Can restaurateurs return to school to boost their profits?
Blathnaid Bergin says there is more to running a successful food outlet than good cooking
January 2011 is proving to be one of the toughest months ever for the Irish restaurant trade.
Blathnaid Bergin, who set up a School of Restaurant and Kitchen Management last year, said owners have to improve in order to survive.
Establishments are going out of business every day while others face a bleak future.
Blathnaid Bergin has for a long time worked as a sort of restaurant doctor. When things go wrong, businesses call on her advice as a consultant.
As a restaurant adviser she analyses every aspect of the business, from menus to kitchen management and customer service, and informs owners about where they can improve.
Having diagnosed the problems in dozens of food outlets up and down the country, she took the logical step of starting her own restaurant school in Abbeyleix, Co Laois, last year.
Her 12-week course is aimed at owners or managers of anything from a small tea shop to a five-star restaurant. Other students are just starting out.
"There are people who open restaurants or serve food who have very little training in the business. They can run into severe problems.''
According to Blathnaid, a typical example would be when a publican decides to serve food.
"They may know how to run a pub, but they don't know anything about food, and tend to leave the kitchen management to a chef who may not be familiar with running a business.
"You can end up losing a lot of money quickly. Another typical example would be where the owners of a garden centre decide to serve food. They might think it is simple but it can turn into a nightmare.
"Even restaurants that have Michelin stars can run into trouble, because they have not paid enough attention to the financial side of the operation.''
Blathnaid says running a restaurant is a multi-faceted business, and she focuses on areas that are often neglected by owners.
Participants are given training in aspects of the law affecting the trade.
"If you don't have a knowledge of employment law, for example, you could easily lose €10,000 because you haven't followed the correct procedure.''
Restaurateurs are also given advice on taxation, interior design, and how to market themselves through social media.
"There are restaurants in Ireland that have had great success in promoting themselves through Facebook.''
She says customer service and the proper training of staff are important areas.
"When advising restaurateurs I would place a great emphasis on work-life balance. Too many owners burn themselves out quickly, because they do not take time to relax.''
One feature of the course is that participants learn to dance.
"Restaurateurs need to learn that they can't be there every hour of the day and night. If you are not in good form, you are not going to be any good. They should run an operation so that there is always a person to fill in if someone is not there.''
Many of the restaurateurs attending her 9-5 course live in the area for the duration, while others commute to the school.
Blathnaid says: "It is not a cookery school. This course is primarily about developing business skills.
'While it is not about equipping people with culinary skills, it does include an intensive one-week course in Ballymaloe Cookery School to confirm the importance of quality food in a food-service business.''
According to Blathnaid, learning the skills to run a restaurant is not all about haute cuisine.
During their course, students visit a branch of McDonald's to see how its systems work.
"There is a lot to be learned from the way McDonald's works. Everything is checked rigorously.''
Blathnaid was inspired by The E-Myth, a book by Michael Gerber that explained why many businesses fail
They go to the wall because the founders are driven to start a business without knowing how successful enterprises run.
"They may be brilliant chefs, but they may have no management skills,'' says Blathnaid Bergin.
She argues that even those who own the smallest coffee shop or deli should aspire to have the same standards as those who run the Four Seasons.