The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Dozen (Or So) Reasons Why You Don't Want To Run A Restaurant

How Hard Can It Be?

So you're sitting around in your underwear watching some foodie porn movie like “Chef” or “No Reservations” or “Burnt” or “Big Night.” And you start to think, “Wow, it must be great to run a restaurant. You're surrounded by all that food and you get to hang out with your friends and feed them and party with them and get waited on by sycophantic servers while you dictate the finer points of preparing your food to eager young cooks who hang on your every word. All you've got to do is open the doors and wait for the customers to stream in while everybody else does the actual work. Hell, I could do that. How hard can it be?”

Or maybe you're a really, really good cook. And everybody you know tells you you should open a restaurant. Why not? Where's the downside to getting paid to cook the same food you already make for your family and friends? They love your meatloaf so why wouldn't everybody love your meatloaf? All you've got to do is hire a few people, open the doors and wait for the money to start rolling in. How hard can it be?

Let me offer you some free advice: the next time somebody suggests you open a restaurant, or, God forbid, actually hands you the keys to one, just look 'em straight in the eye and kick 'em right in the shins.

Restaurants run in my family. My grandparents operated them, various aunts and uncles operated them. One of my sons is in the restaurant business. I've done it, too. So that makes four generations of idiots in one family. Must be a record.

I have a great old black and white photograph of my grandparents standing outside one of their establishments. The picture was taken back in the 1940s or early '50s and both are just beaming with the pride of ownership, Grandpa cutting quite the jaunty figure in his white jacket and peaked cap and Grandma looking appropriately matronly in her apron. They look so happy and satisfied. I gotta wonder if maybe the picture wasn't snapped on opening day before reality set in.

I'm a caterer and/or personal chef and happy to be such. Restaurants ain't my bag. Been there, done that. No, I like serving my tightly select menu to my tightly select clientele, and whenever somebody asks me why I don't open a restaurant, I tell them, “because I like to cook.” That's why I totally astonished myself when I volunteered – did you catch that?, volunteered – to help a friend with his struggling eatery. Yes, sir, I just went out and bought me the economy size bottle of “Stupidol” and swallowed the whole damn thing.

'Course, I knew I couldn't do it alone, so I dragged my long-suffering wife and business partner into the fracas and we set up a “consulting team.” That means we called in my son and several other friends in the business, described the situation, and asked them for advice. The advice ran from, “gee, Dad, are you sure about this?” to “sei pazzo.” (From my Italian friend who runs four restaurants. Means “you're crazy.”) Most just said, “oh hell, shut it down.” But not me. No, I was committed. As it turns out, I should have been.

So, drawing in part from my recent experience, here, in no particular order, are a dozen (or so) reasons why you don't want to run a restaurant.

It's a guaranteed success. So you think you've got a concept that can't miss? A study conducted by Ohio State University found that 60% of restaurants fail within their first 3 years of operation, and 80% fail before the 5th year. Okay, so your idea of building a restaurant around rabbit leg confit might be unique, but I promise you after the "new" wears off in six months or so, your trip to the final restaurant resting place will likely begin.
You will never cook again. Before Harry Potter whacked us with some version of an “obscuro” spell, my wife and I were prolific cooks. We have a professional quality kitchen in our home and we were in it nearly every night turning out fantastic food for ourselves and our friends and neighbors. We visited farmers markets and higher-end grocers on a regular basis and waxed rhapsodic about the importance of quality ingredients. All that went “poof” the minute we turned the key in the restaurant door. During our adventure, we cooked exactly four meals at home over an eight week period. The rest of the time, we consumed restaurant foodstuffs purchased at the lowest possible cost from the cheapest possible vendor. Or we ate at the McDonald's across the street.
Your idea of the “glamorous” aspect of the business will change dramatically. Notice how they never sweat in onscreen kitchens? It ain't so. My wife and I each dropped nearly twenty pounds. And that was with the AC blowing full blast. AC that, by the way, didn't quite make it to the dish bay, where it was even hotter than the kitchen. My first job in a professional kitchen was busboy. Forty-five years later, I'm still doing it. How's that for glamor? Cleaning public toilets is always fun, too and if you want to see where the restaurant's real glitz and glamor are located, I've got two words for you: grease trap. “Floor drains” and “hood vents” are right up there, too.
What's an “eight-hour day?” When the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1937, I think the restaurant management folks were out to lunch. “Eight-hour day?” Riiiiiiight! You open at six or seven in the morning and you close at nine or ten at night. And when you're the boss, you're there for pretty much every one of those sixteen or so hours.
Social life? Fuggedaboutit! Friends........let's see.......I used to know what those were. Oh, yeah! They're the ones on TV who you see being wined and dined by the convivial restaurateur. Let me tell you, the closest my best friend got to my restaurant was the night he stopped by with a bread delivery because I was too tied up with other fun and glamorous restaurant stuff to get to the bread store before it closed. And would it surprise you to know that restaurant workers have exceptionally high divorce rates? As high as 38.4%? Fortunately, my wife and I both took the crazy pills together. But even so, the experience tossed a few pebbles onto our otherwise pristine path. We snapped at each other more in eight weeks than we had in eighteen years.
Weekends, holidays, vacations? All things reserved for your customers, not you. You’re part of the hospitality industry now, which means your job is to make other people happy. You don't get to be happy anymore.
Think of the money! You might as well think of it because you sure as hell ain't gonna make any of it. After you pay the landlord, the electric company, the gas company, the insurance company, the accountant, the laundry service, the pest control people, the waste management people, the food vendors, the employees, and any advertising costs you might have, then you get to think about replenishment. Take-out containers cost money. So do cups and glasses and dishes and flatware and napkins and janitorial supplies and........the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, your cash flow usually does not. And if you think you own your business, try not paying your taxes. There used to be a great little pizza joint just down the road. Great food, great service, not so great bookkeeping. The tax man backed a big truck up to the door one day and hauled away everything but the memories.
Make sure you use the right screws. City and county building inspectors, fire marshals, and health inspectors will drive you straight up a wall. You've got to have your thermometers hung near the front of your reach-in, not the back. Check those dates! There's a cracked tile behind the toilet in the men's room. Sorry, that'll cost you a point. The can opener must be cleaned and sanitized at least once every four hours when in use. All equipment with the exception of microwaves, toasters, and mixers must be NSF-approved or if not NSF-approved, must be used for its intended use and meet Chapter 4 of the food code. Etc., etc. I got written up because there was a piece of duct tape wrapped around a faucet on the handwash sink. “It must be covering a pinhole,” says the inspector. “Repair or replace the faucet.” After the guy left, I peeled off the tape to see what it was covering. Nothing. Some doofus just wrapped it around there for no good and apparent reason. Still got us a write up. The lights in your kitchen have to be “X” candlepower. The sanitizer in your sink has to be no less than 50 and no more than 200 ppm. Is your business license up to date? Is your operating permit properly displayed? Have you paid your city, county, state, and federal taxes? The list of “i”s to be dotted and “t”s to be crossed is endless.
Beware of Yelpers. The absolute bane of the modern restaurant industry is the DIY restaurant critic. This is the palate-numbed idiot who once drove past a Michelin starred restaurant on his way to the IHOP and now thinks he is the next Craig Claiborne or Ruth Reichl. He doesn’t know a damn thing about food, but he knows what he likes and if you don't spread the peanut butter thickly enough on his PB&J, he'll rip you a new one on Yelp! I got a scathing “one-star” review because the “critic” said the owner of the place was a terrible driver who almost ran her off the road. In the first place, what the hell does that have to do with the restaurant? In the second place, how did she know it was the “owner” at the wheel? Lots of our customers have bumper stickers and window decals with our logo on them. Point of fact, on the day the “review” was written, the owner was out of town.
And then there are all the wonderful people you'll meet. The restaurant business is a people business. It's people serving people. And it would be so much more pleasant if it weren't. Most of your customers will be pretty nice folks. You're providing them with a service, after all, and they generally appreciate it. As long as you don't burn the food or drop the plates in their laps, they're likely to be fairly easygoing. You'll even develop a following; “regulars” who will really become part of the character of the place. It's the other characters you can live without. Like the asshat who comes in pissed off, complains about everything, leaves pissed off and stiffs your waitstaff. Or the parents who turn their little darlings loose to crawl under tables and swivel around on barstools and make a general dangerous and annoying nuisance of themselves for you, your staff, and your other customers. And then they stiff your waitstaff. Picky eaters are okay. I'm a bit of one myself. But I have yet to consume three-quarters of a meal and then complain that the food was “inedible” and demand a comp. Happens all the time. And then they stiff your waitstaff. Get used to the fact that your prices are too high, your portions are too small, the room is too hot, the room is too cold, the music is too loud, the lights are too bright, the lights are too dim, the fries are too salty, the fries aren't salty enough. “Can I substitute this for that?” You get the picture. And then they stiff your waitstaff.

Speaking of staff......You know, I think I figured out why Grandma and Grandpa looked so happy and content in that old photo. They had the damn place to themselves! He cooked, she waited tables. Period. It was a true “mom and pop” operation. Oh, that I could have had such luck! My wife and I operate like a well-oiled machine in our catering/personal chef business. We plan and execute nearly everything ourselves and only occasionally have to rely on temporary help for big jobs. Not so in the “real restaurant” world where you have to have cooks and servers and dishwashers and bussers. And every last, single, solitary, solo son of a so-and-so has some kind of drama that they bring to the workplace. I had a part time cook whose life was like a country song with a new verse every day. One day it was his kids, then it was his ex-wife, then it was his car, then it was his landlord, then it was his food stamps, and finally, it was his dog. No, I'm not kidding. He no-showed on me on a Saturday night because his dog got in a fight with a neighbor's dog and the neighbor was threatening to call animal control. 

Then there was the cook with the famous name culinary school education. I was over the moon about snagging him until I realized a couple of weeks in that while they might have taught him to read a thermometer at that blue ribbon school, they apparently neglected to teach him to read a clock. Late every day. The kicker came the day he called me and said he was in a cab and on the way. He lived five minutes from the restaurant. Thirty minutes later, no cook. Forty-five minutes, no cook. An hour and a half later he calls me and says he's in a cab and on the way. “From where,” I bellowed, “Florida?” He started to stammer an excuse. “You live five minutes away,” I said. “Either you're coming in from out of town, or you lied to me.” “Awww, I was just trying to buy myself a little extra time,” he whined. “Guess what, dude? You bought all the time you need.” And the phone went “click.” 

There's an old saying in the restaurant business; “Never hire a cook with an ego bigger than yours.” That's difficult in my case, but somehow I managed. Didn't matter that I had been cooking since before this dork was born, he knew everything and he had no problem letting me know it. There was pushback regarding every policy, procedure, and decision. On top of that, he had what they euphemistically call “anger management issues.” What that means is that if a customer had the temerity to send something back, he would do a live version of that famous and funny scene from “No Reservations” with himself cast in the Catherine Zeta-Jones role. (Go watch the movie. The scene involves an entitled customer, a pissed-off chef, a raw steak and a big serving fork.) It also meant that he was constantly threatening to kick the ass, punch the face, slit the throat, or cut off the head of other staff members. He was a great cook. He just wasn't worth the price. 

Waitresses work hard. Well, some do. And then there are the ones that hardly work. Far more of the latter out there than the former. Of course, they make crappy money. Base pay is insulting for a grown adult and tips in a struggling little hole-in-the wall place are spotty at best. Still, I wish I had a dime for every waitress who told me how much she loved the place and how much she wanted to stay and be a part of our success and be part of the team going forward into the future and yada, yada, yada just before she walked out the door with no notice whatsoever and took a better paying job somewhere else. Especially galling was the one who was being groomed for management and had been trained and certified at company expense and who left for Walgreens a week after she got her ServSafe certificate. And then there was the little gem who had zero personality. Zippo. Niente. The fiberglass clown at the place across the street had more personality. At least it smiled. This girl was a poster child for the walking dead. She stood behind the counter waiting for customers. Side work? Fuggedaboutit! She just stood around waiting. Guess that's why she was called a waitress. When a customer came in, there was no “Welcome” or greeting of any kind. She would shuffle to the table and stand silently waiting until the customer spoke up and ordered. Then she would shuffle to the kitchen and silently stick the ticket up on the rail before silently shuffling back to her post behind the counter. What do you expect for $2.13 an hour?

You get what you pay for. As I stated in the previous paragraph, “what do you expect for $2.13 an hour?” If you're really going to succeed in the restaurant business – or any business, for that matter – you've got to employ passionate people. You have to hire and keep people on your payroll who share your commitment and dedication. You've got to find people who aren't afraid of work, people who will take pride in their job performance, people who will go, if not the extra mile, at least an extra yard or two to help you achieve your goals and realize your vision. And you know what? That ain't gonna happen at minimum wage. And that's assuming you're paying the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Most cooks make between $8 and $9 per hour. Waitstaff really gets screwed because the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has remained at a slave labor rate of $2.13 an hour since 1991. Oh, the government statisticians will tell you that servers make an average exceeding $10 per hour. Maybe so if they're hustling in high-end or high volume places. But you take a waitress in a little dive of a small town diner and you're looking at a whole lot less. I saw a lot of days when my servers made twenty or thirty bucks in tips on a seven-hour shift. Factor in the base pay of $14.91 and they're rolling in dough to the tune of about $45 a day, or about $6.42 an hour. That doesn't buy a lot of passion. What it buys is people who stand around with their hands out every two weeks while they watch the want-ads for a better job.

Smoking will kill you. They should require a special warning label on cigarette packs sold to restaurant workers. Something along the lines of “cigarette smoking can cost you your f***ing job if your boss catches you outside one more time.” I don't smoke. Never have, never will. Unfortunately, the restaurant industry seems to be one of the last bastions of the filthy habit. I did an actual happy dance when I hired a non-smoking staffer because I knew with reasonable certainty that I wouldn't have to go hunting him on the patio or out back by the curb sink every time I needed him. You can tell people all day about the “two breaks” policy, but that doesn't hack it when you're dealing with somebody so nicotine addicted they can't go ten minutes without getting the shakes. Had one guy leave a ten-pound pile of raw chicken on his board so he could go out and smoke. I was prepping something else and when I turned around and saw the flies congregating around his station, I threw some plastic wrap over the chicken and went out hunting the dumbass. “Prep first, smoke later.” So he came in and prepped the chicken and promptly went back out to smoke. Half hour later, I see a waitress flipping burgers. “Where's the cook?,” I ask. “Oh, he's outside smoking.” And I find him out enjoying the smoky evening air with a couple of customers. I stick my head out the door and give him the sign, and he waves me a “just a minute.” Fifteen minutes later, I go back out and tell Ol' Smoky I'm not paying him to smoke while my waitress cooks. Next thing I know, he's stalking off across the parking lot having thrown down his apron and muttered something about me riding his ass. One cook had already called in. (Remember the dog story?) So there I am cookless at 8:00 on a Saturday night. And naturally, five minutes later, in walks a deuce and a couple of four tops. I man the fry station, my wife hits the stove, the waitress bellies up to the flattop and the char-grill and I spend the rest of service vowing to never hire another smoker.

Nothing lasts forever. And you'd better know how to fix it. My first line of defense for nearly everything was the breaker panel. The water heater's out? Try the breaker panel. The ice machine is down? Try the breaker panel. The credit card machine's dead? Try the breaker panel. When some gorilla with a wrench overtightened the faucet on the dish sink and stripped it out, guess who toddled off to the plumbing supply store to get a new one? A plumber just wasn't in the budget. There's a gap under the back door you could drive a truck – or a mouse – through. So out came the carpentry tools and I replaced the broken sweep. And then I fixed the lock on the rest room while I was at it. Some idiot “fixed” the French fry cutter with a big wood screw. I went to the hardware store and bought the bolt it needed to really fix it. When the sign on the roof quit working, I had to figure out why. Worse than normal wear, though, is the callous disregard people have for stuff that's not theirs. That's why immersion blenders, waffle irons, and other small appliances have to be replaced every other week. That's why pristine new pots and pans look – and perform – like shit after a week or two. Check your trash for things like flatware and ramekins. Chance are your careless employees won't. But, hey, you've got lots of money for stuff like that, right?

Ultimately, we had to close down my friend's place. He was just in too deep in too many areas. I don't think even a visit from Robert Irvine and a $10,000 Food Network makeover would have helped. Our intervention slowed the bleeding and was turning things around, but it was way too little and way too late, so, unfortunately, the restaurant became part of the 60%.

You still wanna run a restaurant? Fine. Examine your options, examine your motives, examine your finances and then go have your head examined. And whatever you do, don't call me. Never again. Not for any money. I value my personal integrity, my financial security, my social relationships, and above all, my sanity. So good luck. I'll see you at the restaurant equipment auction in a couple of years.