Photo credit: Prendergast & Associates

Jerry Prendergast, Founder of restaurant consulting firm Prendergast and Associates, has been a driving force behind myriads of restaurant projects, from sole proprietorships to large-budget operations around the world. From his humble beginning as a dishwasher to managing a project portfolio that includes some of the country’s most acclaimed eateries (and a stint as a professional tennis player in between), Prendergast’s career has encompassed virtually every aspect of getting a restaurant off the ground. 

Prendergast shared a bit more detail about his upbringing in the restaurant world, his work as a consultant (or a ‘restaurant producer,’ as he appropriately calls it) and his advice to aspiring restaurateurs looking to turn dreams into feasible, tangible and profitable reality.

You describe yourself as a ‘restaurant producer.’ Can you elaborate on what this means?

A producer is someone who takes an idea and makes it into a reality. Take a movie producer: They’ve either brought a product, or script, by a writer or director. They then bring in the director of photography, the associate producer to work on contracts, the financial manager to assess how the project will sell, and oversees the team that will create the final product. 

Okay, so your niche is getting restaurants from the idea phase to their actual opening. Talk about what goes into that process.

The first thing we do is help people build a financial structure for their restaurant. We try to analyze how much money we can raise, or they can raise, and then map out costs. Then we assess their attorney, their accountant and whether they know the restaurant industry. Those are the first two most important hires. Then come the real estate person, the architect and the kitchen designer. They all have to be able to work together and create your vision.

Once we find a location, we put together the final budget and plan specific to that location. By then we’ve brought in the contractor and we start putting together the blueprint. From there, we start staffing and training leading up to the restaurant’s opening. 

I also usually want to be around for the first 3 months after opening. I don’t want to turn something I’ve worked on for 18 months over to a new team that soon. You don’t have a baby after nine months and expect it to be an adult after it’s born. It’s nice to have ‘historical decision making’ around. 

As a funny example, I worked on a project more than 20 years ago and recently walked into the restaurant for the first time in decades. I saw equipment being brought in for live music. The staff didn’t know that we had installed a sound system when we first built the place. There was a coffee machine blocking the main control panel. That was a $750K entertainment package that got lost in the handoff to new management over the years!

Lastly, I put together a binder of essential information about the restaurant: the backstory, phone scripts, etc. to get people on-boarded as quickly as possible. 

And it can get even more complicated depending on where the restaurant is located?

You have the health department, the liquor authority and so many other groups where you have to get permitted. It varies state by state and can become a completely different process depending on where you are. When I get a new project, the first thing I do is figure out how the process works [in that state] so I know which members of the team to bring on first. For example, I want a local architect almost everywhere. I may have an interior designer from LA, but if the restaurant is in Florida, they’ll be working with an architect in Florida. 

Let’s go back a few steps. What inspired you to go into restaurant consulting and what was your career path like before you started your firm?

I grew up in Hudson Valley in New York. My grandfather was a partner in a hotel company, and he put me to work in the hotel as a dishwasher and a prep cook. I stayed working in restaurants throughout high school and college, where I got my bachelor’s in business administration and finance, and my master’s in economics.

I took a year off to play professional tennis, but Wilson decided that I wasn’t worth sponsoring after that [laughs]. Afterward, I came back to New York with the plan to get my brokerage license and work on Wall Street. Instead I took a job managing a restaurant that wasn’t open yet. I successfully opened the restaurant by managing the projects the team couldn’t otherwise handle.

I still had the intention of working on Wall Street, but kept getting called in to work on new restaurant projects. From 1979-1990 in New York, I opened around 25-30 establishments. I moved to LA in 1991 and a personal connection set me up with my first restaurant clients out here. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. 

And how do you get new clients now?

90% of my business is referrals. Whether it’s a real estate agent trying to get a tenant to take a location and realizes the person doesn’t know enough to get the project done, or an investor looking for an expert to help the team get a restaurant off the ground. 

I also joke that the reason you hire me is that I’ve probably made or seen every mistake that can possibly be made. But in all seriousness, I ask them questions they don’t have answers to. When they realize they don’t have answers and those answers are important to move forward, they begin to understand the value of my experience. 

What is some advice you think all restaurant owners should abide by?

Prepare and plan. Don’t jump into a space. Before you sign a lease or do anything else, you should know what it’s going to cost to do that project in that location. People fall in love with a location, and then decide to bring in the architect and contractor before getting a good idea of the location’s true costs. They run into all sorts of issues that can go way over budget. 

Never fall in love with a location. Never do a deal you can’t walk away from. If you don’t get the deal that works for you, walk away. 

Make sure you hire the right team of people. No matter who you are, it’s the people who you put together that make a project work. My grandfather said to make sure to hire people who know more than you do. They make you look smart. I try to do that on every project I work on.