Sharing Advice Cordell Eddings  | June 6, 2018

Why Top Chef Star Hugh Acheson Learned to Clean the Toilets

Superstar chef Hugh Acheson wears a lot of hats. As a Top Chef judge and Food Network personality, restaurant owner, and bestselling author he’s managed to build an interesting mix of businesses since becoming an entrepreneur in 2010. The Canadian transplant has quickly become southern culinary royalty as the owner of 5 & 10 and the National in Athens, GA as well as Empire State South, Spiller Park Coffee and Achie’s in Atlanta.

But as his celebrity grows, he still has a business to run. Because, well, they won’t run themselves.  And it hasn’t all been peaches and cream. After a string of flowering successes, his business took a hit last year after his Italian-inspired restaurant in Savannah, the Florence, closed after just two years in existence.

Like any entrepreneur, he’s been up and he’s been down. spoke to Acheson about being a small business owner, the brutal restaurant business, and what he’s learned along the way. Here’s what he said:

1.) Learn How to Clean the Toilets

“You have to understand the whole business. You can’t just do the fun stuff. That means understanding how to clean the urinals, how payrolls, taxes and real estate work, how the food is made, and how to wait tables. You cannot afford to think you are above any of it.

If you don’t know how to do all that stuff, and just find people to do it for you, what are you going to do when you are in a pinch? How can you properly analyze what’s going on in your business, or strategize if you don’t have a good understanding of how much time, energy and cost of all the little things. That includes cleaning the urinals.”

2.) You Can Only Work So Much

“I used to work in San Francisco, working 16-hour days. I would go home to my wife miserable, sleep for four hours and do it all again the next day. I did it because the restaurant I was working at was run by a brilliant chef. But he was not the nicest human.

“There is a point where it’s impossible to still be of productive value to yourself, to your family and your business and be working like that under those conditions. Eventually, I walked in and said, I can’t do this anymore, and I didn’t. To a lot of people sometimes that feels like weakness, or like they are giving up. But it’s not weakness. Sometimes enough is enough. I was so proud of myself, having to guts to leave that situation. As small business owners, some days will be hellishly difficult to get through.  But if it’s like that every day, something is wrong. There are good challenges in life that make you happy, and you have to find them.”

3.) Know When to Move On

“I had a restaurant in Savannah called the Florence that I poured my heart and my funds into. The place was too big, and the rent was too high….in hindsight.  

But sometimes your heart is in something so much that you put on blinders, and you think your passion can push you through. But that wasn’t the case for me, and two years later (about a year longer than I should have) we had to close it down.

We could have avoided a lot of pain if we had just been honest with the numbers. You can’t hope the problems away. Sometimes you just have to pull the plug and start something new.”

4.) Find What Makes you Special and Give it to Your Team

“I run my restaurants well, but I can only run so many. I’ve learned to slow down and get teams in place that can do it right.

“A lot of entrepreneurs struggle to replicate their success when they are not present at the business. That’s because there is often something very nuanced about that person, their leadership qualities and their vision that they don’t often realize.

“You have to learn how to replicate your voice, find what makes you special, know what you are about, and pass it on to others, or else it will limit your growth.”

*Want more nuggets of wisdom from Hugh? Check out the video below of  his speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Series in Atlanta.