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 CafĂ© 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.