Steps to Opening a Restaurant: Your Complete To-Do List

Having a great idea or concept for a menu or a restaurant is only the very first piece of the restaurant success puzzle.

Having a great idea or concept for a menu or a restaurant is only the very first piece of the restaurant success puzzle. It is merely the beginning of the journey.

Planning is essential for any serious undertaking, and the best plans are broken down into steps to opening a restaurant.

Consider this to-do list as you follow your dream of restaurant ownership.

Choosing the Restaurant Concept

Let’s start with the most basic step.

Look at trends. What kinds of cuisine are coming on strong and appear poised to stay? What types of restaurants are in growth segments?

Take a look at resources available from the National Restaurant Association (NRA) as well as industry publications for insight into what is trending. For instance, the NRA has its “What’s Hot Culinary Forecast 2020,” which is reassuring in that some of the stronger trends of the last several years are still popular, including specialty burger blends, healthy bowls, and scratch-made menu items, to name a few.

Besides the menu concept itself, you will need to decide which service level to use: fine dining restaurant-style, fast food, or fast-casual.

Decide Whether to go Independent or Franchise

This very early fork in the road will have the biggest effect on your future. Going with a franchise puts the “to-do” list in much clearer form, as the franchisor will have official guidance on every aspect of launching the business.

Each form of ownership has advantages and disadvantages.

An independent restaurant owner gets to make every decision himself or herself, but without a background of experience and having been there before. More mistakes and more trial-and-error are the norms for independent owners.

Solo owners also do not have the full insight into the market and the competition that a franchise company has developed.

A franchise restaurant ties the owner into an established system for success, in everything from branding to point-of-sale systems to purchasing partnerships to menu engineering, and beyond.

If you are researching franchise brands, the Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD) of each enables you to evaluate any franchise, including the costs of investment. Initial investment amounts for the top five restaurant franchises range from $229,000 to $4.7 million, according to Entrepreneur.

As you compare franchises, follow the growth paths of those that continue to expand, as they will be your best bets.

Assess the Competition

Figure out what your competitors do and do not offer. Your key to success will be in offering a point of difference.

This could be in your specialty menu items, your price point, your level of service or quality, or perhaps you offer some unique delivery method.

If you are part of a franchise system, the franchisor will have ways to garner critical intelligence in this regard, to size up the competition.

Your insight into the market will be part of your business plan.

The Business Plan

The foundation of your new restaurant will be your business plan. In it, you’ll set forth your executive summary, company description, market analysis, organization and management information, the product or service line, a marketing and sales plan, a funding request (if applicable), financial projections (including labor costs), and an appendix of supporting documents.

Putting the business plan together will be markedly easier if you are going with a franchise company rather than as an independent. The franchisor should be ready to supply all the information needed to flesh out your plan, customized for your local market and operation.

Get Funding

Business plan in hand, you’re ready to persuade potential investors and lenders. Now use that solid business plan to gain the support for your endeavor with the funding you need.

Funds may come from a number of sources, but the business plan will help investors feel great about it. Entrepreneur offers a guide to the best financing options for franchising a business, such as U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, commercial bank loans, and more.

Site Selection

If you are an independent owner, without guidance by a franchisor, you’ll need to crunch several factors in deciding your ideal location.

These factors include the people who will make up your core customer base (where they live and work), the local labor market (which areas will provide the workers you need), physical visibility and access, and laws and regulations.

Check out these five tips for choosing the best location.

And when looking for the right space, remember this rule of thumb: the back of the house in a table-service, non-fine-dining concept should not consume more than a third of the total restaurant space.

Lease Negotiation

If you are renting business property, you’ll need to consider factors such as the asking rent, tenant improvements, single-, double- or triple-net leases, and more.

Franchise companies often have relationships with brokers who are familiar with the brand’s business model and can assist franchisees.

Regardless of how sharp and savvy an entrepreneur you are, it is very wise to work with an attorney to review proposed leases. Doing so can identify potentially harmful clauses and red flags, and your counsel also can help you understand complex provisions.

Menu Engineering

Deciding which dishes and items to offer is only one part of menu planning, a discipline that today utilizes injected data and analytics.

Pro Tip: In the interest of labor and food cost efficiency, stick to relatively easy-to-prepare dishes that cross-utilize ingredients.

Most likely, your culinary theme will already be somewhat defined and focused, which is good not only for branding and positioning but also for efficiency. You should be able to use a small lineup of versatile equipment to produce most of your menu.

As in other areas of planning, if you are opening a location of a franchise branded restaurant, all this hard work will have been done for you already.

Licensing: Get Your Ducks in a Row

It’s an awful feeling to be nearing your grand opening and realize you have failed to obtain a key license you will need in order to open your doors.

In addition to licenses that all businesses need, such as a city or county business license, your restaurant may require other licenses. It varies by locality, but a liquor license, if needed, can take a long time to obtain. So, if you intend to serve alcohol, begin the application process about six months out from opening.

Consult an attorney to make sure you’ll be able to do everything you want to do within the zoning ordinances and applicable codes. For instance, you may need a special oven or other equipment to execute certain items; will it conform to the fire code?

Signage ordinances can be a hornet’s nest of their own, depending on the location, so be sure to find out what you can and can’t do before you pay a lot for signs.

Finally, you’ll have to pass muster with the health inspector.


It can be challenging to know your precise staffing needs before actually experiencing a real workday or week, but you’ll need to make your best estimates.

A franchisee of a franchise system will have clear guidance here, based on similar restaurants and finely tuned practices the franchisor can share.

If you are an independent with no guidepost, try to imagine what a typical day in the operation will look like and how many staffers are needed, in what roles. Consider asking a friend who owns a similar restaurant in another city to allow you to shadow their team for a couple of days.

Strongly consider hiring team members based on personality and attitude, rather than experience. Someone with a great ethic can learn the skills needed in your restaurant, but the reverse may not be so — except when hiring a manager, who should have some restaurant experience.

Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment

A few months before opening, you will need to purchase or lease key equipment.

If your culinary theme is focused, such as if you are in the burger franchising segment, you should be able to execute your entire menu with a relatively small arsenal of versatile equipment.

Whether you use a char-broiler or griddle, it’s likely you’ll be able to cook most of your menu with it. Other equipment KaTom Restaurant Supply advises you may need for a burger business include commercial refrigeration and freezers, a commercial dishwasher, a vegetable slicer, a French fry cutter, a commercial fryer, a hamburger press, and more.

You will need furnishings for guest dining, soda machines and front-of-house equipment for presentation of napkins, condiments, etc.

You also will need to acquire paper products, cutlery, smallwares such as cooking vessels, utensils, glassware, etc. — and your POS system. Joining a franchise means you have all those things mapped out. The franchise system will have done the research and have approved vendors ready to go.

Honing Your Systems

Several weeks before opening, align closely with your food supplier(s), as well as suppliers of items such as paper products, cups, etc., on a delivery schedule and standards.

Finalize your recipes and portions so you accurately can set your needs in food production. This is important for efficient ordering. You can tweak as you get going after opening.

One thing that may be easy to overlook but should be a priority is food safety and sanitation. Make sure to train and certify staff, with strong food safety practices.

Document all your practices and systems.

Social Media Buzz

Now begins the fun of starting to build buzz for your restaurant opening. Restaurants are particularly well-suited to photo-rich platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Set the date for your grand opening (more on that below) and start the buzz on social media. Post enticing photos of special menu items, shots of your interior design and signage, and any other images you feel may stir interest.

Focus on presenting your points of difference, such as a signature dish or drink. Follow other non-competitive businesses and accounts of influencers in the local area. Before you know it, incrementally, word will spread.

OpenTable suggests also hosting a media-focused sneak preview.

Start With a Soft Opening

A soft opening is an important “dry run,” so to speak — sort of like a scrimmage game in sports — before your grand opening.

You may decide to open a couple of weeks early, before your grand opening, quietly, without advertising. Another type of soft opening involves inviting a select group customers, (a “Friends and Family” event, by invitation). Your staff will get its first real experience operating your restaurant, and it is an invaluable opportunity for you and the team to work out all the kinks.

You will be amazed at things you discover need changing, right down to staff and customer flow, and placement of POS stations.

Be sure to invite only guests you can rely on to give honest feedback.

The Grand Opening

For your big event, plan in advance and invite the local media and the local chamber of commerce. Be sure to have photo opportunities with your leadership, signature items, and anything else noteworthy.

Post, post, and post again to your social media before, during, and after the event.

The Sky is the Limit

All of these steps to opening a restaurant can be more efficient and effective when the restaurant is a franchise of an established brand rather than an independent. A franchisor will have been through this process many times and streamlined it into a relative turn-key package.

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