As part of our new Young Entrepreneurs article series, we interviewed Benoit Lemieux, chef and owner of iX pour Bistro, Québec City’s top-ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor for three years running.
Of any industry sector, the restaurant industry attracts the most new entrepreneurs. Many soon discover that running a restaurant is no small task and unfortunately, a high number of them will not enjoy the kind of success that Benoit Lemieux has.
Jobboom: What inspired you to start your own restaurant?
Benoit Lemieux: When I turned 35, after spending several years working at different jobs including as a server, I had the desire to return in the kitchen – but not someone else’s. I wanted to have the freedom to do whatever I wanted with my menu and starting your own restaurant is pretty much the only way to do that. By opening my own place, I was able to keep the maximum amount of creativity in the dishes and all the autonomy I need to enjoy my work. Being the boss also allows me to choose which ingredients I’m going to work with, which is really important for me.
Jobboom: What distinguishes your restaurant from your competitors?
Benoit Lemieux: What distinguishes our restaurant is the experience that we provide, which our customers seek out. They don’t come just for the food, but also to watch me cook and to enjoy the intimate environment and interaction that we offer. If we didn’t provide these things, we’d be just another restaurant in Québec City. We’ve also been able to identify our niche and our type of customer: they come for what we offer, and don’t ask us to do backflips just to please them. This allows us to remain authentic in our approach and delivery.
Most of our customers are tourists. This can be a good thing because they’ve typically discover the restaurant through online reviews, so they already know what to expect when they come. We’ve chosen not to provide a detailed menu on our website for two reasons: first, because it gives us more time to explain the menu in detail to the customer. We’re not a fast food restaurant; we want people’s mouths to water just by listening to us describe the food they’re going to eat.
Secondly, not having a menu online allows us to get a bit more creative. We can update dishes according to the ingredients we receive, and the seasons. If our menu was fixed and available online, we would have to make sure that we have the inventory available to serve up any possible combination of menu items. This creates risks, both in terms of the freshness of the food and the profitability of the restaurant.
Jobboom: How did you obtain financing to start your business?
Benoit Lemieux: I had put some money away before starting the business, and I also got support from my parents. But I was very careful about how I spent my start-up money. I wanted to make sure that the amount I borrowed represented less than one year’s salary – that way, if my restaurant didn’t work out, I wouldn’t have to spend years paying off debt.
I also took my time getting started. I rented the location for my restaurant at the end of October 2011, but I didn’t open until the following summer. This gave me the time to work full-time as a server in another restaurant while I developed my restaurant. When I did open, I only opened during lunchtime hours at first; once I received my permit to serve alcohol, in August 2012, I opened officially and committed myself to working at my restaurant full-time.
Jobboom: Did you receive any outside support?
Benoit Lemieux: I can be stubborn sometimes and I prefer to do things my way! When I started my restaurant, I had already learned enough about the business to get started on my own. And I think that even if I had a mentor to give me advice during that time, I wouldn’t have ended up in the same place that I am today, whether because I would’ve been doing things I didn’t want to do or because I would’ve created a business model that didn’t distinguish itself from the competition. I’m proud of my business model because it’s my own creation.
Jobboom: What training have you received?
Benoit Lemieux: I completed a DEP (professional diploma) in culinary studies in Baie-Comeau, following which I worked in a restaurant called “La Cache d’Emilie” where I had the opportunity to work with a saucier. There, I learned very quickly about the dynamic of the kitchen and how to survive it! After working there, I went to university and completed bachelor and master’s degrees in geography and history.
Jobboom: Do you feel that your education prepared you for the life of an entrepreneur, or would you have benefitted from additional training?
Benoit Lemieux: Well, the DEP I earned certainly didn’t prepare me for the realities of owning and operating a restaurant! I think that if I had taken accounting or business finance classes in university, I would have a better understanding of whether a restaurant could be successful or not. As an owner, I’m not always able to pay the amount of attention I would like to the financial details or to identify where we can reduce our costs, and this is why it’s so important to find an accountant that we trust, who is specialized in the restaurant industry, and who can provide us with the best financial and management advice.
Jobboom: Which mistake have you learned the most from?
Benoit Lemieux: When I first launched my business, I had a tendency to overlook the details of administrative and accounting tasks. This lax approach caught up with me later and I paid the price for my laziness! My advice for people who are just getting started in business is this: if you aren’t vigilant and organized in your financial affairs, find yourself an excellent accountant and tell them everything. This will save you from having to pay a lot of interest charges to various government agencies!
As well, accountants are well-versed in what types of expenses are deductible, and which are not. Sometimes it may seem like you are counting pennies, but pennies add up and eventually become your profit margin.
Jobboom: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in terms of drawing attention to your business?
Benoit Lemieux: TripAdvisor changed my life! When I opened my restaurant, I was fortunate to get two positive reviews in the Le Soleil and Le Voir newspapers. But these reviews only drove new customers to us immediately after they were published, and then the boost dried up. On the other hand, as tourists visited my restaurant and left positive comments on TripAdvisor, the momentum started to build.
When I was voted into the Top 5 restaurants in Quebec City, everything changed, and we were packed every Friday and Saturday. Since getting voted up to the Number 1 position, we’re always full. I even had to change our business model to reservation only, to avoid having long line-ups outside our door. Right now, we are fully booked with reservations for the next three months.
Jobboom: How many hours a week to you spend operating your business? Does your personal life suffer as a result?
Benoit Lemieux: I work between 60 and 65 hours per week, but the restaurant is open five days a week so that we get two days’ rest. My responsibilities don’t stop at the kitchen; I also have to handle the ordering from our suppliers and the prep work.
Absolutely, my social life and my family feel the effects of my responsibilities. Everyone in the restaurant industry works while other people are on holiday. This makes it more difficult for me to spend time with my daughter or with my friends, as my weekends are always very busy.
Jobboom: How many employees do you have right now?
Benoit Lemieux: In the beginning, I was all by myself. I handled the cooking and the serving. But even back then, if it got too busy, I would hire someone to help me handle the service. It was in this context that I hired Vincent, who rapidly came on as a partner in the restaurant. I initially hired him as a server after we had worked together at another restaurant, so we naturally worked well together as partners.
I found that by making him a partner it made things simpler, and the motivation for him was much stronger – it’s hard to get an employee to give 110 percent for 60 hours every week just for a paycheque. By partnering with me, Vincent shares the responsibility of making our business work, so he’s as invested, and as self-managed, as I am.
Jobboom: Is it tough to take holidays or to manage an absence in the case of an employee sick day?
Benoit Lemieux: Because there are only two of us making everything happen, we do need to close the restaurant now and then. We take our vacations during the quietest months, such as January, and won’t take reservations on the days that we want to take as holidays. If Vincent needs some time off, I can hire a temporary server to help while he’s away. But because I’m very strict about the quality of our food, I won’t let someone else come in to replace me if I’m sick. So far, thankfully, it’s never happened. If an urgent event happens and we need to close, we call our reserved customers to see if we can arrange another day that they can come instead.
Jobboom: Do you plan on hiring additional employees in the near future?
Benoit Lemieux: No. Our business model is based on providing an intimate experience, which is what our customers come for. If we brought in more people, not only would we be tripping over each other’s feet, but the charm of the restaurant would also suffer.
More than anything, people come here to experience an evening with the two of us. If we dilute that experience, we may end up being just another impersonal restaurant like any other. If I do ever hire anyone, it will be just to help with prep work and clean up.