Thursday, October 20, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors

Disclaimer: This blog is a chronological story that outlines some of my past struggles and triumphs over the years with building a successful restaurant. If this is your first visit to my blog I suggest starting with the oldest post for a better understanding and more enjoyable read . 

I was about as clever as they come…or so I thought. The game of manipulation lies and bullshit can quickly become consuming and very dangerous. I began to live and breathe all the bullshit I was spewing. Non-fiction becomes muddled with fiction, invincibility sets in and you become superman.

My marriage was solid, business was getting better and my kitchen was running great. The new chef was kicking ass, the line cooks were falling in line and the customers were happy. The menu was streamlined, cost was down and everything was going to be just fine.

Did it really matter that a few lawsuits were being thrown my way for some outstanding purveyor bills? Absolutely not! I was living in the moment and the moment was good. So what if each week a new major financial issue came up? I would prioritize the issue, finagle my way out of what I could and paid what was most pressing.  The best part was no one had any idea what was going on. The staff was very complacent and anytime I couldn’t pay them for a few days or they couldn’t cash a paycheck, I always had a valid excuse (it was the fault of someone else).
PRIORITY ALERT! Phone company just turned off the phone…no problem pay the bill, get it back on…tell the staff and customers it was a billing mistake. PRIORITY ALERT! Electric company shut us off.” Just use your imagination John”…Gas leak we have to shut down for a few days. “Pay the bill, get power restored…move on.  No one was the wiser because I was so damn clever.

While at work one day I was approached by one of my line guys. At that time a line kid, just 18 years old. He was a giant, gentle teddy bear who stood 6 foot tall, a body builder who also dated one of the kitchen line girls. He was very quiet, usually kept to himself and did his work. This particular day his demeanor was going to be a little different. Without really knowing it at the time, he was going to say something to me that would have a profound effect that I would never forget.

He pulled me aside to chat about some issues. I don’t remember what the argument was about (Probably me not paying him or his girl on time or a bounced paycheck), but things became pretty heated. This wasn’t the first time I had a heated debate with an employee …but it was the first time that I was exposed for the con-artist I was. As the argument started to settle and nothing was being resolved he said a line to me that to this day we still joke about. “John Brandt-Lee, you are all smoke and mirrors” and he walked away….Wow so astute for young man…dead on. This super hero just got his ass kicked with some verbiage kryptonite! I guess I wasn’t as clever as I thought or maybe my staff was that much smarter than I gave them credit for.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Interview That Changed My Life

Disclaimer: This blog is a chronological story that outlines some of my past struggles and triumphs over the years with building a successful restaurant. If this is your first visit to my blog I suggest starting with the oldest post for a better understanding and a more enjoyable read . 

One week after the chef announced that he was  moving on and  promised to help with the  transition, he left me all alone --  on a Friday night. “No call/ no show,” as we say in the business. It’s common in the hospitality industry, but to this day it still boggles my mind. Although it was stressful at the time, I now realize it really wasn’t that big of deal. The chef was useless in the kitchen and didn’t have a good work ethic. Work ethic is something that you either have or don’t and usually can not be taught. He didn’t! After he left us in the lurch, I utilized the staff I had to pull off the weekend the best I could and began my hunt for a new chef.

I placed one ad in the Sunday paper and received about 100 resumes. I started weeding through the deluge of applicants not really knowing what I was looking for. I narrowed the field down to what I considered the 5 best and brought them in for interviews.

I was about the worst possible interviewer. I had limited knowledge of food and how to run a kitchen… let alone a restaurant. I picked what I believed were the best two candidates to come back and cook for me. The first one came in and looked to have what I thought was some nice ingredients. I was excited and invited another friend who was a chef to sit in on the meal and help me judge. I knew we were in trouble at the first course. The chef came to the table to deliver a raw tuna appetizer. As he put the plates in front of us, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The tuna was served in a bowl that had a fishbowl for the base and a live Beta fish swimming around in it. I felt like troglodyte eating raw fish while watching its cousin swim in a cage. Needless to say this wasn’t the chef for me.

The second chef came in on another day and prepared a very solid meal. Although I didn’t feel any real social connection with this person, his skills were good and I believed he was the best choice. Just as I was about to hire him, , I received a few more applications and one did stand out. The name was familiar to me. It was chef that my old chef had spoken about often and I knew he was highly regarded. I figured what could it hurt? So I brought him in for an interview.

He was very refined, charismatic and extremely knowledgeable. We hit it off instantly.  He asked me questions that no other chef had asked. He was the first chef to ask about the kitchen and if he could take a tour. Walking around the kitchen he opened and inspected every refrigerator and freezer. In a very thorough but thoughtful and informative manner, he pointed out many of the former chefs short comings. . As he continued his probe I saw him shaking his head in disgust as he found boxes of quick fix mixes and containers of instant bases. He informed me that my former chef worked for him for years and he was very disappointed in how he handled his kitchen. 

He finished his tour and we sat back down to chat some more. He told me he had been cooking for years and mentioned some big name French chefs he worked with. He was trying to impress me but I had no idea who they were. He said he was in the middle of a rough divorce and that he had been bartending for the last two years. He was ready to get back in the kitchen and thought that a suburban restaurant would be a good fit to ease back into the scene. I told him my story and how I was stuck in a difficult situation. Then he said something to me that I will never forget. He said “I am not interested in being here long-term. I can only guarantee I will be here for 1 year. But, I will bring you into the kitchen and teach you what you need to know so you won’t get screwed again.”

I had a really good feeling and I decided to have him come back and cook and for my wife and me. He prepared a five course tasting. I don’t remember everything I ate that day, but I do know it was food I had never tried and any ort(remaining crumb)left on the plate was only because I missed it. I remember eating scallops, lobster and oxtail. I remember flavors and textures that blew me away. I remember for the first time being so excited about food I wanted to explore more. I remember the start of new-found passion and a relationship that would grow from applicant to chef to mentor to best friend. Needless to say I was totally enthusiastic about hiring him and beginning a whole new journey.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Screaming and Yelling!

Disclaimer: This blog is a chronological story that outlines some of my past struggles and triumphs over the years with building a successful restaurant. If this is your first visit to my blog I suggest starting with the oldest post for a better understanding and more enjoyable read . 

 Fighting a customer in a full dining room had to be the epitome of my frustration -- a frustration that would push me to do some really stupid things. With the chef leaving, my wife pregnant and the restaurant’s first-year anniversary looming, things were looking pretty grim. Every dollar coming in the door was as important as the next. So I decided to no longer honor gift certificates that had been sold by the restaurant’s prior owner. I had accepted his gift certificates for the first year I was open and I felt that was ample time for someone to redeem them. We received no money from the old certificates and I couldn’t afford to give away any more free meals.

It was Saturday night and we had a full house. A server came up to me and said they had a table trying to pay their check with an old gift certificate. I told her to explain to the customer that the gift certificate was not ours, it was from the prior owner and we gave everyone a year to redeem theirs. I said to tell them we were sorry, but unfortunately we could no longer accept them.

The server already had accepted the gentleman’s gift certificate and his credit card to pay the balance of his check. She went back to the table to explain the situation. The guest became irate and asked to speak with management.

My wife, Michelle, approached the table and tried to explain our reasoning for not accepting the certificates. She explained how we received no money for the certificate and that we simply couldn’t afford to take the loss any longer. He didn’t want to hear it, and berated her for embarrassing him. He then proceeded to lectured her on how we accepted the Avalon name and we have to honor all that comes with it. He said he owned businesses in the same town as us and he would never treat a customer this way. My wife, wanting to keep peace, offered to split the difference, stating that we would honor the gift certificate at half its value. This just made him more irate and he absolutely refused to pay anything additional.

I was in the kitchen when my wife and the server came to me and explained what was going on. The server still had the gift certificate and the credit card, so I wrote down the gentleman’s credit card number in the event he left without paying.

I am only 5’5” and I have a severe Napoleon complex. My nickname is “Pesce,” as in Joe Pesce, and I am about to tell you why.

Just as I was writing the credit card number, the customer came through the kitchen doors and said, “Give me my credit card, you little shit.” That was all it took. It was a like a light switch went off. A year’s worth of frustration just boiled over. My chef quitting, constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul, too many sleepless nights, no money, a pregnant wife and now an arrogant customer was calling me a “little sh*t” in my own kitchen. I lost it.

I grabbed the 6-foot man by his shirt, pushed him the through the double swinging kitchen doors into the full dining room and slammed him into a wall. I went off -- he received all my pent-up aggression. The full dining room fell silent and my kitchen staff came running out, scooped me up and carried me off. Everything was sort of blurred and moved in slow motion; it was like being in a movie. Fortunately my staff had grabbed me before I punched him. All I remember of the actual fight was me yelling, the fear in the man’s face and his wife screaming. 

I never received a dime from that table. The man from the table called the next day to try and reason with me. He wanted to pay his bill (less the gift certificate). I refused his money, telling him we would have to agree to disagree. I never saw him again.

This was just one of the many stupid moves I would make over the years. I don’t adhere to the policy that the customer is always right, but in this case I pissed off a table over a $75 gift certificate and ended up with no money. I embarrassed myself in front a full dining room and sent four customers out my front door with a bull horn screaming, “this place sucks!”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Floundering & Prophecies

Disclaimer: This blog is a chronological story that outlines some of my past struggles and triumphs over the years with building a successful restaurant. If this is your first visit to my blog I suggest starting with the oldest post for a better understanding and more enjoyable read . 

 Confused, overwhelmed, exhausted, fat, tired, in debt and just plain looking like shit… I didn’t know where to turn. I had done everything my chef asked me to do.  I brought the right people in for training, I worked very hard to make this place successful and yet I continued to struggle. For the first time I had no real sense of direction.

 At this point the restaurant was opened 6 days a week and my only day off was Monday. My wife’s verve and ability to stay true to the course hadn’t wavered. Her faith in me was immeasurable and she was always there for support.  We had three children who had sacrificed so much and I was about to ask for more….Sunday brunch. Eggs, bacon and pastries…how could we go wrong with that.

I can safely say that I had not one fan of this decision – not family, not staff. After lots of convincing it was time to open up for our first brunch. We had a simple menu that was a combination buffet and sit down ordering.  You could order appetizers and entrees while enjoying a buffet table of pastries, fruit salads, and breads. 

I was there at 7:30 a.m. excited and ready to go. The staff was instructed to arrive at 8:30 a.m. and brunch was set to start at 10. I spent an hour or so creating a beautiful buffet table with multi level displays and fresh cut flowers. As the rest of the staff slowly arrived, most were late and partially hung over, but functional -- everyone except the chef. When he finally arrived he looked pretty banged up and not ready to cook at all.  The biggest indication was when I  found him fast asleep on the dirty kitchen floor. I nervously laughed and woke him up. Looking back I find it hard to be believed that I was that submissive with this chef. I had balls of steel and never did I take someone’s shit. But when it came to chef, my lack of restaurant knowledge created real insecurity. I later found out he and some of the servers were out partying pretty hard ‘til 3 a.m. He showed up at one of the server’s houses at 7 a.m. still drunk. He hadn’t slept and asked her to make sure she kept me away from him.

But, the show must go on and with the helf of my other “inmates” – it did. The first table was seated and I noticed it was a well known, local French chef. He had somewhat of a celebrity status in the Philadelphia area and was considered one of my competing restaurants. I informed his server to make sure special attention was given and service was spot on. It was important to me that a good impression was made. My ego could really use a boost and a well known restaurateur and chef giving the nod of approval was just what the doctor ordered.  As I stood at the table saying hello, my hung-over server grabbed his bottle Dom Perignon champagne and proceeded to open it. As she “popped” the cork the champagne started spewing everywhere. She stood stupefied, like Hermione just hit her with a spell in a Harry Potter movie. The now clearly annoyed French chef quickly reacted. Grabbing his glass and holding it under the now fountain of champagne in order to save any he could. Over a quarter of the bottle had spilled to the floor before  the champagne geyser stopped. It was the ultimate in embarrassing moments. As I stood there red in the face I tried to make light of the situation with a nervous laugh as I helped clean up. The chef gave a smirking “it’s ok” smile (which was clearly a “ leave me the hell alone” smile). I felt the pit of my stomach rise to the back of my throat and with my tail between my legs I headed to the kitchen. As if spilling his champagne wasn’t bad enough, we were now going to serve him food that the inmates prepared --since my chef was basically propped up in a corner of the kitchen and useless. At the end of the meal he was somewhat polite. He never said anything bad, but was clearly not impressed, at all. I am sure it made him feel quite elated to go into his competitor’s restaurant, have his champagne dumped on the floor in front of the owner and then be served sub-par food.  I sat thinking to myself, “Could  life really get any worse than this?”

Brunch wasn’t the answer.  If I had a bigger budget for advertising (any budget really) and the ability to sustain food and labor losses for a few months it could have been successful. Unfortunately I was not in that position and my already profusely bleeding restaurant took another hit. Another small vein was now bleeding weekly. Suffering from costly additional payroll and wasted product.

And then, another prophecy:  My chef gave his 2 weeks notice and my wife gave me 37 weeks notice – she was pregnant.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Relieved, Excited & Scared

This is my story of owning a restaurant from Day One. It starts back in 2002 and includes all of my heartaches, triumphs, ups and downs, sacrifices, financial struggles and more.

So I knew that The Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic had been in the restaurant, but had no idea what he thought, or how many bells he would give the restaurant. I felt relieved, excited and scared. A few weeks later, I was in the restaurant on a Saturday morning doing some clean up. The phone kept ringing with people making reservations. I was confused, but happy for the business.

Then, a colleague called to discuss my review in the paper. I didn’t know that it was coming out that day. And the bastard wouldn’t tell me what it said! I dropped what I was doing and ran to the nearest drug store for an early copy of the Sunday paper, but no luck. Two stores later, I finally found it.

Hallelujah! We earned two bells, the equivalent of “very good.” The worst thing it said was that we were young, stiff and we tried too hard. There were a few nods to the food and a couple pokes (every review has to have a poke.) For the most part, it read very nicely and was enough to entice new business.

I was relieved, I was excited and I was scared. From what I heard, a review like this meant a restaurant would be packed for weeks. Every night would be like a Saturday, for a month. This was just the economic boost we needed.

I thought all my hard work was finally going to pay off. The entire puzzle was now in place: new menu covers, new menu items, re-designed dining room and lots more staff. I had experienced at least one super-busy holiday failure and I had a professional consultant properly train my waitstaff. This was my time to shine.

Well, the clouds must have been out that day. Although the review did bring in business (more than we had ever seen), only a fool could truly believe that one review and a month of increased business was going to erase an entire year of failure. By late October, the review buzz had died down and business was back to normal (my kinda’ normal, read previous posts to understand.) Dinner business was so-so, we stopped serving lunch and each month I struggled to keep the lights on.

It was 4 a.m. on a Sunday when my cell phone rang, and I knew this couldn’t end well. It was one of the tenants who lived above the restaurant. He said there were people inside the restaurant and it sounded like a party. Since the restaurant was alarmed and monitored, I knew it was someone with a key and the code. I arrived only to find my drunken chef, a few other line cooks, a bunch of girls from a bar and multiple lines of cocaine laid out on the kitchen cutting boards. It was at this moment I knew my new idea -- Sunday brunch -- was going to be a problem …

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Serving The Food Critic

This is my story of owning a restaurant from day one. It starts back in 2002 and includes all of my heartaches, triumphs, ups-and-downs, sacrifices, financial struggles and more.

With my apron tied around my waist and my kitchen staff quaking in their clogs, I opened the restaurant for lunch. It was the summer of 2003 (when I was robbing Peter to pay Paul) and I had the bright idea that that we needed to start serving lunch. I figured lunch would answer all our problems. It increased our hours of operation; therefore, it increased our potential revenue. I needed an extra set of hands in the kitchen, so I figured this would be the perfect time for me to learn a little about cooking.

I am not going to go into a long, drawn-out story about lunch other than to say this: It’s a slippery slope. On the surface, it makes sense for struggling restaurants to open for lunch. But, when a restaurant already isn’t filling its seats and is having cash-flow issues, extending the work week to six days means the restaurant is overextending itself in the hopes of making money. It’s just not a good business plan. I quickly learned this when I started paying increased payroll, buying extra product and paying higher heating and air bills, just to fill a few seats. It didn’t come close to covering my costs. Also empty seats are almost a sure sign of larger problems … poor service, bad food, bad location, etc.

I’ve since learned that the key to success boils down to what I call “penning.” Penning is creating demand by being open fewer hours – not more hours. The 10 covers you lose on an off night will be offset by the decrease in your overhead. Plus, by moving some of your potential off-night reservations to open nights, you will create a fuller dining room filled with buzz.

But I didn’t know that back in 2003. I remember one day serving lunch with no server and no kitchen staff. I would go to the table take the order and then go in the kitchen, cook it and serve it. Talk about being over extended and cutting corners! Fortunately for me, we averaged only about four covers day. But one lunch shift sticks out more than any other. I was in the kitchen once again cooking by myself (even though I barely knew what I was doing), when my server came to me and said there was a strange gentleman eating in the dining room by himself. The man sat alone in an empty dining room reading a book and taking notes. He politely told the server he didn’t like his table and asked if he could move to another one. Then, he ordered quite a few courses. For the most part he just stayed to himself. My server said, “There is something about this guy; I just can’t put my finger on it.”

A few weeks later, that server came to me and said the phone was for me and “you are not going to believe who it is… The Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic.” I instantly turned white, remembering the single man taking notes during lunch. I picked up the phone for a grueling one-hour interview. Although I turned out the chef’s food for lunch, I knew so much was riding on this interview -- what I said and what I cooked!

The interview went well (in my opinion) and he was very nice on the phone. After he was done with me, he interviewed the chef and set up a time for photos. He never once gave an inkling as to whether he enjoyed his meal. He left us a nervous, confused mess. We had to wait four endless weeks for the review to come out. We knew that his review could make or break the restaurant. The Philadelphia Inquirer uses a bell system, with four bells being the best. How many bells for Avalon? You will have to wait and see…

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

This is my story of owning a restaurant from day one. It starts back in 2002 and includes all of my heartaches, triumphs, ups-and-downs, sacrifices, financial struggles and more.

In a college town like West Chester, Penn., where Avalon is based, most everyone goes home for the summer, making it a slower time for businesses. It was 2003, and we had been running our new menu for a few months. The response from customers seemed pretty good. Weekdays were still very slow, but weekends were consistently busy. To me, the kitchen still seemed rushed, but I managed to convince myself that this was the norm for the profession.

The restaurant’s financial situation, however, was a whole different story. Every day was critical and there couldn’t be any missteps. You see, my new business model was to rob Peter to pay Paul, pay Peter back tomorrow, then rob him again the same day. It was like living the life of an embezzler: You can never look away, not even for a second; you must always be two steps ahead of everyone else, and never a day off. One bad weekend of business and I could be finished.

Each day started with me getting out of bed, grabbing a cup of coffee and running to my computer. I logged into my bank account, not to see how much money I had but to see how negative my account was. I would look to see what checks were being presented to my account that day. Then, I would decide which checks I could afford to let bounce and which ones meant I needed to run to the bank and make a deposit to cover. I quickly became a master of banking (for people with no money, that is.) I learned which banks gave me extra time by re-depositing bounced checks twice (this means I give you a check, you deposit it, it bounces but your bank gives me a second chance before letting you know.) I also made sure I befriended the right branch personnel, so I could make deposits in the morning after the checks were presented and get the bank to still pay them.

Each day I would take the money from the prior night’s receipts and make a deposit. This was usually enough to get my checking account just on the positive side. The next day, new checks would again drain the account to a negative amount and I would repeat the process all over again. If I wanted the checks to bounce (because I knew they would get re-deposited a second time and I could use the money for something else) I would make the deposit later in the day, after the checks were returned. This way, I could use the little money I had for the most gain.

Oh yeah, did I mention that the bank would charge an additional fee of $30 per bounced check? At 5 or 6 checks a day, that added up.

This is a perfect example of how desperation in this business causes you to live in the moment. How we can easily end up in vicious cycles that cause us to be blind to a much bigger picture. I would manage each day to get new product in the doors, pay checks with no or very little money and never think twice about paying almost $2,000 a month in overdraft bank fees. My own solution was creating a much bigger problem. With one week of really bad business, the domino effect could be devastating.

Each day presented a new battle that I needed to overcome. I would revel when Saturday morning arrived. You see, Saturday had everything to offer: No checks are presented to the bank over the weekend, the electric and phone company won’t shut off service on those days and most importantly, I would receive a small cash injection that would (hopefully) get me through another week.

By Monday morning, after finishing my weekday banking routine, I’d be wondering why business was so good over the weekends and so slow during the weekdays. My food must be good, otherwise why would so many people come on the weekend? I realized that I needed something to boost the business, something that would bring in more business during the week. I needed that extra cash injection that would break this cycle and free me from the jail I was living. Some type of quick fix. Later that day my prayer may have been answered. I received a phone call from Philadelphia’s most important food critic….I was being reviewed!

In addition to being an irreverent blogger, John Brandt-Lee is chef/owner of Avalon Restaurant in West Chester, Penn.. Don’t worry, over the past 9 years, he’s learned many lessons and grown into a successful restaurateur. He just announced that he’ll be opening a second restaurant, Avalon’s Pasta Bistro, in Downingtown, PA in the Spring of 2011. Keep reading for more about how he went from a clueless restaurant owner (in 2002) to a thriving restaurateur, today.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gotta Have Hand

From Seinfeld:
George: She has the hand; I have no hand. How do I get the hand?
Jerry: We all want the hand. Hand is tough to get. You gotta get the hand right from the opening.

That quote from Seinfeld shows sums up my relationship with my chef. Not knowing where to turn after I nearly lost my restaurant in a sheriff’s sale, I decided to have a sit-down with him. Let me first say that attempting a sit down with no balls, no plan and basically no clue is a bad idea. You can’t confront someone and hold them accountable without pure confidence in what you’re saying. Otherwise, you put yourself in a position to be quickly manipulated.

To any seasoned restaurateur, the kitchen is a really good place to start when trying to fix a huge debt-to-income ratio. To a newbie restaurant owner like me, running a cost-effective kitchen was a tremendously difficult task -- almost impossible to complete when we couldn’t even keep our kitchen clean!

But I was desperate to get my restaurant on track and could feel my frozen blue lips slipping beneath the surface. I didn’t know how to fix the problems. Unfortunately, I was seeking advice from the core of the problem itself, the chef. Our conversation started with a careful explanation of the situation. I said we were bleeding financially and we couldn’t pay the bills. I asked for his suggestions for fixing the problem. Like a dummy, I just opened myself for manipulation-- I gave him “hand.” Instead, I should have said, “Your kitchen is a screwed-up mess, your staff is disorganized and every night the trash cans are filled with usable product. This is completely unacceptable, especially while I am taking one call after another asking for the money that you just threw away.”

Once again my lack of experience left me in a position of ignorance. The chef turned to me with a smile. He said the menu and the restaurant were too big for the number of staffers we had. He said we needed to redefine who we were. He said we needed a new menu and that we needed to update the d├ęcor. In my head I was thinking, “You have got to be kidding me! This restaurant is in the crapper. I can’t pay the bills and you think increasing payroll, buying some new decorations and a smaller menu are going to fix the problem?” But not having an answer of my own, I moved forward with his ideas.

So, I buried my head in the sand. I borrowed some money from bank Italiano (let’s just say cash in a brown bag from Vito), changed some decorations, bought new menu covers and brought an extra set of hands into the kitchen. Now it was time to unveil the chef’s new menu, and if all of the calculations were correct …. problem solved!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Sheriff Wants to Sell my Restaurant for Me

No tourniquet could possibly be big enough to save the restaurant from the geyser of blood spilling out and its impending doom. Although business was good on the weekends, the weekdays were slow and the debt continued to mount. It was August 2003, a little over a year into my new venture and more money was going out than coming in -- never a good business model. As I switched from one purveyor to another (leaving a large un-paid balance with each) I found new ways to justify my blind eye to the current financial state. Payment plans extended some time, followed by COD deliveries and lastly payment with bad checks. I pushed the envelope for as long as possible before being cut off. As a personal justification to never paying, I would initiate a fight mounted with lies, stiff them on the bill and just kept trucking along, self blinded.

As time went by and I continued to fool everyone (mostly myself), I noticed the game began to get harder. Did purveyors actually correspond with one another? Did they discuss their accounts -who was good pay and who was a deadbeat? Did Joe’s Fish Company tell Billie’s Produce market that I gave them a stiff one and then told them to go screw themselves. YES THEY DO! And, one day while sitting at the restaurant two deputies from the sheriff’s office came walking through my front door. I cordially said, “Hello” and they cordially said, “You have been served.”

I wasn’t concerned that my restaurant was being offered on the public auction block for a $15,000 seafood bill. I thought that with a phone call, some money down and a payment agreement we could have this matter resolved quickly. Far from the truth…I had finally met my match. I wasn’t dealing directly with the purveyor anymore but rather a collection lawyer who worked for all the purveyors. He was good at what he does. We exchanged a few phone calls and tried to come to a resolution. (I didn’t have nearly enough money to pay the debt off.) During one phone call he said “Mr. Lee, you have one week to come up with the money and, as a courtesy, I won’t call any of my other clients and let them know they shouldn’t sell you anymore….see you at the sale.” I can probably count on one hand the amount of times the words “me” and “fear” had come out of my mouth in the same sentence.

My encounter with this lawyer was one of the most pivotal moments in my career as a restaurateur. He used tactics I was unfamiliar with and they scared the shit out of me. With a sheriff sale looming just days away I began to beg borrow and steal (by steal I mean robbing Peter to pay Paul) as much money as possible to offer some sort of payment. I didn't come up with nearly enough, but the lawyer was willing to work out a payment arrangement (something I now think he knew all along he would do) and finally let me off the hook -- 24 hours before the sale. Never had an affirmation been so clear…I was a bad and blinded businessman. I needed to re-evaluate my entire business model in order to stop the bleeding. I needed to change my business practices in order to restore my reputation. So I called every purveyor, apologized, and made what I thought could be affordable arrangements to pay them all back. Some hung in there with me and some told me to go screw myself. My inexperience could no longer be a crutch, things needed to be fixed—fast! But was I already in way too deep?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Time to Take Off the Rose-Colored Glasses

“…I screwed myself—and, eventually, had to work hard to get un-screwed. And I am not going to tell you how to live your life. I’m just saying that I got very lucky. And luck is not a good business model.” – Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain was talking about his drug addiction when he said that, but in my life, this quote applies to the bad business decisions I made early in my career as a restaurant owner. I now know that with some of my decisions, I screwed myself, and like Anthony, I was using luck as my business model.

Despite our Valentine’s Day disaster, we were able to get our act together and run a functioning dining room. But we were already in a financial hole, and the slower summer months were now upon us. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity each day to keep my restaurant open, but it was definitely time to clean up the business model and stop the bleeding … time to get un-screwed. I had made some bad decisions and owed quite a bit of money. I needed more money to continue to run my business. Purveyors were starting to give me crap, and keeping fresh, new product coming through the door was a real challenge. Making sure my employees remained calm became as important as making sure the mounting debt went away.

Unfortunately, with my lack of restaurant experience, I had absolutely no idea where to start. The businessman who sold me the restaurant (to whom I made a large, late mortgage payment every month) suggested I look at the kitchen. He said he noticed it was extremely disorganized and I had lots of money -- via spoiled product and usable scraps -- going in the trash. “That is your money being thrown away and one of the main sources of your bleeding,” he said. My kitchen did always seemed to be scrambling, still prepping when the first customers were seated for dinner, running out of product and, well, simply put… always in the weeds.

On a typical Saturday night, we served an average 80 covers with four people in the kitchen. It was like watching a human tornado. Sauces splashed all over the place, sheet pans were thrown all over, dirty sizzler platters, wrappers and papers were everywhere. If it could be thrown, crumbled or squished, it was on the floor. Even cigarette butts.

For two blurry hours the staffers ran frantically, always two steps behind. Customers’ emotions were mixed. Some were happy, some were quiet and some complained. In the end, everyone received average service and food at best, yet, the staff felt great. The general consensus each night was that we’d won the battle and lived to serve another night. Unfortunately, I believed this too.

When Saturday dinner service was complete and everyone was coming down from the high of dinner rush, the line cooks would give the equipment a quick scrub-down (stepping over the immense pile of refuse and dirty pans on the floor), do a half-assed wrap-up of the remaining product and rush out the door to find the next high. Then, after everyone was gone, I would watch a Mexican guy use a push broom to clean the kitchen line for $8 an hour. He would work meticulously while shaking his head in disgust. His objective, non-jaded view allowed him to see things clearer than the owner, even though he didn’t speak English. If I took off my rose-colored glasses, I would see what he saw … a screwed up restaurant!

But this was all I knew; this was how I thought a kitchen was run. Customers seemed to be happy - for the most part – and I had a good, capable chef. So why would I think otherwise? We may have won the battle, but the war was just beginning and my luck was running out.