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…