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Secrets behind the success of a serial restaurateur

Root Down's Justin Cucci breaks down the highs and lows of his business


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The next time you think, “We are a “chef-driven restaurant” or an “ingredient-driven restaurant,” you might want to start with being a “guest-driven restaurant.” To quote Mahatma Ghandi: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” Or, how about: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” 

Me, I fell in love with this lifestyle and followed my heart.

I learned to walk in my grandparents’ well-known New York restaurant, Ye Waverly Inn. I worked there from 8 years old to age 27, when it was sold, and I never looked back. During those formative years, in hindsight, I feel lucky, because there was no Food Network or restaurant reality shows (“Kitchen Nightmares,” anybody?) to taint the purity of loveable dysfunction, hardship and grit, which I grew to love in this business. I grew up with no false hope that a certain charismatically dimpled, ginger chef, as well as Mexican food culture thief, and exploiter of Americans’ weakness for all things sweet – could run a restaurant on those qualities alone.

And reality TV? Now, that’ll rot your teeth – and brain – faster than all the sweet treats I could possibly serve. Those staged spectacles are crafted to evoke common-denominator reactions from the most mediocre part of your brain. (The real reality is you WILL examine your existence weekly, because you’ll have no more to give, you’ll feel like if you go to sleep you’ll never wake up, if you can sleep at all, and you’ll revel in the exhilaration of that busy service, of the loud din of a busy restaurant.)

Nevertheless, there remain countless wannabe chefs and hopeful restaurant-owners who dream a little dream. For those of you with a kernel of interest, hope or foolishness to commit your life to this art, the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, consider the following:

You might be a restaurant-neck if … You hate what you do, but you do it because you love it.

 What good is passion when the name of the game is consistency? Is anybody really passionate about consistency? What good is passion, when it’s 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration? No industry embodies the mantra, “Success is stumbling from one failure to the next without the loss of enthusiasm,” better than the restaurant business.

We all know the numbers: 90 percent of restaurants close in the first three years, right? I call BS. The number is closer to 60 percent. Still, what kind of odds are those? That’s a casino game, which even the drunkest, most inappropriate, weird uncle wouldn’t play. But I would, any day. So ultimately, optimism is true moral courage in this industry.

And let’s talk margins

What margins?  

Most independently owned restaurants work on the single digits when it comes to net profit. So we have to thank Jah for liquor licenses and bottled water. You know how many restaurants would fail if those two things didn’t exist? Now we can talk about that 90 percent figure.

And hiring? Denver’s restaurants are on higher alert than TSA to find talent and incorporate said talent into the fabric of their team. I sure am. Is anybody reading this exceptional at anything? Great, you’re hired! It’s a feeding frenzy for restaurants to keep up with the demand and Denver’s monstrous growth.  So now, the name of the game is next-level treatment for the team. Restaurants are beautifully crafted organisms, and alive in so many ways. This is the year for 401(k)s, health insurance, bonus programs, and above all, a healthy culture where people can grow, thrive and collaborate, as they work their way through one of the more demanding industries on the planet.

I mean, get ready to pay more dues then Ralph Kramden & Ed Norton to the International Order of Loyal Raccoons ( Wooooooo!) There are no shortcuts. You can’t just want this to work, and you can’t will this to be successful. How do I know? Because there are days I’ve worn a diaper to maximize efficiency (I know, TMI). 

Below are three questions to ask yourself before starting a restaurant:

Am I prepared to work way more than 40 hours a week?

If I wanted to work more then 40 hours a week, I’d move to China and be 11 years old. Instead, Ah-Merica is a land of dreams and opportunity, where I dream of working 10 hours a week, and have the opportunity to do that as the boss of this here restaurant. NOT!

Do I enjoy managing people?

Can I go without paying myself for months if needed?

I put every penny I could beg, borrow or steal to open up this dream concept. Not only will I need to get paid weekly, but I will need to be paid a fat salary so I can start to recoup some of my self esteem in material things, that cost some skrilla!

Now, here are the real questions that should be asked:

Are you prepared to work more then 70 hours a week?

Do you subscribe to this Albert Einstein quote: “Only a life lived in the service to others is worth living”?

Do you enjoy people?

Can you go without paying yourself, your family, and your bank for three years if necessary?

You know, you might be a restaurant-neck if ... you know that when a guest comes in the restaurant and says, “I’m friends with the owner,” that’s impossible, because restaurant owners do not have any friends.

In sum – start early, stay late and be prepared to lose most of your friends, your mind and at least one marriage. Be prepared to live a half rags and half riches lifestyle, while your restaurant has a line around the block. Be prepared to live on the run, where everything can vanish in a moment, erstwhile you’re the darling of the media.

Finally, be prepared to watch most of the world spend their days looking forward to rare moments when everything goes right, while you spend your time maximizing the moments that go wrong. Do that, and you’re an honorary restaurateur. Do that and spend each day wishing you were better, instead of wishing things were easier, and you might, just maybe, be in that 40 percent of restaurants.

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Justin Cucci

Justin Cucci has a long history in the restaurant industry: His family owned and ran the notable Waverly Inn in New York City from 1956 to 1994. After pursuing a degree in computer science, Justin decided it wasn’t for him and dropped out of college to work in his family’s restaurant, which was eventually sold to Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter. Justin moved to Denver permanently in 2008 and opened Root Down, a restaurant known for its accessible and inclusive culinary sophistication, followed by Linger, Root Down DIA and Ophelia's—the first Edible Beats concept to open downtown. Most recently, Cucci opened Vital Root, healthful fast food on Tennyson Street.

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