4 Relationships That Can Make or Break Your Restaurant Business

By Sean T. Morris

August 29, 2016

In its September issue, the Washington Lawyer examines the intersection of food and law. In it, Sean Morris of Morris Law Firm LLC cites the four relationships that restaurant business owners need to consider. Morris discusses those relationships further below. 


This post was originally posted on the Morris Law Firm LLC blog.

The restaurant business, like almost all businesses, is about relationships. And, of course, the most important one you will have is with your customers. If you don't preserve that relationship, you won't have a business for very long. But there are other relationships that must be protected just as jealously, because if any of them sour, they can bring down your business just as quickly as if customers stop coming in the door.

In our experience, these are those four relationships:

1. With Your Partners (and Investors)

If you go into business with anyone else, that person has control over the success or failure of your business, regardless of whether they have any involvement in its day-to-day operations. If your restaurant is struggling, will your partners and investors have the patience to allow the plan to work, or will they want to bail out at the first sign of trouble? And if they do bail out, can they pull their money out and leave you with all the responsibilities and liabilities?

Alternatively, if the business is doing well, will they insist that the profits be paid out in distributions to the partners, or will you have the ability to put that money back into the business to enable it to grow and thrive? And, regardless of whether you are succeeding or failing, how will decisions be made about how the restaurant is managed? What if there is a deadlock—can a decision be made at all?

These are questions that must be answered well before you open your doors, and well before the first sign of discord. That is why my firm advocates that preparing a written operating agreement should be among the very first things you do when you embark on your restaurant business. If you are in agreement on all these things, great—finalizing the agreement should be easy. But if you're not, it's better to find out sooner rather than later.

2. With Your Landlord

Perhaps no single person (or entity) has more control over the future of your restaurant business than your landlord. A tough-nosed landlord can stick you in default over the slightest deviation from the strict terms of your lease, whereas a more lenient and accommodating landlord can work with you through rough patches and allow your restaurant the time it needs to get up and running and the room it needs to prosper. So while you need to understand the terms of your lease, you also need to understand who your landlord is—and how they operate—before you sign your lease.

But even a lease with a well-meaning landlord needs to be reviewed thoroughly and completely—every word of it—because landlords can change. What today is a small local landlord with a reputation for working with their tenants can tomorrow be an out-of-state investment trust that does not care that you've had a few tough months and your business always picks up in the spring.

In those cases, your only protection will be your lease. Indeed, the lease you enter into with your landlord is probably the document that will have the greatest impact on the success of your restaurant. For all too many restaurants, whether they succeed or fail is predetermined at the moment their lease is signed. Make sure you not only sign a lease with a good landlord, but that that lease itself is top notch, too.

3. With Your Employees

As with any service business, a restaurant's employees are its lifeblood. They are its face to the world and, without them, the food doesn't get prepped, cooked, plated, or served. Without good employees, even a perfectly formulated restaurant concept will assuredly fail. But taking care of your employees means more than just showing them gratitude, paying them well, and giving them appropriate time off. It also means complying with the letter of the law when it comes to wage and hour and other employment laws.

Federal and state lawmakers, for good reason, have made it a priority to ensure that unscrupulous employers do not take advantage of low-wage workers. And the restaurant industry's heavy reliance on tipped employees makes it a target for government regulation, as well as lawsuits from disgruntled employees who may not have been properly paid. To protect themselves, restaurants must keep impeccable employment records and strictly adhere to all employment and wage laws. Take a lesson from those who haven't, and have paid dearly.

4. With the Government

As businesses that prepare food for public consumption, and often serve alcoholic beverages to go along with that food, restaurants are among the most highly regulated small businesses in the country. From food safety permits to liquor licenses, there is almost nothing that restaurants do that does not require government approval or is not subject it to government oversight. The IRS also is known for targeting restaurants in its audits. As with the employment issues highlighted above, strong compliance programs are essential. No one is ever going to be perfect, but if you are found to have violated a law, it is better to be able to show it was in spite of your best efforts at compliance, not because of a lack of such efforts.

Sean T. Morris is the founding principal at Morris Law Firm LLC, which assists clients in the areas of business law and counseling;commercial real estate and land use; civil and business litigation; and regulatory, administrative, and public policy matters. The firm has special expertise in restaurant and alcoholic beverage law.