Monday, November 30, 2009

Day 6

On Sundays I offered my most ambitious menu; a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings. This day was designed to pull in the older customers - and in Humbug everyone acted like they were born in 1940. If Humbuggers hated progressive food then, I thought, this would be the menu to draw them all in. Even though the reactions through the week were extremely disappointing, at very least we had had quite a bit of traffic and plenty of people had read the menu and would know about the turkey dinner. The town only had a population of a few thousand so by this point everyone had to know about the new restaurant, even if they clung to the idea that it was still just the ‘old coffee shop’. Humbuggers seemed quite anachronistic, but what could be more old-fashioned than a Sunday turkey dinner? What would make for a better Sunday brunch than Belgian waffles?

Even though everything about the day’s menu seemed perfect for this little town I was filled with anxiety as I switched on the ‘OPEN’ sign for the sixth time. This day HAD to be a hit or I would have no idea what to do. If this day WAS a hit then at least I would have a starting point for restructuring the menu for the rest of the week. There was no way I was going to start serving flavourless prepackaged crap but maybe roast beef or ham would work just as well.

I took my place behind the register and waited. By 9:00 a.m., not only had I not seen a single customer but not even a single car had driven past on Main Street. It was obvious that this must be a real church-going town so I wasn’t entirely surprised. As I waited, I did find the absence of the coffee row crowd quite unexpected – not even Lyle Duerr came in. I wondered what time church-going people went to church.

By the time Marty and Anna showed up, the only glass used in the entire restaurant was holding my Americano. Up until owning my own espresso machine I had never been a coffee drinker but the habit was taking hold fast. I set to cooking dinner. The turkey bathed in hot broth while I thickened the velvety smooth gravy as the aroma of the seasoned pork and bread dressing roasting in the oven wafted sensually throughout the restaurant. The corn had to take a back seat to the potatoes because I still only had three elements on the stove. Marty and Anna helped me transfer all the food to hot holding because they didn’t have a single customer to serve. Everything was ready for 11:00 a.m. as the three of us stood in silence.

The time began to drag on horribly. I didn’t want to commit Anna or Marty to any big cleaning projects before our lunch rush arrived. To help pass the time we challenged each other to making various beverages. Anna was sharp as a tack but Marty shamed us both with his flawless cappuccinos, lattes, and espresso shots. He was just as fast with milkshakes and smoothies. When it came to barista talent, Marty was a monster.

The aroma of the turkey completely permeated the dining area. Boiling it in its own juices had allowed the light and dark meat to both be evenly cooked while still remaining moist and juicy. The dressing had crisped up and was a beautiful golden brown and it had a full turkey flavour from being prepared with the turkey broth. I salivated as I saw little pools of butter forming in the crevasses of the garlic mashed potatoes. We had all of this plus freshly prepared cranberry sauce.

Finally the Flintstone Whistle wailed its agonizing scream through the cold, empty, icy streets. We counted down to the lunch rush. We counted down some more. By 12:30 p.m. I felt like a tap dancer wearing mukluks. I decided to send Marty home but asked him to come back in on Tuesday to work with Jeffrey. Anna just started cleaning everything that wasn’t shiny and taking out the garbage. When I finally switched off the ‘OPEN’ sign at 5:00 p.m. the sales were $0.00. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Nothing. Fuck.

Anna’s mother came to pick her up. She came inside and told me that there had been a big pancake breakfast for the Catholic Church that morning. She said 80% of the town was Catholic so that had to be why nobody showed up. I desperately hoped that she was right so I agreed that she must be. After they left I stood in the middle of the dining area feeling more alone than I ever had in my entire life; a solitary pilot lashed to the wheel of a tiny ship being tossed about in the swells of the open ocean.

I had already thrown out all the food at 4:30 p.m. I could have kept the turkey and cranberry sauce but I wanted to destroy all evidence of that horrible day. Anna had completely finished the dishes and the restaurant was sparkling. My week was over with 113 hours of labour and about 40 hours of sleep. I went to my office and sat down with a bottle of whisky to evaluate what I had learned.

Full blooded Humbuggers seemed to want nothing but unseasoned ‘SUPE’. This meant serving the cheapest canned soup I could find for $4 per bowl. I had spent the summer watching the piles of crackers they used in other restaurants. I had learned first hand the volume of coffee they could drink. Even with a healthy price for coffee my margins would be, at best, about $2 per seat and coffee row was actually costing me money. There was no way to pay door costs and wages with such paltry covers.

The only way the other restaurants made it was on deep fried rubbish. By the time they paid the table server they actually lost money on all the ‘SUPE’ but managed to scrape some profit out of the high margin deepfreeze to deep-fry items. I didn’t have enough seats to keep a waitress busy - and installing a deep fryer, vent hood, and fire suppression would cost me about $20,000. There was no way to make ends meet in this location off of full blooded Humbuggers. In a town where so many people smoked, it drove me crazy that they could drop $10 per day on a pack of cancer yet balked at the idea of spending more than $8 on lunch twice per week.

I wondered how many non-Humbuggers lived in Humbug. Serving boutique quality food to other outsiders was the only way to generate meaningful revenue per seat. I had no idea how to reach this crowd but I had only been open one week and I had to let word of mouth have a chance. There just had to be a meaningful population of people who wanted fresh food and were willing to part with at least $8 to get it.

I decided to stay the course. My bottle of whisky agreed.