Small Restaurant Ideas: Making a Big Splash in a Tiny Space
There’s something special about a pocket-sized restaurant or bar. Yes, the lines out the door create instant curb appeal, but inside, there’s a vibe that’s hard to shake. The really good jewel box businesses have an energy about them that’s magnetic; it’s immediate and intense. The best small restaurant ideas result in spaces where you instantly belong to a family that wants nothing more than to make you feel welcome.
This is the magic of a tiny space.
“I do think small spaces work really well,” says Angela Stowell, who owns a small village of small restaurants with her husband and chef, Ethan. “If you get the right model in there, [the restaurant will be] more profitable. How to Cook a Wolf is our most profitable restaurant from a profit percentage standpoint because your rent’s lower, as are your expenses.”
At around 800 square feet, How to Cook a Wolf, named after food writer MFK Fisher‘s classic postwar book, is the first tiny restaurant the Stowells’ tackled, back in 2007, before it was trendy. After Wolf came Mkt., a 600-square-foot former photography studio, and then Chippy’s—now, Marine Hardware—which is about the same size as Wolf.
“It’s actually a great way to have a restaurant that’s profitable,” says Angela Stowell. “Nothing is wasted. There’s no labor waste, and because you have limited storage space, there’s no food waste. Everything’s run super tight.”
Small restaurant ideas: Where to put stuff
Storage is by far the largest obstacle in small restaurant design—a challenge that’s often overlooked by someone not familiar with limited space.
“You don’t have room to stock cases of wine or extra kegs, extra dishes or extra anything,” says Bryan Jarr, who transformed a storage closet into a minikin bar called JarrBar in November 2015. With just 470 square feet and 21 seats to play with, Jarr created a wildly popular respite under the bustling Pike Place Market.
“You have to be okay with running out of things, and you have to be strategic in ordering and deliveries.”
With three small restaurants under their belts, the Stowells have gotten creative in making the most of their space. “All of our banquettes lift up. It’s where we store linens and other things you don’t necessarily need in the middle of service.”
Unlike the Stowells, Jarr, a co-owner of the late Madison Park Conservatory, specifically targeted a tiny space for his Spanish-style tapas concept.
“I fell in love with the small bars found all over Spain and Portugal,” he says of his small bar design. “After the size of Madison Park Conservatory, I wanted something really tiny and intimate.”
And because he has no kitchen, the space is perfect for those who just want to sidle up to the bar for a drink and some cured seafood. But it’s a bit of a different story for those running a full restaurant in a small space, like Kristen Murray, who owns Maurice in Portland.
“There is only so much room for product, equipment, and staff. It is a constant puzzle piece and a dance. And at a point, there is only so much you can bloat a tiny space. We try, trust me,” says Murray, who along with her architect, Patricia Gardner, built Maurice like a ship: a tight galley kitchen with lots of seats.
Somehow, the two ladies fit 33 seats into the 580-square-foot space—a former bookstore—along with an ADA-compliant restroom and three petit booths. “It is incredibly efficient, and we use every nook and cranny,” says Murray. “I am very proud of my tiny pastry luncheonette that could…and does!”
Like Jarr, Murray also set out to find a small space for her concept, but only after she nearly signed on a 2,000-square-foot space, which she originally intended to turn into a three-fold concept: market, wine bar, and cafe.
“I decided after many serious talks with myself that a) I am opening my own business to create my dream pastry luncheonette vs. a machine, and b) I’d rather grow into a space, organically. It’s better to encapsulate the challenge of a small space that is intimate and charming, instead of the beastly overhead out of the gate with a larger space. Rent is usually cheaper [in a large space], but you have more seats to fill, more walls to warm.”
David Butler, proprietor of Le Caviste (and major Francophile), chose a tiny space because he wanted the authenticity of the small spaces in France. “Wine bars are always tiny places,” he says. Plus, “I don’t think anything good ever happens in a big space. Ever.”
The side-by-side seating a small space would demand was a no-brainer for Butler, who considers a 700-1,000-square-foot space perfection, pointing to the success of Seattle’s Le Pichet and Walrus and the Carpenter.
“I wasn’t sure that this would necessarily fly, that people would get it,” he says of his three-year-old wine bar. “Being saddled with some sort of massive restaurant space with nobody in it, and a huge rent bill to pay would just complicate things. [The small space] made sense.”
Stowell, on the other hand, admits she was completely turned off by the fun-sized Mkt. when she and Ethan first looked at it.
“God bless Ethan Stowell for having the imagination and creativity that he does, because I walked into that space and was like, ‘How is this going to work?’ I could not wrap my brain around it.
I appreciate that Ethan really pushes the limits on how little storage you can have, but it did create a scenario where we had to rethink things. Until the staff gets a groove on it, it makes it a little bit challenging. I wish I had known about the challenges around that to better solve some of the issues quicker.”
Enormous benefits of having a tiny space
When it comes to a diminutive space, one thing is certain. Small restaurant design means a few decorations go a long way in creating a special spot that is uniquely yours.
“Much of the fun [of having a small space] is creating your own little social club, or man cave, or game room or whatever,” says Jarr. “You are basically inviting people into your own room, so give it character that represents you.”
Jarr decorated his bar with used encyclopedias inherited from his parents, a refurbished paella pan from his grandpa, and speakers he and his dad built on his 19th birthday. “Those all help the space feel special to me, so hopefully that feeling is conveyed to the customers, too.”
Stowell is quick to point out that one of the biggest benefits of having a small space is the forced fixed costs. “You have to staff two cooks, a bartender and two servers every night, and you can’t staff more than that because you just don’t have the room.”
Jarr agrees. “You have limited space so you can only have so many people working. You don’t have all the shift coordination and staffing logistics or accompanying payroll that comes with large restaurants.”
For Murray, it’s less about the fixed costs and more about the fact that it keeps her thinking and imagining new ways to operate her business.
“It keeps you on your toes, always finding new ways to save on space or be creative with what you have. Less is more. It keeps you humble.”
Learning big from their mistakes
There are lots of reasons restaurants can’t keep their doors open—everything from hiring the wrong staff to having a concept that doesn’t support their specific space—but those pitfalls are magnified for a compact business.
“If you’re going to have a small restaurant and you don’t think you’re in a neighborhood that’s going to provide lots of butts in seats, you kind of need a higher check average,” says Stowell.
That means, if you’re going to open a taco shop that’s costing you $40 per square foot, you better either be expensive or super busy. Small restaurant ideas need to account more than most for the relationship between location and price point.
Stowell points to Chippy’s as a great example of what didn’t work with a small space. “It didn’t have a particularly high check average, people were coming in for fish and chips and a beer. On top of that, it wasn’t big enough to turn the tables all that often—it just didn’t have enough business for that check average.
“The thing that’s worked out since it’s transitioned into Marine Hardware is that we might get the same number of turns, but we have a higher check average now, so it balances it out.”
Jarr learned early on that having prime staff watching over your venture is a priority.
“Unless you are there every hour doing everything yourself, find a great staff. With only one or two people running the show, great staff is key to providing guests with a top-notch experience.”
“Trust your staff,” says Murray. “They will let you know what they need within the small confines.”
Murray also found it necessary to find creative alternatives to building Maurice beyond its four tiny walls.
“For example, we do amenities for the Ace Hotel. Our partnership with them helps bring in new business, creates a positive neighbor relationship, and helps balance out the numbers on the slower days. Think out of the box and be very honest with yourself about what is really needed in your petite space.”
“Enjoy the gem,” she says. After all, they’re called jewel boxes for a reason.
Mkt. Image courtesy of Geoff Smith/Look At Lao