Monday, November 30, 2009

Plan B

Looking back at my first plan I realized that I had relied too much on line cooks. Based on my hotel kitchen experience I should have known this. I can’t tell you how many shifts I’ve had to work double speed because other line cooks didn’t show up. The more line cooks you have, the easier it is to get over one missing. I just didn’t have the seating to accommodate a full kitchen staff, and with my business model relying on such a small menu I made the mistake of relying on a single line cook per shift. To have to close the restaurant just because a single line cook phoned in hung-over was simply unacceptable.

I had to eliminate my dependence on a position that is notoriously filled by skilled yet unreliable staff. This meant I would have to work the front end and do the plating myself; an idea that I didn’t like but that I would have to deal with. With no chef in the kitchen to keep me supplied, I would have to do extra prep work before the doors even opened in the morning. All I needed was someone who could run the cash register and make the odd waffle while I finished cooking lunch. In the event that even that person didn’t show up, I needed a lunch menu that I could complete while still minding the front end. The menu had to be pared down to something even simpler that what I had started with.

I had to decide on either a soup or a hot pot – I wouldn’t have time to cook both if I was alone. The hot pot could be served on a bed of rice with the deluxe salad, or just in a bowl with some garlic toast. If I was going to get working men in, the sort who eat full meals and don’t mind buying lunch two or three times per week, then I needed the hot pot. Piping hot chili con carne or generous portions of turkey a la king would be just the thing to get some hardy men with big appetites swinging the doors. All things considered, the soup had to go.

Without the soup, the sandwich became problematic. Soup and a sandwich is a common combination but without the soup there would be too much expectation of French fries with the sandwich. People who eat wraps are more likely to choose side salads and I could keep those on hand easily enough. Obviously the sandwich had to go as well.

The new daily menu was a hot pot, wrap, deluxe salad and some side salads for lunch. I would serve that Tuesday through Friday. I designated Saturdays as ‘Siesta Saturdays’ and brought the first tacos and burritos to Humbug. Sunday was the crown on the menu, with a full turkey dinner and all the trimmings. Monday I would be closed so I could do banking, pay bills, and deal with other business issues. All I had to do was find the right people to run the register and make the beverages.

After another string of uncomfortable, bizarre and remarkably surreal interviews, I had three people selected. Jeffrey and Anna were all I could ask for. Anna was in high school, so weekdays were out for her, but other than that she was eager to work as many or as few hours as I needed her on weekends. Jeffrey was actually training as a minister with the local United Church so Sundays were out for him along with Wednesdays when he volunteered at the local hospital. Maria was the only one I had concerns about.

On the plus side, Maria was 50 years old so I felt her reliability would be very high. On the down side, she was adamant that she wouldn’t work weekends under any circumstances, and therefore felt she should have all of the weekday hours. I wasn’t crazy about putting too many eggs in Maria’s basket, but I felt that because of her age she would be the most reliable person for those hours.

We did two shifts of training and then started cleaning like mad for the pre-opening health inspection. Health inspectors can be a little lenient about a few missed spots when you are running a busy kitchen, but I had been told that the pre-opening inspection would be incredibly thorough. The inspector came through on a Thursday just as Jeffrey and Maria were putting the finishing touches on the bathrooms. He was a pleasant young man, obviously not very experienced but definitely thorough. He made a couple of notes on things he thought we could improve upon but signed off on my certificate to operate.

Jeffrey, Maria and I celebrated but I don’t think they had any idea how excited I truly was. This was it – I was finally going to have my own restaurant. I told them we would be opening on Tuesday, but asked if either of them could work Friday and Monday to help get things ready for opening day.

Maria blurted, “Oh, I can work eight hours both days.”

I replied, “Well, that’s just about all the hours I have to offer before opening.”

Maria stared harshly at Jeffrey and he turned to me and said, “That’s okay, I wouldn’t mind heading into Cuspidor this weekend to see my parents anyway.”

I was irritated with Maria for bullying him but said to Jeffrey, “Ok, so you are fine with starting next Saturday then? Maybe 10 o’clock?”

“Sure thing, boss,” he said with a big smile. He seemed to get a kick out of calling me boss.

Friday morning I started doing inventory to generate the shopping list. I had a program that could calculate every gram of every ingredient I would need if I punched in expected sales of each menu item for any given period. I needed to know what I had on hand so I could enter that and get a shopping list. This may sound a bit anal retentive but when you are planning the first week worth of meals for a restaurant it can be very difficult to remember everything that you need and even harder to get the volumes in the ball park. I also had a lot of signs to make and put up - from full display daily menus to daily special signs for the front window.

By the time I had the shopping list ready I began to wonder what time Maria was coming in. We had been starting at 9 a.m. but I had meant to ask her to start at 8 a.m. when we decided on an eight hour day. It was getting past 9:30 a.m. and I hadn’t heard from her. I called her and left a message. I didn’t hear back. Plan B was getting shaky.

I called her several times on Saturday, asking her to get back to me as soon as possible. I was beginning to feel glad that I had planned on a cold opening. No one in town knew when we were going to open so, if need be, I could just wait another week. The idea of waiting another week made me angry, though. The contractors had already cost me over six months, and staff was starting to cost me more. I already had a Plan C in place – running it by myself. That was only for a worst case scenario, however. Unfortunately it was starting to look like a worst case scenario. I realized I would never know if any employee was going to show up for sure so I decided to just stay the course.

Monday morning I was running around frantically filling napkin and paper towel dispensers, putting up signs and setting up the displays of herbal teas. I had to make the final grocery run before opening and still didn’t know what had happened to Maria. I waited as long as I could and then put my coat on to go get the groceries. Just as I ran out of my office I heard a knock from the front and looked to see Maria standing with another woman outside.

I ran to the door and opened it and said, “Where have you been?”

“What?” she said, seeming rather insulted.

“I needed you on Friday, and I needed you first thing this morning. I have been calling you. Where have you been?”

She just shook her head and said, “You don’t even open until tomorrow.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and I shouted, “There were fucking signs to set up, supplies to check, and I still need to get the groceries!”

Her friend just tilted her head and went into a Humbug Huh.

Maria stared at me like she thought I was crazy and said, “You really need to relax. I just stopped in with my friend for some tea. Don’t you want to sit with us and have some tea?”

I didn’t have time for this so I just screamed, “Are you here to work or not?”

“Well,” she sighed, “I guess I should go home and change into my work clothes.”

“Do it!” I screamed, “And get back here in thirty minutes. I still have to get out of here!”

She tried, to no avail, to reanimate her friend. To expedite matters I just grabbed her friend by the arm and said, “It’s pretty warm out for November, isn’t it?”

The woman popped back into consciousness as Maria stared in wonder.

“Please,” I said, “just get changed and hurry back.”

They trundled off and I just shook my head as I locked the door and stormed back into the dining room. I paced back and forth, frothing at the mouth. What the hell was wrong with her? Stopping in for tea the day before opening? How clueless could these Humbuggers be? Exactly thirty minutes later I grabbed the phone and called to see what the hell was keeping her. There was no answer. Did this mean she was on her way back? Did this mean she wasn’t coming at all? I decided to give her fifteen minutes. Finally I bolted for the door to get the groceries. Just as I was leaping out the back door the phone rang. I ran back inside and answered.

“Hello,” I blurted.

“Oh, hi, this is Maria,” she lilted.

“Where the fuck are you, Maria?”

“You know,” she continued, lilting, “I just don’t think I’ll be able to make it in at all this week.”

“Fine, fuck you!”

I slammed down the phone and ran. I had no idea what was wrong with her and I had no time to figure it out. I ran through the grocery store like a maniac. By the time I got back to the restaurant and got everything unloaded and put away it was 2 p.m.

I started by roasting almonds, filberts and poppy seeds in three different frying pans on the stove. I didn’t have filbert slices, so I was smashing them with a tenderizer hammer as they toasted. I have no idea what happened next, but there was a huge spark and I could barely see for the next few minutes. I rapidly slid the pans around to distribute the heat and stirred them by feel with a metal spatula. My vision had more or less returned by the time I could smell that the almonds and poppy seeds were done. Why weren’t the filberts toasting? I figured out that there was no heat from that burner. The spark must have been some sort of short circuit. I used another burner, but realized that now I only had 3 left.

I peeled the apples and started the spiced apple compote, strawberry almond compote and blueberry hazelnut compote for the waffles. As I was waiting for them to come to a boil I made the orange poppy seed dressing, coleslaw dressing, Caesar dressing, and a chili lime dip for the veggies. As soon as the waffle toppings were done I started the teriyaki pork for the wrap and got some bacon in the oven for the Caesar salad. In another pot I started the simple syrup, which I could flavour for the coffee syrups or use for iced tea. I started the potatoes boiling for the potato salad, and pasta for the pasta salad. I kept glancing at the clock in fear and chastising myself for having not worked longer hours on the weekend.

By 8 p.m. I was about half way through my list. I figured it would take me until 2 a.m. to finish but I had to take a break. I went to my office and studied my list to try to figure out the most efficient way to proceed. I needed to keep the oven and three remaining burners in continuous use to ensure I wasn’t losing time. Within a half an hour I was back in the kitchen mixing up waffle batter, ramming cabbage through the mandoline, peeling carrots and slicing celery sticks. Using a mandoline for carrot sticks delivers a really nice slice, but it’s tedious work by the time you’ve been in the kitchen for ten hours.

By 2 a.m. I was horrified to see that I still had quite a few items left on my list. I was slowing down and I just couldn’t get back up to full speed. There were so many stupid little things to do! I ran the croutons and parmigiano up to the front and loaded the whipped cream canister with a nitrous oxide charger. I was twisting the nitrous oxide into the whipped cream canister lid at the same time I was screwing it onto the container and the gas burst before the canister was sealed. I got a heavy whiff of the nitrous and felt really good for the first time since getting the license signed on Thursday. This was a different kind of good though, and I dropped to my knees and began laughing uncontrollably.

For a few minutes I didn’t know if it was just the gas or if I had truly lost my mind. I could swear that the espresso machine was my high school principal and he was looking down at me and yelling at me for not finishing my potato salad. Damn! I hadn’t finished the potato salad. Still high as a kite I ran into the kitchen and started chopping green onions, apologizing to them with each chop. My eyes started to wobble in my head, so I grabbed some cilantro and a bowl and headed out to a table in the dining room. I could barely see straight, but I could still pull the leaves from the cilantro and get them into the bowl. Each leaf screamed as I pulled it from the stem. By the time I was done, their screams had faded and I was almost back in the real world.

It was 6:30 a.m. and I only had thirty minutes until opening. I still had to make the coffee and get everything prepared for the turkey a la king. It seemed like I was running in circles and there was no end in sight. I had to set out ice for the cream and get a pitcher of ice water to the front counter. I was glad to have a change of clothes in my office for I was covered from head to toe in various types of salad dressing, fruit compote, and batter. I realized I wouldn’t be open on time, but it was going to be close, maybe only a few minutes late. At exactly 7 a.m. the phone rang just as I was getting changed in my office.

“Hello, Humbug Bistro,” I groaned.

“Hey, Boss! Congratulations on opening”

“Jeffrey. Damn. Where are you?”

“Uhm, I’m in Cuspidor at my parents. I was just calling to congratulate you. You don’t sound good.”

“I’m not good,” I lamented, “Maria never showed up. I’m not open, but I’m really close.”

“I could be there in a few hours, boss, if you need me.”

“Are you serious?” I begged.

“Sure thing!”

And with that I had help on the way. I couldn’t believe that this guy was going to drive over 100 kilometers to help me for opening day but I had to believe it or I wouldn’t have had the courage to go through with opening. It was just after 7 a.m. and winter was well upon the prairie. It was dark and cold outside and I took a moment to stare at the vacant street, wondering what opening day would bring. At that moment, a blustering icy wind drove wisps of snow down the dark, icy sidewalk.