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.


  1. First hand witness right here of that night! I'm glad you took away a few lessons that night. I took away blistered feet and a wad of cash. :-) Love walking down memory lane with you John!!

  2. Very much enjoyed reading this post. So few realize what it means to be a reestaurateur and I can say that while I was not there that night, I have been there on slow and busy nights since and is certainly seems you have learned. I am just glad you have.

    I look forward to reading more of this journey as you have time to put it down!

  3. Just reading this, I need a brown paper bag to breathe into!