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...