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…

1 comment:

  1. I love how you left us hanging -- looking forward to the next installment, although, I think I remember.....