Ottawa consultant doing her best to help owner-chefs in restaurant business

As a former restaurant owner who traded in the hustle-bustle of kitchen life for a new gig as a consultant, Caroline Ishii has a few words of advice for those who aspire to run their own dining establishments.

“Pray a lot,” she says, chuckling.

Ms. Ishii, who is also working on a book about food in addition to helping other restaurateurs, is at least partly joking. But the former co-owner of one of Ottawa’s latest restaurant casualties, ZenKitchen, knows all too well the hazards of navigating the ups and downs of an industry that has burned more than a few chefs, literally and figuratively.

“A restaurant is a business, and it’s one of the toughest businesses there is going,” says the former communications consultant, who earned an executive MBA at the University of Ottawa. “I challenge anybody to run a restaurant and also be the chef as well.”

Being an independent restaurant owner has never been the cushiest career path – studies show that about 60 per cent of all restaurants in Canada fail within three years. But the recent wave of closures in the capital underscores just how precarious the business really can be in a local economy still struggling to recover from the market downturn and government cutbacks.

Besides ZenKitchen, a well-known vegan restaurant that built up a solid reputation over the past six years, other high-profile establishments that have shut their doors include Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar, Milagro Grill and Prime 360 steakhouse.

All have closed within the last month, blaming a variety of reasons from rising rent and changing customer tastes to a drop in well-heeled business and government customers.

After four years as co-owner of ZenKitchen, Ms. Ishii grew tired of the constant demands placed on every chef-owner and decided to put her knowledge to work as a consultant, helping others deal with the same challenges she once faced on a daily basis.

“I thought I would be of great use to people because I can see a business from many aspects,” she says.

She now works with several restaurants in Ottawa and Toronto, helping them find ways to stand out from the crowd and bring in new customers. Many restaurants, she says, are turning to healthier menu options such as gluten-free meals cooked with sustainable ingredients because that’s what clients are demanding.

“There are so many challenges in running a restaurant and so many costs coming in, so obviously you need to know how to bring in sales,” she says.

But restaurants also have to walk a fine line of catering to a broad range of customers without alienating others, she explains. For example, if a small dining establishment has a huge menu, that could turn off potential guests who wonder how so much food could be produced in just a small kitchen.  

“Consumers are very savvy these days, probably because they’ve watched a lot of food TV,” she says with a laugh. “They’re more discerning of what they want. Customer loyalty is really essential, I think. Repeat customers are what you want. There are many things I think a customer looks at when they’re coming in, whether it’s the menu, the ambience, it could be the music, it’s many things.”

Building customer loyalty with consistent food and service over time is a key to success, she says, but that can be easier said than done. Rising rents, wages and hydro costs mean one unforeseen event – a fridge breaking down, for example – could be enough to push even a well-established restaurant over the edge.

“It’s a small-margin business to begin with,” Ms. Ishii says. “That’s why I consider it a really hard business because there are so many variables coming at you that are beyond your control. It’s great to have good food and wine and all that, but you really have to have your eye on the ball at all times.”

After 17 years as a fixture on Richmond Road, Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar turned out the lights for good earlier this month. Co-owner and chef Norm Aitken says his landlord, Otto’s Subaru next door, wanted to expand its own food service operations and could no longer lease to Juniper at the below-market rate it had been charging.

“It just doesn’t seem to be viable anymore,” says Mr. Aitken, who calls Otto’s “huge supporters” of the restaurant and is helping the dealership with its new project. “You have one or two slow months in there, and it sets you back by three months. That’s the restaurant business. Is it a smart business model? It’s a tough business model.”

Mr. Aitken, 36, says he’ll take a while to decide his next move. As passionate as he is about food, he doubts he will ever be part of another Juniper-like venture.

“Do I want to be a sole, independent owner again?” says the father of two young daughters, who estimates he would have to do $200,000 in sales every month to make a living as a restaurateur in Westboro.

“I don’t think so. I think I’m done with that stress. I would much rather have a small portion of something that is doing something great as opposed to owning the whole thing and it just floats by.”

As for Ms. Ishii, she says she’s happy with her new career. But the whiff of the kitchen is constantly lingering in the background, she concedes.

“I never say never,” she says when asked if she’ll ever own another restaurant. “I still love restaurants, I love eating out. I love that romance of people coming in and eating your food. It’s just so satisfying.”