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.