Can a restaurant be antifragile?

Restaurants are fragile; they compete with each other, but the collective of local restaurants is anti-fragile for that very reason. Nassim Taleb

Restaurants are concave. Limited upside, larger downside (like short volatility). Mega-fragile to events and circumstances; nonportable and illiquid. Nassim Taleb

I think that if you want to compete super intensely, you should open a restaurant in DC. There’ll be competition — but you won’t make any money or do anything. Peter Thiel

If you offer affordable food with low margins, you can probably pay employees only minimum wage. And you’ll need to squeeze out every efficiency: that’s why restaurants put grandma to work at the register and make kids wash dishes. Peter Thiel

Starting a great Italian restaurant is not entrepreneurship because the proprietors make no attempt to scale it. Running McDonald’s is not entrepreneurship because they make no serious attempt to build a better product. Apple is an entrepreneurial venture because it is in the business of delivering ever-increasing quality at higher scale. Naval Ravikant

According to these well-known business gurus, opening a restaurant is one of the dumbest ideas.

As a restaurant owner, I side with these people. Unpredictable variables often crush reputable restaurants into ashes. Why would you invest your savings into a business destined to cage match with other hundreds? Look around. Only a few restaurants are lucky enough to survive for years. Even the finest restaurants packed with guests struggle to generate enough profit to keep their doors open.

Restaurant management is not getting easier either. We live in an age where the Internet demands all restaurants to be flawless. When everyone can act like a critic, a single bad review is capable of driving a stake into a restaurant’s heart. 100 positive reviews can be forgotten very soon, but one bad review always stands out like a diamond.

However, we can set these gloomy facts aside and think differently. What if a restaurant challenges the status quo like a startup? When I decided to start a restaurant without having any experience(yup, I was reckless and deserve to fail miserably), I knew my restaurant had to provide more value than a business of selling food offline. That’s why I have treated my sandwich shop as both a restaurant and a media company.

Confused? Here’s what my restaurant has done so far:

  • For about two years, the two owners(my wife and I) have sent a weekly newsletter on our own website. We open-source our recipes and share thoughts about running a small business. We never did ads on any channel, but now we have 127 subscribers from all over the country. Not a million, but it’s still notable.
  • We are working on two projects right now. Our first ebook on starting “a too-small-to-fail restaurant” and a podcast to interview fellow business owners in Jeju.
  • A month ago, we began to offer our space for free with future business owners and entrepreneurs. So far, we have accepted three teams and already hosted the first pop-up this week.

Of course, the owners put real effort into the food as well. We bake sourdough focaccia, make seven kinds of vegan sauces, and serve fresh veggies all the time. We work at least 12 hours a day to guarantee excellent food and service. It’s sometimes difficult to find time/energy to create content, so we push extra on weekends.

I’m afraid my restaurant will fail if we can’t generate meaningful revenue online. Even if we maintain perfect reviews on all platforms, I know there’s a clear limit to our success. Most people are unfamiliar with dining at a vegan restaurant. The market is very small, and I can’t expect the culture to shift within a few years.

I’m in an ongoing experiment to substantiate a unique path for restaurants. I don’t want to run my restaurant like the Bear; my goal is to create content like the Bear. If we could escape from competition through online media, our restaurant could be the one that lasts a lifetime.