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.

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