Thursday, December 30, 2010

Valentine's Day more difficult than we had anticipated

The date was, February 14, 2003 - Valentine’s Day, an extremely busy restaurant day. This would be our first really challenging shift as restaurateurs.

We had only owned the restaurant for a few months and after hiring our new chef and kitchen staff, my wife and I were busy concentrating our efforts on making sure the main dining room ran properly. We quickly realized this was going to be more difficult than we had anticipated. We needed help. Our chef knew of someone who had been in the business for years, worked in the big city and was willing to come out a few nights a week to give us some pointers. Wow! After just one visit we learned that everything we thought was right -- was wrong. “Why are your servers carrying dirty glasses through the dining room with their fingers in them, gross? Do you know your servers are not supposed to take bottles of wine away from the table? Your server just introduce himself by saying you guys, does he know that the person with the make-up isn’t a guy? Do your customers always eat their dessert without utensils?” Let’s just say we really needed the help!

So with our big night ahead, a couple months of training, and a new kitchen staff, we were ready to take on Valentine’s Day-- the busiest restaurant night of the year. We had been a little slow the past few weeks and could really use this boost in business. I set the prices higher than normal (‘cause this is what we restaurants do on holidays), prepared a limited menu, added lots of tables for 2 in the dining room and booked twice the number of reservations we had ever had in one night before. My wife was dressed to the nines, a large beautiful flower arrangement was delivered for the dining room along with 12 dozen long stem roses to give away to the lady customers and everyone was excited about the prospect of an evening of really good revenue. Everything was perfect! What could go wrong?

The first customers started coming promptly at 5:30. They were greeted and seated, handed menus and roses, and everyone was very happy. Then 6:00 came and more people came and then 6:30 lots more and 7:00 so many more that the greeting and seating had stopped. The line of people waiting was growing out the door and down the block and people weren’t so happy anymore.

Servers were now becoming frazzled. The emphasis became getting customers out and tables reset, rather than taking care of the ones who were seated and still eating. It was a domino effect that just kept spiraling out of control. By 8:00 the line was down the street. My wife was hyper-ventilating in a brown paper bag (this is true, she couldn’t face another angry customer yelling at her). The beautiful flower arrangement was knocked to the floor and smashed by an angry mob by the front door trying to find out when they would be seated. Most customers who were waiting ended up leaving and the few that were seated were so angry that there was no pleasing them.

Later, as I sat having a few drinks and smoking what by now would have been my second pack of cigarettes of the day, I pondered the evening. I was angry at everyone’s mistakes and how poor the night went. I thought was a strong leader keeping everyone directed and the chaos to a minimum. As both my adrenalin and rage decreased I realized that this was far from the truth. In actuality, I was afraid, screaming at everyone else to do the things that I either didn’t know how to do or was scared to do. I didn’t want to deal with an angry mob waiting to be seated, so I said I was too busy & yelled at my wife and told her to do it. I should have taken a stand, humbled myself, made some quick platters of hors d’oeuvres, and gone to the front door. I should have listened, said I was sorry and that the wait was going to be a bit, that we had screwed up. I should have said, enjoy these hors d’oeuvres and we will be with you as soon as we can. Instead I was a coward who sent my wife in to do the dirty work, un-armed no less.

It wouldn’t be until years later that I would learn a valuable lesson from the night. A lesson that would help me to grow from a restaurant owner to a restaurateur. I realized that being a restaurateur is so much more than just owning a restaurant. It means taking personal responsibility for the quality of your staff, service and food. I can’t think of better demonstration of the golden rule (Do to others what you would like to be done to you). I learned that being a restaurateur is being a leader and your staff is a direct reflection of you and how you treat them.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our First Menu

Take a ton of money, ask someone to give you two quick kicks to nuts, grab the money and throw it out the window. Take two aspirin, apply ice and repeat in the morning. This is the best analogy I can come up with to describe my experience creating the first menu from our newly crowned chef.

Running a small BYOB restaurant can present many challenges, one of the biggest being food cost. Not that designing the menu isn’t difficult for a restaurant serving alcohol, but for a BYOB, not having those extra points from alcohol profits means labor cost and food costs have to be dead-on at all times. This is a simple concept to grasp now -- eight years later -- however, back then, building a house with some nails, a hammer and some two-by-fours would have been an easier concept to understand. So once again, with my lack of knowledge, big ego and immense stupidity, I sat down with my new chef to create a menu.

Let me preface this with a clear understanding of what style menu we were already serving. Oh wait, it wasn’t a style, it was a cop out: American continental, aka the ubiquitous term used by every chef/restaurant owner who really hasn’t honed in on a concept or style of cooking. It includes wonderful sliced prime rib (king and queen cut, of course) or a chicken roulade with spinach and goat cheese, maybe something Italian, like a pescatore or scaloppini of some sort. We would round out this “beautiful” presentation with a superfluous garnish, such as an inedible orchid and a beautiful carrot and parsley confetti strewn all over the rim of the plate (They aren’t teaching this style of presentation at cooking schools anymore...right?). The menu was huge, but easy. Everything was served with mashed potatoes and a mixed veggie, and a special sauce that started with a roux or Minor’s chicken base. It was old, it was stuffy and it was all I knew. This was what a good restaurant meal was to me.

Before all you chefs from the ‘80s who are now teaching at cooking schools get your thongs in a bunch and fire nasty comments at me, let’s get a few things clear. I know this style of cooking had its place once, and that it even made a little comeback as comfort food. I am also aware that celebrity chefs like Jose Garces have opened restaurants using the term American Continental. But, I can assure you, they all have morphed into more modern concepts with an emphasis on home-style cooking that not only has foundation, but also their creative twists.

Back to my meeting with the chef. He brought me a menu with about six appetizers, two salads and maybe eight entrees. I looked at it and said to myself, I have no idea what any of this shit is. Where is the fowl section? (I actually spelled it “foul” on my first menus) The meat section? Where are all the choices? What the hell is a hanger steak and why isn’t there a filet mignon (served six different ways?) I know this guy was from the city and he did a more French menu but to me, this was just unacceptable. I needed more choices, more variety more…..American Continental! The stinger was when he told me that I shouldn’t be showcasing a dessert tray to tables. He said that this was a fine dining establishment with white tablecloths…not a diner. He said we needed to make a dessert menu. So I ordered some menu sleeves and printed DESERT MENUS (Yes, I spelled dessert with one “S” on my early menus too – which was pretty embarrassing when a customer asked if it meant that all the desserts were dry).

After a few go-rounds, we agree on a menu that was about 25 percent smaller than what I wanted but was about 50 percent bigger than the chef wanted. Now, it was time to unveil the menu and learn some very, very valuable lessons about food costs, labor costs, cross utilization and sheriff sales! I would say “good luck to me,” but looking back there isn’t a triple seven anywhere that would have helped me from going through the hell I was about to go through.

No Chef...No Clue...No Shit!

So there I was: no chef … no clue … no shit! I was handed a restaurant with no papers signed, had just fired my drunk chef (with no replacement) and really had no clue as to what I was supposed to do moving forward. Anyone with even a small amount of restaurant knowledge would have said I was doomed … period. Fortunately for me, my one really good attribute is my ability to make things work under pressure. The more pressure there is, the better I seem to perform. Just to be clear, I am not saying that living a stressed-out life, always being two steps behind and doing daily tasks that have to be done because they were yesterday’s priority is a smart way to live. But I will say as a small, independent restaurant owner who wears many, many hats and is very involved in his business … this is just the way it is.

So new restaurant owners, be wary, because you’re going to be weary. With that being said, and the pressure on, I set up a kitchen meeting. In my meeting I learned that one of the line cooks had worked at Le Bec Fin, a nationally acclaimed Philadelphia restaurant run by legendary Chef Georges Perrier. The line cook was made the sacrificial lamb and given the reins for that night’s service. I told him to continue to execute the same menu while I interviewed for a replacement chef.

My ignorance was already showing through loud and clear. Could I have been more insulting to this cook? I didn’t think to offer him the job or, at the very least, give him the opportunity to interview. Because of my lack of restaurant experience, I didn’t realize that someone working in a Georges Perrier kitchen for over two years would learn 10 times more than he would have learned at a culinary school. Ironically, now, eight years later as a self-taught chef, I prefer applicants who have not attended culinary school. Now, when I am interviewing chefs, I am more interested in where they worked and what chef they worked under. And, I am always impressed when I see that someone has stayed at one place for more than two years. I, quite possibly, had the perfect diamond-in-the-rough with this kid and because of my ignorance as a restaurant owner, I never offered him the opportunity to shine.

After several very disappointing interviews, I decided to ask a local chef/owner if he knew of anyone. He said his girlfriend had been running his catering business for a couple years and he thought she was ready. I liked these people. I frequented their restaurant and used the catering services and although I was a meat and potatoes guy with an extremely limited palate, I enjoyed their food. For the interview, I asked the girlfriend to come to the restaurant to cook three plates for four of us-- the former owner, his sister-in-law, my wife and me. I can’t remember what she made, but I do remember the meal was hit-or-miss. At the end of the meal she said she didn’t feel good about what she served. She claimed that the ingredients in the kitchen were not high quality and that she would like the opportunity to cook for us again at her boyfriend’s restaurant on a night he was closed.

As we have since learned watching cooking reality shows, a good chef could walk in a 7-Eleven and make a decent meal, but we agreed to the rematch and set a date for the following week. We invited six people. On the morning of the tasting, the former owner called me and said he would like to bring four more guests and told me I should ask if we could increase the tasting from six people to ten people. I finally was able to get in touch with her sometime mid-afternoon and she politely said she would not be able to accommodate the request because she was already preparing everything and didn’t have enough food. To me, this seemed very reasonable… but the former owner was outraged. “If she can’t bend for four more people, how could she possible run your kitchen?” he said. “I wouldn’t even bother going to the tasting - it would be a giant waste of time.” Once again, “Svengali” had spoken and his restaurant experience trumped my lack of. Feeling horrible, I made the call and told this poor girl that if she didn’t make the dinner for ten we were not coming. Now she was outraged and basically told me to go &%$# myself. Eight years later, we’re only just back on speaking terms.

With no hope of finding a good chef and no real contacts to reach out to, I was relieved when the kid running the kitchen came to me and said he had a friend I should talk to. The following week, I met with his friend and did a tasting. His food was very good. I particularly remember a dish of figs wrapped in prosciutto, grilled and served on a bed of greens drizzled with balsamic reduction. The plates looked stunning, and eight years later, I still remember that he came empty handed and utilized only the products in my kitchen. He was hired on the spot.

Interviewing staff is one of the hardest parts of owning a restaurant. Looking back, I think we handled the situation poorly but in the end in it worked out -- at least for that moment. You’ll have to wait for my next posting to see what happened next.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Never Let Them Have You By The Balls!

“Never let them have you by the balls!” That’s what a friend, who owns several restaurants, said when I first bought the restaurant in 2002. Back then I wasn’t 100% sure what he meant, in the years to come, it was definitely a lesson I would learn many, many times over. You definitely need to learn how to do every job so no employee can ever have you by the balls!

As I was standing in the dining room of the restaurant I had just bought, staring at my drunken chef on the floor, barely conscious, I realized that this was one of those moments. Chef knew that the former owner had no one else who could cook his food, so he did whatever the hell he wanted. He had the world by a string, or at the very least, the owner by the balls. It was at that moment I made a quick decision (one of many self-destructive, impulsive decisions I would make over the years). I walked over to where my drunken chef was sitting, and told him, “I now own the restaurant and you’re fired!” Over the years, I have learned the consequences of impulsive decisions and the benefits of taking your time, finding replacements and, most importantly, the art of not cutting off your nose to spite your face. As of that moment, I had to open up the next day with no nose and now, with no chef.

As the shift came to an end, I asked the staff to stay so we could have a quick meeting. Everyone grabbed seats in the small, private dining room on the second floor. My wife and I told them the news: that the prior owner was no longer involved and we were taking over. We told them that we fired the chef and would be searching for a replacement as quickly as possible, then asked if anyone had any questions. I didn’t know how they would react. No one really had questions. I didn’t know what they were thinking. And then they told me that they just wanted to celebrate -- their freedom from the prior owner and the drunken, nasty chef. They were excited about working for my wife and me. Some even said they had been about to quit, but now they want to stick it out and see where things went.

I felt good. I convinced myself that I had made the right choice and everything was going to be okay. Honestly, I felt… like having a cigarette. For the first time in three years, I wanted to smoke. I don’t know why. Maybe it was to celebrate with everyone, maybe to calm my nerves, or maybe it was just to look cool. But, I felt like to Tony Soprano choking on a big cigar with a sh*t-eating grin...only I did the same thing with a tiny cigarette and “oh-sh*t-what-did-I-get-myself-into” grin! Unfortunately, it would be the first of many “oh-sh*t cigarettes” to come.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Now I can say I Own The Restaurant

It was the first week of October, 2002. Technically, my wife and I didn’t yet own Avalon. However, we were spending a lot of time at the restaurant, working for free, evaluating employees and worrying about sales. In my opinion, I would say that is as close to owning a new restaurant as one could get without actually owning the restaurant. The kids were back in school (we are located in a college town) and business was starting to pick up from the slower summer months. Paperwork for the purchase was drawing to close and we anticipated making our announcement in just a few weeks.

I was starting to sense the owner’s frustration that we hadn’t yet sealed the deal. For him, a few more weeks might as well have been three years. It seemed to me that Avalon was one giant headache to him and I was the Advil sitting on a shelf – just out of reach. So, one Friday evening in the middle of service (and no signed deal), he looked at me (after yelling at his drunken chef), put a set of keys in my hands and said, “Tell everyone tonight the place is yours” and left.

As I thought about the big employee announcement we would make, butterflies started to kick in my stomach. How would we tell everyone? What would we say? What would they say? The answers to those questions would have to wait -- as my first crisis as restaurant owner was starting to unfold in the dining room.

With only a few tables left to order and the restaurant still fairly full, the chef decided he was going to venture out into the dining room. As I watched him stumble and almost fall down a set of steps, I became curious as to where he was going and what he was going to do. I watched as he went from table to table, talking with guests. All seemed fine until one of the servers said to me, “You need to get him out of the dining room; he is smashed and making no sense.”

As I watched him stumbled to the next table, I knew I had to quickly -- and quietly -- get him out of the dining room and do damage control. This task probably would have been a lot easier if my incoherent chef wasn’t asking a table who hadn’t yet ordered how they enjoyed his food. I told the chef he was needed in the kitchen and without an argument he left the table. As I was apologizing, one guest simply laughed, looked at me, pointed and said, “I think you have a bigger problem.” I turned around only to find that my chef had never made it back to the kitchen. He decided to sit on the very steps he almost fell down, lie back and pass out in the middle of a full dining room.

Standing over him, with my hand in my pocket squeezing my newly acquired keys and looking around at the staff, my wife and guests, my only thought was … now I can say I own the restaurant!

As I look back now, as more seasoned restaurateur, it would be easy for me to point out the shortcomings of the restaurant. All the red flags waving in my face: purveyors weren’t being paid quickly enough, waitstaff was disgruntled and the kitchen was a cluster of drug and alcohol abusers. But to someone young, blinded by ambition and stupid, this felt like the greatest adventure ever.


Before purchasing Avalon, my restaurant, back in 2002, I used my immense knowledge of business and incredible savvy to negotiate a fair market price. Labor reports, sales reports, P&L statements, rent, property tax, pass-through fees, lease type, insurance? Clearly just from me throwing these few terms around, you must I think I was smarter than the average bear. At least smarter than I had appeared in my first blog post. Right? Wrong! I was about as dumb as they come.

I had about three or four meetings with the prior owner before moving forward with the purchase. We always met at the restaurant, and he went out of his way to make me feel special. His staff treated me like I was a king. He had a relaxed, calm, dominating power that is hard to put into words. I always had a list of questions for him that somehow, managed to get averted. I hate to use the phrase “smoke and mirrors” but this guy was a regular freaking magician. For example, I would ask about the sales, (the only real question of substance I had anyway) and he would give a vague answer, something like, “the sales are really good,” then, with a quick-witted diversion, he would go on to say “but if you started doing lunch and open seven days…my God, Johnny, you would make so much money it’s unbelievable, man.” He would then signal for a waitress and suggest that we order something from the kitchen. After dessert, a few cigarettes and a cup of coffee, my concerns about sales passed. He always controlled the conversation without making me feel like he was controlling the conversation, a regular Svengali. Suffice it to say that I left each meeting feeling more and more excited about the restaurant. However, I never learned anything about the business.

At one point in our last meeting, I remember asking him once again about the numbers. Not really knowing how to ask, I simply said, ”So what are the sales?” This time he looked at me, smiled and pulled out his briefcase. As he opened it, he said in his thick European accent, “I don’t know exactly, but I can show you this…” and he proceeded to unveil two rather large piles of cash and a stack of papers. He handed me the first twelve months of credit card deposits from the restaurant sales. Finally, I would get to see some figures in black and white and I was dumbfounded. The totals of the Visa, MasterCard and Amex checking account deposits seemed quite large and that didn’t include the cash sales. One thing was clear to me at this point: He seemingly barely worked, walked around with a briefcase that had a few thousand dollars in cash in it and his total monthly sales without cash were about $50k. There was no way could I screw this up, or so I thought. The rent is $3,000, my loan is $2,900, food cost would be based on sales….this was a no brainer. Cha-ching!

While sorting out the last of the legalities, my wife, Michelle, and I started spending more time at the restaurant. The prior owner didn’t want the staff to know what was going on until everything was finalized, so he introduced us as the new manager and hostess to the restaurant. As the big announcement drew closer, the prior owner had some last bits of advice: “To make the transition smoother, make sure you let customers think I am still involved,” he said. “Better yet, just tell them you’re the new manager and keep the name the same “In fact, if I were you, I wouldn’t change anything. Keep the chef, the menu, the d├ęcor and the name.” Since he built the restaurant, had all the cash and seemingly knew way more about the business than me….we decided to keep everything the same. All I can say now, eight years later, is ….how dumb could one person be? Screw the restaurant advice—teach me how to be Svengali!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Rollercoaster Ride of Being a Restaurateur Begins…

Very few people know what it takes to be a restaurateur. From the outside looking in one sees only glamour & notoriety. Unfortunately, I was one of those people. I had been friendly with the owner of a small byob restaurant for years. While designing his restaurant's website he confided in me that he wanted to sell. After days of husband / wife negotiating ("you're a dumb ass but you're gonna do what you want, so I guess I am behind you") & with some trepidation, I decided to take stupidity to a whole new level. I was going to be a restaurant owner.

This was it, my big moment. In 2002, I gave up my web design business, re-mortgaged my house and bought the restaurant. My father in law had been in the business for years, his valid warnings of long hours and hard work with little reward fell on deaf ears. With lawyers papers signed, keys in hand, doors open and me knowing absolutely nothing about the business, I could say I was a restaurant owner.

I was married just two years, with two older daughters from a previous marriage and a one year old in hand, our new adventure began. My wife and I, and our very limited palettes set out to find ourselves a new chef. Being naturally inquisitive I started asking everyone who knew anything about the restaurant business, what type of cuisine should I serve. Suggestions ranged from American continental to fine French. A big night out for me was Filet Mignon and mashed potatoes, so when one chef wooed me with prosciutto wrapped figs and a simple balsamic glaze, I was sold. Being an unseasoned restaurant owner, it never crossed my mind to inquire about his ability to manage staff, control food & labor cost, cross utilize product or write a menu. I just hired him, put the fate of the kitchen in his hands and started learning as much as I could about service and ambiance.

…and so began my roller coaster ride of being a restaurateur.