Top Chef Masters Finalist Traci Des Jardins Gives Us 5 Tips For Mastering The Restaurant Business

Restaurants are notoriously difficult businesses, and less than half make it past their third birthday. The handful of chefs who not only stay afloat but rise to the very top rely as much on business savvy as knife skills. Traci Des Jardins, a finalist in this season's Top Chef Masters and host of the 2011 James Beard Awards, tells Fast Company how to make it work.

Restaurants are a notoriously difficult business, and less than half make it past their third birthday. The handful of chefs who rise to the very top rely as much on business savvy as cooking skills. One such chef is Traci Des Jardins, the co-owner of the San Francisco fine dining restaurant Jardiniére and Mexican joint Mijita. She is also a chef and partner in a ballpark pub at San Francisco's AT&T Park, and Manzanita at the Ritz-Carlton in Lake Tahoe. Des Jardins, a finalist in Wednesday's season finale of Top Chef Masters and host of the 2011 James Beard Awards, spoke recently with Fast Company about five of the key ingredients that have made her business a success.

1. Learn everyone's job.

"When I was in the kitchen working every day, there wasn't a job I couldn't do better than anyone else, and that includes the dishwasher—if they were lagging, I was like, 'Get out of the way, I'll bail you out.'" says Des Jardins. "That was my philosophy, to be able to do anyone’s job, and I took the same approach to the business side of it."

2. Manage your books as deftly as your knives.

"We have very slim margins in the restaurant business; the benchmark used to be 10% for white tablecloth, but I think for San Francisco it's more around 2%-3%," she says, which leaves basically no margin for error. Thus, the business side of running a restaurant affects every decision made in the kitchen.

Des Jardins started as a cook, became an award-winning chef, and now runs the business side of her restaurants as well. Her first restaurant job was at Joachim Splichal's 7th Street Bistro in Los Angeles; Splichal is now the founder of the Patina Group, a premium restaurant company that operates such acclaimed eateries as Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse in L.A. and Lincoln Restaurant in New York.

"I think I learned what the disasters were before I opened my own businesses," Des Jardins says. "Splichal started out with one restaurant, and he lost a couple, so he learned from that and I learned from him. He was very tight-fisted and ran very tight operations. Finances are very important to survival, so I learned to be frugal and pay attention."

Most people who become chefs are primarily focused on the cooking, but licensing and regulations and other financial decisions will turn out to take up just as much—if not more—of your time if you go on to open your own shop.

3. Educate customers about cost increases, and find creative ways to pass them on.

In New York, waiters make $4.60 an hour, plus tips. In San Francisco, home to all but one of Des Jardins's restaurants, they make standard minimum wage of $9.75 an hour. Waiters also get mandatory breaks, paid time off, and 100% of their health care paid for—unheard-of (and extremely costly) perks for food-slingers in most other major cities.

When the health-care mandate was passed three years ago, Des Jardins was already paying half of her employee's health care, so as a line on her P&L, the costs were already significant. The change made them "unsustainable," she says, and even then they didn't impose cost increases for customers for six months. Today, each bill at Jardiniére comes with a 4% line-item surcharge labeled "Stay healthy, San Francisco."

"We tried to build the cost into [the menu], but you've got different trends in what sells and what doesn't, so it didn't work to cover the cost," she says. "It was rough in the beginning, but local people have gotten used to it—they realize that they voted it in. It's harder for people from out of town, but it's a lot like staying in a hotel—you get the hotel price, and then 20% later, you've paid your bill."

4. If you hate the almighty burrito, don't be afraid not to serve it.

There are many trendy food bandwagons on which chefs can hop: the food truck, the dumpling, the pork bun, the meatball. But piling on is not always the best option. In San Francisco, you can't toss a jalapeno without hitting a Mission Style burrito. You know, the ones with meat, three types of cheese, refried and black beans, guac, crema, onions, salsa, tomatoes, peppers, the prep chef's hairnet, and whatever else you can think to throw in, which are usually about as big around as a longshoreman's forearm. Despite their ubiquity, the very mention of Mission Style burritos will send Des Jardins, whose grandmother was Mexican, on what she calls her "burrito rant."

"Burritos don't exist in Mexico, except for single-ingredient burritos, which are a perfect little meal," she says. On the Top Chef Masters episode "Would You Like Fries With That?," the chefs were asked to operate and cook in a fast-food drive-through, making handheld foods suitable for the car. Gut-busting servings inevitably appeared, but Des Jardins went with a simple, and very diminutive, burrito that earned raves.

"Now because I've done this burrito on the show, I'll be serving it because people will want it; for me it's an opportunity to education about what a burrito should be," says Des Jardins, who adds that the new burrito will closely resemble what has up until now been called the "kid's burrito" on the menu. "It's also about portion size. Americans eat about four times as much as they should, and we have some responsibility or educating the public on portion size. As chefs, we have to push those health concerns on some level."

5. Give back to your business community.

Top Chef Masters contestants compete for charities of their choosing; Des Jardins—who specifically wanted something local and food-based—is playing for La Cocina, a San Francisco-based food-business incubator.

"The focus is on the lady who makes tamales in her kitchen, to help her legitimize her business, because while those tamales are delicious, it's obviously illegal," she says. "The primary focus is on low-income and primarily immigrant women."

Not only is La Cocina equipped with a commercial kitchen, it also teaches business skills necessary to running a food business, including licensing, insurance, marketing, and PR, so—unlike Des Jardins—its graduates won't have to entirely learn on the job.

Follow @chef_traci and @fastcompany on Twitter.  

[Image copyright 2011 from frankenyimage.com]

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1 Comments

  • m e b

    I was lucky to work with Traci in NYC years ago, only for a week as fill in pastry in Tribecca.
    The way she cooks and sees food, people and the wider world have stayed with and influenced me in my business and choices toward education. There are few people in life that you can look back on as a positive influence in a short time,  like a great teacher. I've used her as an example in many of my classes describing how to move in a kitchen, how to touch food and how to communicate.  Thank you for this article.