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…