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.