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.


  1. John,
    I am seriously enjoying your blog. Each post is like watching a really good tv drama & at the end of the hour you say to yourself damm, is it over already.
    I spent the first 10 years of my culinary career running fine-dining kitchens, the last 10 have been running the kitchen in an assisted living(much better lifestyle)Anyway, I have always dreamed of having my own place, just not the cojones to do it. Bests of luck, keep the posts coming. Mark

  2. PS: I adore Anthony Bourdain! The blog post I am most proud of is about him... I even got a RETWEET of it from @NoReservations! Boy was I giddy that day :)