Monday, November 30, 2009

Opening Day

By the time I flicked the switch on the ‘OPEN’ sign I had been awake for 26 hours. The very moment that I flicked the switch on that ‘OPEN’ sign my hopes, dreams and plans coalesced into reality. This is an unnerving experience no matter how many times you've gone through it. Most people will never experience it. This transition from hopes and dreams to reality occurs whenever the entrepreneur finally works through all the dreams and gets to the moment of truth – meeting the customer.

Most people just fantasize about starting their own business. They will sit in a restaurant and say, “You know what would really make this place work?” They walk into a store and think how THEY would treat THEIR customers this way or that. They watch commercials and think how much better they could have made the ad. These people live blessed lives, being able to enjoy these fantasies without ever having their ideas tested. The unaccountability of the wage earner must be very blissful.

The entrepreneur is the person who willingly, even excitedly, throws him or herself to the wolves – and customers can be voracious wolves at times. I have experienced this transition from dreams and plans to reality several times in my life but this was my first brick and mortar business – this was the first time I had an ‘OPEN’ sign to switch on. This time I was experiencing it with the intensity that buzzes through every single nerve after 26 hours of wakefulness. The cold November winds howled down the dark, icy street outside.

Everything was ready. The waffle irons were hot, the muffins were steaming up the dome display on the counter, and the aroma of hot cereal reminded me of sitting by the wood stove in my grandmother’s kitchen. I stood behind the counter waiting, wondering who the first customer would be. Within fifteen minutes the front door swung open and rattled the chimes hung above them. A well dressed woman with coal black hair and brilliant, icy blue eyes walked in.

“Hi there, good morning,” I beamed.

“Good morning,” she replied, “Can you make a white mocha?”

“I can do that!”

I turned to the espresso machine and began creating her white mocha. I was a bit surprised because I hadn’t actually put that on the menu, nor had she even looked at the menu. I had really only been keeping the white chocolate sauce around for personal use.

“So you like white mochas, do you?” I asked.

“Oh yes, and this place has always made the best!” she replied.

“Oh, you mean the old coffee shop. I just opened.”

“Yeah, I’ve been waiting for you to re-open,” she said, to my confusion.

“Uhm, well, I didn’t really re-open – the coffee shop is gone.”

“But you still make white mochas?”

“Yes, but I’ve got a much fuller menu than the old coffee shop.”

“Oh, well I only come here for white mochas,” she said as she paid.

And with that my first customer had come and gone. It was a bit disconcerting that she seemed completely disinterested in the food. It was even more disconcerting that she seemed to completely disregard the change in venue. I comforted myself with the thought that along with the new customer base that I was sure to develop, I would also inherit the old coffee shop clientele. If a lot of them drank white mochas then they might actually contribute towards door costs, or at least the power bill.

Quite quickly more customers rolled in, but one by one they completely bypassed the menu and asked for coffee. I was tired so I have to admit that a part of me was a little glad to not have to jump out of the gates with dozens of orders for the Belgian waffles. It wasn’t long before I started to sense trouble, though. Lyle Duerr walked in and straight up to the register.

“One coffee,” he said.

“Sure,” I replied, “are you interested in trying a Belgian waffle?”

“No, I just come here for the coffee. Glad you finally re-opened,” he said.

“Well, I was kind of hoping to leave the coffee shop behind, actually.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“It’s just that I prepared a lot of breakfast here. Hot cereal, Belgian waffles, hot fruit compote toppings for both, and muffins as well. I’ve got cold cereal too, or toast, if you’re interested.”

“Nah,” he said, “I just come here for the coffee.”

“Well, I hope you’ll consider a waffle, eventually. They’re light and fluffy inside, crispy on the outside, and layered with the strawberry almond compote and whipped cream they are really quite decadent.”

“Nah,” he continued, “If I wanted breakfast I’ld go to John’s and get bacon and eggs. Are you going to start serving bacon and eggs?”

“Actually,” I replied, “I was hoping to keep this as a designated no-fry zone.”

“Well let me know if you ever decide to cook breakfast here,” he snorted.

He seemed completely oblivious to the food that I had prepared. With each customer I tried the up-sell, but with each customer my offerings were totally disregarded. Some people actually asked what the difference between a waffle and a pancake was. When I revealed the oven roast sausages in hot holding, some people actually balked and just said, “You didn’t even fry them?”

Obviously it was going to take some time to get these people introduced to the idea of a breakfast that wasn’t saturated with grease. At least I had good traffic. A couple of people bought muffins but the rest of the crowd just soaked up the coffee. I couldn’t believe how much coffee they could drink. I could barely brew the stuff fast enough. At about 9:30 a.m. the back door swung open and Jeffrey walked in.

“Hey, boss!” he chirped.

“Hey, there! Wow, am I glad to see you!”

“How’s it going?”

“Busy. No food orders though. You shouldn’t have any trouble running the front.”

“I’m on it, boss.”

The ‘boss’ thing was getting stale fast but I was too happy to complain. I left Jeffrey to mind the front of the store and jumped into the kitchen to start cooking the turkey a la king and rice. Everything was prepared for the Tokyo pork wrap – teriyaki pork, shredded carrot, cucumber, green onions, spinach and the orange poppy seed dressing. Everything was also ready for the Caesar salad; it only needed to be mixed and tossed when the orders started coming in. I set the rice to boil and started chopping the onion, carrot and celery.

In no time at all I had the turkey a la king cooked up and simmering on the stove in the kitchen. I took turns bussing the tables with Jeffrey. The dishes were easy to wash, with barely a plate having been used. By 11:30 a.m. I started anticipating the lunch crowd. One fellow came in at 11:45 a.m. and ordered the turkey a la king on rice with Caesar salad. The minutes ticked toward noon and I remembered that Humbuggers never ate before the Flintstone Whistle blew.

Finally the whistle wailed through the streets, giving permission to the Humbuggers to stop their toils and head for lunch. Minutes later the door opened and a line of people came walking in and, I have to admit, I was horrified. I had been awake for more than 30 hours and suddenly I had to start plating like an Iron Chef. The real bottleneck was at the register, and it wasn’t Jeffrey that was the problem. Customer after customer inquired about the soup – which wasn’t even on the menu.

I should mention here that Humbuggers have a particular way of enunciating the word ‘soup’. They say the word with authoritative force and in a percussive meter, punctuating the end of a sentence like an expletive. To the Humbug restauranteur, ‘soup’ was a four letter word in every sense of the phrase. There came to be a pattern to the exchange and within the first half dozen orders I started looking for hidden cameras, again, to see if someone was playing a ridiculous joke on me. It seemed that the next person in line must have heard the exchange ahead of them and would alter their course, but one after another they stepped up and took the exact same approach.

“What’s your SUPE?”

“We don’t have soup, but we do have Turkey a la King,” Jeffrey would explain.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a cream based turkey stew.”

“What did you call it?”

“Turkey a la king.”

“Is that some kind of French thing?”

“Not really, it’s just the name of a recipe for creamed turkey.”

“So you don’t have any SUPE?”

“It’s like a thick soup. Would you like to try it?”

“Bah, well, I guess so.”

One after another they went through almost identical exchanges. Almost every single one of them had the ‘poorboy’ lunch special – a piping hot bowl of turkey a la king with garlic toast and coffee. Every single one of them seemed completely perplexed that there was no ‘SUPE’. They were also aghast that we had no crackers to offer. Although the dish was lightly seasoned, almost every one of them complained that it had too much pepper. Almost no one ordered the Caesar salad. One lady, of the few that had ordered it, came up to the counter to complain about it.

“Uhm, my Caesar salad tastes fishy,” she whined.

“That would be the anchovy,” I explained.

“Yuck! Why would you put anchovy in it?”

“Well, that’s what’s in Caesar dressing!”

“You made the dressing?” she asked.

“Yes, from scratch,” I boasted.

“Can’t I just get Caesar salad with Kraft dressing?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t have Kraft dressing here.”

“Then this isn’t really Caesar salad, is it?” she sneered.

“This is a REAL Caesar salad!” I snapped.

“Well it doesn’t even have REAL Caesar dressing!” she snapped back.

“Real Caesar dressing has anchovy, lady!”

“Well who made you boss? You think you know better than Kraft?” she chirped as she turned and walked away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. The dressing was perfect, absolutely perfect. I had roasted the garlic in olive oil, squeezed fresh lemons, used a high grade extra virgin olive oil, emulsified it with Dijon and a perfect balance of worcestershire sauce and pepper. I had gone to great expense to use an authentic parmigiano-reggiano and baked fresh sour dough croutons. I oven roasted thick sliced country style bacon and chopped it by hand and selected perfect romaine hearts. This was the first authentic Caesar salad ever served in Humbug and this backward, inbred, mouth-breathing country hick had the nerve to tell me that I had cheated her by not using Kraft creamy Caesar style dressing? I was livid.

By the end of the lunch rush I was starting to feel the effects of going more than 30 hours without sleep. I left Jeffrey to mind the store and started bussing the tables with a service cart. As I rolled the cart back toward the rear entrance to the kitchen, a short red-haired woman started following me saying, “Excuse me!” I braced for yet another complaint, but to my surprise she offered me a compliment.

“That was a great meal,” she said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

“Do you know what would really make this place work?” she asked.

“A customer base that knows the difference between Velveeta and Camembert,” I replied.

With a puzzled look she continued, “Well, I was thinking about art.”


“You need art on the walls. It just doesn’t feel like a coffee shop without art.”

“I’m not trying to run a coffee shop, I’m trying to run a restaurant, hence the word ‘Bistro’ in the name.”

“Oh, but you have such a great coffee shop here.”

“I really need to get these dishes done,” I said, lost for any other words.

“What’s your dream right now?” she asked.

“Getting some sleep,” I replied, backing into the kitchen.

She began to follow, “No, I mean what is your vision for this place.”

I had had enough. I didn’t know where this woman was going, but I knew she wasn’t coming into my kitchen. “Excuse me, this is a staff area,” I explained.

“Oh, that’s ok. I’m just trying to get a feel for your vision for your new business.”

“Look, lady, I’ve been awake for thirty some hours and I have dishes to do,” I begged.

“But don’t you want to share your vision?”

“Right now I have double vision. Lady - thirty some hours - I’m tired and I have dishes to do.”

She continued to push into the kitchen and I was getting really frustrated. “Please get out of my kitchen,” I pleaded.

“This place is such a great coffee shop,” she continued as she continued to advance.

“Lady, I don’t want a coffee shop, I want a restaurant, the only thing I want more is to get these dishes done, survive the day, and get to sleep.”

“I would be too exited to sleep on the first day if I were you.”

“This isn’t the first day. I’m telling you I’ve been awake since about 5 a.m. yesterday. I’ve cooked all night and I just want you out of my kitchen.”

“But what’s your vision? I can help,” she persisted.

“Lady, I appreciate that you liked the food, but you aren’t hearing a word I’m saying. I told you I want a restaurant here, not a coffee shop. I’ve told you that I’ve been up since yesterday morning and I just need to get these dishes done and get through the day. I’ve asked you to stay out of my kitchen and yet here you are in my kitchen. Apparently you don’t give a shit about anything I want and you’re just here to push something on me, and I’m not buying any. Now get, THE FUCK, out of my kitchen!”

She huffed and puffed a bit but finally got the fuck out of my face. As I franticly scrubbed the dishes I just kept mumbling, “vision…vision, who the fuck was that bitch?” Jeffrey could only stay until 2 p.m. and I needed to have the back end cleaned up before he left. The rest of the day was a blur to me as my consciousness began to grow more pliable. Before Jeffrey left he gave me a big high five at the back door and congratulated me again on finally being open.

There was a big afternoon coffee rush but once again no one seemed the least bit interested in food. Several more people expressed their joy that I had finally ‘reopened’ and told me how much they had always loved coming in for coffee. Most of them still referred to the place as the old Humbug Coffee House, and not one of them ever made mention of the Humbug Bistro. I was too tired to care. I was closing at 4 p.m. and realized that by that point I would be 35 hours without sleep.

The last customers left, having consumed copious amounts of coffee. I walked to the front and switch off the ‘OPEN’ sign. I stepped into the front foyer and turned the door sign to ‘CLOSED’. I locked the door and leaned my head against the cold glass. It felt so compelling and I imagined my head slowly slipping through the glass as though into a vertical pool of ice water. I began to notice that my nostrils were being filled with a pungent ammonia sort of odour. It burned my sinuses and drew me back into consciousness. As I looked around I noticed that the wall beside me was wet and there was a puddle on the floor. I leaned down and took a whiff and became nauseated as I realized someone had actually pissed in the foyer.

I didn’t have enough intellect left to even begin to ponder why anyone would do such a thing. The only thought that could pierce my haze was that I had to clean it up. By the time I finished and pushed the mop and bucket back into the dining area I had been awake almost 37 hours. I needed sleep but knew I couldn’t drive. I checked the waffle irons and hot holding to ensure they were off and headed towards the back of the kitchen to turn off the dishwasher.

As I shuffled through my galley it began to stretch like someone was pulling the focus way out on a movie camera - I felt dizzy. The dishwasher suddenly seemed to be a hundred yards away. I heard a muffled thud and darkness ensued.