Get ready to be impressed – Jacky Falkenberg is a 22-year-old restaurateur (restaurant owner)! She’s the founder and owner of Make Nikki Green, the coolest plant based eatery in Ithaca, NY. It’s the type of food visitors immediately feel compelled to Instagram, and it’s also delicious food that’s really good for you. What could be better than that?! Jacky has long dreamed of opening a restaurant and we were so excited when she said yes to chatting with us about her very first. Read on, and maybe bring some carrots to snack on while you do!
Can you tell me a little bit about what you were doing before this?
I was a student at Cornell before this, but I was basically getting myself geared to do this. I was working in different restaurants and taking extra classes that I thought were good for restaurant management and starting a restaurant, and developing an independent study so I could get it going.
Was there a class you took that was especially helpful for what you’re doing now?
Absolutely! There were two of them. The first one was a business plan writing class. I think writing a business plan makes you work out all the kinks in any kind of business. For example, what kind of music subscription are you going to use, how much are you going to pay for your uniforms, and things like that.
The second class was called Restaurant Development. It basically teaches you all the different things about concept development. Professor Robson also teaches another class that I took—you learn all about the different equipment, the different voltage that they need, how to design a restaurant space, how much space you need given your menu—I just couldn’t have designed the space or found the right equipment without taking those classes.
That sounds incredibly helpful. Was opening a restaurant a lifelong dream of yours or one that materialized once you arrived at Cornell?
I probably knew freshman year of high school that I wanted to open a restaurant. In eighth grade they had us write a scrapbook of our whole lives, and there was a chapter in the future, and I [wrote] that I wanted to [take] cooking classes in Italy. So, I always knew that I wanted to do something around cooking. It didn’t really come about until high school, when I started to realize all my projects where you had any kind of freedom, I was making them about food. So, I specifically chose to go to Cornell because of their hospitality school.
Now that the restaurant is open, was there something you found particularly challenging?
There were a lot of things that were challenging. I think the most difficult part for a first time restaurateur is that there’s a lot of moving pieces, and getting them to all come together right when you need them to is really tough. The space that we’re in didn’t use to be a restaurant, so we had to build out the whole kitchen. For me, specifically, the difficult part was that I am 22—and at the time I was 20, 21—and a lot of times, if a 21-year-old comes up to you and says they want to open a restaurant, a lot of people either don’t believe you or don’t take you seriously. But I think that everyone I worked with was super supportive and ended up being fantastic to work with.
Did you have any help from others or were you a mostly working alone?
It was always my initial idea to open a restaurant, but in the business plan writing class I had a team. You pitch your idea to the class and if you can get enough people to work on it, then you’re allowed to work on your business plan. I had a team of three other people helping me. That was for a slightly different restaurant concept then the one I opened. There are a lot of people who helped in a lot of different ways. This is definitively a community project that came together.
Can you talk to us about funding and the costs involved in opening a restaurant?
The initial numbers projected in my business plan were for a healthy fast food place—and so there was a drive-thru, which cost a lot more money, and there was a hood system in the kitchen, and that was projected to be $450,000 dollars. I projected that I could probably do it in half that amount. It was friends and family that I asked to help me with the funding. I ended up doing it in $135,000. It was better than the projected, but it was definitely not negligible.
Have you managed to make it back already? Or are you en route to breaking even?
Margins are really hard in restaurants. Profits are always going to be really slanted just because there’s a huge initial capital cost [in] getting started. We’re doing better than our daily breakeven. Any money that we’re making is going back to paying any money that we used to get started. We’re lucky that it’s been received so well in the community. We’re well on our way to making our money back within the year.
I’ve always been curious about this--if you have a special dish for a week, but you have leftover ingredients from it by the end of the day or week, what happens to those?
We always find ways to use our extra food. For example, we shave carrots and roll them into little spirals and we top the salads with those. There’s a lot of carrot leftover from that. We can pretty much sustain our soups and desserts based on extra vegetables and such. It’s hard to know how many people are going to come in and if you’re going to sell that much. The best way to do that is to use shelf-stable ingredients, but also to not incorporate until you need to.
Ok, that makes a lot of sense. I’ve also always wondered about how you order food. Do you say “We need X carrots” once a week? Or daily? Do you work with a wholesaler?
Normally restaurants will work with one or more food distributors, and picking the right ones is really crucial in terms of getting fair prices, negotiating, and also getting good product. There are definitely things we’ve ordered and have come in and we’re not super happy with the quality, so we have to send it back. But, if you send it back, then you don’t have it for the day. That’s when I end up running to the grocery store and buying stuff last minute. And sometimes the grocery store is cheaper.
First they have to vet you, so they’ll make sure that you’re good for the money. You either have to find recommendations or explain what you’re doing. Then you have to get an account setup and you give them all of your ingredients and they’ll come back and say “Here are all the things we supply that we think could work out.” The first time you order it’s kind of scary cause you might order, let’s say, baby carrots. But there’s three different kinds of baby carrots, and they all look slightly different and have a slightly different tastes. You may have tested a recipe with one ingredient, and now you have another and you have to make it work. We ordered this dijon mustard and it was super spicy. I sat down with my distributor and said, “Ok, do you have something a little more mild?” He laughed and said, “Yeah, we do.”
Usually, people have case or delivery minimums, so you don’t end up ordering everyday cause you don’t meet the minimum. It also depends on how much refrigerator space you have. We have really limited refrigeration space so we’re probably going to start doing more deliveries per week because we go through stuff faster and faster now that we’re getting more popular. It’s kind of like when you go shopping at home: “Ok, we need bananas,” and then you fill out the online form or call them in, and the next day it gets delivered.
Now that it’s up and running, how many people work there?
We have 10 people on payroll right now, and turnover in restaurants is normally really high. I’m always prepared to have to hire more, train more people, and all that stuff. But we’re really lucky that we are having a problem where we need more people [to keep up].
How much of your life does this job take up and how long do you see yourself continuing to do it?
I work 14 hours a day, every day. So it’s definitely a significant part of my life, and right now the restaurant is open 7 days a week. I’ve been trying to figure out whether or not we should close it one of the days, but it seems like when all the other restaurants are closed in Ithaca everyone comes here, so we still do well on those days. We’ll see, but eventually I’m going to be moving back to California with my family and my boyfriend, so it’s to be determined whether or not I’m going to open another restaurant in upstate in New York first or if I’m going to open the next one in San Francisco. We’ve already had 3 different people ask us to open restaurants in their town. It’s exciting, but I have no idea where life is going to take me. It’s all going to be around food, for sure.
That’s so awesome that you’re planning to be able to leave – I’ve heard it’s extremely difficult for chefs to have that freedom once they open a restaurant!
That’s been the hardest part for me as a long term goal because since we’ve opened, I’ve taken like, three days off. And that was to go see my boyfriend and my family. I tried to let the restaurant run itself, and there were some things that worked, and some things that definitely didn’t work.
When I was little, every time we went to restaurants, my parents wanted me to know what I was talking about when [I’d say] I wanted to be a restaurateur. They would call the chef out and say, “Do you have any advice for my daughter?” and every time they said “Don’t do it.” One time, we were somewhere in Southern California, in Laguna Beach, and this chef said, “Do you like holidays?” and I was like, “Yeah!” And he said, “Do you like enjoying time on the weekends and going to the movies with your friends and hanging out with your family?” and I said, “Yeah, I love all of that stuff!” And he said, “Well you can forget about it if you own a restaurant. Because any time you want to go out, or see friends, or have fun, or enjoy a holiday, other people want to eat at your restaurant.”
That really stuck with me. He said, “If you’re passionate about it, it’ll be okay.” But, that’s totally what it is. Every holiday, every weekend, I’m here. Which is great, because my employees are awesome. But I’m definitely not going to California and hanging out with family as much as I’d like to. That’s gonna happen when you have a new baby--you have to take care of it until it gets a little bit older, and then you can [hire] a babysitter!
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self.
Thank you so much Jacky! Eating at a restaurant will be forever different now that you’ve given us the insider view to the hard work and dedication that goes into them. Readers, want to know more about it? Come back next week to learn all about how to open your own restaurant! (Photos provided by Jacky Falkenberg)