bank statements and asked for an SBA loan. An official at the SBA listened to my story, looked over our business plan and menu, and then very nicely told us we had done everything backwards. She said we should have approached them when we had money in the bank, and the agency could have matched it. Now that we had run through our capital, there was nothing to match.
As a last-ditch effort for capital I went to our local bank and asked for a $100,000 loan. I thought we were a shoe-in for the loan, as we had been banking there for 15 years, had borrowed money before and always paid on time.
The loan officer pretended to choke when I gave him the amount we wanted to borrow. He reminded us that restaurants are considered a risky investment, and that most don’t make it. He offered us a loan of $35,000.
I walked away empty handed and tried other banks without success. I went back to our bank, humbled, and accepted the $35,000 loan. I then borrowed another $5,000 from a good friend (who now owns her own restaurant called River Bend) and $10,000 from my mom and dad. (We paid every penny back in the first year of business at interest better than any bank would have given). We did the financial limbo dance under a very low bar, but we opened our doors on Aug. 15, 1990.
When looking for capital, my best advice for others is to check first with your local SBA office and see what statistics they have on how long it will take to get your permits. If you have money in the bank, leave it there and apply for a matching loan. Have faith in yourself, work hard, watch your money, your overhead and follow your dream.
Wendy and Serge Albert are the chefs/owners of Tempo Restaurant in Alexandria, Va., a restaurant that specializes in a blend of Northern Italian and French cuisines.