Monday, November 30, 2009

Plan A

The full expectations of modern restaurant customers are truly impossible to meet. The perfect experience would be to walk into the restaurant, be seated immediately, select ingredients from around the world which are field fresh and waiting, order them cooked in a culinary style selected from any part of the planet, receive the food instantly in portion sizes that Marlon Brando couldn’t possibly finish, and all for a price of under $10. Unfortunately all too many restaurants actually try to pull this off.

As soon as you see a menu that has pizza, souvlaki, stir fry, schnitzel, beer battered haddock and Swedish meatballs - you can be certain that you won’t be receiving fresh ingredients. The only way to serve a menu like this is to follow the deepfreeze to deep-fry methodology. Even the stir fry will be prepared by pulling out a bag of pre-portioned frozen vegetables and dropping them in a deep fryer for a few minutes and then onto the flat top where the meat has been doused with a bottled sauce. If you don’t believe this, you have never worked in a large kitchen that puts out this sort of catalogue menu.

The trick is in knowing from the start that something has got to give. For my menu I decided to cook as fresh as possible while shooting for the lowest menu prices possible. To do this I had to start by limiting the number of dishes available on any given day and eliminating table service. I created a daily menu that would have a soup, salad, hot pot, wrap and sandwich to select from. Along with the daily deluxe salad there would be some extra side salads to go with the wraps and sandwiches. For breakfast I decided on Belgian waffles, muffins, and hot cereal.

To serve this menu I needed someone who could run the cash register and prepare beverages, a line cook who could rapidly plate the meals, and a chef in the kitchen keeping the front line supplied. If we were very busy then a dishwasher could be found easily enough, but I felt that until that time everyone could take turns in the dish pit and bussing tables. I was to be the chef, not just because it was my menu but because I really didn’t like dealing with the public that much.

I began the hiring process by putting up a ‘help wanted’ sign in the front window. If you ever want to have a string of uncomfortable, bizarre and remarkably surreal experiences, just put a ‘help wanted’ sign in your front window. Eventually I did find some viable candidates, and I found one real gem in particular. Warren was a line cook who had worked in hotel kitchens from Calgary to Montreal and he had incredible talent. He suffered from depression and had been on a downswing for the past while, making it hard for him to find work in a town as small as Humbug. By the time he came to me he was getting back on his feet and vowed to continue his medication. Since anti-depressants carried as much stigma as street drugs in Humbug, I was about his only employment option. Beggars can’t be choosers so we settled on each other.

I decided to have him work as hands on as possible with the menu development to give him a sense of being a part of the new restaurant. Every day I set him up with a list of dishes to prep and plate so that we could gauge our portions and set our pricing. I spent most of my time costing out the recipes, ordering equipment, and organizing the front service area. One day Warren told me that he had a friend, Steve, who was working at another restaurant in Humbug but who wanted to come to work for me. I told him to have Steve drop by.

The next day, Warren brought me Steve’s resume. It was a great resume but I wanted to meet Steve first hand so I phoned and left him a message to this effect. The next day, Warren told me that Steve would soon be dropping by. Steve turned out to be rather elusive but I asked around and he did seem to have a very good reputation at the restaurant where he was working. I was glad to find out he wasn’t just Warren’s imaginary friend but I still needed to see him in action.

Warren and I were getting along just great and he started opening up about himself. He was a bit of an odd duck - sharing an attic loft with his friend Bert. It didn’t sound like it was even legally an apartment since they had to use an external set of stairs to climb down to a basement bathroom. I couldn’t help but start to wonder if Warren had a rubber ducky. I think he started to worry that I thought he and Bert were lovers because he soon shifted to telling me all about his girlfriend.

Warren and his girlfriend had been together since he was in Montreal, but she was living with her parents since his last downswing. He said that made more sense since he couldn’t afford his share of the rent on any sort of decent apartment and she needed a proper space to work on her studies. The more he told me about her, the more I couldn’t understand why she was with him. As near as I could figure out, she was working on an accounting diploma to round out her retail management experience while he had devoted his life to smoking pot and playing World of Warcraft.

Steve eventually showed up but said he only had five minutes to talk because of his hectic schedule. When I told him that I needed him to work for at least a few days before opening he told me that he couldn’t possibly do so before he finished his other job. I told him that I couldn’t guarantee him a job until I saw what he could do but he just said, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll think I’m awesome,” and he bolted out the door. For some reason, I didn’t find his confidence to be contagious.

Later that day Warren told me that his girlfriend just got a great new job in another town. When I told him how sorry I was to hear that, he just smiled and said, “Oh, that’s ok, I think doing the long distance thing will actually bring us closer together.” Plan A was getting very shaky; Steve was a flake and Warren was going to be hitting another downswing as soon as he realized his girlfriend had left him. Sometimes you just don’t need flashing lights to figure out that there is an accident up ahead.

Within two weeks Warren was lost down a hole of despair and Steve was still in the wind. I had called Steve at least a dozen times and left five messages. It was becoming apparent that I was going to have to take a different tack. I spent my days waiting on contractors, setting up equipment, going through horrible resumes, and trying to figure out what to do. About two weeks after Warren disappeared, Steve walked in the back door.

“Hey, how ya doin’?” he said.

“Not so great,” I replied.

“No? What’s up?”

“Well, I’m trying to figure out Plan B.”

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Warren is gone, depressed again, and you obviously aren’t going to work out.”

“WHAT?” he exclaimed.

“Well, what did you expect? I’ve left you five messages and you didn’t call me back.”

“I’ve been really, really busy. I don’t even return messages to my mother.” he said.

“Well I’m not you’re mother. I’ve got a business to open here. I didn’t know where you were so I’m working on a new plan.”

“But I QUIT my other job to work here!”

“That was a pretty stupid thing to do,” I chuckled.

“It’s not fucking funny!” he screamed.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you. I told you I wasn’t offering you a job until I saw you work. I called to try to schedule you in to do that work. You didn’t get back to me and the only other way I had of finding out if you were still alive was Warren – then he disappeared. How can I possibly rely on someone who remains incommunicado for weeks at a time?”

He stormed out extremely upset. I began to realize that finding reliable staff was going to be impossible. In most restaurants there are at least a dozen staff at any given moment. If one person doesn’t show up, everyone else can just work 10% harder. I was trying to build a wheel with three spokes and that just isn’t a very good idea if you don’t have completely reliable spokes. It was time to reinvent my wheel.