When You Take Over a Cafe or Restaurant – How to Do It Right

A while back I wrote about the decline of a favourite cafe now under new ownership. I was challenged to give suggestions for how this could be done well, so here’s my To-Do list for the new business owner:

New Faces: own it, and let people know who’s who. Now’s the time for name tags (yes!) and the owner or manager could even add a cheeky label to say ‘Proud New Owner’.  Could you get a ‘best wishes’ message from the old owner? Put it up on the wall for all to see.

This is also time to say goodbye to staff who weren’t adding to the business – the slow and the negative. In most situations, you have a unique opportunity to let go of previous employees without any obligation – the previous owner should be paying them out, or compensating you for any accrued benefits they have (eg long service leave). New owner, new start – talk to your lawyer.

Do More of What Was Done Well: the great cakes, the friendly greeting, excellent coffee (don’t change the blend!) and the special services. Keep buying flowers and providing newspapers.

Fix the Weak System: businesses are rarely sold because they’re making too much money… it’s usually the opposite, no matter what stories you were told by the broker! Audit and start upgrading the ordering systems, stocktaking, recipe costing, booking and customer service procedures. Are staff signing on and off correctly? Assume that there’s been internal theft, and look for system gaps that have allowed this eg stocktaking, POS not being used correctly, cash handling etc. Once you close off these opportunities, the thieves will soon leave.

Dig Into the Numbers: the figures you were given from the old business are probably a bit sketchy, but you will soon find valuable information from your POS and the bills you pay. A well-setup cloud accounting system is essential eg Xero or MYOB, so you can track results day by day – get your accountant onto this immediately. Detailed figures from the POS will soon show best and worst sellers, plus sales by hour and day. A good roster system like Tanda or Deputy let’s you compare wage costs against sales – even a spreadsheet will help to find areas of strength and weakness. Slice and dice all the numbers you can – opportunities will be right there in front of you.

Clean and Repair: businesses for sale often look tired, and cleaning is one of the first things to be neglected. Blitz the floors, and ceilings, plus behind counters and shelves – you’ll be surprised at what you find. Fix the broken appliances, toss out old platters and pots, ditch the broken furniture. Front of house, fix wobbly tables and repair all the dings and scratches on furniture. Paint the toilets and install new toilet seats and amenities.

Don’t Redecorate Just Yet: if you’re launching a whole new concept, go for it. But if you value the concept you bought, minimise the redecoration until you’ve settled in. Once you know more about the customers and service rhythm, you’ll be clearer about new decor.

Leave the Menu Alone: there will be weaknesses that need to be fixed, but in the first few months you are stabilising the ship, sorting out the staff and making friends with customers. You’re also finding out what customers really like, so use the specials board to try new ideas. Ask questions and listen.

Improve the Marketing: another area where the previous owners were probably economising or forgetful. Increase the friendliness and frequency of posts on Facebook and Instagram, including targeted ads. Check that your ‘Google My Business’ listing is up to date and has plenty of photos. The website may need a major improvement – this should be a high priority, with better photos, more relevant information and optimised for mobile phones. If an email newsletters was being send, use it to spread good news – another area where things had probably slipped.

Improve Staff Culture and Conditions: that includes fairer treatment, proper pay, better rostering and good communication channels. There will be times you are told ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ – just smile and explain why it needs to change. Don’t be surprised if within 3 months all the old staff have left – it usually happens with new management. Yes, even the ones who say you’re much nicer than the old boss! Staff manuals and policies, job descriptions and a noticeboard – they’re all part of the healthy new broom.

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