Before taking a job as a marketing writer at Melio, I spent five years running a food business in Vancouver. What started out as a food truck, later evolved into a restaurant and catering service. It was an amazing rollercoaster of self-fulfillment and achievement, alongside many challenges and frustrations.
While I’m no longer in the food and beverage industry, this period remains among the most rewarding experiences of my life and made me appreciate the resilience of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) even more.
As I look back, I think of the many things I wish I had known at that time. Below I outlined five tips that will help anyone running a business. But first, let me tell you a little about me and my business.
How it all started
Cooking for friends and family was always my hobby. As someone who’s traveled extensively over the years, I found that working in kitchens was a job I could always get anywhere I went. It was fun, I learned a lot about various cuisines, and it helped me finance my lifestyle.
During my university years in Vancouver, I worked at a bar, and lived with several roommates, who quickly became my family.
To support other people who, like us, were far from home, we started hosting dinners and potlucks for anyone who needed somewhere to go.
While I always whipped up various menu items, the one that stood out the most was my hummus, a simple, traditional Middle Eastern dish made from chickpeas. I had perfected the recipe for years and anyone who tasted it was blown away.
After hearing the question “when are you going to open a restaurant?” one too many times, I started to fall in love with the idea.
Going into business
I quickly found a business partner and we started operating a vegetarian Middle Eastern food truck in 2016. The truck served all of the region’s classic dishes, including falafel, shakshuka, fried cauliflower, and of course hummus—all considered quite exotic in Vancouver at the time.
Initially, it was just my partner and I working with three additional employees. After a year, we started operating a 70-seat restaurant alongside the truck. We did deliveries and catering too, quickly becoming a large operation with 50 employees.
5 things I wish I had known as a small business owner
Running a business always involves a learning curve. Here are the five most important lessons I learned that are useful to anyone who is going into business, especially in food and beverage.
1. Choosing a business partner is not that different from choosing a life partner
It’s super important to know who you’re going into business with. It’s okay to take some time to gather information and consider all options before making such a huge commitment. Your business partner must be someone you trust completely with every aspect of the business, including finances.
It’s also important to sign the business equivalent of a prenup agreement, which outlines each partner’s roles, tasks, and responsibilities, as well as what happens if something goes wrong. Having all of this sorted out beforehand allows you to proceed and focus on the business with your mind at ease.
2. Be kind to your body and soul
I used to work 16-18 hours a day, rain or shine, hauling food, cooking, caring for customers, and negotiating with suppliers. At times, my body hurt so bad that I could barely walk. Still, I kept pushing, until I inevitably burnt out.
That’s when I realized business owners need to take better care of themselves, not just their business and employees. I took a short break and got back to doing yoga more regularly, so that I could have the mental and physical stamina to manage the restaurant without collapsing. After all, that would just be bad for business.
3. The customer is SOMETIMES right
Despite everything you’ve been told, customers are human and can be wrong. It’s really important to keep your customers happy, but not at all costs. Sometimes you have to go with your intuition and do what’s best for you and the business, even if that means upsetting a few customers.
When we decided to switch to a vegan menu, some of our customers were very concerned. They felt the vegetarian dishes wouldn’t work well without “real” cheese or eggs. A few even went as far as to suggest we change our dishes or recipes.
They turned out to be completely wrong. The business continued to be successful and the food remained delicious, even to sworn carnivores. I’m really glad I followed my heart and didn’t compromise on my values just to please my customers.
4. Your relationships with suppliers are everything
Your vendors and suppliers are crucial to your success. A good relationship with your produce supplier, for example, means the difference between getting the freshest veggies delivered early in the morning or the saddest of the bunch delivered later in the day.
An early delivery also means you have ample time to prep the food before the lunch or dinner rush, instead of scrambling at the last minute.
Maintaining this good relationship brings me to my next tip.
5. How (and when) you pay makes all the difference
The best way to maintain a good relationship with your vendors is to pay them on time using their preferred payment method. If they want to be paid by check because it fits their existing workflow, they may not appreciate you sending them a bank transfer instead. They’ll like it even less if your payment is late.
To avoid these situations, you need a reliable and easy system to record all of your expenses and payments. Sure, you may already be using accounting software to manage the books but have you considered also digitizing your payment process?
What digital payments could have done for us
When we were just getting started, every purchase we made needed to be updated in a spreadsheet and we would keep receipts, invoices, and bills in a shoebox. The result was messy: Receipts and invoices would get lost and we would often miss payments.
If we had a digital bill payment system like Melio back then, we could've taken care of all our business bills in minutes. We would’ve also had a clear record of every payment already made to keep track of open bills. We could even schedule payments in advance to go out at just the right time, so we’d never miss another due date.
The best part would’ve been the flexibility. If we used Melio to manage our bills, we could‘ve paid whichever way was convenient for us—ACH bank transfer, debit, or credit card. Our vendors would’ve gotten paid however they wanted—paper check, ACH, or single-use virtual card.
Food is about more than just eating
Food brings people closer, both physically and mentally. Tasting another culture’s food can expand your horizons and open you up to new experiences. I take a lot of pride in knowing that I was able to change the way people thought about hummus in a place where it wasn’t very common. At the time, people in Vancouver considered it a side dip and not a full meal, which is how it’s eaten in Middle Eastern countries. I feel that through this new experience they were able to open up to another culture they didn’t know much about.
Also, running a plant-based kitchen was a great opportunity to introduce the notion that vegan food can still taste great. Even if they weren't following this diet every day, the restaurant allowed customers to enjoy food made without animal products and have a positive impact on the world, one meal at a time.
What came next
Eventually, I left Vancouver for a new city and sold my part in the restaurant, but I wouldn’t trade my experience as a business owner for anything. It taught me so much, giving me an immense appreciation for small businesses and the people behind them, who keep our communities together and the economy running. That’s why I feel so privileged to be a part of Melio and help keep small business in business.
If you have a small business, I know from experience that you need a digital tool to manage your bills and payments. Melio is just that. It also charges no subscription fees and allows you to send ACH bank transfers for free. If you want to save time, hassle, and money and have all your payments in one place, sign up for Melio today.
Rotem Tal is a marketing writer at Melio.