How to Open a Soul Food Restaurant

Perhaps you saw Florence’s Restaurant on television or dined at the famous Oklahoma City restaurant and the experience made you want to open your soul food restaurant. Filled with an at-home ambiance and home food that soars with scents of spices and herbs, soul food restaurants offer a taste of Southern home cooking served by a friendly wait staff and cooked by a chef who typically grew up eating, then preparing the food.

Perhaps you also grew up in a home where soul food hit the table every night. From pork chops to ox tails and collard greens to black-eyed peas, you dined in the food that made America great. Corn on the cob and fried catfish or grits with cheddar cheese or shrimp, any combo makes your mouth water.

These thoughts, plans, tastes, and smells led you to this article on how to open a soul food restaurant. Let’s get to it then and help you fulfill your dreams.

Develop Your Recipes

At the core of any kind of restaurant stands its recipes. Develop yours well in advance of opening or even applying for funding.

Cook each recipe multiple times, tasting it first yourself, until you develop it to what you consider perfection. Now, test it on other people. You will integrate their comments and feedback into your dish to make it taste better. If they say it needs spices or pepper or salt, etc., then you adjust the amount currently in the dish and test it again.

You can start with family, but they may lie. Friends might lie, too. People who know you and love you typically fib that it tastes perfect. Find those one or two brutally honest people you know who will tell you if it tastes off or awful. These genuine souls help you develop your recipes.

Next, you move on to taste tests of perfect strangers. If you don’t yet feel ready to host a kitchen test, then enter various recipes into contests. Most towns and cities host pie contests, chili cook-offs and cooking contests as a part of their city festivals, county fairs, and state fairs.

Once your recipes win, or at least place in the top three, you can consider yourself ready to move on to the next step – the test kitchen.

At this point, you host a meal for perfect strangers that includes a menu of your recipes. Typically, you provide two to three choices for hors d’oeuvres, two for entrees, four for side dishes, and two for desserts. You will probably need more than one test kitchen to fully test your complete menu.

When you completely develop your recipes, you’ve created the foundation for your restaurant. No matter who owns it, how lovely the décor, or how amazing the service is, if the food tastes terrible, a restaurant won’t survive.

Research and Write Your Business Plan

Before you can apply for a business loan to fund the restaurant, you need to research your competition, the risks involved in opening a café in your area, and much more. Your business plan should include a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis and your financial information, including budgets and income statements.

Develop Your Elevator Pitch

Develop your pitch so you can succinctly explain your restaurant concept in 15 to 30 seconds. Although this sounds small, the elevator pitch sells banks, credit unions, angel investors, and venture capitalists on your concept. This short, pithy statement gets you an appointment with them to explain things in a lengthier five to 15-minute presentation. Spend time on this step developing your script and memorizing it so you deliver it believably and with conviction and confidence.

Obtain Funding

Your restaurant funding typically includes funds for the purchase of land and building construction, or for the purchase of a building and renovation of it.

Business funding comes from many different sources. Consider finding funding from any of the following sources or a combination of them:

  • Banks
  • Credit unions
  • Angel investors
  • Venture capitalists
  • Crowd funding
  • Family and Friends.

Consult the U.S. Small Business Administration for low-interest loan opportunities. Once you obtain your loan or a pre-approval letter, you can move on to finding your restaurant spot.

Scout Your Location

Your town may already house tons of restaurants but if you develop something unique, with delicious food, you can compete with the other cafes. One of the first lessons in how to open a soul food restaurant is that location matters.

You’ll need a well-traveled area that offers a ready clientele. Few people want to drive out of their way for a place to dine, so scout for a building that already housed a successful eatery or that you could easily convert to the right type of space.

In larger towns and cities, this probably won’t present much of a challenge, but in small towns, you may need to construct a building from scratch. Remember that a well-traveled location that receives year-round traffic offers the best choice.

Once you purchase your location, you move on to making it ready for life as a restaurant. This may mean gutting the interior to renovate the space or it may mean hanging new wallpaper and buying furniture. It depends on the condition and suitability of the building. Let’s consider the many specific building-related items you must complete passing state inspection to open and maintain an eatery of any type.

Repair Your Roof

The first construction step in how to open a soul food restaurant requires a professional roofer. During the building purchase process, the property underwent an appraisal to determine its sale value and an inspection to unearth any major issues with it. During this process, if the inspector found any problems with the roof; you first repair the roof since it protects the rest of the building.

Roof repairs range from simple patches to roof to full replacement. That’s why homes and buildings for sale typically mention if the roof recently underwent replacement. A new roof means the last owner took care of this step for you.

Have the roofing company conduct a full roof inspection. This uncovers any issues and lets you address them before rain leaks onto someone’s chicken fried steak.

Take Care of Your Plumbing

If renovations weren’t what you expected from a guide on how to open a soul food restaurant, you haven’t watched enough shows from Gordon Ramsey.

Regardless of the type of restaurant, the interior and the kitchen design matter. At a minimum, your eatery needs:

  • Bathrooms for guests and employees
  • Kitchen sinks for the chefs
  • Three sinks for washing and sanitizing dishes and cookware.

Restaurants with a bar will need a sink behind the bar and water lines for various drink pouring/serving systems.

If the building has existing bathrooms, call a plumber to have the sewer lines checked and flushed. For cafes in rural locations that use septic tanks, contract with a local septic cleaning company to have it cleaned and sucked empty.

You will need to repeat the septic cleaning process every few months with a restaurant. (Homes only need this treatment about once per year.)

Renovate Your Bathrooms

Price affordable plumbing services before undertaking the next step in how to open a soul food restaurant. Unless you purchased a location that previously held an eatery, you will need to renovate your location to provide suitable restrooms.

Each state sets codes for its restaurants and other types of eateries. Unless you purchase a food truck, you will need to provide bathrooms. How many toilets you must provide for patrons to use depends on how many people your restaurant seats, typically.

Some cities or municipalities add to these codes, so check your local health services office. Your restaurant must meet state and local health codes and pass an inspection before you can open. Once you open your eatery, the health inspections continue, annually. Any item that you do not keep up to code, they cite you for and that can cost you money. Worse, they can close your café until you fix the problem.

Your state and city health officials will tell you the minimum standards for your bathrooms. Try to update them beyond that point, so code updates by lawmakers don’t catch you off guard.

Maintain Your HVAC

Yes, there’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) work to be done as a step in how to open a soul food restaurant.

You’ll need to keep guests cool but not freezing or they will detest the dining experience. Kitchen staff need a comfortable temperature in which to work so they don’t pass out from the heat.

The ovens in a commercial kitchen keep it sweltering so provide separate HVAC systems for the kitchen and the dining room. You can do this by adding mini-splits to the building.

Before revamping the heat and air system, have your local HVAC come by to conduct an HVAC closed loop cleaning. This process cleans out the existing system and vents. A clean system works better.

Clean Your Kitchen

At this point, in how to open a soul food restaurant, you’ve finally gotten to set foot in the kitchen again. You’re there to clean it though.

Humble yourself enough to do it yourself. You should do every job in your restaurant at least once so you truly understand what your staff goes through. Many of the most successful chefs of the 21st century worked their way up in the restaurant business. Chef Bobby Flay began as a busboy in an eatery owned by a friend of his parents, for example. Even the most famous of today’s chefs – the folks with their TV shows, cookbooks, and cookware – started in the most humble of positions. Flay was so impressed by the owner of the eatery as a busboy who wanted to learn the business from top to bottom that the café owner offered to pay for him to attend culinary school. He earned his scholarship through hard work bussing dirty tables; you get to do it by applying industrial-strength drainage cleaners to your kitchen sinks.

Make another visit to your state and local website for health codes and inspections. These codes also provide the directions for which cleaning methods and the types of products, such as bleach, a restaurant must use.

You build cleaning processes for your eatery built around these health codes. You can make a stronger process that uses more stringent procedures, but you cannot make one more lax than the state code. Although you might want to use natural cleaners, every state requires the use of bleach in the dishwashing process because only it successfully kills all of the necessary germs and bacteria

Protect your hands with elbow-length rubber gloves. Only use fresh, clean sponges and microfiber cleaning cloths. Protect your face with a dust mask.

Scrub down every piece of equipment, the floors, the walls, and the ceilings. Every inch of the kitchen must undergo sanitizing. You’ll need to develop an everyday cleaning process that cleans all of these surfaces to ensure they remain ready for the next day’s use.

Get the Equipment You Need

When most restaurants close, they sell off the equipment to recoup some of their losses. Successful restaurants don’t typically close. They sell their eatery and the trademarked name to a new owner who operates it using the well-established name but with the caveat, “under new management.”

That means your next step in how to open a soul food restaurant involves determining exactly which equipment you need and purchasing it for a reasonable and fair price. Reference your health codes again because they tell you which items you can legally purchase used and which must be new.

In most locations, you can purchase used air compressors, because they never touch any food. You typically can purchase some used equipment, but refrigerators and ovens sometimes must be new unless you bought an existing restaurant location.

Paint Your Dining Room

Think about the décor you want for your soul food café. Your next step in how to open a soul food restaurant involves designing and installing your dream dining area.

Avoid the temptation to do the interior painting yourself because you will have so much else to do. Choose the flooring and the paint colors, then hire a local contractor to do the work.

You’ll stay busy finding the perfect tables and chairs or booths for your café. If you also have a bar, you’ll need bar stools.

Create a Waste Removal System

You’ll create many important business processes while creating your restaurant, including those for waste removal and disposal. You don’t go it alone in this section on how to open a soul food restaurant because the state and city health codes provide a strict set of rules to go by. Inspectors check these and you will get shut down if you don’t follow them.

Create procedures for scraping food off of plates returning to the kitchen, for chef mistakes, for expired items, etc. These trash cans inside the kitchen need to be emptied as they near fullness, not when they reach it. This way, you avoid spillage.

If your building does not already include dumpsters, contact a local dumpster rental company to lease one or more. This company typically also provides dumpster emptying if the city in which you reside doesn’t provide trash service to your location.

Add Outdoor Seating

Now that you have the interior complete, tackle the exterior for your next step in how to open a soul food restaurant. Hire a local grading contractor to create a level ground area around your restaurant. Build a patio or deck. This area can be wood or cement but needs to accommodate at least four or five tables.

An eatery with outdoor seating does itself a favor because those cafes remained viable during the pandemic. They offer a place to enjoy gorgeous weather, too.

Add a Fence

That newly graded area provides you with the ideal space for entertaining outdoor diners. Install a fence using a professional fence building service. Make it a low fence that offers a view of the eatery but sets it apart from other businesses on the same street.

You have nearly completed the guide on how to open a soul food restaurant. Purchase your cookware and practice making each dish for yourself in the café’s kitchen. After you have them right for yourself, hold another taste kitchen/kitchen test. Once your food and service pass muster, hire your staff, and open your soul food restaurant.

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