Brendan shared with me his story of how he came to open up Big Guy’s Sausage Stand. We discussed his time spent in other endeavors to build capital, and how he worked with the local city to gain additional funding to make improvements to the restaurant prior to opening. Brendan also discussed all the experiences he had in the restaurant industry leading up to the opening of Big Guy’s which undoubtedly gave him a wealth of knowledge he could apply to his own business. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing how Brendan spends his time these days in support of the restaurant, especially with the catering side of the business where he spends a substantial amount of his time.

Date of Interview: 07/22/2021

Interviewee:Brendan O’Conner

Basic Information

Your occupation

Owner of Big Guys restaurant. It’s a fast casual restaurant, specializing in burgers, sausages, fresh cut fries, etc.

City you work in

Berwyn, IL

Compensation

[Interviewee did not provide compensation information. The below data was aggregated from sources as referenced].

The upside financial potential of owning a restaurant (like any business) is great, but that comes with high risk. $71,936 is the average salary for an owner/operator of a restaurant, with the salary ranging from $31,000-$147,000 according to payscale.com. Although the average varies greatly, most other online salary data sources include averages within the wide range provided by payscale.com.

Conventional wisdom often suggests that restaurants that most restaurants fail, and they fail quickly. However, according to a study performed by Tian Luo and Philip B. Stark in 2014, it was found that 17% of new independent restaurants failed in their first year. This is a much lower failure rate than most people believe. Additionally, the authors of the study found that 4.5 years is the median amount of time a restaurant remains open.

Experience

Years at your current job

We [Big Guys] have been open for nine years.

Years working in your field, including time at previous employers

20 years in the industry. I started waiting tables at [age] 18, as I worked my way through college and even after college. I previously worked in the corporate world doing sales, but still held a server job on nights and weekends. I eventually left that role to open my own place. So I’ve held either day jobs or night jobs in the industry since I was 18.

What other jobs have you held in the restaurant industry?

I’ve done all the jobs [in the restaurant industry]. I’ve been a waiter, bartender, cook, and owner. [This was spread out amongst five or so different restaurants].

How did you become interested in owning a restaurant?

I went to Columbia College in Chicago and got a B.A. [Bachelor’s of Art] in Journalism. I had a kid young and had sole custody (a daughter) when I was eighteen. So I couldn’t really travel or move away. I had a lot of strong family support. In Chicago, it’s [journalism] a hard industry to break into. You kind of have to go get your chops wet elsewhere, so that’s why I ended up going into corporate sales. It wasn’t a negative experience, by any means, but I always had an urge to own my own thing and develop my own passive income. That was always a goal.

Education/Credentials

Did you go to college or pursue any other secondary education?

Yes

What was your college major?

Journalism

What college did you go to?

Columbia

Do you do any other training or have get any professional licenses/certifications?

Not really [for specific training]. To own a restaurant, you need to know enough about a lot of things. The only way to learn is to dive into it and learn it as you go. My kitchen experience was all on-the-job training. I didn’t do any formal training.

I did have to get a [Food Service] Sanitation certificate. That’s really about it – it’s an online course.

Before I got into the restaurant, I had started buying multi-units and having rentals to build up equity. I started that when I was 26. That was what gave me the equity to buy the building that Big Guys is in and get it going. Having equity and income is more important than training for the restaurant world.

What is the minimum required schooling or training for your job?

It depends on what way you want to operate your restaurant. Some of the best restaurants have the owner/chef right there overseeing every order, which is a great thing. Make sure the model you’re going into has enough income to justify that. I have a love for restaurants and the service industry and I also like dealing in real estate. Being a restaurant owner, you kind of do both.

Having a culinary degree is really helpful. I always approached it the other way. I wanted to own a restaurant rather than continue to work in one while having the workers rely on me. I do get sucked back into the restaurant, as much as I try to pull away from it. I want to have it be more like passive income, or to be able to open another location, or work on other streams of revenue all the time. That relies on having a good staff and bringing on people with culinary degrees with many years of experience in the kitchen, and who can do a better job than I can.

Job Demand & Stability

How long did it take to land your first job in your field after graduating?

I was freelancing right away, doing journalism in Chicago. I had a lot of bylines, but the pay was awful. I had a temp job, in the Sears Tower, for about 6 months, then I landed a sales job for a company a friend of mine owned. That whole time I was bartending and making good money doing that. It was something I enjoyed doing and I was making decent money.

At what point did you decide to open a restaurant and how long did it take to accomplish that?

I always wanted to open a restaurant. I have always been really into food and always cooked a lot. It was always something I thought about, but it wasn’t an immediate goal or plan. I was good at my sales job. The company closed and I got a severance. I had some funds come together at once and, so knowing that I didn’t want to just blow the money, I knew I should find my own place and do something. The current Big Guys property was for sale at the time and I was driving by it everyday and decided to take a look at it. It went from there.

It took about nine months to get the property and bring the whole plan to fruition.

I was able to take advantage of government programs – two specifically. One was with the City of Berwyn where I applied for TIFs (tax increment financing) which covered $60,000 to rehab the building. After five years, the grant is forgiven if you pay taxes, and generate sales tax revenue. I also reached out to DECO (Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity) and they took on half the liability (i.e. financed half the loan at a lower interest rate). It brought the interest rate down and helped get the bank to provide the rest of the financing. This was all done by researching and speaking to the local chamber of commerce to see what was available.

What did you learn from working in other restaurants that you decided to apply or not apply in your own operation?

One thing I saw in places that I didn’t last very long was some serious toxicity and real angry management. My approach is to not be a **** as the owner and boss at Big Guys. It worked out pretty well with this whole labor shortage [referring to COVID] – we did have a shuffle of employees, but we’ve been doing well and have been busy. We have a really strong staff. These guys could probably go to the city and earn more money, but it’s not worth the risk to them right now.

Advice For Success

What advice would you provide to someone who is interested in opening up a restaurant?

Learn how to write and market. I think marketing is one of the most important things. You’ve got to sell. That’s the number one thing.

Nature of Job and Schedule

I have an office here at work, so I start my day here, figuring out what I have to do for that day. A lot of times we have catering in the morning so we jump right into that. Otherwise it’s putting out what needs to be prepped for upcoming catering, the house, specials we’re running, etc. Nowadays, with all the supply chain problems, shopping and keeping things in stock is a huge job. We have a small restaurant with not that much refrigeration, so we have to get things in multiple times per week. I deal with the purchasing, paying all the bills, doing the payroll and those sorts of things. I wear a lot of hats as an owner. Over time, I’ve had to learn to trust people and let them take things off my plate.

I’ve always been responsible for payroll and sales, marketing, and there’s also catering. I sell myself in the catering for high end stuff that we do. Those are large, expensive jobs I have to work. Before COVID, that consumed my life with planning parties all the time. It was mostly weddings, but also very large parties in venues that don’t necessarily have kitchens. It could be a golf course in Michigan, to a forest preserve in Iowa. They are super difficult, but fun, awesome events we put on. They are mostly very customized – from food they want, the ambience, setting things up family style or buffet, and doing really show-stopping pieces with different stations to set up a scene. We’re just getting back into these now. The catering is really fun, but it’s stressful.

Describe your daily and weekly schedule

It varies. I have three kids, a wife and a needy dog. If I start my morning early, it’s normally to shop and I hit the warehouse by 6 AM. Otherwise, I come in and check on things around 10:30AM, after hanging out with the family for a while and having breakfast – especially in the summer, since my wife is a teacher. I’m able to take days off a lot and go to the pool with the kids. My weekends are totally shot, I just can’t make plans on weekends, so I try to fit in what I can on the weekdays to be away from here [the restaurant]. My goal is always to be as far away from work as I can without sacrificing the service. Another goal is to really get the place running without me in it. The catering is separate – it’s something I can’t do forever, but Big Guys could run forever without me having to do much.

What parts of your job require learning or performing new duties/responsibilities and what parts are repetitive?

We have a lot of specials – that’s what we are known for. Right now we’re doing a meatloaf sandwich and family dinner. We have a burger called the aristocrat with prosciutto, capicola, swiss, and arugula/chimichurri salad. We have new specials every week. The family dinners started up during COVID and we’re still doing them because they became pretty successful. We call it the 5-5-75. They feed five people, have five courses, and cost $75 and it’s something new every two weeks. I probably take one home each time and feed my family twice with it. It’s awesome to have something new to cook and have fun with.

Then we have just our basic burgers, sausages, fresh cut fries, and other basic menu items that don’t ever change. I don’t even think about those things, my staff handles all that. I just handle the buying. It’s on auto order, honestly. I think there is a way to do this [run the restaurant] much easier than I do, but it wouldn’t be as much fun.

Answer:

Describe the setting you work in most

I can be either in the kitchen, the office, or my truck. I’m out driving to get something, cooking something downstairs [in the kitchen], or taking phone calls and emails in my office.

I spend a lot of time in the car going to buy things. I have two vendors right now. I’ve been through the gamut on vendors. One of them will always drop the ball on something, so you’ve got to get things from a lot of different places. Whether it’s the quality or the price, or both, some places are just better at certain things.

Describe the nature and frequency of working with other people while doing your job

I interact with people in a high stress situation when it comes to catering. There are very few things more stressful than, for example, throwing a wedding. This involves getting people comfortable and confident in me and helping them solve their problems so they’re not stressed out. I have to do that all the time.

I have employees who are great, but all have life issues that come into the workplace. Once in a while I have to deal with that.

I constantly interact with people all day long. I know everybody in town, so if I show my face downstairs, then I have a lot of conversations.

Does your job require travel?

I travel for catering and shopping all the time.

Likes/Dislikes/Other

What is the most enjoyable or rewarding part of your job?

The chance to meet so many people – the customers. I’m a part of the community and get to know everybody, being a restaurant owner. I do a lot of gigs related to fundraisers and other similar types of events. It’s great being a part of the community.

What is the most challenging or stressful part of your job?

The challenges faced, as a small business owner, really stack up. You have to be strong willed in this industry and need to be able to handle constant disappointment, problems, and crises. For example, this was a bad month since we had our hood motor blow out and we were closed for six days. Then ComEd did maintenance and shut us down on a Wednesday without notice. We also had a bunch of other equipment malfunction. There were so many things that went out. You can’t freak the **** out when that stuff happens. You’re on the hook for so many bills constantly and there are so many things to watch. A large majority of the revenue that comes in just gets paid out. You’re constantly paying people. It’s a tough industry!

Also, right now the prices are insane. There was an article in the Tribune where they interviewed me two weeks ago, just talking about the prices of everything. Right now, it’s not just beef or chicken that’s high – it’s everything including packaging. Every single thing is so high. It’s hard as a business to adjust quickly because we’ve never seen it happen before like this.

Everybody got a raise at the same time, too. Everything opened up at once [following COVID closures] and you’ve got to keep your employees.

Does your job provide work/life balance?

The hours are all over the place, but there’s a lot of flexibility.

How much time off do you take from work?

We don’t take that many vacations, but we go out a lot in the city [Chicago] – with my family and wife. But we get out of town for large blocks [of time] – maybe once per year. I go to Wisconsin a few times per year.

Any interesting/enjoyable perks of your job?

Access to good food all the time, and being able to make good things that aren’t on the menu. We have talented cooks who make things for the staff, too.

It’s fun being a part of all the events we put on. We’re in the [restaurant] industry, so it’s nice being able to be out with all the other folks in the industry.

What would you do if you had to change careers?

I don’t think I could work for anyone. Maybe a children’s book writer.