Thursday, December 27, 2007

Old Life, New Life, and Benazir Bhutto

This morning, my clock radio woke me with the unhappy news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. I’m not well-informed about the politics of our "ally" Pakistan. I know I don’t trust Pervez Musharraf any further than I could throw a tank. I know I feel a little soiled, a little jaded, every time I hear Dubya go on about what a great partner Musharraf is in our "War on Terrah." It doesn’t seem to matter that Musharraf’s government presents only the flimsiest pretense of democracy, and only when it doesn’t inconvenience Musharraf.

Benazir Bhutto, as the leader of Musharraf’s chief opposition, was many things. She was loved and revered, discredited and exiled, and tainted by corruption. Who can say, entangled as she was in the political strife inherent to Pakistan, what Bhutto really was. I can only believe that to have become Prime Minister of an Islamic nation—even an unsuccessful and ultimately deposed Prime Minister—she must have been a remarkable woman. I admired her. And I feared for her life when she decided to end her exile and return to Pakistan. May she rest in the peace she was fated never to know in this life.

I considered posting a quick tribute to Bhutto this morning, since I thought I didn’t have to work until 11 am. My life being what it is, however, half my crew crapped out on me today, so I had to give up any nobler aspirations and run to the café.

I get to work, and thoughts of Mrs. Bhutto are still swimming around in my head. I say to my counter girl, "So they killed Benazir Bhutto…!" And she says, "Who?" I say, "Benazir Bhutto." Totally blank face. "Do you know who Benazir Bhutto is?" "Uh, noooo…"

Okay. Counter girl is only nineteen. But she is also in her second year of college. What made me think a college student must have somehow heard of Benazir Bhutto?

Toward the end of this exchange with clueless college student counter girl, my cook walks through the door. Cook is in her late thirties, never struck me as being particularly well-educated…but I also know she is a total internet junkie. "P, do you know who Benazir Bhutto is?" "Who?" No surprise there, really. Apparently, cook zaps right past the news blurbs on her home page…

Over the past year and a half, I’ve had such a hard time letting go of my "old life" and embracing my new life as a (completely lost-in-the-weeds) entrepreneur. And I’ve been trying to figure out what my problem is. Though I’m inching closer to the total immersion I think I need in order to be successful, I really feel like I’ve been dragged to that place kicking and screaming. After today, I have a little better idea of why that is.

I work in the freaking Twilight Zone. I’m surrounded by people who have absolutely no idea what is going on in the world beyond the ends of their own noses. For someone who has spent much of the last four years nurturing and immersed in her personal political identity, this is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. I feel like I’m finding a life, but losing myself. And I’m not entirely sure that’s a trade I’m willing to make.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas 2007

Around Thanksgiving (was that only last month?) I predicted a hard holiday for my family, and wished for Spring. It did indeed come to pass, that sad and difficult season. Thanksgiving was a non-starter…we were even then in that watching and waiting pattern that establishes itself as a loved one dwindles. Mom passed away on December 3. Her memorial service, and our ability not to tear each other to shreds in the preparation of it, was the single shining moment for the Baldwin family this season. We sent Mom to her rest with love and dignity.

We didn’t feel like celebrating the holidays, but we thought that not celebrating would be too sad and empty. After the funeral, and the unhappy task of cleaning out Mom’s apartment, sifting through her prodigious angel collection and her sixty years’ accumulation of costume jewelry brought us the comfort of fond memories. Each of us chose one or two pieces to hold and remember. By mid-December, that business was mostly concluded, and we tried to scrape together some kind of family holiday. But we just…ran out of gas. Yesterday saw some of the sniping and the anger and the tears that we had worked so hard to avoid.

In the end, maybe it would have been better to just…give Christmas a pass this year. It was so hard not to compare last night’s somber little celebration to "The Good Years" and find it pitiably wanting. No one was really in the mood to count our blessings and put a good face on it. Mostly there was a lot of food that nobody needed, and a few presents that nobody really wanted. Christmas 2007 is just about over now, and nobody in our family is going to miss it, I think.

Hard to believe that the bright spot of my life the last few weeks has been…the café. That thing which has been more inclined to kick my butt than feed my ego for the past nineteen months…

This may be the worst Christmas since the Grinch licked his evil lips over Whoville, but Old Town Café is chugging along at a record pace. Not world record, of course, but record in relation to our own history. The first week of December, while I was in Eugene tending to my sad family business, my crew piloted the good ship OTC to its highest December sales week in its three-year history. And we’ve repeated that performance in each of the last two weeks. As of today, we’re showing a 1% increase in sales over last year’s total December sales, and we still have six sales days remaining. And I haven’t laid out one dime in advertising money all month. I’m having a hard time believing we’re the same restaurant we were one year ago.

Oh, do I remember the goings on of a year ago, though I’d rather forget. 2006—the year of the chronically sick, reliably unreliable and/or disappearing employees, and sales so bad it didn’t really matter whether I had employees or not. The year of no mercy, which threatened to chew me up, spit me out, and grind me into the pavement. The year where the best I could say of it, as it dwindled into its final hours on New Years Eve, was that I had survived. (And yet, I felt giddily victorious to be able to say that much…)

Last year, my family was my life preserver, the thing that kept my head above the waters of my foundering business ship. This year, my business is the thing that my hands are grasping as the waves of grief and loss toss me about. I suppose I should be grateful—and I am—that there is always something to keep me afloat. But I’m still hoping that next year will be a little less tempest-tossed.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Going Down and Getting Up

Fall arrived at the café last month, dropping duffel bags full of problems into our laps. We slid into a dark period of awful sales numbers, missed or retracted opportunities and continued labor crises. The virus that the girls brought through the doors in late August hounded us like a telephone solicitor. We passed it back and forth in various mutations for almost two months. I finally ended up on antibiotics for a strep infection. Everyone was sick, sales were in the toilet, and I personally was so burned out, used up and generally wasted that the light at the end of the tunnel just…went out. When I ended up spending a rare day off running around a Kaiser clinic tracking down treatment for my infected throat, I knew I couldn’t go on like this anymore.

So, in the middle of all this gloom, who should walk up to my front counter and nearly beg for her job back but Flaky Cook? The one who just…stopped coming to work back in June? The drama queen whose combination of general competence and constant personal turmoil made her one of the most frustrating employees I have ever had? Much as she made my life interesting bordering on miserable during her tenure, I knew she was a very available answer to my current dilemma. A capable cook already familiar with our operation who could work morning hours during the week. So I wouldn’t have to be chained to the kitchen for thirteen hours a day. Manna from heaven! I put her back on the payroll.

Despite her promises to do better, I fully expect her to remain flaky and unreliable; and in the end, she’ll probably disappear on me again in a few months. But if I can coax a couple of months of decent work out of her, it will give me time to rejuvenate a little and work on the kinds of things that will keep the doors open—like marketing, menu development, training and working on our décor to provide a more pleasant dining atmosphere. Flaky Cook is in her third week back with us, and I already feel a hundred percent better.

Still, I’ve wondered whether I made the right decision. It was definitely a matter of choosing the devil you know over the devil you don’t know. Fifteen years ago, I never would have even spoken to that kind of employee again, much less rehired her. But if I’ve learned nothing else in the last eighteen months, I’ve learned that times have radically changed when it comes to getting people to work for you. I’ve had to put my impossibly high standards aside and deal with what is.

But if last week was any indication of what can be accomplished when I am rested and released enough to do the things an owner should be doing, I’ll take it. We started out with absolutely dismal sales. October was just destined to be a terrible month for us, I guess, and the last three days of the month trickled away into ignominy. We showed almost a fifty percent drop in sales from Halloween last year. Kind of spoiled what is usually my favorite month of the year…but I wasn’t sorry to close the book on it. However, having Flaky Cook take over for me in the kitchen had given me time to develop a menu and an ad for "Italian Night," the first of which was to take place on November 2. With such a dismal month in the bank, I didn’t have a lot of money to go throwing around on advertising, so I set myself a paltry $100 budget for the ad. This bought me a two-column by five-inch ad in two issues of the local paper.

I spent many hours planning, prepping, designing the menu and generally sweating and fretting. When I got the paper on Thursday, I excitedly leafed through it to find my ad. Damn. It was so small it was almost invisible. I really doubted, then, whether "Italian Night" was going anywhere at all. But I decided to continue on as if it would.

Friday started out as a passably decent business day. We had a lunch rush, which we hadn’t had all week. In fact, on Thursday there was not a soul in the place from about 12:15 until almost 1:30—usually our busiest hour of the day. To say I was disheartened and just plain scared would be putting it mildly… But Friday started out pretty well, so I was in a mood to predict good things for "Italian Night," slated to start at 5:00 pm.

So of course, though we’d had a steady stream of customers in the place all afternoon, at 5:00, we were stone empty. Apparently, "Italian Night" was going to fall flat on its focaccia. I printed off a last few menus, poured myself a glass of wine (my symbol of conceding defeat, since by OLCC rules, I’m not supposed to return to work once I’ve consumed alcohol…) and started up a game of "Spider" on the laptop. I would hang around in case a couple of tables came in and the girls in the kitchen had questions about our new menu items, but it was clearly going to beanother night of defeat and frustration.

About 6:00, a couple of parties came in. Then a couple more. Then more. And more. By 6:30, the dining room was almost full, and we were sending out plate after plate of steaming pasta. Many guests gushed to the girls that they had come in specifically to try out "Eye-talian" Night. Wonder of wonders, it looked like we just might have a winner on our hands after all.

My little barely visible ad had amazing effect. We were, in fact, busy all weekend. The previous Saturday and Sunday, I was absolutely convinced that everyone had forgotten where we were and what we did. This past weekend, they seem to have suddenly remembered. Could my tiny little ad have subliminally reminded them of the great breakfasts they had enjoyed over the summer, even if they weren’t particularly interested in Italian Night? I’m going to choose to believe that’s what happened anyway. And savor this little bit of success as long as I can. Which is until about five minutes ago, when I should have jumped out of bed, because now I’m in danger of being late for work...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Losing It

I had a melt-down this evening.

Up until now, I’ve been able to keep these things quiet. I’d go somewhere where no one could see or hear me and just sob like a two year-old. Tonight, unfortunately, my husband was in attendance when I just…lost it.

The theme of this month’s incident was "It’s all too much." I have way too many things to think about, to do, to accomplish….complete with deadlines. And I’m SOOOOOO friggin’ tired.

Today was a fourteen-hour day that followed a fourteen-hour day. One of my key employees is out on vacation this week, and the only one available to stand in the gap is, of course, me. When I made the schedule last week, it looked almost easy. It looked doable. I thought I’d gotten off pretty easy, only having to work TWO double shifts. But hours on paper and hours on my feet dealing with a constant barrage of shit hitting the fan are two different things entirely. The last straw was our last group of customers last night. A party of eight who began arriving twenty minutes before we closed. They stayed until nearly 9:00 (we close at 8:00) racked up an $86 tab (which is really a pretty reasonable cost to feed eight people), displayed some kind of inappropriate sticker shock when they got their bill, and left all of ten dollars for a tip (which is not even 12%, in cast you’re trying to do the math…) Talk about a "WHY THE F**K AM I DOING THIS, AGAIN?" moment…

I struggled to get the money counted and paperwork completed (the first thing I lose when I’m tired is my ability to count money…) All I could think of was that I had to be back at it in less than ten hours. I reached into the closet to grab my purse and coat, looked in my briefcase and spied the stack of bills I’d been carrying around for two days that I would have to deal with before I could go to bed. And I burst into tears.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

An Old Fart's Talking Points

From time to time, I try to look back and assess the progress I’ve made in any given area of running the café. I must say, I thought there would be a lot more marks in the "nailed it" column after fifteen months of the most intense education I’ve experienced in my half-century on the planet. Then again, I realize I thought I already knew a lot more than I actually did. It’s been mighty frustrating, and humbling, to find that I was not half the restaurateur that I believed I was.

One of the things on which I used to pride myself was my ability to build a team. I had developed a little cache of guidelines that I used to evaluate and reward employees. Rule number one was "Show up and wear the uniform." I always considered that one a "gimme." Once that was accomplished, we went on to the more specific things, like learning the menu or understanding how to handle cash register transactions. Having mastered those basics, we went on to the more abstract things, like what constitutes good customer service, and how to work in tandem with the rest of the team.

In the universe of running a business in a medium-sized university town, where there was an endless supply of poor college students ready and willing to work to keep themselves from starving, my system worked brilliantly. Prospective employees came to me pre-wired with the basic knowledge that they were going to work, for which I was going to pay them. They needed the money, and I needed the help. Seems pretty…basic, doesn’t it?

The reality of the first decade of the 21st century, out here in the sticks, has turned out to be life on a completely different planet. I’m hard pressed to dig up one applicant with anything I recognize as a work ethic…and generally if I find one, I realize they really don’t want to work at a café. It seems that all the competent, experienced people I’ve interviewed would consider working for me only as a last resort. They’ve done their time in the food industry, and now they’re eager to put that part of their resume in the past and "move up" to a real job. Nothing less exciting than a career in some satellite of the booming medical industry or designing web pages for the next dot-com start will do. Working in food is the job that everybody is getting mad at the illegal immigrants for taking away, but is way too much like grunt work for Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia-wannabe or their kids to want to soil their hands with.

The kids! I know I sound like a total old fart, but I honestly believe these kids are in big trouble. They don’t know how to work! They haven’t learned—either at home or at school—the most rudimentary basics of employment. Like that work has to have SOME kind of priority in your life. And that you have to care enough about what you are being paid to do to bother to remember what you’re taught from one day to the next.

Last January, my chronic inability to find people to hire caused me to embark upon a "Great Experiment." The café had never, in its history, hired children under 18. With good reason…first of all, the fact that we DO serve alcohol presents one dimension of problems—since you have to be 18 to serve, we would have to jump through some hoops to make high school students useful in the front of the house. And if they’re under 18 they’re not allowed to run any of the more complicated equipment, like the slicer or a mixer, so that puts a crimp in how useful they could be in the kitchen. Still, I kept getting a steady stream of applications from high school students, and I was becoming more and more disenchanted with the quality of "experienced" help I was able to dig up. I figured maybe it would be a good thing to give a couple of "blank slates" a go.

So, I hired myself two bona-fide High School Students. Two bright girls…or so I thought. One is an honor student at the high school just a few blocks from the restaurant. The other hailed from the next town up the road, but seemed eager to make the commute (mostly because her boyfriend worked at the pizza place a few doors down from the café.) I sat them down and gave them the whole serious talk, about how I was going to limit their hours to two weeknights and one week-end day per week, because I didn’t want their jobs to interfere with their studies. And all the things I expected from them to be able to learn, like customer service skills, and handling money, and cleaning bathrooms, and showing up and wearing the uniform.

Well, I wish I could say that, after eight months, they had at least mastered showing up and wearing the uniform. But…not so much. When it came to "showing up," while they didn’t call in sick constantly or no-show me, they made liberal use of the "schedule request" clause. Prom. Dances. Christmas vacations. Spring vacations. One of them made the softball team last March, and was able to work about an average of one day a week thereafter. Practice was every night after school, and the coach "got mad" at her if she left practice early to go to work. The other girl landed a part in the spring play, so between rehearsals and performances, we didn’t see her much after that, either. I tied myself in knots trying to schedule their work hours around school, extra-curriculars, social activities and family vacations. But I soldiered on, hoping that I would at least end up with two semi-experienced workers who could be counted on for more hours during the summer. And when summer came, they asked for SO much time off, they were as useless as they had been all year. The capper was when the one left me a note on August 15th, saying she was having surgery (which turned out to be an elective cosmetic procedure) on August 20th and she would be able to return to work around September 20th. Apparently she had been planning this for months, but didn’t feel it important to give me more than five days’ notice that she would need a month off. Is there an appropriate expletive for that?

So, Ms. "I Need A Month Off" no longer works for me. But the Softball Queen is still hanging in there. And—get this: in desperation, I hired a friend of hers to replace the surgery girl. Knowing that it would either be a brilliant move (a way to get Softball Queen more engaged with the job) or a disaster. And after four weeks, the scale is tipping towards NOT brilliant. Right off, we discovered that we can’t schedule these two to work together because all they do is huddle and titter the entire time. And then there’s dance/prom/social activities conflict. Since they go to the same school, they both need those same days off. AND the new girl has attitude problems of her own that have nothing to do with her connection to the Softball Queen.

It all boils down to the reason these children want a job. And I have to confess, I haven’t figured out what it is. They don’t seem to need or want or care very much about the money. Softball Queen sometimes forgets to even pick up her paychecks, and then she doesn’t cash them for weeks afterward. The nearest I can figure, they want jobs because their friends have one. It’s fashionable. Like a tattoo or thong underwear. It seems like nearly everything kids do thesedays, they do because "everyone else is doing it." I know peer pressure has always been a great molder and shaper of the teenage world. But, I’m sorry, that’s SO LAME. It seems like such a cop-out to me, to let what everyone else does determine every move you make. When did being a teen-ager become so much a matter of toeing a very narrow, proscribed line or not being fit to live?

I can’t remember being a slave to conformity when I was a kid. I realize that I was a member of a generation for whom bucking the system WAS the fashion. It was the peer-pressure generated course of action. You just didn’t do what everyone else did. It wasn’t done.

You "did your own thing." But you understood early on that you needed money to do it. You needed a job, and you needed to perform adequately at that job in order to make more money. My parents worked. And we understood the correlation between what they did and what kind of life-style we lived. We had a comfortable middle-class suburban life, but we knew it wasn’t served up for free. What don’t today’s kids get about this?

I am not a parent, so I don’t like to trash out of hand the parenting skills of the public at large. I only see and have to deal with the end product of what looks to me like a less and less effective system of bringing up kids…whether or to what degree the parents or the school system or society are to blame, I have no idea. But I’m not inspired to look forward to where this generation might take us when it’s their turn to be in charge. On second thought, it appears that they might never be able—or willing—to take charge. And that is frightening.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Day Off Blues

I took a day off yesterday. I mean, I didn’t just wait for a convenient day to come around; I took one. It was entirely a matter of self-preservation. I’d stretched myself beyond my capacity. For two weeks before the Sauerkraut Festival, I had fretted and worried and tried to plan and organize, to the extent that my chronically depleted brain could plan and organize.

AND I have been sick, with some bug that my young crew members brought back from "Rock Fest"—the local popular music orgy that they had all begged for the day off to attend back in the last week of August. The one lucky break I’ve had since we bought the restaurant is that I have managed NOT to pick up every germ and virus that rampaged through town, and my staff, for the past year. A miracle in itself, considering the cocktail of stress, sleep deprivation and poor diet I’ve lived on for the last fifteen months. Not so lucky with this little virus, though—a particularly nasty one, with fever, sore throat, and head congestion so severe I was deaf for two weeks. I hadn’t felt this crappy, literally, in years. 

Made exponentially worse by the fact that I couldn’t BE sick.

With my two cooks in training reduced to working evenings and weekends, my schedule has consisted of working every day, including two or three double shifts a week thrown in for good measure. I’ve steadily deteriorated from competent admiral of the fleet to a churlish, oft-flogged swabbie. Last Sunday, I was called out front to deal with a customer complaint…and I handled it SO poorly, I realized that I was rapidly approaching total burn-out. And the last thing that restaurant needs is for me to burn out.

So even though I had already posted a schedule which had me working yet another seven-day week, I sat down Sunday night and re-wrote the thing. A little thinking outside the box (and begging) accomplished what I needed: an entire day with absolutely no contact with the café. I honestly couldn’t remember when my last day off WAS, so I looked back at the old schedules hanging on the wall. August 23rd. Ah, yes! Summer! Back when I still had a complete staff… In fact, I realized I’d only had two days off since our nutsy-busy Scandinavian Festival back in mid-August. That was information I didn’t really need…it only made me feel more desperate to get out of there forat least one day.

The list of things I could do, that I wanted to do, with an entire 24 hours off started to grow: Clean the house. Take the dog to the beach. Do the "Goodwill sort" through my overloaded closets. Go up the river to the outlet mall. Go to Binyons and get new glasses (which I desperately need.) And the husband wanted me to meet him and a business associate for dinner. Sigh! Not only was twenty-four hours not nearly enough time to accomplish all this, but I quickly realized I didn’t have the energy for one-tenth of it. In the end, I chose the closets, the shopping, and the dinner. And the rest of the day, I pretty much sat around and stared at the walls. So I didn’t have a productive day. It was restorative, though.

But of course I couldn’t keep my mind completely away from café issues. And I couldn’t completely banish the nagging guilt for wanting, needing to get away from there. It’s not that I’m a control freak, though I think you need to lean a little in that direction in order to run your own business. I just feel like I wanted this so much, I shouldn’t feel negatively about it, EVER. I should always love being there, always revel in the freedom and the self-determination. Of course, that’s a crock, and I know it. But that doesn’t keep me from carrying the guilt around anyway.

I indulged in a little self-assessment as I puttered around the stores. I realized that I haven’t figured out where my "off" button is. I just keep going full-speed until I run out of gas. That’s the way I’ve always been, no matter what job I’ve had. My work ethic is to go to work, work until the job is done, and then go home. I’ve never done a lot of socializing at work. I’m very much a "nose to the grindstone" kind of person.

The problem is, you really can’t apply that sort of work ethic to your own business, especially when it’s a hospitality business. First of all, the job is NEVER done, so you end up just working and working and working; you do go home, of course, but you’re still working. And working and working. And if you don’t turn yourself off, make yourself STOP working, even for short bits of time, you work too much. And then you start to hate the thing you started out loving and wanting with all your heart.

And this thing about not being social on the job…this has been the biggest problem for me. 

Not only am I not a normally social person, but the harder I work, the more exhausted I become, and the more I draw into my shell and just want to be left alone. And you cannot do that when you are in charge of a restaurant. You need to set an example for the crew, and you need to be friendly with the guests.

I’ve always known that I was going to have problems in this area. I’ve managed restaurants, and my solution for this particular deficiency of mine was to make sure I hired people who could DO that part of the job for me. For the most part, that has been a successful strategy. But, especially in this tiny café, with no real "back of the house," I’m too visible. Everyone knows I’m there all the time, and everyone knows I’m the owner. The regulars expect ME to greet them, and chat, and treat them like they’re the only customers in the restaurant. And, yes, if I want to be successful, I should do that. And when I’m rested and full of energy (and caffeine) I can almost passably play that role. When I’m exhausted, stressed out and have a million things on my mind—which is all the time—I suck at it.

And now it’s time to get ready and head to the salt mine once again. Let’s see, what’s on my plate today? Write next week’s schedule, see if the new lighting has arrived yet, plan the next promotion, design the new table tents, find out what’s going on with the sign, source a new bread bakery, source a new food purveyor, look through applications, hire two more people, but try to make sure everyone is still getting enough hours… But first I have to make soup and don the apron to cook lunch. Gad…I’m tired already.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

This and That and the End of Summer

Just a little fly-by in case anyone thinks I’m in divorce court, or the hospital, or the loony bin…

The fight turned out to be a not-so-big deal. I didn’t go off and get all offended because I realized that I had started the whole mess. He felt like an ass, I felt like an ass, and we kissed and made up rather quickly. Being as how we ARE each other’s support network, we can’t let anything blow us apart for too long. All better now!

The event, however, sucked. Based on our sales trends for the entire summer, I was expecting at least a 25% increase over last year. As it turned out, we did almost the same sales for the day as 2006. The first part of this week, I just felt like someone had let all the air out of me. We’d spent a lot of money on advertising, equipment, and food stock that we ended up not using, but that didn’t irritate me half so much as the fact that I had expended so much energy—something of which I am in seriously short supply these days—on a non-event. Well, we learned something, anyway: Yes, the entire community does party right outside our doors at the Sauerkraut Festival, but we have to remember they bring their own food

So, this week, we realized that business is winding down from the summer. Folks have shot their wads getting their kids back into school, and eating out is going to take a lower place on the totem pole for awhile. I’m developing some ideas for enticing the eating public to brave the gloom and the rain to come and join us for a winter meal. And I’m looking forward to the holidays… I was able to get out of town for a rare evening of shopping "over the hill" last night, and found all kinds of goodies at Pier One. Holographic sequined spiders and a black velvet web…

Let the decorating begin!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tough Going

This is one of those nights when it’s really crashing down on me. Our biggest sales day of the year is coming up this weekend—on Saturday, our community festival takes place right outside the doors of the café. Last year’s festival was the busiest day of 2006, with sales for that one day equal to almost half what we were doing in a normal week back then. In an effort to maximize our opportunities (what with having the community block party right outside) we’ve gone out on a limb and advertised a "Wine Garden" for that day. The festival itself has no alcohol venue. So we have chosen to become "it." What am I thinking?????

I have no clue what kind of attendance we should expect. It’s our plan to have wine tasting, wine and beer by the glass, and a munchie bar. Haven’t even completely firmed up the menu, and here it is almost Thursday. Sigh! I know it will all come together in the end, but I just wish I was a little more on top of things. Doesn’t help that I am chronically stressed out by a million little details of the everyday running of the restaurant, and perpetually exhausted as well…

So I have this whole load of worries that I’ve been carrying around since we decided (at the last minute, more or less) to do this thing. And so, tonight, the husband and I proceeded to celebrate our arrival at home after a long and slightly disorganized dinner service at the café by…having a fight. A real knock-down drag-out, by our standards. Doesn’t matter what it was about. I mean, it does, but the story is long and convoluted, and you kind of "had to be there." In other words, it was a stupid fight, and if you tried to explain it to someone outside the relationship, they’d say, "UhhhWhat????"

The thing about it was, I was really taken aback by how mean we were to each other. I mean, the gloves were off from the get-go. And that just isn’t the way we argue. Or at least, it hasn’t been up ‘til now.

Yeah, we’re both totally stressed out. And we’re both weary to a degree that we never thought possible. But…I don’t know. Is that a good excuse for treating each other like crap?

And here’s the really crappy part: I know it’s my fault. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve gone through some insanely stressful days at the restaurant. Like the huge Sunday breakfast I had to cook by myself because my two "cooks in training" were both out of town and my "cook’s helper in training" decided to call in sick. The only one available to help me out was the poor husband, and I was SO freaked out that I was an absolute bitch to him. I can’t believe the things I said to him, the way I treated him, but I was so overwhelmed, I had absolutely no control over the things that were coming out of my mouth.

So, tonight, here we are standing in our kitchen at home, duking it out…and I can’t believe the things he’s saying to me. I can’t believe that he’s calling me names and accusing me of every nasty thing under the sun. And I am absolutely livid…until I realize I’m looking in a mirror. That I am reaping exactly what I have sown. And I just want to cut out my own tongue and strangle myself with it.

I know that if it came to a choice between our marriage and this stupid restaurant, there would be no choice at all. But I really don’t want to have to make that choice…

Thursday, August 16, 2007

In the End, You Create Your Own Luck

Of course, the reality is that there aren’t three more events "just like that." That’s why we decided to go for the restaurant in the first place. We ran the concession trailer for five years before we bought the café. We searched high and low for profitable events. County fairs, art festivals, craft fairs, "taste of" events, all over northwest Oregon. We changed, we shifted, we adjusted, we added and subtracted menu items. And still, the BIG events eluded us.

We grossed over $20,000 at our one big event this year. Our next highest-grossing event, ever, was our own local five-day county fair, where we endured long hours, dust, late nights, flies and cowboys to top $4000. Once. In subsequent years, sales were eroded by things like terrible weather (triple-digit temperatures and/or rain), presence or absence of decent entertainment, location within the fair of said entertainment and our proximity thereto, the addition/subtraction of other vendors, and declining attendance at the fair itself. All things completely outside our control. And those same frustrating conditions applied to every event we did. One year you would have them eating out of your hand; the next, you felt as if you were trying to peddle the vilest poison.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that a $3000 event was a good one, and an event that grossed us over $10000 for a weekend—besides our beloved Scandinavian Festival—was an impossible dream. That, and the frustrations of all the uncontrollables, are what sent me in the direction of a stationary, consistent, open-every-day restaurant under a solid roof of my very own.

So, we’re not going to cash in our hand on the restaurant yet. There’s no going back to the concession thing, since it was the concession thing that pushed me into the café in the first place. I’m bound and determined to solve this damn labor puzzle; I need a decent, dependable staff so I can detach myself enough to become full-time captain of the ship, rather than the jack of all trades (master of none…) I have some ideas up my sleeve. And I’ll just have to indulge in some creative problem-solving. I can do that. Just let me get a couple extra hours of sleep under my belt…

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

As Luck Would Have It...

Jeez, I made that sound awfully dramatic, didn’t I? Did the place burn to the ground? Were we closed down by the OLCC (Liquor Commission)? Did every major piece of equipment pick that day to roll over and play dead?

No, nothing as earth-shattering as all that. I just discovered that at the end of this month, I will be losing most of my staff. Again. Out of nine girls on the payroll, I will, for all intents and purposes, be losing six. One is going back to college as of the end of the month (which I knew when I hired her), one is expecting a baby in October and only wants to work through the end of this month. These two departures, while a bummer, were not unforeseen, and I had anticipated hiring one or two more girls to beef up the staff at the end of the month.

However, when I walked into the kitchen Monday morning, I was greeted with a huge pile of "schedule requests" from everyone else. One girl—completely out of the blue—dropped the bomb that she will be having surgery (don’t ask) next week and plans to be out for a month. One of my "cooks in training"—again, without any forewarning—decided to sign up for an "intensive" course at some career college and informed me that as of the beginning of next month she will only be available to work weekends. One of my high school students, who will also be going back to school next month, requested off the day of our community festival, which basically takes place right outside our doors and causes us to be crazy busy. And my other "cook in training" has been telling me for months that she was going back to school in the fall, so I know her availability is going to be drastically reduced.

I was about to write that I cannot get a break when it comes to staffing this restaurant. That’s not completely true; I have two dependable, trustworthy employees who have been with me since I bought the place. One of them has been at the cafe since the doors opened in 2005. And without the other, my good and faithful "D", I know I would have perished long ago. Unfortunately, it takes about 260 labor hours a week (not including administrative time) to run the place. And I’ve found that I can’t expect anyone to work actual full-time hours…even "D" starts to burn out if I schedule her for more than her normal 35-38 hours a week. And we need four people on shift during any given rush period. So, obviously, my two decent employees and I cannot do the job by ourselves. We do have one other girl who is not planning to leave or go to school or have a baby. And she has been begging me for more hours. But she is, of course, the most useless piece of dead wood on the staff and I have been planning on cutting her loose at the first available opportunity. Sigh!

We’ve been hobbling through the summer with these nine girls on the payroll. It’s actually worked out well, because everyone has asked for so much time off that they are getting all the hours they seem to want. And there were enough bodies to staff the place while I was gone for five days doing our Scandinavian thing. I suppose I should be grateful…and I am.

But I just can’t seem to find the solution to my labor puzzle. If I have more than eight staff members, everyone gets so few hours that it’s hardly worth having them at all. It’s difficult to train employees who work less than fifteen hours a week. You teach them something, and by the time they have the opportunity to perform the task again, they’ve forgotten how. My two high school girls were hired in January. During the school year, I held them to less than fifteen hours a week on purpose. So I ended up with two girls who were never completely or properly trained. But I kept them on staff hoping they would pick up more hours and more training, and hence be more useful, during the summer. Then they both ended up taking so much vacation time that they are STILL marginally trained and mostly unhelpful.

And I can’t beg, steal or borrow an experienced cook. Check that…after the traumas I’ve lived through with the experienced cooks I’ve had, I don’t even WANT an experienced cook. I’ll take a knowledgeable apprentice any day of the week. Unfortunately, those seem to be in short supply as well.

I had some mutinous thoughts this past weekend. Stacking the constant barrage of setbacks and headaches that have come with ownership of our very own restaurant against the relative ease and smoothness with which we cranked out a café month’s worth of sales in four days from our cramped but comfy little trailer… The eighteen-month escape clause in our café purchase contract started looking mighty attractive. "If we could just find three more events just like this," I thought, "I’d ditch the restaurant in a heartbeat."

to be continued...later.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Feeling Lucky

Our event went well. The weather was perfect. Considering the non-summer we’ve had this year, the gods could have inflicted any number of meteorological disasters upon us. We’ve hardly gone a week without rain (which is unusual in summer here…usually by mid-September we are begging for it); so we could very well have had to battle that. It did cloud up Sunday afternoon, but the wet stuff politely stalled about a hundred miles north. 

Worse, it could have decided to finally break out into actual summer, complete with unrelenting sun, no breeze and temperatures in the triple digits. Picture an 8 x 20 ft. trailer packed with four or five adult bodies, two large refrigeration units, a convection oven running 95% of the time, and the western sun beating on the back of the building for six hours a day. We’ve "Scandi-ed" through those conditions in the past. There are more pleasant activities…like having a root canal or walking over burning coals in bare feet.

 Anyway, we couldn’t have had better weather if they had taken our order for it. So the faithful citizens of the central Willamette Valley showed up in force. And they were hungry. So we fed them. To the tune of over $22,000.00 in sales in four days.

I personally had to drag my butt away from the last hour of the festival, de-Scandi myself and make the two-hour drive home Sunday night, so that I could be ready to open the restaurant on Monday morning. It didn’t seem difficult when I made the schedule. And, truthfully, I wasn’t as wasted as I once might have been. As I was dressing Saturday morning, one of my sisters walked in the room and said, "You look like I feel!" And my reply was, "I look like this every morning. I’m no more tired today than I am any other day since we bought the restaurant."

On the drive home, I’d tuned in to a country station.  I heard some guy waxing rhapsodic about how lucky he was in his everyday, normal, boring-ass life. But the lyrics got to me, and I had to nod my head in agreement. How lucky I am to have the life I have! Sunday night, I walked in my front door, laden with my Scandinavian paraphernalia to be lovingly set away for another year. I wasn’t exhausted. I was kind of stoked, actually. We’d had a great event. Daily reports from the restaurant indicated business had turned around over the weekend and pulled a bad week out of the crapper. The housepainters had come while I was away, so I was anticipating some major new curb appeal for the humble abode (which unfortunately I was going to have to wait until morning to enjoy.) Lucky. Yeah…I felt lucky. 

For the first time in a really long time.

And then I went to work on Monday morning. And within two hours, I wasn’t feeling too lucky anymore.
I’ve got to go get ready for work now, so I’ll have to finish this later…

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Old Dog, Old Tricks

Ago. For the longest time, my whole life, everything vital or important, was “ago.” Twenty years ago…

Twenty years ago today, I was a little more than two months from embarking upon the most successful enterprise of my life. The one that would take fully two more years to develop into the experience of a lifetime.

I was thirty-one years old. I thought I was mature. I thought I was experienced. I thought I knew so much.

Funny how, now, I look at thirty-one-year-olds and think of them as “kids.” Young. Callow. Green.

I would have been pissed, back in 1986, to find out that someone thought that of me.

Yet, la plus ca change, la plus c’est la meme.

I am fifty-one years old. And embarking upon what I hope to be the most successful enterprise of my life. So far.

The bags under my eyes, the shooting pains in my feet, the aching joints in my fingers, have me wondering whether I yet possess the physical stamina to get me through the fourteen-hour days, the ninety-degree heat…the demands that a thirty-year-old body could meet with alacrity, but a fifty-year-old body struggles to conquer.

Are the blessings that I seek from this new venture really too much for this more-than-half-used life-force to hope to attain?

I cannot believe that. I won’t.

But when I drag myself into bed after too many consecutive hours of putting out fires and walking tightropes over boiling oil, I wonder, at least briefly:

Is it worth it?

There can only be one answer.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

It HAS Been a Year

That was a rough couple of weeks. Beginning with the meteoric rise and fall of Hawaiian Shirt Cook, then slogging through the last few days of Cook-in-Training #1’s three-week vacation, the last gasp of June and early days of July nearly did me in. The piece de resistance was when one of my fresh-out-of-high-school summer hires decided she no longer needed the job (apparently, the Credit Union at last came through with the full-time position for which she had been angling) and no-showed last Sunday. Necessitating a cancellation of my personal plans for my longed-for half day off, and nearly causing me to lock the doors of the restaurant in utter frustration.

Still, enough of my brain remains intact to understand that the best place to leave the crap is behind. I was determined to start this week off on a fresh, more positive note. After all, the one-year anniversary of our acquisition of this life-force-sucking black hole…um, I mean, this Lifelong Dream  …came and went during this particularly trying time. It was unfortunate, because I was in no mood to look back over the past year and analyze how far we had come. When I did visit the issue, it seemed that we had gotten nowhere at all, except a year older, fifteen pounds fatter, and well on the way to an ulcer.

Of course that is not true, and a couple of days of gliding over less tempestuous waters have put things back in the proper perspective. My two Cooks-in-Training are rising to the challenge and providing me with some opportunities to disentangle myself from the kitchen and start acting like an owner. I’m feeling almost human, having got a few nights of decent sleep, despite the withering heat of the last couple of days. I’m enjoying an actual Day Off today; the weather is pleasant, and I’m going to take my butt (and my husband’s butt) over the hill for a little shopping and dinner out this afternoon.

Now that my glasses are more rose-colored and less toxic tar-tinted, I have given myself permission to climb a ladder and look back over the past year. What I see is not what I would have expected to see after a year at the helm of my own enterprise. It just goes to show that I really didn’t have the slightest idea what I was getting into when I jumped into it, body and soul, one year ago. I’m absolutely convinced—if I had known, I wouldn’t have jumped.

But it also shows me that I have amazing resilience, for an old goat. That I still have the ability to roll with the punches, think on my feet, change direction when necessary, and make no changes that aren’t called for. I’m learning (grudgingly) the realities of the twenty-first-century American labor force, and trying to utilize them to my best advantage. There are so many intangibles…adjustments I’ve made in my heart and my mind that prove to me, at least, that I’ve grown to meet the challenge. Even though it has threatened to kick my butt, at times…

But the real proof is in the numbers, which looked absolutely dismal at the outset. Last July, I was handed the keys to a restaurant that was, basically, tanking…though I didn’t know it at the time. When I look back at the numbers, now, I understand that the previous regime had been chasing customers away in droves for months by the time I took over. The inmates were running the prison, there was no leadership, no direction, and no actual cook. And between the previous owner’s penchant for spreading too much information far and wide, and the soon-to-be-jobless manager’s disgruntled smearing of incoming ownership, we had some ponderous obstacles to overcome.

Last summer, we were fortunate if we showed less than a 25% drop in sales from the previous year. It was usually more like thirty-five to forty percent. We labored, we learned, we hired new help, we tweaked…but we didn’t get much of anywhere for many months. 

February was our most dismal showing. Between the grand opening of a new dinner house up the road and the natural lag in business during the winter, our numbers tumbled 20% from the previous regimes "terrible" numbers of that same month a year earlier. I look back at that and wonder how I managed to get out of bed in the morning…

But we soldiered on…what else could we do? And, with the unbelievable staffing problems I faced daily, I had no time to scheme or invent or plan ways to improve business. It was everything I could do just to open the doors every day. Open them on time, close them when they’re supposed to be closed—not a minute earlier. Get the food out, makeit good, make it fast. Get to know the few familiar faces that hung with us throughout the long, cold, winter nights. Find out what they liked, what they didn’t. Smile and shake some hands. Doesn’t sound like much of a business plan. But it seems to have worked.

March brought the turn-around. The end of the skid…the about-face. A mere 8% drop in sales from last year. And then in April and May, we missed the previous year’s sales numbers by only a couple hundred dollars each month. Were we catching up, or were they falling to meet us? I choose to believe the former…

Come June, I noticed that the sales numbers from the last ten days of the previous regime’s tenure were…missing. I strongly suspect they were so bad, they were intentionally kept from me. The performances of Mr. Previous Owner and his pissed-off manager had begun eroding the numbers a few weeks before they were supposed to, I guess. But WE had a month last month. The best sales month in the history of the restaurant since September of ’05, at which time they were still riding the edge of the Grand-Opening Wave. And July can’t help but be an upper, because our numbers were SO bad last year, we can’t help but show some amazing improvement. I could hurt myself with all of the patting myself on the back I’m going to be doing.

I’m sorry this is such a long post. But I’m not sorry I wrote it, because, to tell the truth, I hadn’t actually sat down and looked at the numbers until today. I hadn’t allowed myself to absorb how BAD the numbers had been through February, and I’d been too afraid to acknowledge how GOOD they were looking now, especially last month. So this has been a day-brightening exercise.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Owning It

I did indeed have to terminate Mr. Hawaiian Shirt.

I arrived at work a half-hour before the start of his shift, half-thinking I might as well get an early start on the work he was not likely to show up to do.

For a hot minute, I thought I was going to dodge the bullet. I thought I had finally called something right, and that he really was going to blow me off.

But at 7:29 am, his car pulled up across the street. Sigh!

He walked up to the front door, spatula* in one hand, coffee cup in the other. (*All "real" cooks have their own personal utensils… He didn’t come with a set of fancy knives, but he did have his own perfectly-weighted, expensive grill tool…)

I pulled him aside to one of the outside tables. "We have to talk…"

Have I said how much I hate having to do this kind of thing? Hate, hate, HATE it! Did I mention that is why I had got about a half-hour of sleep the previous night?

I had purposely not rehearsed a whole scenario, because I figured it would be a waste to obsess about THAT (and I would have…) if he didn’t show up for his shift. And as it turns out, it was probably best that I hadn’t planned anything to say, because I was much more able to just…go with the flow.

It was all over in a very few minutes, and I was safely back in my kitchen feeling relieved, and yet like shit. He had been so apologetic…so willing to change. So, "Oh my gosh, I can be whatever you need me to be." Though I knew that he couldn’t—he’d demonstrated that clearly enough in the seven days he had worked for me.

In the end, the conversation was a peculiar flashback to one I’d had more than thirty years ago…the one and only time I had ever broken up with a boy (rather than being dumped.) It was the whole, "It’s not you, it’s me !" line of crap. I told him his skills were just too prodigious for our little operation (though I didn’t use that particular word—"prodigious"—since he probably wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what I was talking about.) I told him that rather than trying to change his way of doing things for us, he needed to find someplace that was bigger and busier and could really put his skills to good use.

I think he bought it. And, as a matter of fact, it was mostly the truth. I shook his hand, we parted ways; it is to be hoped, on a slightly positive note.

But I still felt like I’d been run over by a truck…

Friday, June 29, 2007

Wish Me Luck

I have decided to terminate Mr. Hawaiian Shirt, should he surprise the hell out of me and actually show up for his shift this morning.

I was up most of the night wrestling with this decision. Just after my alarm went off, having achieved perhaps forty-five minutes of real sleep, I suddenly had a vision of this disaffected drug addict bursting through the doors of the restaurant with an assault rifle and taking out my plate glass windows, my espresso machine, me, and my six-months-pregnant little counter girl.

Of course, I know this will not happen. It is merely the deranged workings of a sleep-deprived mind.

A little positive energy sent in my direction would not be taken amiss...

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Here is the story of Mr. Hawaiian Shirt Cook's possibly extremely short tenure... 

After his sparkling debut on Father’s Day, I decide to take him at his word and allow him some latitude. He is so convincing about his skills and experience, I figure he will have no trouble at all learning our menu and our systems. I turn him over to my staff to show him the ropes, and step back to see what happens. He seems to get along well; all reports are positive.

Then comes Monday. I have scheduled myself to work with him in the kitchen on Monday. He seems disconcerted. "I thought you hired me so that you wouldn’t have to be in the kitchen?" He gets all wound up showing me all the great things he has done—cleaned this, reorganized that. And he wants to tell me all about the wonderful ideas he has. But when the orders start to pour in...he still doesn’t know how to make our turkey sandwich.

Monday is not a good day. He is a huge ball of overwrought kinetic energy. He can’t do or say anything right, albeit at 100 miles an hour.  He can't put an order together correctly to save his life.  He makes comments that show a disconcerting lack of understanding about how our kitchen staff relates to the counter staff. In short, for all his twenty years experience and having owned his own restaurant, he

I try to decide if working elbow-to-elbow with "the boss" made him disastrously nervous, or if he is certifiably hopeless. And I’m afraid I don’t do a very good job of masking my dissatisfaction with his performance.

Tuesday morning, Hawaiian Shirt Cook is scheduled to open. I am supposed to be at work at 11 am. It’s almost a day off—I am to work a "short" ten-hour shift. I have not set the alarm. I’m confident that I will awake naturally at my usual 7:30 or 8:00 am; at which time I will roll over, pull a pillow over my head, and go back to sleep for an hour. And still have plenty of time to get something done around the house before I have to get ready for work.

At 6:15, the phone rings. This is never good…

It is the husband. Hawaiian Shirt Cook has contacted him on his cel phone. He will not be coming to work today. He will need the day off to go to a memorial service for his wife’s aunt.

I will need to drag my butt out of bed three hours earlier than I had planned. I will need to go to work. I will need to work a double shift.

I am not happy.

Wednesday and Thursday are Hawaiian Shirt Cook’s scheduled days off.

Should I have faith that he will reappear at his scheduled time on Friday? Or should I make arrangements NOW to cover the shift for which—based on all I have learned about human nature in the last twelve months—I’m 75% certain he will not show up?

And what if he does show up? Should I fire his butt before he turns into the same pain in MY butt that his predecessor was? Because he sure looks like he’s headed in that direction…

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Somebody Goofed

…or not...

If heaven sent this guy, they mis-picked. 

Maybe I ought to try QVC…

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Can't Quit Now


Last Monday, a guy dressed in his best Hawaiian shirt walks up to the counter at the café and asks to see the boss. It is my day off, so of course I am there. Guy says he’s got over twenty years cooking experience, owned his own café for five years, and wants to know if I’m hiring.

Hardly able to control my gleeful giggle, I say "I’m always hiring" and hand him an application.

He goes away and comes back with the ap all filled out. He has references. He has a consistent work history going back a decade. The last place he worked, he was at for over two years.

He is not 17 ½ years old.

And he really wants to work at my café.

I keep thinking he can’t be for real. I give myself monstrous bruises from pinching myself so much.

I try for five days to find time in a crazy busy week to interview this guy. I finally sit down with him on Saturday after closing. We talk for 2 ½ hours.

I finally ask him, "When can you start?"

"Tomorrow," says he.

"Okay. Tomorrow it is."

Sunday morning, my assistant cook—the only other cook on the payroll—calls in sick. New cook, on his first day, bails my ass out big time. This is a man who knows what a spatula is, and is not afraid to use it.

So now, in place of Flaky Cook, who never in her tenure with me managed a forty-hour week, did not want to work nights, and was not too keen on working weekends, I have a guy who is begging me for any and all hours I will give him. "Can you give me forty hours?" 

"Are you kidding?"

This, I guess,  is why I have no intention of cutting my losses, getting out and retaining whatever little bit of sanity I still have lurking in the back of my mind.  Yet.  Every time I think I’ve reached the absolute extremity of my endurance, the Almighty throws me a bone.

How can I not hang in there to see what’s at the bottom of the next barrel?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Dealing With Crap

Owning a small business has been an ongoing lesson in dealing with crap. Manners and work ethics being what they are in 21st century America, I have had to seriously adjust my crap tolerance level. Time was, I wouldn’t even consider putting up with the kind of bullshit attitudes to which today’s young people subscribe; NO employer would. Fifteen years ago, I used to tell potential employees during their initial interviews that the first two things I required of my staff was that they show up and wear the uniform. We would laugh…they would get it. These days, even those tiny acts of responsibility/courtesy are beyond the ken of most job candidates.

I am NOT a micro-manager. Many years ago, I developed the theory that my job as a manager was to give my people the tools they needed to do the job—the training, the equipment, the authority—and then let them do it. I had a lot of success with that formula in the past. But it just doesn’t seem valid anymore. First and foremost, an employee needs to show up, and be willing to accept training. If I do manage to get ones that show up, they aren’t too keen on being told what to do. How do they expect to learn the job? Osmosis?

I have put up with behavior from employees that I never would have expected, much less tolerated, in the past. A couple weeks before she finally quit, my late flaky cook crossed a major line. One night, we were slammed at dinner and ran out of everything. I left a message on the prep board for the opening cook (who just happened to be the one responsible for creating the things we ran out of) that I was "not happy." Flaky cook stormed around the kitchen for two hours the next morning; when I came in at 9:00 and asked her how she was, she replied, "How dare you criticize me where other employees can see?" As if I had dressed her down in front of the entire crew in the middle of a shift.

My first thought was to preserve the peace and smooth ruffled feathers. I told her, "Well, dear, there’s only one other employee here, and she is a counter girl who has no interest in, and has probably not looked at, the prep board." And then I got to thinking about what she had said to me. How dare I criticize her? How DARE I? I DARE because I OWN THIS RESTAURANT. I have every right to point out an unacceptable performance, and I’m sick to death of tap-dancingaround prima donna employees. It was then that I realized Flaky Cook’s days were numbered. Unfortunately, I also realized that I had to bite my tongue and let this incident slide, because I was all too aware of how difficult it would be to replace her mediocre, unreliable, insubordinate ass.

Around about the middle of this past week, two weeks post Flaky Cook’s ignominious exit, I began to second-guess myself. Had I somehow tipped my hand too soon? Certainly I hadn’t told her that her days were numbered, but one way or another, she anticipated my intentions; and decided she was going to beat me to the punch. After working four consecutive open-to-closes, I started to wonder whether I wouldn’t have been better off letting the café revolve around the dramas and moods of Ms. Flaky Cook. In the interest of self-preservation, if nothing else. The realization was dawning that there was a vast difference between being capable of being the only real cook in the restaurant, and actually being the only real cook. And, of course, with us being short a real cook plus one cook-in-training, it has been busier than hell. Customers can be counted upon to smell blood in the water…

Which brings me full circle to the crap-tolerance issue. I am the kind of person who has always had high standards. High personal standards, and high standards for the quality of work I will accept from the people who work for me. I’m in no way a perfectionist…and I always believed that my expectations, while high, were no more than a bit of a stretch for an even moderately decent employee. But it’s become obvious that what could be considered acceptably high standards fifteen years ago, are the impossible dream in the twenty-first century workplace. I still haven’t figured out how to get people who will just show up and wear the uniform, much less fulfill any of my loftier ideals—like being able to perform the most basic functions of the job without being asked over and over and over again.

It bugs me no end that I am going to have to lower my personal standards in order to keep enough people on the payroll to run this restaurant. There are times I wish to god I could run it by myself…and yet, I know that satisfying feeling of having a crew that has really clicked. I’ve had it before, and up until now, I’ve naively assumed I would have it again. But with each passing day and each incident of unbelievable crap I have to let slide just to keep a staff, it becomes more obvious that "having it again" is not going to happen. Slowly, my goal has shifted from having a good, cooperative, well-trained staff, to having bodies to plug into positions.

My dilemma now is, where is the bottom? What is the absolute minimum I will require of an employee? Where is the line of discipline that they absolutely may not cross? I’ll have to turn my entire way of looking at this issue completely upside down. I’ve tended to look up—to the goal of what traits my ideal employee would have. Now, I have to look down—to the minimum I will accept. Instead of "how good can they be" it will be a matter of "how bad can’t they be."

I’ve never had to do that before. And I just don’t feel good about having to do it now. 

Somehow, it seems so defeatist, so faithless, to give up on the younger generation this way. 

But it is what it is, I guess. And unless I can figure out how to run this restaurant entirely by myself (which would involve splitting into at least six different "me’s") I’m going to have to get with the program.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Tales of Woe

We did have smooth sailing, didn’t we? For all of about a month and a half. Forty-five days, give or take, during which I started to believe I might have a chance at making this entrepreneurial thing happen after all. And then the scales tipped and I have been thrown entirely off-balance once again.

I went to bed at 7:30 Saturday night. Actually, I started out with the intention of grabbing a few z’s while waiting for the husband to emerge from the coma into which he had fallen upon returning from the inaugural Tillamook Farmers’ Market. Where he had spent six hours huddled next to the oven, trying to fend off the cold and rain, and selling nothing to nobody. I put in my ten hours at the café, came home and puttered around with some housework, but I just ran out of gas. I crawled into bed in the guest room, so as not to disturb the husband (or to avoid him disturbing me) and pulled the covers up over my head.

I slept like the dead until midnight, when I got up, changed into my pajamas and then dove back into bed. Between menopausal insomnia denying me the respite of sleep even when I am fifteen degrees beyond exhaustion, and the joints in my fingers and wrists aching so much that sleep would most likely elude me notwithstanding my hormonal status, I’m amazed that I slept as well and as long as I did. I must have finally hit the wall.

Staffing problems continue to bite me in the ass. I can only choose from those who apply, and they’re not exactly beating a path to my door. The applications I do get are either from entirely over-qualified professionals who are new to town and are maintaining their paid unemployment status by handing out resumes to every employer in town, or from very young people who have never had jobs and have not got the slightest idea what having one is all about. I have tended to choose from the latter category, because I suspect someone with a master’s degree in genetics probably doesn’t really want a job at my café. But I haven’t had much success with the young ones, either. Apparently, they want to work here because they think it will be fun. When they find out that there is actual discipline, responsibility and hard work involved, they lose interest almost immediately.

Last week provided me with a couple of stark examples of why not to hire the youngsters… 

First, there is "J," whom I hired about two weeks ago. She seemed to be catching on pretty quickly in the kitchen. And, since Ms. Cook flaked out on me, I’ve been casting about in every direction looking to beef up the kitchen staff.

Fast forward to the eve of "J’s" third week of employment at the café. On Sunday, she comes to me and whines that she cannot work a certain day that she has been scheduled because graduation practice is that morning, and if she misses the practice, she can’t "walk" (participate in the ceremony.) This is unusual news for me, because I would swear during her interview that she told me she was "out of school," which I assumed meant that she had already graduated. AND the schedule has been up since Friday morning, and she is just now realizing that she has a conflict. And things only get worse from there; ultimately the graduation/job conflict deteriorates into this girl informing me that her whole week will be filled with graduation-related activities that conflict directly with every shift for which I have her scheduled. She keeps telling me she is "so sorry" and "please don’t be mad at me." 

In truth, I am pissed about the situation, but I decide to cut her some slack since she is a new employee, and perhaps I didn’t adequately explain the process of asking for time off when she came on staff. She somehow gets my home phone number and keeps trying to call me at home about the whole mess…this does not make any points with me, either. 

When she finally gets in touch with me, I tell her not to worry, it’s going to be rough, but it’s water under the bridge, and we will start off fresh the following Monday morning.

On which day she waltzes in five minutes late, goes directly to the bathroom, and finally reports to her station five minutes later. And then writes on her time sheet that she arrived promptly at her scheduled start time. God dammit!

Then we have "K," who applied at the café because the local Credit Union, where she has worked all during high school, is not going to offer her full-time hours after she graduates. "K" wants to start making more money to save for school. She is a nice girl, a sweet girl…I really like her. But her status at the bank changes daily, apparently. Saturday afternoon, she comes to me with a NEW schedule that the credit union has given her. After I practically tied myself in knots trying to schedule around the OLD one, they have changed her hours, and—you guessed it—every one of her shifts conflicts directly with what I have her scheduled to work. And next week, they have decided that she will be covering someone’s vacation, and they have her scheduled to work almost 40 hours. Leaving her completely unavailable to me. God freakin-dammit!!!

So, in the past week I have lost one cook entirely. Of my two remaining cooks (who are actually still cooks-in-training) one leaves tomorrow for a three-week vacation, and the other has just started a five-nights-a-week class and is not available to work any nights until mid-July when the class ends.

And I realize today that neither of my new hires is going to be of any use whatsoever.

At whom do I wave the white flag?

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Where I Stand Now

Today, I delivered the non-refundable deposit the seller of the business we’re buying insisted he needed, in order to quit holding "other offers" over my head. So now, more than at any time up until now, this looks like a done deal. How I would love to be breathing a sigh of relief. How I would love to be looking forward, unconditionally thrilled, to assuming the captaincy of my own ship. But this whole exercise is turning out to be like a game of "Whack-a-mole." Have you ever played "Whack-a-mole?" It’s the arcade game where you get a big padded mallet, and you use it to pound these little mole-heads back into the holes they pop out of. As soon as you whack one mole, another pops out of another hole. Sometimes two or three at the same time.

So, I whacked the "financing" mole. And I mashed the "mollify the seller" mole. And I’m working on wrestling the "OLCC" (liquor license) mole back down into his little hole. But, what’s this? A monstrous head just popped out of a crater the size of a manhole.’s the "present owner’s overly-emotional manager" mole! Mr. Present Owner has gone out of his way to warn me that this girl’s family has lived in the county for a hundred years, and that even the appearance that she has been ill-treated in the transition could cost me big in terms of community relations for the next...century. Oh. Thank you so much, Mr. Present Owner!

I have met this girl. She is very nice. She is sweet. She is eminently likeable. In fact, everybody likes her—customers, staff and (obviously) Mr. Present Owner himself.

She is the absolute antithesis of me.

Nothing can strike more abject fear into my heart than the prospect of dealing with a sweet, likeable, fragile psyche. I am the personification of the bull in the china shop, when it comes to personal relationships. I have no guile, no political savvy, no off button. As a general rule, whatever is in my mind just falls out my mouth. I know enough not to be outright rude or abusive, but somehow that makes the situation even worse. It really hurts my feelings when people don’t get me. If I had a rhinoceros-tough hide to go along with my social ineptitude, it wouldn’t matter to me that I make such a god-awful impression on most people the first (second, third, gotta-know-me-for-a-year-before-you-can-tolerate-me) time I meet them.

Mind you, I only have to work with this girl for two weeks. And Mr. Present Owner has already promised her a generous severance package. All she has to do is work with me long enough to allow me to get my feet under me concerning the day to day operation of the place. But when you combine what he has been so "kind" as to tell me about her, and what I know from having interacted with her for a couple weeks a year ago, I know that she and I will get along like gasoline and a match.

I am scared shitless.

Monday, June 4, 2007

No Rest For The Weary

I’ve not felt much like writing lately…at least, not like writing about my life. I thought I’d take five minutes this morning to write (vent) about happenings there-in.

Flaky cook did indeed manage to re-appear at work on Saturday and Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend (though I wasn’t informed of her intentions until very late on Friday) so I WAS able to take my long-planned vacation. After stressing out about it for two days, I REALLY needed it by the time if finally became a reality. Weather in Seaside was not very nice, though. Lots of clouds, some rain, some wind, cool temps. I would rather have found somewhere that I could lie in the sun all day. I’ve HAD my vacation for the summer, and I still look as white as I did in mid-January. Sigh!

Returned home Monday, everything went rather smoothly on Tuesday, and then I get a call on Wednesday morning that flaky cook has failed to show up for her scheduled shift. Apparently, she has decided she no longer wants to work for us. Did not hear from her again, and in fact have not seen her since. She showed up to pick up her final paycheck when she knew I was not there. Jeez. Thirty-eight years old, with a teen-ager of her own, and she has no more class or manners than a kid. Things will be a little tough around the cafe for awhile, but we are well rid of Ms. Cook and her constant drama, I think.

Pickings are still slim in the local labor market, though. I’ve hired three new girls, and they are all YOUNG. Eighteen or just about to turn so. I’m thinking if I am having trouble communicating with the twenty-somethings, the teen-agers ought to be a real challenge. I have no idea what motivates children these days. They don’t seem to need or want the money, so I’m not sure why they even work. It’s almost more for the social value than anything else…and I cannot have the café turn into the local high-school (drop-out) hang-out.

So I worked a lot of long shifts last week, and have pretty much shot through any re-invigoration provided by my short vacation. I feel like I’m about a hundred years old…my hands are killing me, my right knee is giving me crap. I had just got to the point were I was able to separate myself a tad from the hash-slinging part of owning the restaurant and then Ms. Cook craps out on me. One step forward, two steps back. 

It's going to be a long summer.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Reality Bites

I have been stretching my neck, a la Curlin in last weekend’s race, towards the goal of an actual weekend off. Plans were made, way back in February, for three days of R & R over the Memorial Day weekend. And up until about thirty hours ago, those plans looked tantalizingly viable. "Ah," I thought. "I will have plenty of time to contemplate and communicate wonderful interview questions on my little vacation…!"

Alas! I should have known better than to count on being able to scrape myself away from my "dream come true," even for a few days. My flaky cook (who asked for part of this weekend off and was denied it) has contracted some dire mystery disease; and she has no idea when this illness will abate enough for her to come back to work. I suspect this will happen sometime around next Tuesday…

And so I am feeling extremely put-upon as I come face-to-face with a stark reality of my new life: Only under implausibly favorable stars can a small-business owner hope to finagle more than a couple of hours away from the "baby" that unwaveringly wails for attention.

And I am just soooo tired tonight….

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Getting the Hang of It

When I stand back and look at it, it has taken an amazingly short time to get my bearings and start moving forward with the business. Nine and a half months. The span of time that I might have been pregnant with a first child. I don’t know if there is such a thing as actually being pregnant for more than nine months, but several women have told me it FELT like they were…

Business start-up and pregnancy. Quite the analogy, really. We’ve all known women who say they loved being pregnant. That they had never felt more vital and alive. All I can say is, "Yeah…right." I know myself, and I know how I would have been. Weary with the process. Overwhelmed by the life changes. Intimidated by the unknowns. Totally relieved when it was over. Much the same emotions I’ve been experiencing since last July.

And I suppose it isn’t over—but I can’t help feeling I’ve turned the corner. I’m not lost in the weeds anymore, not feeling my way inch by inch, waiting to be blind-sided by the next weird glitch to come at me from out of nowhere. Even as I waded through those dark days this past winter, I knew…I KNEW that there were better days ahead. Knew that all I had to do was learn…learn the business. Soak up every bit of information thrown in my direction…puzzle it out. I knew I was perfectly capable of doing so, because I have done it before. I may be an old dog, but I knew I could learn new tricks. Or re-learn the old ones. I only had to give it time. Time that--eminently patient soul that I am (not)--threatened to be my undoing.

In the end, I am victorious. Or, at the very least, not done fighting. Yet. Not by a long shot.

Friday, April 20, 2007

I Knew I Could Do This, Sort Of...

Some time ago, I realized that I need constant reaffirmation. Quite the realization for a card-carrying introvert. Aren’t we supposed to be the souls who neither seek nor require outside approval? Aren’t we supposed to be okay, no—better, on our own? It was a bitter pill to swallow, this realization that I need other people to think me worthy, or intelligent, or talented, or good at what I do. Maybe that is one of the strong ties binding me to this blog…

During my eight-year stint at my dream job, I found my stride as a manager; my "style" eventually cultivated a crew of competent, honest, hard-working ladies who were good friends, could work together with a minimum of back-biting, and were truly invested in the success of the business. Eventually, I simply took it for granted that I knew what I was doing, and I was good at what I did. But, most importantly, my crew respected me. They liked me and appreciated the job I did. That was what put me at the top of the world.

It was twelve long years between my exit from that wonderfully nurturing environment and the realization of my dream of having my own place. In those intervening years, my self-confidence took a severe beating at times; but I never doubted for a minute that, given the right opportunity, I could make the magic happen again. Unfortunately, my months-long struggle with staffing my restaurant ground what was left of that confidence right into the dust. I had the opportunity, and I was falling flat on my face. Maybe it had been too long. Maybe I was too old. Or maybe I just sucked at what I had once taken such pride in. The financial success or failure of the café was something I could take in stride—we’d given ourselves over to the risks involved and were willing to take our beating, if that was how things played out. But the fear that I might have lost or been mistaken about the things I most valued about myself, nearly did me in.

Perhaps it was difficult for some people to get used to working elbow to elbow with the owner. I can understand where some people would be intimidated by that, while others might be inspired. Maybe it was just a matter of getting people who meshed with my style. And, to a man, those people have been…women.

In the early days of my restaurant career, I always felt that I got along better with "the guys" than with other women. I think that’s because I was one of the few women in the kitchen. The "girls" were the hostesses and the waitresses and the bartenders. They weren’t the sweat-hogs on the pizza line or flipping the burgers or swabbing the floors at 2 am. But I was. I was down there in the trenches with the guys. And to survive in those trenches, I had to learn to give as good as I got. I laugh and shake my head when I hear weeny 21st century women whine about sexual harrassment. Back in the day, you ate that crap up and spit it right back at them. That was how you earned their respect.

I played their game, and I was mildly successful at it. But it wasn’t until I got the title—"manager"—that I realized how much better females are at this work. Women are more empathetic, so they are better not only at dealing with customers, but at dealing with fellow employees. They’re much more likely to accept the kind of wages I can pay. They excel at teamwork, at multi-tasking, and, most importantly, at taking direction from another woman.

Yes….I know. I am a total male-bigot. But it’s MY place, and I can follow any agenda I please. And it is a fact that my crew began to "gel" the minute we saw the back of the last atom of testosterone polluting our kitchen. The biggest difference I have noticed between inexperienced young people of each gender is that the girls are willing to learn; the boys think they know everything. And I don’t have the time or the energy to crack through that know-it-all hide.

And then there have been the tales and rumors of the feats of other local restaurant owners that make me feel like some kind of freakin’ genius. One of my major competitors decided last fall that he wasn’t going to achieve his goal of "putting every other restaurant in the county out of business," so he put the place up for sale. The lady who bought it is now engaged in trying to steal help from every other restaurant around, because she felt compelled to go in and fire her entire crew. All I could think when I heard that was, well, two things: I’m glad I wasn’t stupid enough to do that (though there were times I could have cheerfully swung the axe with wild abandon); and she better stay the hell away from MY people.

The guy up the road a few more blocks was at one time in possession of one of my most brilliant new hires…He f****d up that relationship by not giving her a promised promotion, and by shaving hours off her paycheck. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why a manager/owner would treat people that way. Several readers remarked in the comments of my last entry that it was "good of me" to let my cook have the weekend off to spend with her kid. That’s not being good, it’s just being…human. Beisdes, the way I look at it, there are damn few perks I can offer my people. I can’t afford to pay much, and there is no paid sick leave or vacation or insurance (yet…) So, doesn’t it behoove me to give my crew a perk I can afford—schedule flexibility? To me, that’s just a no-brainer.

I don’t know…I suppose they could all walk out on me tomorrow, and I’d be right back to questioning my worth as a business owner, a manager, and a human being. But, at the moment, I’ve got a few weeks of managerial success under my belt, and I feel my confidence re-inflating like a rainbow-striped hot-air balloon. I am so ready to cut the tethers and soar.