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…