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...