An Entrepreneur’s Best Friend? The Brooklyn Public Library

Moomtaz Coaching / Bogota Latin Bistro / Farid Ali Lancheros / George Constantinou

Farid Ali Lancheros and George Constantinou are advocates for the Brooklyn Business Library

BPL: How and why did you decide to start this type of biz?

George Constantinou: I always had a dream of owning a radio station or a restaurant. Call it fate. Once I got laid off from my Internet job in 2001 and a friend of mine gave me a lead for a bartender position at Night of The Cookers restaurant in Fort Greene. I started off waiting tables, and within three months I was the general manager. It just felt right, and right away my plan was to someday open up my own restaurant. Definitely without the experience, we would have made lots more mistakes.

I learned:

* How the ship runs
* Customers come #1
* Food is an important aspect of the biz
* Ambiance (lighting) is key
* Music has to match the mood
* Staff has to be on top of their jobs
* If any one thing falls out of place, that’s the end of it

Farid Ali Lancheros: The idea of owning my own business never occurred to me until my partner came along and sold me on the idea. Owning your own business was something other people did. I came from a family of people who worked for others. And I also subscribed to that mentality until George not only challenged my thinking, but persistently presented me with the idea of being an entrepreneur.

The reason I finally acquiesced to the idea of a restaurant stemmed from George’s extensive experience in the business. Because I knew nothing about business, I felt confident that I would be able to go forward one step at a time with someone who had experience and the courage to do it. In life, there are opportunities that present themselves only once, and if you’re not aware of them, they pass you by. This was an opportunity that kept presenting itself over and over again. I started to believe that maybe it was an opportunity that not only was being presented to me from a higher plane, but that it was most likely meant to come to fruition.

Having said this, I do love dining out and I do enjoy gathering friends and family together and sharing a meal. I enjoy the intimacy that great food brings to an occasion and I love being taken care of when in a restaurant. I know how I enjoy being treated when I’m out and I’d love to be able to offer that to others, and hopefully, become successful as a result. I currently work in an office where there’s little communication among my coworkers. It’s just me and a computer for eight hours a day, which is very isolating. Working in a restaurant will permit me to be around people where I can access aspects of myself I enjoy in the context of work and a fun dining experience.

BPL: What were the first steps you took to get started?

 GC: I went to Barnes & Noble to buy a restaurant book and at the time there were no opening up a restaurant for dummies type-books, which I had wanted. I came across a few books and eventually I bought a book called Starting a Small Restaurant by Daniel Miller. The book had a certain grassroots charm that I like. I finished the book in two days and was “hungry” to start my business.

I also started looking at restaurants with a different eye and started telling all my friends that I was opening up a restaurant. I created a menu and was so excited by it. Some of the early names I chose for the place were Feta, Octopus and Tamarindo.

We really wanted to have the restaurant in Fort Greene but there was no space available and the next step was Park Slope. We saw there were lots of restaurants opening there and had an early tip that it was a hot area.

In early 2003 I was going to the business library on a weekly basis to look at the notices of events on the bulletin board. There was a seminar that announced a business plan competition. It felt right to enter. I felt like we were going to win from the beginning. The competition made us “rev up” with the biz plan. We had the content, but needed to shape and mold it to what it is now. The competition gave us the discipline to do that. And then we won. Landlords were impressed that we won, so winning did affect some people. But it didn’t make much difference to banks.

We kept trying to get funding. Really, it boils down to who you know. If I owned a home, we would have gotten a loan much sooner. Having a biz partner helps. We had an excellent credit rating, but that wasn’t enough for opening a restaurant. Different industries are treated differently by banks.

FAL: One night I was lying in bed flipping through a local Brooklyn newspaper and I saw an ad for WIBO (Workshop In Business Opportunities), a 16-week business/entrepreneurial workshop that covered all the basics of how to start up your own business. I read the ad over and over again and started thinking. I called up George that very evening and said, “Listen, I’m not saying that I’m going to go into business with you or that I’m even interested. BUT, if you’re willing to take this course with me, I’ll entertain the idea. I’m not making any promises.” He agreed and it began from there.

That step led to the Brooklyn Business Library when one of the librarians visited the class. The library then led me to many free or low-cost classes that are available throughout the city for budding business people. I discovered a treasure trove of information, websites and organizations that assist people who are interested in going into business for themselves.

Winning the biz plan competition took us to another level. We met people we would not have met before. Part of the prize was in our obtaining marketing and legal services that were very helpful. The Neighborhood Law Project assists entrepreneurs in getting a biz off the ground. They loved the fact that we won the contest.

BPL: What Brooklyn organizations and resources would you recommend to others looking for help and assistance in starting a new biz?

GC: I would definitely recommend the Brooklyn Business Library. From day one when I received a tour of the many resources, I knew I would spend the first half of my start-up process in the library researching for my business plan and signing up for entrepreneur classes. (The bulletin board is a great resource. The first thing I would do when I entered the library is check out the bulletin board.)

The NYC Business Solutions Center at the Chamber of Commerce has also been very helpful. Fred Graves is a very resourceful individual.

In addition, Business Outreach Center, Boricua College, BEDC and the Pratt Area Community Council have also been very helpful.

FAL: I always encourage people to make frequent visits to the Brooklyn Business Library and to get to know their librarian. I would not have known where to get started if the library wasn’t there. One of the things the library has are flyers with information on classes, seminars, etc. Those are really helpful.

I would also encourage folks to speak to any and every organization that is out there who may be able to either provide you with some direct assistance or guidance, or lead you to someone else who can. Organizations that I would suggest include the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation, Business Outreach Center, CAMBA, Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the New York Small Business Solutions Center and SCORE.

BPL: What methods have you used to get the word out about your biz? How did you select these methods? Which do you think is most successful and why?

GC: Sending email updates to friends has been key. We have involved them in our start-up process since day one. We have a blog on our website that keeps our friends and prospects updated on what’s going on with Bogota.

For restaurants, word of mouth is key. Networking was something we did early in the process. We joined the Chamber of Commerce. We learned the art of getting biz cards, the importance of showing up at meetings and then the importance of exchanging biz cards. Today have collected about 1050 email addresses through our various networking techniques.

It’s also a good idea to meet other restaurateurs. Go out to eat in their restaurants. I was nervous at first to do that, but in actuality they want to help someone out.

FAL: We are making sure we tell everyone we know that we’re starting a restaurant. Wherever I go I mention it to people and I hand out my business card. I also belong to a lot of organizations as a volunteer. I am a member of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. I attend numerous networking events and do speaking engagements.

I meet literally hundreds of new people every month and each person I meet is a potential customer. That’s something I learned from WIBO. Everyone is a potential customer. I also make sure I mention it to people in the building I live in and to coworkers at my present job. We also have a website with a blog that chronicles our journey. It makes our friends feel as though they are a part of this.

BPL: What is the best thing about being in biz for yourself?

GC: Creativity. Being your own boss. The power to run a business the way you want to run it. The start-up phase is very exciting and I can’t wait for opening day. I know that it will be one of the biggest days of my life.

FAL: The opportunity to be creative and to know that I am responsible for my own destiny. I love discovering aspects of myself that I never fully tapped into (such as faith, trust and courage) and being able to overcome the ones (such as fear) that have kept me from seizing many opportunities that have passed me by in the past.

It has been important to take a look at how I use my time. “Am I spending time effectively – filling mind with information about the field that I’m getting involved in? Is the time that I’m spending being spent in a worthwhile fashion?”

BPL: What do you think is the most difficult aspect of being in biz for yourself?

 GC: Bills, bills, bills. Paying bills and being responsible for every aspect of the business. As manager of a restaurant, you run the business without the stress of paying the bills. I can do my job and go home at night and sleep without financial stress. It is easy for me as manger to say the light switch needs to be fixed now or the wall should be painted ASAP without thinking of the bigger financial picture. As owner, I now have to plan and strategize which expenses get top priority. I know once the restaurant opens I will sleep differently.

FAL: Being responsible for much more than I am when you’re working for someone else. Every decision I make has an impact on someone else.

BPL: If you were to do one thing differently in starting your own biz, what would it be?

 GC: Not sure. It has been a journey filled with ups and downs and I needed to experience the downs to fully appreciate the ups. I needed to make mistakes to learn not to make them when my business was open.

FAL: This road has been what it’s been. I trust that everything that has happened so far was meant to be the way it was. If things had been different, I would not have learned the lessons I was meant to learn or have met the hundreds of incredible people I’ve met along the way.

BPL: What’s the one most important piece of advice you would give someone else about starting a biz?

 GC: I have a lot of advice.

Do it and don’t give up. There will be a lot of ups and downs – rejections and excitement. One minute it all makes sense and the next you have no clue. But just move forward one step at a time and it will work out.

You have to believe in yourself and make yourself do things you are uncomfortable or scared to do. Be gentle to yourself. If you make a mistake, learn from it and move ahead.

Ask for help, there are people out there to help you. I have met so many great restaurateurs that have opened up themselves for questions, etc. and sometimes I would not want to call them because I thought I was bothering them. I made myself get over that because you have to in order to move forward. I can’t spend anytime being blocked, I need to spend my time furthering myself and my business.

FAL: I would say, ask for help. You don’t have to figure it all out on your own. There’s so much help out there available. Have faith.  You have to be patient. Learn that hearing no is part of the process. You don’t have to give up.

 

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