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.

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