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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What a Difference a Crew Makes

There are some jobs that competent young people are adamantly unwilling to do anymore…and restaurant work appears to be one of them. That "you want fries with that?" mentality—the image of food service being the bottom of the social and intellectual barrel—has received way too much press. The actual fact is, restaurant work requires a level of competency and multi-tasking ability that similar "unskilled labor" jobs—like retail or light manufacturing—cannot approach. My girls have to be baristas, waitresses, cooks, bakers, receptionists, bussers, dishwashers, cashiers and clean-up crew. They have to know how to take a phone order, how to handle a customer complaint with grace and poise, how to jiggle the insides of the toilet tank in the ladies’ room to stop it from leaking, and how to balance a till, along with about a million other tasks, large and small. And all for slightly more than minimum wage ($7.80/hr here in Oregon, as of Janurary 1) because that’s all we poor starving entrepreneurs can afford. Come to think of it, restaurant work doesn’t really look all that attractive, does it? But not because it’s only for stupid losers.

When I think back now to those dark months of November, December, and January, when my crew just imploded before my incredulous eyes, it’s hard to believe this is the same restaurant. In my head, I knew all I had to do was get the right people and things would improve 500%. I knew it; but given the non-response I got to every "help wanted" ad I placed in the local papers, coupled with the fact that every person I did hire seemed to come with a ton of negative baggage, I was nearly convinced that acquiring an adequate crew was the Impossible Dream

This evening at the café, I cooked a busy dinner, aided by one of my amazingly competent recently hired young cooks. We made good food, and we made it quickly; we were organized and efficient. It was a thoroughly pleasant experience. This same young cook assisted me in the kitchen this past weekend—the chief cook’s weekend off—during the incredibly busy Saturday and Sunday breakfast hours I had sweated about all the previous week. "What if we get really busy?" I fretted. "What am I going to do??" Oh, we did the busy hours all right; but in the end, the dread was unfounded. We smoked ‘em! I honestly was beginning to doubt I would ever see the day.

But now…. Now,I’m not only beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m eagerly anticipating the day I’ll need to break out the SPF 30…