Sunday, December 13, 2009


It's not escaped my notice that I tend to head right for the keyboard when I'm stressed, unhappy or overwhelmed. Of course, my life isn't all about negotiating the minefield of small business ownership, and trying to duck pieces of crap flying off the fan blades. I just tend to sort of…bask in the good times, rather than run to the computer and bang out a blog entry. So…in an effort to inject a modicum of balance into this collection of frustration-laced essays, I feel compelled to relate some stories of the past week.

Let's start with last Saturday. Saturday was holiday D-day for me—the day that would either make or kill my entire Christmas season. It was the day my chef, the Husband and the Good and Faithful "D" ventured up the hill to a home that could well have been featured in Sunset magazine, to cater an eight-course meal for a group of six couples. Six couples who had heretofore held their Christmas gathering in the "Wine Room" of the Benson Hotel in downtown Portland. Not just a tall order…think Mount Everest.

We had never, ever done anything like this before. And, to the nail-biting frustration of Li'l Ole Control-Freak Me, the success or failure of this little endeavor was almost completely out of my hands. I'd handed the controls to the young man with the knowledge and the creds to carry it off—California Chef.

My input into the catering affair was reduced to making sure if Chef said, "I need…", whatever it was he needed materialized forthwith. I adopted an attitude of almost aggressive indifference to Chef's preparation…knowing I had no basis for useful input, I opted to step as far away from the proceedings as I could. I let Chef fill our fridges to bursting with his prep, put my head down and set myself to the task of running the rest of the business. With a vengeance.

Late Saturday afternoon, I sent the little posse up the hill with my exhortation to "Make us proud." Then I turned around and attacked the work I couldn't get done all day while Chef monopolized every appliance and surface in our tiny kitchen with his last-minute preparations. In chef's absence, it was up to me to handle dinner service for the café. Luckily, we were just busy enough to keep my mind off what might be going on up the hill.

At 8:45, I was putting the finishing touches on my scoured grill and "T", my front-of-the-house girl of the evening, was rinsing and polishing the stainless steel sinks in the kitchen. The back door opened, and the "Conquering Heroes" began dragging empty coolers and assorted dishware down the hall. "Oh, crap," I whined ungraciously to "T". "We just got finished cleaning up and now they're going to come in here and trash the kitchen….!"

"Great to see you, too!" sniped the Husband. Oops.

A few minutes later, after finally swallowing the trepidation that kept rising up in my gullet, I asked:

"So… How'd it go?"

Young Chef, who had up until this time maintained his inscrutable quiet, replied with a one-sided grin,

"Well…we got a standing ovation."


Monday, November 23, 2009


Business has been good this month. Good for any month, but especially spectacular for November. I thought, “Wow, maybe we are finally starting to get it, and people are starting to get us.” That would have been a great feeling. But, as has been the case almost every other time in my life when I thought I might actually be responsible for my own success, I discovered that it is more a case of things over which I personally have no control, causing our good run.

Two local eating/drinking establishments have closed their doors since October 30, which has had the effect of leaving bigger slices of the same dining-out-dollar pie for those of us who remain. So while I’m thankful that our numbers are good this month, I know better than to go into paroxysms of joy about how we’re finally on our way and there’s nowhere to go but up.

We need to carpe diem. We need to take advantage of this little windfall the Universe has provided for us, try to impress those folks coming through our doors who perhaps have never been here before, or who perhaps have been here but had a bad experience and didn’t come back, and are going to give us another go. I hope we can do that.

So, while I’m grateful for the chance, I won’t say that I’m thankful for somebody else’s misfortune. I KNOW that “There but for the grace of the Universe go I…” We’ll just keep our noses to the grindstone and try to maximize the opportunity.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lovin' the Lights

I have mentioned my landlord in the past, haven’t I? The guy who used to own the café, and sometimes drives me a little crazy? After three years, he is still having a bit of a hard time letting go… Keeps coming to me with advice about how to increase sales, how to advertise; and he takes pride in being the source of all the juicy local business gossip (most of which I already know by the time he sidles up to me and reports, sotto voce and with great relish, what he has “heard on the grapevine.”)

When he owned the café, Mr. Landlord/Former Owner often made decisions based on the political correctness of any given action, opting not to risk offending by appearing to show favoritism to any belief system. So—no holiday decorations of any kind. In fact, he developed a reputation of being somewhat of a Scrooge.

And of course, his attitude toward holiday decorating could not be more polar opposite of mine. I love Christmas, love Christmas decorations, and it’s my restaurant now; so I WILL deck the halls. Which, of course, Mr. Landlord/Former Owner has never let come to pass without some kind of not quite jokey comment.

So I gave up long ago trying to get him to decorate the building for Christmas. Not so my neighbor, this year—the Intrepid Jeweler occupying the space next to ours. He has been lobbying for Christmas lights since, I think, last spring. Not letting up for a minute, as far as I can tell. I’m sure he regaled Mr. LL/FO with all the reasons hanging holiday lights made good business sense and gave him a higher stature in the community.

And, lo and behold, the Jeweler’s persistence has paid off. Our building now sparkles with many strings of LED icicle lights hanging…well, not from the eaves, as there aren’t any eaves on our utilitarian square box of a building. The lights look like…um…kind of a high-waisted sequined belt encircling the building somewhere just below the armpits. But they are pretty and they are festive, and I neither had to fight for them nor install them.

So I thank Mr. Landlord/Former Owner and the Intrepid Jeweler for making our holidays a little brighter.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday the Thirteenth

I never had any problems with Friday the Thirteenth. I didn’t even realize there was going to be one this month until about Wednesday. But even after I figured it out, it didn’t bother me overmuch. Thursday the Twelfth has always been my bugaboo. And I figured having my day off cancelled by (everyone else’s) illness had satisfied the bad-luck requirement for this go-round. I went to bed Thursday night thinking that Friday would probably be gravy after that. Just goes to show how wrong you can be.

Friday was every bit the day from hell. First thing in the morning, the café was overrun by a group of people who started arriving about 8:30 and eventually set up a presentation for a pyramid marketing scheme… in my dining room. Without calling for a reservation, or even coming up to the counter when they arrived to ask if it would be okay for them to do so. They just walked in and took over the place. So I had this noisy, not particularly well-mannered crowd of anywhere from twelve to thirty “local business people” swarming all over the restaurant for 2 ½ hours. They spent thirty dollars.

I asked them to leave at 11 am, explaining that we would be getting busy for lunch and we would need the table space (for real customers who wanted to buy a meal, but I didn't say that.) Without actually saying the words, I did make it very clear that they were not welcome to walk in and take over my restaurant unannounced whenever they felt like it. They, in turn, made it very clear--loudly and not very politely (surprise)--that they would not be back. Fine. Good riddance to your sorry “It’s-all-about-me” asses and your gargantuan sense of entitlement.

The stress of that ridiculous confrontation nearly sent me over the edge. After a lunch that started out slow and finally got busy (I strongly suspect that the presence of the crowd spilling around and out the doors of my restaurant served as a deterrent for our regular lunch patrons) I was SO ready to get out of there. Had to. Needed to be somewhere, by myself, just to get my head reassembled. California Chef had emailed me the night before and said he was feeling much better and wanted to return to work on Friday. I literally counted the minutes to 2:00, when Chef would arrive and I could run out the door, get in my van and burst into tears.

One fifty-five rolls around, no Chef. Two o’clock, still no Chef. I start to get a really bad feeling. Squeeze myself into my “cloffice” to check my email. Come to find that chef has emailed (somewhere around 9:30 that morning) that he has decided against returning to work today, if it’s okay with me. Of course it’s okay with me, if you’re still sick…but the way to communicate that on the morning of is NOT by email. Like I have time to run to the computer every five minutes when half the kitchen staff is out sick. I’m sure he was thinking that, like any normal 21st century techno-junkie, I am always connected to the internet and my email via cel phone (the phone I recharge about once every three weeks and do not carry on my person as a matter of principle.) Yet another of those generational brain-farts that make it so easy for me to manage my staff…

And so, I end up working thirteen straight hours. Finally get to sit down and take my one meal break of the day around hour twelve. And we were busy. Which is the one saving grace of the whole thing, because I think it would have been the ultimate bitch to work that hard and grind through that much emotional stress without at least the reward of decent numbers on the till.

I hate days like that. I haven’t had one in a long time; in fact, I truly think that, after three years, I shouldn’t have them at all. SHOULD NOT have those days when I feel like I’m carrying the whole thing uphill tied to my back with a shoelace. I do not want to have those days when I email to my spouse and business partner: I have had it. I want to sell this place and move to St. Thomas.

Truthfully, it did cross my mind that it might be time to cry “Uncle.” And not because of my staffing problems, or having to work thirteen hour days, or feeling like I’m dragging the cafe up a mountain by the hair. It’s because of the people. The “customers.”

Yes, I’m a serious introvert. And getting out there among the people is the most challenging part of this thing for me. Twenty years ago, when I pushed myself to do that as a manager working for somebody else, I always felt rewarded for the effort. I always came away with the sense that the people really could be the fun part of the job at times. But not anymore.

Times have SO changed. The tenor of this century is rudeness, false entitlement, get whatever you can get. It’s perfectly okay to say or do anything. If you get away with it, fine. It’s up to the other guy to call you on it, if the other guy can screw up the courage to do so. Because he knows you’re not going to back down without a row. People just do…whatever, and dare the world to tell them they can’t. Courtesy? Consideration for others? Even the slightest notion that there’s someone else in the world besides you? Not a chance. And it just isn’t fun, fulfilling, or even vaguely appealing to run a service business when one has to deal with that over and over, every day.

Maybe I am a hopelessly outdated old relic. But I am consistently flabbergasted by the things people will say and do these days. If I give it up, if I hand over my keys and hang the “for sale” sign in the window, that will be the thing that drove me to it.

So, this post is supposed to be about thanks. What am I thankful for, here on day thirteen?

Maybe that I came this close, but I’m not going to quit. Not today.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Gratitudes (?) of November

Try…just try to make a plan. Any plan at all will take a beating from unforeseen excrement contacting the metaphorical oscillator. I can hardly plan to go to the bathroom without being interrupted, sidetracked, hair-on-fired and just-one-more-thinged until I nearly wet my pants.

Yeah, I need to lighten up. And, yeah, this “gratitude” thing seemed like just the ticket to help me get there. So, how many days did I get through? Three? Before the Universe grabbed me by the hair and growled, “So, you want to be grateful, huh? Well let’s make this a real test! Let's see you handle this. And this. And this…!

Yesterday, arriving home from a nice day at work, a day for which I was just about to be… grateful, I open the garage door. Orangie limps in, hasn’t touched his breakfast, looks pretty ill, in fact. Looks like another trip to the vet might be in order.

To take my mind off that, I decide to browse through some mail. And I happen upon an envelope in a pile of “filed” mail (that would be mail shoved into one of several random piles by the person—who shall remain nameless—who can get the mail but cannot deal with the mail.) An envelope containing a letter from the state Employment Department. A letter dated October 26th (two weeks ago.) A letter stating that they intend to audit our books from the past two and a half years. And they want to see everything—except, perhaps, our used toilet paper. And they will be showing up at our front door on November 13 (two days from now.) Oh, thank you!

After losing thirty percent of what little sleep I normally get, worrying about this thorny problem, I climbed out of bed still determined to cultivate gratitude. But the only thing I could think of to be thankful for was that I have tomorrow off. So I can rest, possibly stay in bed with a pillow over my head for the entire day, or maybe emerge just long enough to drag out and decorate the first of my Christmas trees, as that indulgence could not fail to improve my mood.

Not two hours after posting that little tidbit on Facebook, I get a call from the restaurant. Flaky Cook has brought in a doctor’s note stating that she has tested positive for h1n1 (this is the third time in five weeks she has had the flu…) and will not be able to return to work for at least three days. My cherished and happily anticipated day off is now in jeopardy. In fact, I’m looking at no day off (and I’ve just worked ten days in a row) followed by the possibility of five or six double shifts until Flaky Cook can return to work.

I’m glad I hadn’t yet mentioned I was grateful for my husband. I’d probably be watching him being loaded into an ambulance. I think I’ll keep that little bit of gratitude to myself, for the time being…

Thankfully, a little tap-dancing and schedule-juggling has re-secured my precious day off. So I still can be—and AM (you have no idea)—grateful for that. For now. I hope.

...or NOT. Chef called in sick today, too. So no day off for me today.

That's okay. I love my little cafe, and I'll keep it going if I'm the last (wo)man standing. Which it looks like I might be...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Enter The "Y" Chromosome...

I grew up in Estrogen Central. Our family of seven consisted of six females…and my dad.

Still, when it came time to choose a career, I ended up in the world of the commercial kitchen—dominated by sharp knives, gigantic appliances, acres of stainless steel, and MEN. (Come to think of it, what career field was NOT male-dominated back in the seventies?)

Working with men is really pretty simple. They are selfish and competitive. They try to dominate all aspects of a project; their idea of teamwork is to hog every opportunity to shine and let someone else have the ball only when they drop it; “delegation” is the handing off of unglamorous scutwork to lesser minions. Men tend to establish a clear pecking order in a kitchen, dishing out verbal and even physical abuse to new-comers. If you prove you can “take it”—for an unspecified period of time—then you earn the right to be treated like a human being.

But I could be a hard guy. I gave as good as I got. I busted my butt, worked hard and didn’t challenge anybody (much) so I got respect. After awhile, I had myself convinced that I worked much better with men than with women. Women were wimpy, over-emotional, passive/aggressive pains in the ass. Since there were not too many girls there in the back of the house rubbing elbows with me, what did I know? It served me, for many years, to make believe I was just one of the guys.

Eventually, after more years stuck in middle management than any man would have had to endure, I finally attained hefe status. And I found that managing men gradually lost its appeal. I was the boss. I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody (at least not to anyone with whom I shared a prep table.) The “hazing” mentality so prevalent in the industry was loathsome, and I was not going to tolerate it in my kitchen. I knew management-sanctioned abuse was no way to attract and retain quality employees. And, let’s face it—five foot three inch dynamo that I was, I nevertheless found that getting any male to do my bidding was more trouble than it was worth. So I discovered, wonder of wonders, that I preferred managing my own kind.

Women, in addition to being passive/aggressive pains in the ass, are much more collaborative and team-oriented than men. Women are motivated by being needed; they want to feel helpful and necessary. And, oddly enough, I’ve found that women are much more adept than men at multi-tasking. Perhaps it’s because men are always at least partly engaged in plotting how much farther up the ladder successful completion of a given assignment is going to take them. It takes away from their ability to focus on multiple tasks.

And, of course, one cannot discount the fact that women don’t usually find it impossible to take orders from another woman. So, over time, I’ve become somewhat of a master at managing the Estrogen-Powered Workplace. Not that this skill has become simple or formulaic…but at least it’s a matter of dealing with the Devil I Know.

Enter my newest hire—California Chef.

Even the selection process that brought him on board was a painstaking exercise in looking beyond stereotypes and prejudices built upon thirty-plus years in this business. The final decision was between California Chef and a female candidate with plenty of experience and ties to the community. The choice became clear when California Chef brought ideas and research to the final interview, and Local Chef brought…herself. I could not see myself opting for the lesser candidate based on what amounted to reverse discrimination. Still, I had to physically put aside my trepidation about introducing a male into our female-infested kitchen—especially in a supervisory capacity. California Chef got the job.

Would that I could say that all my worry was for naught. But we know better than that, don’t we? It has indeed been a challenge to optimize my male chef’s effectiveness, surrounded as he is by our rag-tag crew of ladies—including myself—with less-than-gourmet-dinner-house experience. He is frustrated that we don’t know anything, which makes us feel more than slightly disrespected. It’s not that we “don’t know anything;” we may not have some of his skills and experience, but that doesn’t mean we don’t respect his expertise and aren’t willing to acquire those skills. But we want to feel respected in the process. It’s been a difficult and particularly thread-like tightrope for us all to walk.

California Chef is talented, he’s smart, his work ethic is a throwback to my own generation, or even my parents’. And he is really a genuinely nice person. Yet he’s having the devil’s own time figuring out how to communicate with and motivate his staff. I can’t teach him how to cook, but I sure as hell have a store of knowledge about management and the maintenance of inter-personal relationships involved that he would do well to acquire if he aspires to an effective career as head of his own kitchen. If only I can figure out how to make him understand this.

He seems to think that he has but to come up with recipes and methods, write them down or show someone once how they are done, and that should be that. There’s no room for error or mistakes or personalities. If someone fails it’s because she is lazy or stupid or insubordinate. It’s not incumbent upon him to evaluate each member of his staff as an individual, identify her strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to play to her strong side. He should be able to say “Jump!” and their only input should be to ask, “How high?”

So. Typically. Male.

Yet I don’t think he completely believes this nonsense himself. It’s just that he’s been indoctrinated into this way of thinking. Poisoned, if you will, by the environments in which he has, up ‘til now, developed his talent. Male-dominated kitchens, all, where testosterone dictated the pecking order and “my way or the highway” was a legitimate management technique. He’s young…this is all he knows. But he seems to think it’s all there is.

My job is to open his mind to other possibilities, alternate methods. The methods that are going to work on a kitchen full of women. The things he needs to know and I need to teach him if our association is going to go anywhere besides up in spectacular flames. What a learning and growth experience this could be—for both of us—if we can make it happen.


Monday, October 26, 2009

...and Some Days, You're the Bug.

Conversation at the end of a long, frustrating day on which I spent 11 hours at the restaurant chasing my tail and accomplishing almost nothing:

Husband: Hey…go to “intuit dot com.”

Me: Why?

Husband: So we can get a website.

Me: We have a website.

H: No, we have a “Facebook” page.


H: Since when?

M: (Rolling my eyes so hard that the centrifugal force nearly sends my eyeballs shooting out the top of my skull) …..For awhile.

H: “J” says she can’t find us online!

M: Google Old Town Café Scappoose.

H: …........oh.

We have, in fact, had a website since July. After two weeks chained to my laptop(s) manipulating code, uploading pictures, and posting menus, maps, directions…

While at the same time hiring and orientating a new chef and a new pastry chef; juggling the schedule to accommodate employee traumas; struggling to keep our dining room habitable with no air conditioning in 105 degree heat; planning menu, marketing and dining room arrangements for an upcoming charity event; and coordinating purchasing and production for our $20,000 food concession gig in August. Oh, and maybe I walked on water and cleansed a leper or two.

Is my business partner/love of my life suffering from some kind of early-onset dementia? Hardly. He can quote the most obscure football, basketball and baseball statistics about teams and players—college and pro—that I (and most of the rest of the world) have never heard of. His memory is pure 21st century HD…when it comes to the things he cares about.

I wrote once, awhile back, that my husband is one of those easy-going types who has mastered the art of “tuning out the noise…” He just doesn’t hear what he doesn’t feel the need to hear.

About fifteen years ago, when my life started to turn to shit and he was all I could grab to keep myself from falling irretrievably into my own head, I became…noise.

And, evidently, the fact that we supposedly own a business together has not served to change my status in that regard.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Discontented Rumblings

An amorphous sense of discontent has plagued me lately. An inkling that time is going by much too quickly, and I’m not using it well. A suspicion that no one in my world is happy with me, including me. Small personal goals seem as far outside my reach as lofty universal ones. I can no more keep my bathroom clean than I can achieve world peace. There is not one aspect of my life that I can say is where I think it could be or know it should be.

It’s been more than a year since I emerged from the over-stressed sleep-deprived fog I inhabited for the first two years of running the restaurant. And yet, I feel I’ve accomplished nothing in the past fifteen months. True, I’ve spent most of that recovered energy just keeping the business viable through tough economic times. But I really don’t like the feeling that I’m throwing all my weight into this thing just to keep it from going backward. When do we get to go forward? Ever?

And then there’s Old Age. I don’t feel it creeping up on me. I feel like I’m running full speed away from it, but it’s matching me step for step. And its legs are longer than mine…

When I first began to entertain the notion of buying a business, every "how to" book I read exhorted one to write up a set of goals. Where do you want to be in six months? In a year? In five years? I never took that advice. Something told me that I was stepping off into such alien territory that I couldn’t possibly have a clue where I was going or how long it was going to take me to get there. I guess I looked at my business venture as a "Walkabout." It was all about the journey, not the destination.

As it turns out, that attitude has probably been my salvation, as well as my cross. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t even gone in the same direction I thought I was going when I started out, and it’s a safe bet that I have not achieved anything I would have recognized as "goals" at the outset. "Assemble a crew of workers who will actually show up when they’re scheduled" and "chase down food purveyors who believe Scappoose is forty miles outside of Outer Mongolia" would not have struck me as tasks difficult enough to qualify as goals…and yet, accomplishing just these simple things has been like a quest for the Grail. So if I had said, "I want to have increased sales by 20% and banked 50k in profits after three years," I would be living with failure that was beyond dismal, at this point. If I had not chucked it all months ago, based on my inability to accomplish…anything.

Recently, in the midst of an argument with my grocery rep, he said to me, "You want to be a $1,000,000.00 restaurant, don’t you?" I didn’t have to think very long…I said, "No, Kirk, I just want to make a living. If I wanted to make a million dollars, I sure as hell wouldn’t be running a restaurant in a little bitty town like this."

"I just want to make a living." But I’m not doing that yet. Haven’t taken one dollar out of the damned thing. But the doors are still open, and it’s paying its own bills. Still, I wonder whether I haven’t set my sights too low. Maybe if I had said I wanted to make a million, I would at least be drawing a salary by now. But would that have been enough to motivate me to keep going? Hard to say; but I suspect that if I thought I was going to (or needed to) make any money off this thing in the first five years, I would have been bummed or broke enough to get out by now.

But when people ask me how it’s going, I’m getting a little tired of saying, "Well, we’re not losing money!" as if that was the best I can hope for. At some point, it has to do more than pay for itself.

Doesn’t it?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Left Behind

Back in June, I made some moves that I believed were risky, brave, and eminently forward-looking. I hired myself a chef/kitchen manager, and a pastry chef. With the idea of taking the café to the “next level.” Knowing full well that some of the precious long-term employees I had clung to would not be going to that next level with us. You stop, you think, you swallow your trepidation and you take that big forward step. You know there will be consequences.

Now that I think about it, the fallout was already falling when I made those momentous hiring decisions. It was, in fact, one of the things that pushed me to make the moves I did. One by one, the backbones of my crew were themselves making decisions. To move on. To kiss us goodbye and leave us behind. In truth, I decided to take us to the next level because it was that or…I don’t know what. Run the restaurant by myself, I guess.

In May, the Good and Faithful “D” informed me that she would be going back to school in the fall. And of course, it couldn’t be a normal school, where you could take classes AND work, and get your degree or certificate in, maybe two or three years. No…it had to be one of those “career” schools with the intensive programs that eat up the students’ every waking hour, transforms them and releases them fully accredited and thoroughly exhausted into their chosen field of endeavor after a mere 6 to 8 months.

Time and time again, my “girls” remind me that I am their boss. I am not their friend, or their mentor, or even someone whose feelings matter, or whose opinion they value. I have so utterly failed to make that connection with the girls who work for me. And it feels like shit. What do you say to someone upon whom you have depended heavily—probably much more heavily than was wise—when they up and decide to move on? “Bye, see ya…have a nice life?”

And, yet, I could do that, if it looked like the parting was going to be a smooth and amicable one. But that would not be “D.” Her personality is such that, when she decides to move on, she completely emotionally disassociates from whatever she is moving on from. She's no Audrey Hepburn, but her personality is every bit "Holly Go-lightly." She wants to project the impression that there are no bonds, no chains, no attachments…everyone (meaning SHE) is free to walk away from any relationship at any time, no hard feelings, no regrets. The more serious the entanglement, the more aloof she becomes at the dissolution of it. Untouchable. Unreachable. Gone.

The end result of this is…though she will not actually start school for another two weeks, and she plans to continue to work part-time during the first ten-week term, “D” is already gone. The amazing young woman whose trust I thought I had won, and whose loyalty I believed I had inspired, at least in some small way, has disappeared. In her place is a disrespectful petulant malcontent with a serious case of “short-timer’s disease.” And it just…hurts. Deep in my heart, it hurts.

It will be a sad chapter in the history of the Old Town Café, and in my personal history, if the time comes—as it appears that it will—when I am relieved that “D” has finally walked out the door, never to return. She has been my right hand, my go-to…the Good and Faithful “D.” It will be hard…SO hard…to watch that relationship end in such a sad and ignominious way. But it honestly looks as if I have no choice. I have been pitched out of a taxi into an alley, in the rain.

Unfortunately, I don't anticipate "D" suffering a change of heart and coming back for me...

Friday, September 4, 2009

Full Moon...

Counter girl calls me to the phone. Customer complaint.

"We ate at your restaurant last night, and my receipt shows two charges of $1.00 each on 'Dept. 1…' What is that for?"

"Yes…you ordered two bacon cheeseburgers. We ring those up as the burger plus $1 for the rest of the stuff on it…"

"But you can't do that… That's terrible…!"

"No, you don't understand. The burgers you ordered were the special. They were $7.95—stated clearly on the special board. The way we ring those up is to ring up the plain burger at $6.95 and then ring up the dollar for the bacon and the cheese. You weren't overcharged. It comes out to $7.95.That's just the way we ring it up."

"Well, that's just a TERRIBLE way to do business. We WON'T be back! GOOD BYE!" *Click.*


An Open Letter...

I WAS going to post the whole letter...but there was too much of a personal nature in it to post it in a public space. But these last two paragraphs sum up how I feel about my ladies, whom, I suspect, will all soon follow the recipient of this letter off the edge of the Hot Flash Cafe plane...

Things will definitely be changing around here. It’s exciting and frightening at the same time; and we appreciate every step that every one of you ladies is willing to take to help us get to…wherever we’re going. Please know that I’m grateful to you and the rest of our long-time crew for helping us get this far. You all have seen me at my dead worst, and yet continued to choose to come back to work the next day. For that, I am eternally grateful.

I know you’ve given a great deal of thought to your decision to leave. I respect that and can only offer you my gratitude and best wishes to take on to your next job. Of course, I’m confident we can work through the rest of your time here without tension between us. And of course I will provide a good reference for you.

Whether you are with us here at the cafe or not, I will always want you to succeed.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Seventeen years ago, I was in the heyday of my management stint with “Little Bakery on the Mall”—the position I’ve historically referred to as “My Dream Job.” I had a top notch crew of ladies working for me, whom I thought I appropriately appreciated. Knowing what I know now, I realize I took them way too much for granted.

As a manager working for someone else, back in the olden days, I had two guiding philosophies. First off, I had once been told that MY job was to “train myself out of a job,” and I took that advice and ran with it. Secondly—and this is really a corollary of the first—I was determined that the bakery could and would run exactly the same whether I was physically present or not. I had zero tolerance for the theory that playtime began as soon as the boss left the building.

I was never afraid to pile as much responsibility on any employee as she was willing to take on. And training was a priority—every one of those ladies knew exactly what to do and how I wanted it done…and they did it. Whether I was there or not. Our cash control was the stuff of legend (other managers in the company joked that I had a “slush fund” from which I drew money to make up for cash shortages.) The bakery was immaculate. Our business grew. We won prizes. I made good money. It was my first taste of real success in any job (I was 37 years old and had been working since I was 18…) And I thought I had it all figured out. Foolishly, I thought that somehow I was at least marginally responsible for the triumphs of our little store.

Nearly twenty years later, I own my own restaurant…and I find that the zen I had achieved with my past crew looks more like the impossible dream than a bullet point in my resume. Cash control sucks, the place is only adequately clean, business is static, and we aren’t winning any prizes. And I don’t take home a dime. It’s become painfully obvious that the success of “Little Bakery on the Mall” was more about the unique attributes of the ladies I had working for me, than anything I knew or did.

I continue to be vexed with staffing problems. Certainly, it was a challenge to keep the restaurant functioning while I learned the ropes, weeded out the awful staff I’d bought with the place, and attempted to train new people to do what I was still learning. THAT was a nightmare that took fully two years to abate. One would think that, by now, we would have turned some kind of corner, put past nightmares behind us, and started moving forward with a vengeance. Ummm…not so much.

Instead, I’ve acquired a core of four or five ladies who emerged as the cream of the crop. I don’t mean to disrespect them and their contribution to my survival and the continuing operation of the café (on a higher level than it had enjoyed previously.) But I knew early on that I’d had to drastically change my standards in order to have any staff. I hired (and re-hired) people I would never have given a second look in the past. I’ve steadfastly focused on the positive points of all of these ladies, while down-playing or even blatantly ignoring their negatives. I have had to choose my battles, and very probably chose not to do battle on several fields upon which I should have drawn a line. There was no other way to keep the doors open, never mind making appreciable forward progress.

Once upon a time, I was able to fine tune an employee’s performance to a “t,” without micro-managing and without making that person feel like I wanted her to be a clone of myself. Through a series of gentle nudges, kind of like a sheepdog, I could get the result I wanted without taking away a person’s feeling of autonomy. But no more. Things are different now. I’ve come to resist the urge to tell people what to do. New employees want to be hired on, get a general idea of the position, and then build their duties around their (sometimes erroneous) perception of what the job entails. Any kind of fine tuning or urging to a higher level of performance is met with a level of negativity with which I have chosen not to do battle. If my choice was between a peaceful workplace staffed with mediocre employees, and a cesspool of resentment, pouting, tattle-taling and finger-pointing, I selected the former, strictly for my own sanity.

As a result, I’m saddled with a group of employees who are steadfast and even smug in their bad habits. I have closing staff who truly believe that Job One is to lock the doors and race out of there as if the place were on fire…to that end, they begin “pre-close” in the middle of dinner service, sometimes even earlier. I have cooks who prep enough to cover their own butts, but don’t invest much energy into considering what the next shift will be walking into. A restaurant full of customers, rather than presenting an opportunity for the staff to give it all they’ve got and really shine, is more an excuse to take short-cuts and walk out the door leaving work undone “because it was busy.” Worst of all, I have a stable of workers who loathe being told what to do, but will not step up and take any kind of initiative to improve or advance their job performance. They achieve a comfort level and they stay there. Period.

For my part, I know I have not exactly been a paragon of hospitality management. I’ve been frustrated, overwhelmed, exhausted and menopausal—not a good cocktail for bringing out the nobler aspects of any woman’s personality. Leading by example has always been my strategy…but if this staff had always followed my lead, we all would have gone straight to hell. So I can hardly blame them for choosing their own paths to what they’ve considered success in the job.

But now, we truly ARE at a crossroads. I’ve taken steps (that I didn’t realize I was taking at the time) to transform our little café from “okay” to “special.” I realize my staff—the girls upon whom I have depended heavily for many months—lean way more toward “okay” than “special.” There is not one of the old employees who has not made it clear to me that her priorities lie elsewhere. Their attitudes and level of commitment have been and would continue to be adequate to keeping the restaurant going along okay. But they will not make it “special.” And on some level, I believe they understand that.

Which is not to say that the transition is going to be painless.

There is more to say about this…I’ll post again later.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Score One For The Old Ladies

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced at my restaurant has been staffing. It has taken three years, but we seem to have cobbled together a crew that mostly does the job and works well together. There are unique challenges associated with working at the Old Town Café—not the least of which is that any member of my crew has to be able to work elbow to elbow with me. Even after my most recent acquisitions of a chef/kitchen manager and a baker, I invest more hours than anyone else associated with the café into just…filling positions. Any and all positions. I am the ultimate cross-trained employee, and I find that I have to make use of my own services—STILL—more than I like.

Conversely, it has been more of a challenge than I have wanted to acknowledge for me to work so closely with…children. I can’t decide whether being childless myself has made it easier or harder for me to work with these young people less than half my age. On the one hand, I don’t have as much problem seeing them as adults as I might have if I’d raised a brood of my own—that were now approximately the same age as the people I depend upon to keep my restaurant functioning. It might be a little tougher for me to heap adult responsibilities upon these young shoulders if I was seeing them through a mother’s eyes…

On the other hand, I wonder if I don’t expect too much from them. They are, after all, still kids…I was one, once, too…back when dinosaurs walked the earth. I dimly remember having friends, going to parties, having a social life…and all the angst that went with it. I showed up to work drunk—ONCE. (I was nineteen…in fact, it was my nineteenth birthday.) I might have called in sick one or two times when I wasn’t really sick. I goofed off just often enough to prove I was a bona-fide, card-carrying KID. So I try to give my staff some leeway in that regard…

Still, it was more my habit to drag myself to work no matter how sick I was, even at the tender age of nineteen or twenty. The job needed ME, I needed the money, and work was a priority. That was handed down to me by my parents. These children who work for me now…they are a completely different breed of animal, and I have a really hard time identifying and accepting their priorities. Social life IS their number one—they engage in it and tend to it 24-7-365. Technology gives them the capacity to be in uninterrupted communication with their friends. Work, school, adult responsibilities—seem to be mostly unpleasant interruptions of their social connections.

I find it impossible to relate to that…and so, I feel uncomfortably distant from these children who work for me. And it’s hard, really. Damned hard to work so closely every day with a group of people with whom you share…nothing.

All this became a lot clearer to me this past Saturday. We were BUSY at the café, and understaffed, because half the socially-hyperactive twenty-somethings who make up my crew had requested the weekend off. My kitchen staff consisted of myself and “C.” C is the one employee I have that is of my generation—she is a couple of years younger than me. She had been the cook at the Senior Center until their budget was cut and they had to let her go…she came to me looking for part-time work to hold her over until she could retire in a few more years. So I was a little anxious about how we two “old ladies” in the kitchen might handle things if it got busy. But I had no choice, we WERE what was available.

Of course, we got slammed. We did 30% more business than the previous Saturday, with 25% less staff. Surprise. Never let it be said that customers can’t smell blood in the water…

Our twenty-something counter girls ran their butts off all day, started whining about getting their breaks around noon… One of them even wanted to go home sick, but there was no one else to call to work for her, so she stayed. The front-of-the-house staff was looking pretty ragged by the end of the day.

In the kitchen, the “old ladies”…ROCKED. Neither of us left that kitchen to do more than pee in seven hours. We kept up with the orders. We prepped as we went. We attacked the mess about an hour before close and were able to clean up and get out of there on time.

And we laughed. We enjoyed ourselves. We joked and commiserated; the two ancient, creaky, half-blind, hot-flashing cooks…got it done.

At one point, I leaned over and said, “You know, C, I think I know why I enjoy working with you so much. You’re MY AGE…! I SO enjoy being back here with somebody who GETS ME…”

She looked at me, almost with tears in her eyes, and said, “Well, thank you…!”

At the end of the day, I kicked her butt out of there because she’d worked seven hours without a break (and without even mentioning a break.) I could finish up the last of the cleaning by myself. C took off her apron, signed out and disappeared through the kitchen door.

A second later, she poked her head back into the kitchen, looked at me and said, “Thank you for letting me help you today. It was fun.”

And then it was my turn to blink back the tears…

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Next Level

A little over a week ago, I wrote, almost as an aside, that I had gone and hired me a real live dyed-in-the-wool chef. A foodie. Someone who knows how to cook and loves doing it.

And then, yesterday, I realized quite out of the blue that we had reached the third anniversary of our purchase of the restaurant.

So, there it is. Three years into the thing, and I’m finally going to make this restaurant MINE. By getting out of the kitchen, handing the sauté pan to someone who really KNOWS how to operate it, and using his skills to advance my vision.

No more pushing someone else’s dream up the mountain. I’ve proven I can do that. That in itself is a tremendous accomplishment…there have been oh-so-many times in the past thirty-six months when I’ve nearly conceded that, indeed, I could not. Do. It.

The time has come to bleed and sweat and ache, and laugh and celebrate and high-five, not just for something I “can do,” but for something I can love and be proud of. This young man, this twenty-five-year-old in the early years of what I’m sure will be a fine career, is going to help me get there. If we’re lucky, we can have a long, mutually beneficial association. If we’re lucky.

Tonight, sitting in the restaurant, on a beastly hot evening when I was pretty convinced that people would rather walk over burning coals than sit in our poorly air-conditioned dining room and consume pasta, I watched group after group come in, sit down, enjoy a meal. I lent a hand here and there, answered the phone, opened a bottle of wine, seated some folks, schmoozed a little…

And then I went home and left the clean up to the people I pay to do that.

For the first time in three years…


in three years

I felt like I OWNED a restaurant.

And it felt


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Another of Life's Little Metaphors

I was standing at my anti-cross-contamination work station—the top of the chest freezer in the corner of the kitchen—far away from any clean dishes or other food. Up to my elbows in chicken, egg, flour and bread crumbs. Suddenly, every light, fan and motor surrounding me went off, on, off, on again…and then a final plunge into silence and darkness. Except for the hiss of the burger sizzling on the grill. And an ominous sound like a Flash Gordon ray gun coming through the wall to my left.

Shocked exclamations from the dining room hovered at the edge of my consciousness while I held my salmonella laden hands in the air, waiting for the lights to quit their foolishness and go back on so I could finish up and get the dinner special in the oven. Then the louder sound of Dee's voice from the hall near the back door cut through my expectant confusion.

"Oooooohhhh my God! Lisa, I think we're done for today…."


"I think we're done. Come here and look…"

"Why? What's that noise?"

With my germy, eggy, crumby hands held up in surrender, I navigated, squinting, out into the brightness of the dining room with its walls of full-height windows. Dee stood at the back door with a look of fascinated horror on her face. A few hundred yards down the block, at the neighborhood high-voltage transfer station, a giant ball of pink-yellow power-flash danced and pulsated and threw sparks ten feet in the air, emitting that loud ray-gun sound I'd heard coming through the wall.


Well. Yes, indeed…it did look like we were done for the day.

Tuesday. Senior Night. Ten percent of our week's business expected to begin toddling through the doors in less than two hours. Negated by the ill-timed flash-bang of some terrorist squirrel.

It's amazing how slowly one's mind seems to grasp such emergent situations. Those protracted moments of fumbling at the controls… The panic button starts to flash and glow fluorescent orange. You struggle to ignore it and sort out the saner possibilities. What eventually triumphed were the orders in the kitchen which had been paid for, and needed to be completed and sent out. And I had to wash the salmonella off my hands, move my chicken out of the way and go do that. All in the half light of the bright dining room filtering into my windowless kitchen.

As I returned to stumble around in the gloom, bits of conversation filtered back to me from the gathering crowd at the back door. Gasps and oohs and aahhs and "Did anyone call 9-1-1?" Speculation about how long it would take to fix. After five minutes that seemed like an hour, the fries came up and the orders went out. Dee and I looked around at the dark kitchen, then went outside one more time to check out the continuing fireworks display down the road.

I started sifting through a mental check list. Without power, we had no soda and no espresso machine. We had some drip coffee left, but no ability to make more once that ran out. We could make food…the grill, fryer and ovens were still functioning and cold sandwiches wouldn't be a problem. But one had to assume the fire extinguishing system would be out, along with the ventilation. How dangerous would it be to continue to cook with gas under those conditions? Plus, not knowing how long the power would be out, we could not afford to keep opening and closing cooler doors. Once the contents rose to a certain temperature, the health department would require that we throw everything out, and I couldn't chance that just to try and save one night's sales. And dishes would be a nightmare…in the dark, with no dishwasher.

Dee and I looked at each other. "Well, we have to close, I guess."

That decision made, you would think that I could have just rolled up my sleeves, dug in and made it happen. But the stack of corollary decisions that now confronted me in my poweless kitchen just seemed overwhelming. What should I do with this chicken if I'm not going to cook it? How am I going to cool down this soup and this marinara so I don't destroy what cold air remains in the fridge? Should I change out all the pans in the sandwich table, or just take the utensils out, slam the lid and lock the cold air in? We have to call the night crew and tell them not to come in. Should I let the husband do the provision shopping he normally does on Tuesday, or tell him to bag it because we don't need more stuff we might not be able to keep cold? And what about this mountain of dirty dishes…and no dishwasher?

And behind all those issues that needed immediate attention, the dread of worse possibilities that would require more drastic planning ballooned like an aneurism. I so wanted to panic, but I knew there were too many tasks before me right now to waste energy on dire predictions. So I rolled up my sleeves, cleaned away my chicken mess, puzzled out where to put everything, had Dee call the rest of the night crew, and addressed myself to the heap of dishes that would now have to be washed by hand. In the dark.

Piece by piece, from the largest prep kettles to the stacks of silverware, every item went meticulously through the cycle. Scrub in hot soapy water, going over each piece like a blind person, feeling every surface. Rinse under hot water in the center sink. Load it into the sanitize water, soak, then pull it out and set in the drainboard. Start a new sink full while that batch air dries. A boring and tedious task under normal circumstances, raised to a new level of excruciating by the adverse conditions. Wash, rinse, sanitize, dry. Wash, rinse, sanitize, dry.

The dish tank became my center. My homepage. Some new problem would enter my mind, I'd wander away, bark some orders at Dee or at my husband over the phone, look around helplessly, almost allowing the panic to overwhelm me…and turn back to the dishes. Wash. Rinse. Sanitize. Dry.

At one point, Dee came back into the kitchen with the newsflash that the first responders over at the power station had moaned that this would take days to fix. Days. My soapy hands stopped scrubbing, I rocked back on my heels. "Oh my god, Dee… Do you know what a disaster that would be?" Tonelessly, without feeling. I couldn't let myself feel it. I would have started screaming and never stopped. I paused for a long minute. Wrestled that panic, threw it to the mat. Then I bent over the sink once again. Wash. Rinse. Sanitize. Dry.

For two hours, I soldiered on. Washed dishes. Scrubbed counters. Washed dishes. Scrubbed the grill. Washed dishes. Thought ahead, but not too far: We have power at home. Plug in the freezers in the garage. Get ready to load out the food. Wash dishes. Now they say they'll have the power back on some time tonight, but they don't know when. Wash dishes. The mountain became a hill. Then a pile. Then a few scattered pieces. And then, just the silverware.

As I set the last basket of silverware into the sanitize water, in a perfect anti-climactic fillip…

The lights came back on.

Too late to save my dinner service.

But my inventory and my sanity and the night's sleep I would have lost fretting about it, all out of danger now. Relief far outweighed anger or disappointment at the afternoon's turn of events. We locked up and headed home to enjoy the unexpected treat of a night off.

There's a moral here, I realized. A bit of wisdom for all of us facing the panic and looming darkeness of our faltering American economy:

Just…carry on.

Keep on doing dishes in the dark. The lights will come back on sooner than you think.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Signs of the Times

Yesterday, one of my employees whispered to me that she’d “heard on the grapevine” that one of our competitors has not paid their rent in four months.

News like that is such a mixed bag. Your first impulse is to pump your hand in the air and hiss, “Yessss!” One less piece into which to cut the shrinking pie of “dining out” dollars! This is never bad news. But just as you ball that fist and are about to thrust it over your head, the thought hits you: “What if…?”

What if that was me? My restaurant? My rent?

And in these times, it all too very well could be. “There but for the grace of…um, the Universe…”

So you unclench your fist, clap your hand to your side, and instead gulp down the cold lump of fear that has suddenly risen in your throat.

The Hot Flash Café is okay, for now. Sales suck, and the only way to get people in the door is to practically give the food away. But the steel trap I sprang on my controllables—labor and food cost—seems to have staunched the hemorrhaging from the bank account. Luckily for us, the combination of a timely business model (low labor, low food-cost, low price) and a sympathetic landlord (who used to own the business and is sentimentally invested in its success) have us well positioned to weather the economic storm. If it doesn’t last too long.

But you have to wonder…will I be one of the lucky ones left standing when the economic fallout quits falling out? It sure doesn’t feel good, after the hellish toil of the last thirty-three months, to be thinking in terms of being lucky to keep the doors open, rather than about the growth and the returns we’d hoped to be anticipating by now.

It’s a good thing we have not yet gotten to the place where we need the income from the cafe to survive. But husband’s job isn’t looking too good these days (just this morning, he had to break the news to his staff that they were being cut to four days a week…) So it’s hard to say how long we’ll continue to enjoy that entrepreneurial limbo. We’d hoped to have five years to develop our concept (to figure out what the hell we are doing and get it to where we can actually make money doing whatever that is) before we needed to depend on it for an income.

Looks like we may not have that much time. And this is NOT the climate in which you want to arrive at that conclusion.

But what is there to do except get up in the morning, ignore the news and unlock the doors…chanting the mantra that “Today could be the day it all turns around…” It helps to continue to go through the motions. And don’t let yourself stop looking for the good times that must be just around the corner.

Monday, February 23, 2009

We Are Not Your Babysitter

Here is my personal message to bored, stay-at-home moms desperate for coffee and adult interaction: If you want to enjoy food, drink and conversation while someone else watches your children, I suggest you either hire a babysitter or meet your peeps for coffee and Egg McMuffies at Ronnie Mac’s. Let the tots boogie off to the Playland while you catch up with the girls.

DO NOT bring them to my restaurant and let them run all over the place, bother the other guests, play with the curtains, dump the salt and pepper shakers, run their radio-controlled toys down the aisle, or lock themselves in the bathroom for twenty minutes and play with the water.

What is the problem with thirty-something suburban mommy-types these days? Where do they get the idea that the staff and other patrons at any restaurant will be happy to provide day care while the mommies enjoy their coffee and chat?

The Hot Flash Café does not discourage folks from bringing their well-behaved offspring in for a meal. We have a kids’ menu…we have a little corral of high chairs. And we serve ice cream (12 varieties—cones, dishes, milkshakes, sundaes) for god’s sake. But we DO expect parents to be familiar with their own kids’ attention spans and ability to stay at their table while the adults eat and visit. We don’t provide coloring books or activities to keep kids busy. We don’t have a book corner or a play area where bored children can hang out while their parents visit. In our 1000 square foot dining room, we don’t have room for those things. We DO expect adults to take responsibility for controlling and entertaining their own little tax exemptions.

Last Friday morning, a young woman—probably about 30-ish, came in to the café with her two children. Her son was probably about two. Largely non-verbal, but definitely able to get around on his own two feet. Fast as lightning.

The minute they walked in the door, the little boy started pulling on the lighted garland I had festooned on the front of the counter. Just before he yanked it to the floor, Little Yuppie Mom admonished him wryly, “How about if we don’t tear the place down? Heh-heh…” Whereupon he made a beeline for the nearest unoccupied table and immediately grabbed a glass candlestick. I gently relieved him of that object as Mom stood at the front counter, attention focused on her choices of coffees and pastries. Kid joined mom again for a hot second, and she shoveled a cookie into his hand (ooohhh….more sugar! That should prove helpful… )

The child, clutching his prize, moved on to the door. Thinking it was too heavy for him to actually open, I nevertheless deduced he was capable of opening the door partway and getting his fingers caught in it. I was half out of my chair to rescue him from that fate, when pop! he was outside and heading down the sidewalk. The street is about ten feet outside our door. I could hardly watch…

Unruffled, Little Yuppie Mom slipped out the door and returned with kid and cookie slung over her shoulder, her lips curved upward in a passive smile.

I, on the other hand, would have popped a Xanax if I was in to that kind of thing. Actually, I wanted to call the police and report a case of blatant child endangerment.

Please, people...


Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Hot Flashback With a Disappointing Update

Sunday, July 27, 2008: Today's Special: Life Lessons

Although July has been a blessedly restful month for me at the café, it has not been without its dramas. The “I want hours, no I don’t” scenario has continued to play out with several of my longer tenured employees.

Cook in Training No. 1 continues to be [a problem.] Back in June, after graduating from her high school completion class, she left me a long, impassioned note about how she was now available to work any hours, wanted to work forty hours and, in fact, needed the hours/money in order to pay her bills. And then she requested a week’s vacation.

After her return about four weeks ago, I took her at her word and started giving her as many hours as I could send her way. ...Cook No. 1 got between 30 and 40 hours on the next three schedules. Essentially, she got exactly what she asked for, within my ability to grant it.

By the end of the first week of her new schedule, Cook No. 1 was already draggin’ her wagon. All we heard when she showed up for work was how tired she was, and she was the first one to raise her hand if the need arose to send someone home early. Odd behavior for someone who needed the money so badly, but I figured perhaps it would take a few weeks for her to get used to working so many hours.

Long story short, after three weeks of working what passes for full-time these days, young Cook had apparently had her fill. She went home sick two days in a row the fourth week. But found time to research and register for some school program for which she will begin classes August 11. And left me a note about how she was sorry, but she needed to go back to school and would only be available to work Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays after school started. Was I surprised? Not really. Was I disappointed? Not really. I knew in my heart that young Cook did not want what she was asking me for.

In another life, I would have been proud to fill the role of mentor in her life. She’s a smart, talented girl, and if she was inclined, she could have become an important part of our team. Working at the café could have been a valuable learning experience for her, instead of a constant tug-of-war between her issues and her desire to rise above them. It’s been obvious for some time that the issues were winning...

And (here's the update...) They did.

It took seven more months of tug-of-war, but in the end, her demons dragged her right out the door.

Little Cook No. 1 and I pow-wowed on the sidewalk behind the café last Friday afternoon. Or, more accurately, I stood in nearly speechless disbelief while this twenty-year-old basically tore me a new one. And then she stalked off into the sunset presumably never to be heard from again.

My great transgression, this time, was to cut her back to three shifts, totaling eleven hours, on next week’s schedule. How dare I? “Eleven hours? Eleven hours, Lisa! I can’t live on that! How am I supposed to live on that?” Followed by a twenty-minute diatribe which assigned me the blame for every evil short of the 9/11 terrorist attacks…

She has worked her ass off for me for two years (Her tenure at the café has been a two-year maneuver through the minefield of her personal dramas, up to and including a pregnancy and miscarriage in December of 2007, through which we unconditionally supported her, held her position for her and welcomed her back when she was able to return.)

She needs money. She can’t pay her bills. How dare I cut everyone’s hours just to save a buck??? (The economy sucks, sales are in the crapper, and I have eight people depending upon me to provide them with some kind of living. If I don’t ‘save a buck,’ the doors close and nobody pays their bills. I have not taken one dime out of this place in two and a half years. And, let’s see…you’re so desperate for money? Can I have Valentine’s Day off? You can’t pay your bills? Can I have the Thanksgiving Weekend off? You can work a full schedule and go to school? I can’t work tonight…I just got home from school, and I was so upset I threw up twice…so I just need to stay home and rest.)

I treat her like crap. I mentally abuse her.
(Just a few days ago, a customer called to complain that Little Cook No. 1 had gone out of her way to make a nasty remark to her. I repeatedly told the customer that I was sure she must have misinterpreted…that Cook No. 1 would never do such a thing. I stood behind my Little Cook 100%. And, as it turned out—there had been an incident, and the customer had not misinterpreted. Did I fire Cook No. 1? Did I suspend her? Did I scream and yell and call her names? No I did not (more fool, I.) Very quietly, with tears in my eyes, I told her I was disappointed beyond words, there was no punishment, and it had better NEVER happen again.)

So, out there on the sidewalk Friday afternoon, indignant tears streaming down her face, she pronounced that she COULD NOT DEAL WITH MY “SHIT” ANYMORE…

…and she quit.

I guess it will be that much easier for her to make ends meet without that $150…

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Debrief on Valentine's Day 2009

I’m basking in the glow of my first day off since V-Day (Valentine’s Day.)

This year was so different from VD 2008. Last year, Valentine’s Day was the first time we came up with a set menu dinner event for a holiday, and we had no idea what to expect. And we got slammed. It was a good kind of slammed; there were some miscues and some high points. I like to think we learned a lot. It was a great success.

Until a couple of months ago, there was no reason to expect we couldn’t reprise that success, maybe even improve upon it, given what we know now that we didn’t know then. We have a whole lot more experience dealing with a dining room full of people than we did a year ago. Easter, Mothers’ Day, and several over-the-top successful Senior Nights have given us the opportunity to develop some systems for handling high volume. Funny thing, that…you have to actually experience the high volume before you can develop your systems. Makes for a bit of falling on your face, and comping a lot of food and drink, during the process of figuring it out. But we are figuring it out.

Unfortunately, the economic climate (and recent sales numbers) forced my expectations way down for this year. I just couldn’t get as hyped up over it as I did last year…which is just as well, because last year I poured out nearly every ounce of creativity I had in me for that one event. When it was over, I literally felt like I had been squeezed dry. There was not a drop of energy or moxie left in me on the morning of February 15th. And it took me weeks to recover.

This year, I came up with this:

vdmenu 09

Considering all the things I have to do BY MYSELF—plan the menu, procure the provisions, figure out the procedures for cooking things we basically never cook any other time, plan and design marketing materials, decorate the restaurant (that’s actually my favorite part), schedule the help, plan the prep schedule, and a million other things I can’t think of off the top of my head—I made a commitment this year to not “re-invent the wheel.” I aimed for menu items I knew we could do, rather than picking out complicated recipes just because they looked good or trendy. I tried to feature things that I would like to be known for, slightly spiffed up versions of things on our regular menu—like pasta (fettuccini Alfredo with crab sauce and grilled salmon.) In the end some things sucked (we are officially out of the business of creating appetizers…!) and some things were more successful than I could have hoped (the damned expensive steaks seemed to be quite a hit…even though they were a bitch to cook on the flat-top, and I had to stick toothpicks in them to hold the bacon on.)

Last year, we didn’t take reservations, because—and I actually told customers this—we didn’t know how. You can’t just take enough reservations to fill up the dining room at opening, and then…well, what? I’m sure there is a system, but since neither I nor anybody who works for me has that kind of fine dining experience, we were clueless. So we thought it best to just go with “first come, first served.”

And we learned something. If you don’t take reservations, EVERYONE is going to show up as soon as you open the doors. Dinner service started at 5:00 pm, and by 5:15, every table in the house was full. Which was a nightmare for the wait staff and the kitchen…and made for some pretty scary serving times. Luckily, the patrons were very understanding, nobody walked out because they hadn’t gotten waited on, and a good time seemed to be had by all.

So, this year, we decided that taking reservations would, if nothing else, help us avoid that “Oh my god, the dining room just filled up in ten minutes” rush. And it worked pretty well. In fact, the flow of orders into the kitchen was so gradual and so orderly that I was a little bummed. It seemed like business was going to be WAY down compared to last year. But, by golly, we got people their food, and we were able to pamper them a little more instead of running around like chickens with our heads cut off. I think the diners, though there were fewer of them, had a much nicer experience than they did last year.

In the end, we only missed last year’s number by 5%--just about $100 on a $2000 day. I can’t whine too much. I think the economy had a lot to do with it. And I think, honestly, that the way we handled the reservations hurt us a little. Since we didn’t know what we were doing, we decided that taking reservations at the rate of 4 every half-hour would assure us of having tables available when we needed them (we only have twenty tables in the restaurant…) We were afraid that we would still be dealing with the huge number of walk-ins that we saw last year. As it turns out, we probably could have done six or even eight reservations every half hour. Evidently, the simple fact that we were taking reservations discouraged the walk-in business. When people called with late reservation requests, we told them we were booked, but that we were being very conservative with our reservations, so they should go ahead and come in anyway. But they didn’t, not in any great numbers. We’ll know better for next time.

So Valentine’s Dinner was not the uproarious success this year that it was in 2008. But, as with everything, we’ll learn the lessons and keep going. It warmed my heart that I was called out of the kitchen by one couple who wanted to thank me personally for such a wonderful dinner. And one of the girls came back and told me that a guest had asked if the cook was professionally trained…(well, no, I don’t have a Le Cordon Bleu certificate, but I’ve been doing this for 35 years…is that considered “professional training?”)

And Sunday morning, I heard a story from one of our regular guests who had gone to one of our competitors for Valentine’s Dinner. It seems the service was so terrible that the guests had sat for an hour and had not even gotten their salads. So they left.

I’m not one to rejoice in anyone’s misfortune, not even my competition’s. What this story does is make me realize, in spite of what I felt the shortcomings of OUR dinner service were, at least we have the fundamentals covered. Okay…so I wouldn’t be able to get too much mileage on an advertising campaign that went something like, “You won’t have to wait an hour for your salad…” But it makes me feel like at least we’re doing the basics a little more right than the other guys.

Two years ago, I would not have had that assurance. So we are getting somewhere.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Allergic to Eating Out

Here is a scary little story: A woman came in one afternoon to buy her kid some ice cream. I was in the kitchen doing afternoon clean-up, so I was only peripherally aware of the conversation at the front counter. When my counter girl came back into the kitchen and started scrubbing the ice cream scoop, I asked her what was going on. She said the woman had told her that her son was allergic to nuts; counter girl assured her that none of our ice creams had nuts in them, but just “to be safe” she would take the scoop back into the kitchen and give it a thorough washing.

I almost hit the ceiling. “Ack!” I croaked. “What are you talking about? What do you mean none of our ice creams have nuts? What about chocolate peanut butter and coffee almond fudge? Holy &*%$... You go right out there and tell that woman that we are not prepared to cater to children with severe food allergies, and I am sorry, but we’ll have to refuse to serve her child any ice cream.” Counter girl, thoroughly cowed, went out to the counter and did what she was told. And the woman was pissed. I may have saved her kid’s life, or at least saved her a trip to the Emergency Room, but she was royally p.o.’ed that we would not serve her kid ice cream.

Come on, people. Severe food allergies are nothing to fool around with. You DO NOT want to put your life in the hands of an uneducated restaurant owner who may be ignorant of the dangers of anaphylactic shock, and you especially do not want to put that responsibility in the hands of an overworked, underpaid wait-person. I have neither the time nor the expertise to take the kind of precautions necessary to make my product safe for someone for whom one molecule of peanut will induce a life-threatening reaction. As far as I’m concerned, if someone could DIE if they eat something they’re not supposed to, they need to prepare their own food in a completely controlled environment. It is neither safe nor sane for a person with dire food allergies to expect a restaurant to take that kind of responsibility. I wouldn’t touch that potential liability with a ten-foot pole.

After the Ice Cream Episode, I had to create a simple, all-encompassing policy to deal with the increasing number of “I’m allergic to…” claims that come up on any given day. And that policy is to refuse service to anyone claiming to have a food allergy. If you come into my establishment and claim to be allergic to something, it is not my job, nor is it my wait-person’s job, to commence the twenty question routine. I am not going to waste time trying to ascertain HOW allergic you are to something. Like, “Will you die if you eat this, or will you just break out in hives, or does it give you indigestion?” The safest thing—both for me and for you—is to assume your life is in danger if any trace of this substance touches your lips, and refuse to serve you.

It seems to be all the rage, these days, to claim to be allergic to something. Onions. Bell peppers. Turkey. Wheat. (Wheat is a big one, currently. If you are tired, lack energy, suffer mysterious aches and pains, have digestive troubles—wheat is your culprit. Never mind that bread has been a staple of most human diets practically since we learned to walk upright. Suddenly, wheat is the devil. Sigh! )

If you choose to omit something from your diet, that is your prerogative. Maybe you are lactose intolerant, or maybe you get dire indigestion from onions or bell peppers. Maybe you just don’t like garlic. Perhaps you have decided not to eat wheat or beef or eggs. That is fine. Let us know, and we will do our best to accommodate you.

But, be warned, the minute the word “allergic” comes out of your mouth, you most likely won’t be getting more than a glass of water at my restaurant.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Getting It

From July 1, 2006, until about three or four months ago, I was so stressed out, so overmatched, so sleep-deprived and chronically exhausted that I hardly knew my own name. Even so, though 90% of the reasoning behind buying the café was that I needed to get a life, I kept thinking that once I got used to this whole restaurant owner business, once I hit my stride, I’d get my life back. Oh, yeah… I’d get a handle on this—after all, hadn’t I been doing this stuff for most of my adult life?—and then my world would settle down into something I recognized as life.

Who was I kidding?

In the past few weeks, I’ve had…call it an epiphany. A light bulb over the head. An “Oh, DUH!” moment.



…sling bacon and eggs, flip burgers and fry fries, toss salads and bake pasta.

...holler, sweet-talk, cajole, cuss, philosophize, teach, mentor, reward, stroke, juggle, drive and occasionally crash a crew of eight to eleven variously committed employees.

…scrub garbage cans, shovel sidewalks, un-clog toilets, scrape grease and sanitize linens.

…research new products and menu items, watch costs, plan promotions and design ads.

…plan parties, hang decorations, plot menu plans and table arrangements, cook for forty when 24 show up.

…eat whatever I can shove in my mouth, whenever I can squeeze it in.

…fall into bed exhausted and awaken feeling like I never slept.

…haunt auctions, used equipment stores, Restaurant Depot and Cash & Carry looking for bargains that will keep me in business.


…spend hours researching, writing and re-writing pithy political blog posts.

…read a good book.

…fall asleep tired and awaken well-rested.

…email friends and family. For that matter, what friends? And what family?

…eat healthy meals at regular times—like “breakfast,” “lunch” or “dinner”.

…dig in the dirt (otherwise known has “gardening”) or replenish my bird feeders.

…take my dog on long walks through the neighborhoods and the fields.

…watch my diet, religiously consult the bathroom scale, and climb on the treadmill three days a week. the sales at Macy's or Nordstrom for bargains to keep my middle-aged body looking trendy and hip.

My life has become a whole new reality. One that doesn’t bear a great deal of resemblance to my world BCE (Before Commencing Entrepreneurship.)

And I’m just starting to GET IT.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Too Young to Retire, Too Old to Get a Job

How (why?) does a semi-retired former restaurant/bakery/specialty foods manufacturing manager stow away her vacuum cleaner and her work gloves, rise up from her recliner, tear her eyes from her home remodeling and gardening magazines...then pile upon her head the stack of hats it takes to run a business and sally forth into the excrement-spewing oscillator that is the world of the entreprenuer? Without a raincoat?

Retirement is for sissies...

...and the rich.

This is my story, my song, my journey, my lament, my high-five.

You're welcome to sit and watch the circus for awhile...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Getting Nowhere

For awhile, I was able to convince myself that this economic downturn would deal us only a glancing blow. I fantasized that I was properly placed in the market (cheap) and well enough established after almost three years, that people would still come. Enough people to keep us in business.

But the bank account continues to bleed… If it's not being pummeled by a meteoric rise in the minimum wage (from $7.95 to $8.40 as of January 1) it's exsanguinating into broken equipment or some other unforeseen damn thing. I'm starting to slide back into that chronically over-stressed, sleep-deprived place that I thought I had just finished climbing out of. But the ground beneath my feet has suddenly tilted to a crazy angle and become slippery as glass.

A few days ago, I had the kind of ah-ha moment that no small business owner ever wants to have. I realized that we are not getting anywhere. Realized that after a year of what looked like pretty decent forward progress, we have not only stopped progressing, but we are hanging on with fingers, toes and teeth to stay where we are. And I thought, what if this is as good as it gets? What if last year was the best year we'll ever have?

Certainly the community growth we expected—that was part of our business plan—has been put to a screeching halt by the economic downturn. Developers have stopped developing, the homes they built just before the crash are sitting there unoccupied, and the occupied ones may soon get over it, as the young families who inhabit them lose their incomes or their sub-prime mortgages.

Six months ago, I let myself believe that we had turned some kind of corner. I thought I was starting to get a peek..I squinted, I rubbed my eyes. Yes, there it was. It looked like someone holding a bic lighter at the far end of the Chunnel. But it was a light.
I emerged from my exhaustion-produced fog and thought, "Ah! Now I can run this business like a human being…rather than constantly flying by the seat of my pants, and being so tired I don't know my own name half the time." Quality of life hovered right there on the horizon. So close, I could almost touch it. I reached out…and it disappeared.

I'm back to the sixty-hour weeks and being lucky to get a day off. I would like to say that I did this before, and I can do it again. But I don't want to do it again. I don't want to be that tired. And there's a hopelessness about it, this time around. Until now, I could almost convince myself that it was worth it to be in that intense, foggy, overworked place. I thought it was finite. I thought that if I just do this for x more months, I could eventually crawl out of the fog and get a life.

But I don't know that now. In fact, it looks like I'll never get out of this place…never get anywhere. Never get to where I can feel a lasting sense of success or accomplishment with this thing…much less make any money at it. That is not how I want to live. I have to…HAVE TO at least feel like I'm getting somewhere, making some kind of progress. And since I've never been one for choosing my own reality, I am not capable of assuming progress where none exists. I don't lie well, not even to myself.

I have to figure out where to go from here. If there is indeed a "where" to go. And even, where "here" is. The time is fast approaching where I'll have to choose between two very clear, very black and white courses of action:

Get somewhere…or get out.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Hard decisions have been made RE labor and other costs at The Old Town Café. Toward that end, I cut staffing hours by 25% last week, and made up the difference with *TA DAAAA*… myself. Worked thirty-six hours in three days.

I remember being this tired. Vaguely. It was during the first eighteen months of owning the business.

I recall being so chronically exhausted that I felt as if I was functioning on about 60% power all the time.

I remember despising that feeling with all the passion I could muster at 60% power.

And with all the passion I can expend at the roughly 80% power to which I am presently reduced, I hate it all over again.

Hard. The last thirty days have been hard. Hideous weather. Disappointing (to put it mildly) sales. Coming to terms with the reality that, yes, indeed, the hard economic times are going to bite us in the ass after all. I so hoped that we were going to dodge that bullet. What was I thinking?

I told a customer today that we were going to have to hold on by our fingernails until things get better. We're not out of business (yet.) We're not even really in danger of going out of business (yet.) But we're not making the progress I was so hoping to see by now. In fact, I realize anew that entrepreneurship is so much a back and forth dance. If you are very lucky, you can take two steps forward before you have to take that backward step.

But take it you will.

Am I too old for this?