I sold the building last week, closing the door to a tumultuous chapter in my life. I began as a restaurateur in 2013 and decided to call it quits nine months later. The sale of the building was the final nail in the coffin. I had always wanted to own a fancy restaurant. To me, it meant that I had arrived.
I had little knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the restaurant business, and engaged the services of a food and restaurant consultant, who came with impressive credentials. He had set up several other restaurants in the country, even one in Australia, and as a management person, I recognized the wisdom of leaving the specialized operations to the expert.
I was Mr. Moneybags–financing and policymaking–but otherwise, left the day-to-day management to Mr. Consultant. There was big-time talk on marketing strategy, positioning and quality, quality, quality. Result: an upscale family dining experience, focusing both on quality food and quality décor.
Several overseas fact-finding and recruiting trips later, we opened our well-carved teak doors. The guests lapped it up. Congratulations came fast and furious. My eyes glinted with dollar signs! Two weeks later, palpitations. Empty tables, idling waiters, rotting food. Customers trickled in slowly. The restaurant appealed to foreign tourists but that alone was not enough. We needed local support to cover costs. There were many days when we only had five diners in the 80-capacity restaurant. We were deep in the red. And costs were spiraling to dizzy heights.
I learnt my first lesson: dream not of profit before dreaming of losses.
The plot thickens. The accountant begins going through the books. Mr. Consultant bolts when the number cruncher inches closer. I discover Mr. Con is a conman through and through. I checked his references to learn that he had indeed helped to set up restaurants, but he had conned each and every one of them. His modus operandi was to impress suckers like myself who had more money than sense. He used restaurant jargon to convince prospective restaurateurs, drew up ambitious plans for posh eateries that involved megabucks of capital outlay. He termed it niche dining, cashing in on cashed-up Malaysia. He paid himself and his crew handsome salaries, inflated all expenses and diddled the till. No accountability, no transparency, no money.
Lesson No 2: Behind every failure is a successful con artist. (Beware of religious people.)
When Mr. Con disappeared, I was in dire straits. He had hired most of the staff and I had difficulty handling them. They were openly mutinous. Now, I was saddled with staff problems. Enter, a savior. He was personable and popular, keeping staff happy and in line. A deeply religious man who held discussions on divinity with my family during his spare time. He worked hard, spending hours and much money on sales calls. I was relieved. I felt my restaurant was in safe hands, allowing me to concentrate on my main business. But not for long. My savior also loved money. He borrowed prolifically using my good name and that of my restaurant.
Several thousands of ringgit later, my savior absconded, leaving behind a trail of creditors and law suits. My name and reputation was in jeopardy. I entered damage control mode, settling all outstanding bills and leasing arrangements using funds from my other business. And all those marketing calls had actually been spent with loan sharks.
Lesson No 3: Trust no man (or woman) who tries to win and influence everyone ESPECIALLY the family.
In a last ditch effort to save my dream, I hired a team from a hotel to run the place. Desperate times needed desperate measures. My restaurant was converted to a pub. Crowds emerged from the woodwork to fill the pub every night. Labour shortage reared its ugly head, and we ended up with staff that looked more like thugs than well-mannered waiters. Both staff and clientele were a rowdy lot. My upscale establishment had been reduced to a down-market pub!
I had long been guided by Goethe’s “Happy as those who dream dreams, and willing to make them come true!” I had tried. But this was a nightmare.
I decided to cut my losses and closed the restaurant nine months later. Precisely, nine months! Something like a stillborn baby.
What are some lessons we can learn from his experience?
PATRICK LAI and his family have worked in SE Asia for over 37 years. His experience in doing business with Jesus has brought him to understand the meaning of work and worship in the marketplace. He started 14 businesses in four countries, six of which are still operating. Patrick and his wife, May, mentor and coach businesspeople working where there are few or no Christians. Check out Patrick’s latest book, Workship, now available in paperback and e-book.