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.

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