The Making of a Philly Restaurant 2008

What, you thought it would be easy opening a little French bistro?


Anticipated opening: August 15th, 2007

“This is the point of no return,” Peter says, with both enthusiasm and fear. He has given his notice at Washington Square. As of April 21st, opening La Minette will be his full-time job. (There’s a line item in the in-progress business plan allowing Peter a small salary for his efforts.)

This is still Peter’s baby, but La Minette isn’t the same restaurant it was six months ago. One of Peter’s original business partners has dropped out of the project; now Peter’s father, John Woolsey, an artist and entrepreneur, is partnering with his son. Meanwhile, Christophe, La Minette’s would-be sous-chef, is in doubt, his visa application in limbo, a victim of ever more stringent immigration laws. And the Northern Liberties space Peter was eyeing? It fell through when he realized you couldn’t install a kitchen hood in the space. “Everything can seem perfect,” Peter says of the ongoing location search. “Then you ask, can we fit a kitchen hood? Where do we put the trash?” He’s looked at more than a dozen spaces now, and despite this being the point of no return, he has a Goldilocks attitude, not willing to settle for the former restaurant with a cramped kitchen, or the soon-to-be-former restaurant with a poorly laid-out dining room.

As he hunts for the just-right location, Peter is also writing the restaurant’s business plan and sharpening his already focused idea of La Minette. How many styles of dinner plate will the restaurant use? (Just two, a simple, round white plate and a shallow white bowl, in contrast to the five or more styles used at many Philly restaurants.) Will the tables be cloaked in white linens? (It’s $5,000 to $6,000 a month for linen service; Peter and his father decide on bare marble tabletops.) What size are the wineglasses? (Eventually they agree on 14 ounces, a compromise between the petite style common in France and the popular American versions with oversize bowls.) The diner may not — shouldn’t — register the small details that fill Peter’s workweek, but together, these details define the restaurant.

The business plan Peter pens reads like an ambitious wedding registry: 20 onion soup bowls, three dozen red-wine glasses, a six-quart KitchenAid mixer, two custom-built walk-in refrigerators (price tag: $11,000), and 200 other must-haves. But by forgoing other customized kitchen equipment and planning DIY construction projects, Peter brings the anticipated cost down to a more realistic $500,000, not including real estate. “There are a lot of things I gave up,” he says, mourning the loss of his slicer and his sous-vide machine to the realities of restaurant economics. The business plan forecasts $300,000 in profits per year by the second year, and it calls for La Minette to lose money only for the first several months. That’s just how the restaurant business works.