Thursday, October 4, 2012

Feeder Fish in a big pond

Back in my earlier years as a restaurant owner (not restaurateur), desperate for business, I started running a prix fixe menu (price fix). At the time mostly high-end, fancy French restaurants  did this. My goal was to offer a lower priced three-course menu to entice people to come in and dine.  A few of my local colleagues thought the idea was insanely stupid and couldn’t understand why I would lower my price point so much …they, of course, had busy restaurants.  To a small degree the price fix worked. But it was never the answer to my problem -- until the financial crisis in 2007.  After stocks started plummeting, businesses started failing and owners were scrambling to find new ways to promote value. The price fix menu boom started. Everyone from fast food chains to Chili’s & Applebee’s to high-end restaurants started promoting a price fix menu. You would think this would be good for me since I had a leg up…I had been running my special menu for years…. Wrong! I wasn’t established enough for the masses to know what I was doing. So I quickly became a small fish in a big pond.

At the time of the USA economic crisis, my restaurant was doing much better, but still on shaky ground. I was scared that I was about to take 3 steps backwards after taking two steps forward and with very little resources I had no idea what to do. With adversity staring me in the face once again, I had an epiphany. I realized that for once I was no longer a small fish flapping alone in a puddle of water, I was part of a group of fish all swimming in the same pond. I realized that my restaurant had been running in crisis mode for years and everyone was trying to figure out what I  I already knew…. how to run a business in despair. At that moment I decided I wasn’t going to be a small fish in a big pond… I was going to be the feeder fish! I am going to be the one that all the other small fish follow and feed off of.

I was innovative, full of ideas and for the first time I was calm. How was I going to be the leader? I started looking at all the tactics and gimmicks. Inferior cuts of meat, frozen portioned fish, price fix menus that only offered salmon, pasta and chicken, special pricing from 5-6pm midweek…none of it made sense. I felt as though we would only be ripping the customer off and selling them short on the proper dining experience. With that one thought, the idea came to me -- like flipping a light switch. People are scared, desperate and holding on to their money. If they are going to be brave enough to spend it, I need to be brave enough to give them value. This one thought was the birth of our four course “Giro Del Menue” (tour of the menu).

I based the idea on how impoverished areas of Europe always managed to stay healthy and fed. I learned that they slowly ate multiple courses of micro regional food. A poorer family couldn’t afford enough of a luxurious protein for the entire family. So they would portion it out smaller pieces and fill up their bellies on wonderful local produce & handmade pastas with simple sauces. By the time they would eat their protein, they appreciated the few bites and they  were satisfied. 

This was going to be my new dining experience, slower,  and with smaller portions of multiple courses with no restrictions. No time constraints or limited menu choices. No schticks or cost cutting technique that would leave the customer feeling dissatisfied. Simply offer them value for being ballsy enough to come to my place and spend money in a down economy. And, when things turn around. …I hoped they would remember  us for it!  Maybe just maybe, I can finally call myself a restaurateur.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The $35k Brunch

In my previous blog posts, I wrote all about my early years as a restaurant owner and my financial struggles and desperate measures to try and make a buck. I told you about how I redefined the restaurant and turned things around.  One of my tactics to bring in revenue was to do brunch. This proved to be unsuccessful in regards to bringing in a plethora of new customers but it was a success in a totally unexpected way.

Brunch brought in two guests who quickly became weekly regulars. Most Sundays on their walk back from church, “Mr and Mrs. X” would stop in for brunch. On most Sundays they were the only ones who stopped in for brunch. They seemed like a very kind couple and were always very upbeat and positive.

I became close enough with this couple -- or maybe I just so badly wanted someone to be honest with. When they asked how things were going, I started openly telling them the truth. Each week they would come back, sit in an empty dining room and I would give them more details about our financial struggle.

What happened next was one of the kindest gestures of stupidity I have ever encountered. Mr. X stopped in one day and told me that he and Mrs. X were going to give us a loan. He told me to get together a list of the most pressing debts. He had no idea the journey he was about to embark on and everyone (I mean everyone) told him he was eFFn’ nuts to even considered helping us out. It was a total pay it forward move, they knew the immense risk and, for whatever reason, they had more faith in us than anyone else. They believed we were a sincere couple who would work hard to get them their money back and they really wanted help.  During a recent conversation, Mr. X said he was just tired of hearing my weekly whimpering at his breakfast table. But, I don’t believe this.

After going back and forth with a list of the most pressing financial issues and keeping a bunch of skeletons hidden in the closet, he gave me a check for $35,000 and an interest-only loan agreement. Over the years he has worked with us when we couldn’t pay the interest payment and even loaned us additional monies as those skeletons came out of the closet.  Like proud parents, Mr. & Mrs. X love showing off the place to friends and family

Over the last few years we were able to start paying principle and interest and slowly have reduced the loan. Looking back I feel this kind gesture was instrumental in my success today. Not because it kept the lights on, lawsuits at bay and the taxes paid. But also because of the generosity and trust this couple put in my wife and me and our vision. Failing was not an option; I could not and would not let these people down. I still work hard every day, with this loan in mind, and I will forever be indebted to this couple…long after the principle and interest is paid off.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Mistakes, Regrets and Principles

Over the years I have had some pretty crazy war stories. I have had an all out fist fight with a customer in the dining room, battles with purveyors, and screaming matches with customers.  I have thrown multiple parties out of the restaurant and, for the most part, my cavalier attitude has led me to believe that these attacks have always been justified. I have had far more positive stories though --we have celebrated lots of engagements, tons of happy rehearsal dinners and countless birthday celebrations and many weddings -- where we always try to do something special. We’ve done lots of great community service including charity donations, food drives, coat drives, fundraisers and, of course, our big Christmas drive where we adopt multiple families with children and give them the whole Xmas experience.  But, all of the good is quickly cast aside when you have an altercation with a customer.

Recently, when I was sitting around one night telling war stories with my staff, I noticed that every story was funnier than the next…except every story was about a negative experience at the restaurant. Not one story was a “remember when we helped” or “how about the time the couple got engaged…” 

Here’s one that particularly stands out in my mind. When I first started my cheese program, I was the only person who handled it and I personally delivered it to each table.  One particular evening a customer had ordered a cheese board just as I had received an urgent call about my mother-in-law (an elderly dementia patient). The phone call was regarding a critical matter that needed to be handled immediately.  My time on the phone caused the customers to wait a little over 20 minutes for their cheese board. As soon as I was off the phone, the server quickly brought me up-to-date on the situation and I immediately made their cheeseboard, added two additional cheeses from my private collection and headed to the table. I simply said, Folks I would like to apologize for your wait” and I began to explain what had happened and how the cheese board was on the house. With only a few words from my mouth, the gentleman looked at me and said "let me ask you what you think is an appropriate amount of time to wait?" I felt as though I was already addressing (apologizing) for the inappropriate wait time and I continued on with my story. The gentleman put his hand up in disgust and stopped me mid- sentence only to wave me off and dismiss what I was saying as a lie. I was practically holding back tears at the very sad news I had just learned about a family member and to my dismay I did lose my temper. I never yelled or argued I simply removed the cheese board and asked them to leave. My biggest regret was dropping the F-Bomb which in hindsight was inappropriate. But I am only human and we do make mistakes.

I did learn from the experience and have since trained others on the staff to do the cheeses, but the impact of my actions goes far deeper than losing those two customers. They have told countless people their version of the story and have posted the experience on numerous websites. My lashing out, although prompted by their arrogance, was due more to personal issues rather customer issues. If I had just kept my cool, walked away and let them have their dinner, I probably would have won them over in the end. At the very least they would have calmed down, appreciated the free cheeseboard and, most likely, not gone out of their way to destroy my reputation.

I had an eye-opening customer service experience recently during a dinner at Bonefish Grill. The fish we had smelled bad and didn’t taste good. We told the server and immediately the manager was at the table. He never tried to educate or argue, he only wanted to make us (his customers)  happy. He asked, “Can we get you something else?” When we said “no,” he removed the entree from the bill,  sent a dessert and then gave us a coupon for a free appetizer. Now I know the chains can afford to never let a customer leave unhappy at any cost and the fish was definitely bad, but it still made me think about my customer service.

I don’t know if it’s me getting older or just settling in as a more mature business owner, but my views on customer service have changed. I still do not adhere to the policy the customer is always right. Sorry folks, but unfortunately customers taking advantage of that line has deemed it bullshit. And looking back at my battles, I believe all were justified. I do, however,  think most of them were handled poorly. I now know that the lashing out was more about my financial struggles or personal issues rather than the customer issues.

I train my staff to understand we are in an industry where we need to eat a bunch of shit. There is, however, a line --  and if customers cross it we will let them know. Every day I continue learning how to address customer issue without letting the customer leave upset and still sticking to my principles (sometimes that is easier said than done).  I know from the outside looking in, this concept seems pretty easy. But when you own an independent restaurant you need to have your heart and soul attached. This personalized touch is what makes your place unique. This personalized touch is also what makes criticism so much harder to swallow. Mix that with the daily stress of owning a small business and the combination can be toxic. It won’t matter how many great things you do… the one bad thing will always triumph. For those in the past that I offended, I still am sticking with my principles, but I do apologize for my ignorance.10 years open and I still learn everyday!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

2009 A New Chapter Begins

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 . 

After 7 years of ownership, the ship (Avalon Restaurant) had finally stopped sinking, but the water line was still around my neck. I needed to continue to improve the overall dining experience and get more people in the seats, especially midweek. My menu, for the most part, was French influenced, Mediterranean, 1980s American continental, with an occasional Asian twist. In other words …confusion cuisine. I recently ran across an advertisement the restaurant ran around 2005 that read “casual fine dining featuring regional and southwestern dishes as well as Asian, European and Cajun selections” The ad made my wife and I laugh so hard we almost peed our pants. Why was my restaurant so dead back then?  I now know that taking a better look at ads like this would have gone a long way to answering questions like that.

Sometimes a firm grasp of the obvious can be as startling as a swift kick in the boys. I was never a firm believer in “the customer is always right.” I was, however, a firm believer in “the customer is always right as long as they loved my restaurant.” Everyone who complained was dumb, annoying and didn’t know a damn thing about food. But, I was desperate for more repeat business so I decided I would ask my few customers what they wanted and what would bring them back more often. Once I got past my egomaniacal anger and confrontational attitude, I learned the customer isn’t so stupid. Asking them and then listening to their answer and then giving them the dining experience they would enjoy most…could prove to be quite fruitful.  The overwhelming response I got from customers was that they loved the Mediterranean style food we created (seafood pescatore at the time was a big hit), they said Atkins (low carb diet) was passé and they wanted pasta again. Customers also said they would like attentive service, but in a more casual environment.

The Philadelphia dining scene was changing thanks to restaurateurs like Stephen Starr. It wasn’t just about the food anymore; it was a combination of food, décor and concept. The ambiance and food, in combination, needed to create a feeling of euphoria.  Restaurants were becoming hyper focused, featuring local ingredients and very specific regional cuisines. The décor of restaurants was becoming more elaborate and was designed to match the chef’s style and his food. The customers, who now had a large internet audience, were becoming amateur food critics. As your customer was leaving you wanted them already thinking about whom they would bring next. You needed them to leave the restaurants ready to be ambassadors – like a walking vocal billboard promoting your restaurant.  This was easier said than done-- but done right it was super effective and potentially viral.

I didn’t have the budget to start a major restaurant make-over. But I was savvy and I had the advantage of being an hour outside the city.  This made for fewer restaurant comparisons and a much better opportunity to generate that “wow” factor. I decided to take off the tablecloths, pledge up the tops and set the tables naked. I added a giant cheese display to the middle of the dining room  and threw away the old leather bound menus in exchange for simple menus printed daily, on recycled paper. I flooded the place with candles, changed to more edgy music and dressed the servers in blue jeans with bistro aprons and a t-shirt with nicely printed logos.

The biggest change was going to be the menu. This was my first attempt at writing my own menu and I wanted it to reflect authentic Italian cuisine. I wanted to include lots of homemade pasta dishes so that the restaurant would be known for making unique fresh pastas. 

As we were about to start our new more modern Avalon concept, I stressed to the staff that rustic casual was not an excuse for sloppy. We still needed to maintain beautiful presentation and top notch service. I let everyone know that we would be under scrutiny, as no one else was doing anything like this so far from the city. I told them we had come so very far in 7 years and this was our chance to really stand out. Everyone seemed excited!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Molto Mario and my most Ballsy Decision Yet!

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 . 

My bi-polar roller coaster ride continued for years. Ups and downs, daily struggles and the almost financial ruin was felt weekly. My chef had moved on and a few others chefs came and went. Some stay for a short jaunt while others lasted a year or more. Through all of this I finally discovered a silver lining…my innate ability to taste, transform and pair flavors. I was actually quite good at it -- it came naturally.

I started spending more time dining out and experiencing the feel and concept other restaurants. I enjoyed talking with many other chefs and tasting their foods. I remained very close with my old chef and we would frequently head into Philadelphia and bounce from one restaurant to the next. Sitting at the bar having a drink or two and trying as many different plates at as our fat bellies could fit. I started to see a whole other culinary world and I was getting hooked.

I invested more time and money into my new-found interest. Each morning my day would start with a cup of Joe and a reading from my cookbook du jour.  My collection of cookbooks and my insatiable thirst for knowledge continued to grow. I needed more. I seemed to be drawn to flavors of Spain and Italy. My financial situation didn’t afford me the opportunity to travel and experience this cuisine on native land….so I turned to Mario Batali (on TV, that is). My DVR went into overdrive and I recorded every episode of Molto Mario I could find.

I would sit and watch all the different shows as much as time would permit me. I was so intrigued by Mario’s vast knowledge of Italian traditions and micro regional cuisine. I wasn’t watching for recipes as much as I was watching for a new-found understanding of how the Italian lifestyle worked and its direct correlation to the cuisine. It was my new obsession to learn as much about  Italy as I possibly could without visiting the country and Molto Mario was a wealth of knowledge crammed into a half hour.

Meanwhile, I started noticing my latest of many chefs was burning out. Now was the time. Scared shitless and not very confident I made my most ballsy decision since deciding to buy a restaurant….I was going to take over the kitchen!

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.