Saturday, December 11, 2010

Wisdom From an Unexpected Source

Over the years, my landlord and I have developed an unusual sort of love/hate relationship. We respect each other; we each understand that we could have been stuck with a way worse landlord/tenant. We realize that we share a common work ethic, sense of responsibility and a sort of fantasy about fairness and justice in the world.

Be that as it may, he has always just…gotten on my nerves. Since he actually owned and ran the café for a year before we bought it, he hasn't been able to resist putting his two cents in on everything from menu changes to purveyors to personnel issues. And he has been so very present. It is unusual for more than a week to go by without seeing him in the restaurant or around the property. 

Since he does his own property maintenance and he refused to invest in sprinklers when he built the place, he is around every day in the summer—cutting grass, watering the lawn, fussing with one thing or another. I wonder how many other small business owners could have cheerfully tolerated such a hands-on, ever-present property owner?

Well, I have tolerated him…though not always cheerfully. When I'm tired, frustrated or stressed out (which is most of the time), I'm most likely to duck into the back kitchen when I see him coming; or treat him to surly one-word answers if he does manage to buttonhole me. And, to his credit, he has tolerated (and to some extent, been chastened by) my treatment of him. The result of all this being that we don't like each other, but we really do. Or something.

Since I gave him the news that we would not be renewing our lease, our relationship has actually improved; partly because the decision has relieved me of a lot of the stress, frustration and exhaustion that has made me such a harpy. So, the other day, he was sitting in the café enjoying his cup of milked-down Earl Grey tea while I was trying to close the place, and he pointed this out to me—the part about me not being such a harpy anymore (though not in those exact words…)

I thought about this for a bit, then replied, "You know, that's partly because now I don't have to deal with (the husband's) uncertain commitment to the place. Now I just know he's not interested in doing it, and I can't do it by myself." Probably sharing a bit more than I needed to about my feelings of having been let down by my business/life partner.

"Yeah…I've seen (husband) around the place. And it's obvious the way he walks that he's in a lot of pain…"


Of course he's in a lot of pain. In fact, there are times he can hardly walk. He wears a brace on one leg to try to compensate for 54 years of trying to function with the flattest feet known to man. Between that and the scary blood clot incident a couple of years ago, and his eye problems, and the fact that the stress, irregular hours and bad eating habits that are part and parcel of our business venture have caused him to gain back a fair portion of the sixty pounds he lost before we bought the restaurant… He is simply not equal to the physical demands of running this restaurant.

Me? I'm not exactly a prime physical specimen, either…in fact, I'm direly out of shape, and in pain most of the time from tweaking some part or other of my half-century-old body scaling the equipment to get at the upper level storage or hauling a fifty-pound box of potatoes into the kitchen or some damn thing that I have no business doing at my age. But there's a certain amount of I've been doing this kind of thing all my working life and I'm just used to it. Whereas, for the past sixteen years, the husband has been making his living widening his butt with the seat of a desk chair. If I'm marginally up to the twelve-hours-on-your-feet-without-a-break aspect of owning a restaurant, the husband is utterly…not. And it took Mr. Landlord's casual observation to smack me upside the head with this fact.

So I have him to thank that another layer of resentment and ill-feeling about the less-than-ideal outcome of our business venture has been lifted from my shoulders. The Universe sends help from the most unlikely sources, does it not?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Success As The Absence of Failure

Recently, my days at the café have become a series of "Lasts…"

On Thursday, we toasted The Last Thanksgiving at the Hot Flash Café.

We've decorated The Last Christmas Tree(s).

And I'm beginning to think about The Last Christmas Party.

In the months ahead, there will be The Last Valentine's Day Dinner; The Last Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day Brunches. No, wait. No Father's Day. We'll be closed by then. Whew.

I look ahead to these things, not sure whether to dab at my misty eyes, or rub my hands together in anticipation. So conflicted. Guiltily happy; frustratingly maudlin. Shoot me now.

But it got me thinking, today, about success, and failure. What they are. Whether they are. Do success and failure even exist, in the context of personal busyness?

Not "business." Busy-ness. The things we do keep ourselves busy. Occupied. Off the streets and out of trouble. Alive and vital. Interested and in touch. Is success measured only by accomplishment, or in simply doing?

Because it's certainly true that we enjoyed a measure of success with the café. During these challenging economic times, our doors have remained open. We are solvent. Going on five years now. That's about as much as one can ask for, these days. But…it doesn't feel like success, really. Not as I imagine the world defines "success."

But, for me, perhaps the success was just in the doing. Coming as I do from a family of devoted non-risk-takers, the kind of people who get a job and stay with it for as long as it will have them, or as long as they can stand it, 'til death or retirement do they part… It feels like a tremendous victory to have stepped out and actually DONE the thing I thought I wanted most in the world.

That it turned out NOT to be the ultimate solution to my life, NOT my highest and greatest destiny, NOT the thing that completed me…doesn't seem to matter.

Because I would never have known that if I hadn't tried. I would always feel as if I had been short-changed by life, or as if I had short-changed life, if I had not at least given it a go.

Am I disappointed, disillusioned, distressed and exhausted as hell?


But I am NOT a failure.

I am left with that. That tiny leg up…to my next adventure.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Season of Letting Go


We cracked open a bottle of fourteen-year-old Dom Perignon (a years-ago gift that I found when I was cleaning out my pantry on Wednesday)

and drank a toast

to the last Thanksgiving at the Hot Flash Cafe.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Peace? Have I made peace with the coming major change in my life? It seems as if I have…at least for now. I don't quite know where the peace is coming from. But I won't chase it away…

I have a feeling that it partly comes from knowing that there will be an end to this. A stopping point. A point at which I can sit down, wipe my brow and declare, "Done!" For the past four years, I have not had the luxury of even considering that option.

When you run a business—a business that you have no business running by yourself—you are NEVER done. There is never a time when you can sit back, look at it and say, "I DID it." There is never a sense of achievement. You hardly have enough time to pat one accomplishment into place before turning to confront the Pile of UN-done things that you never seem to be able to get to. Pick one and start hammering away at it. Accomplish it, or not, depending on how many other fires you have to put out in the process. Meanwhile, ten other things have been added to the Pile.

I'm sure there are people out there who can live this way. Maybe there are even people who thrive under the pressure. There was a time when I thought I was one of those. 
And, truthfully, if I had only had to face that kind of life for one or maybe two years—kinda what I thought it would be when we went into it—I might have made it. 

But it just went on too long. Too many years of not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Too many years of juggling…always with one or two things popping out of the pile I was trying to juggle and clattering away across the stage. And no lovely assistant to at least pick them up for me and chuck them back.

So now I can at least say, "In six months, I'll be DONE."

I'm finding it's a marvelous thing to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Today, we broke the news to our landlord that we would not be renewing our lease. 
That's as official as it gets, I guess. And when he asked why, it was a lot easier to answer than I thought it would be.

"Basically, I cannot do this by myself anymore."

I'm surprised at how eagerly I have embraced this…this dissolution of the thing I thought I wanted more than anything else in the world. Mr. Landlord started making noises to the effect of giving us a month-to-month lease if we haven't sold the business by the time the lease is up.

"Absolutely not," I shot back, almost before the words had finished leaving his lips. "As of June 30, I'm done. Period. I'd be done as of today if I could."

We spoke to an agent last night…who basically told us we'd be lucky if we could GIVE away a business in this economic climate. Oddly enough, that didn't bother me. I knew there was a strong possibility that we would end up locking the doors and liquidating rather than turning the keys over to a new owner. In some ways, that is a far more attractive option to me than having to possibly train my replacement. For many reasons—some emotional, some practical—it will be a lot easier to just brush the dust from my hands and ride off into the sunset.

So, yeah…I'm counting the days. In fact, I realized today that it may be a much shorter time than I thought. I was thinking in terms of June 30—the day our lease is up—being my last day of work. Then I realized we will probably be closing the doors more like May 31—since we will only be responsible for paying June's rent, and that money comes out of May's proceeds.

Six months, then. Six months and twenty days, to be precise.

Yeah. I'm all over that.

Monday, October 18, 2010


I should have known, when I almost pulled the plug on my marriage, that something else was really the problem. Yes…there is a plug that definitely needs to be pulled. But it is not my marriage that is going to get the royal flush.

After a perfectly ghastly spring and summer, I have come to the realization that I cannot do this anymore. Partially because it is, in the famous words of someone very close to me, "not what I signed up for."

I was not supposed to be doing this by myself after four years. We had anticipated that the husband's job would be going away within a year…eighteen months at the outside. And that we would then be doing this together. At least that is what I understood was the plan. Fifty-one months later, I am still wearing every hat, juggling every plate, using fingers and toes I don't have to try to hold this thing together.

I am not a person I know anymore. I am not a person I LIKE anymore. I'm not a person ANYONE likes anymore, for that matter. Which, I'm afraid, is part of the reason the husband has retracted his interest in becoming a full and equally functioning partner. Kind of a "chicken/egg" situation, actually. I can't seem to make it clear to him that the reason I am what I am right now is that I am totally overwhelmed, and if he DID come on as we had planned, things would most likely change. For the better. Be that as it may, he's not buying it. And, in the end, I've discovered I am not equal—was never equal—to the task of running this business by myself.

Truth be told, I don't know what task I am equal to anymore.

It seemed I was better off—at least, I wasn't making a public ass of myself—when I was angst-filled, semi-employed, bored and at loose ends, with only my keyboard and the anonymous ether to vent on..or at…or whatever. THAT life—and that oddly comforting little community into which I fell, quite by accident—is gone as well. I won't have that to fall back into. Probably a good thing…I don't know.

But I think…I think what I'd really like to do when all this is over is just go crawl under a rock. And stay there. For some unspecified amount of time. Until I feel human again. If that ever happens.

Now begins the task of disassembling all that I thought I had built in the past four years.

Which shouldn't be too hard, since it has mostly fallen down around my head already.

I'm not sure I'm ready for another crash and burn. But life isn't always about what one is ready for, is it?

Friday, October 8, 2010


I don't have the statistics here in front of me, but I know (from personal experience) that a huge portion of our living-wage manufacturing jobs have been re-distributed—out of the country. The United States now has what they call a "consumer economy." An economy which can only remain robust when people buy stuff. Not a traditional or even viable economic philosophy, by any means. In fact, it's entirely probable that the concept of a consumer economy was only recognized when it became obvious that was what we have descended into.

Economies are supposed to be based upon making stuff, not buying stuff. We should be making or producing something that we can trade—either for money, goods, or services—on the world market. But here in America, the Fat Cats who are supposed to be concerned with keeping the economy vital, have outsourced all our jobs. And they have charged US with keeping the American economy sound (and keeping THEM rich), by continuing to buy all the stuff they now have made in India or China or Central America, for a fraction of what it would cost them to pay US to make it here. So, they get the money, and we get…what? The incredible honor of serving them in restaurants, hotels, country clubs and casinos…because those are the only jobs left to be had?

Oh, yes…the Service Industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Basically because the poor schlubs whose jobs have gone away get to be employed waiting on the asshats who sold those jobs to the lowest bidders overseas.

Now, I am a card-carrying member of the Service Industry, and I have been for most of my adult life. Since before the entire national economy hung on our every move . For the most part, it was an enjoyable challenge, trying to guess what would be the Next Big Thing, and getting it out there with a smile and a flourish. It was satisfying to make someone happy, gratifying to brighten someone's day. And they would smile, and say, "Thank you!" And everyone would go home and sleep well at night.

Then, four years ago, in the midst of this shift from a real economy to one based on speculation, greed and all kinds of negative abstract concepts, I bought a restaurant. And, boy, have I learned a few things about what it means to own a service business in 21st-century America. Let me just say it has not done anyone any favors to strap the fate of the nation to our aching backs.

The buzz these days from just about everyone you talk to is that we have forgotten how to give good service in this country. Let me stand up in defense of my industry, for a moment. I have to believe that a large part of the problem is that not everyone is suited to a service job. Many of the folks who have been flung into our industry because there's nowhere else to go do not have what it takes to BE good…well, servants. They're doing the job because it's what there is to do, not because they enjoy it or find it satisfying. And that is a terrible problem for our industry. For all that we are the most over-worked, under-paid segment of the working population, there is a tremendous amount of skill, knowledge, and talent required to do what we do WELL. Someone who was perfectly happy to man an assembly line or work alone in a cubicle in front of a computer screen all day, probably won't be very happy, or very good at, chatting up customers while steaming a milk for a latte to 140 degrees.

And speaking of that 140 degree latte, let me also say that, from MY side of the counter, the general American public no longer knows how to GET good service. To encourage, accept and reward it, rather than to demand it as some kind of entitlement.

When some woman I have never seen before walks up to my counter and barely interrupts her cel phone conversation to churlishly demand a half-caf vente macchiato (which is a Starbuck's drink, by the way…and, um, we are not Starbuck's…) at exactly 140 degrees or she WILL bring it back (and I am led to wonder whether she carries a stem thermometer in her purse…), and sighs and rolls her eyes when we try to establish what she would like to order from OUR menu, raps her acrylic nails on the counter and continues her slightly over-loud phone conversation while we make her drink, takes the drink from our hopeful yet fearful hands, tastes it, makes a face, says, "Tsk…it's fine!" and stalks away, pointedly ignoring the tip jar next to the register…

That's when I know I'm not in Kansas anymore, Toto. And even those of us who used to enjoy serving and satisfying the public, who used to get a charge out of the grateful smile of a contented customer…look at each other and say, "Why, exactly, DO we do this?"

More and more, we are becoming a nation of the "haves" and the "have-nots." And despite the fact that the have-nots outnumber the haves many times over, our culture, our media, encourage us all to look, act, and aspire to BE the haves. Not being rich is not good enough. It is not noble or admirable or even tolerable to be…modest. To be "comfortable." To be barely making ends meet. Because we all have to act like we have money. We all have to have the newest gadgets, the trendiest clothes, the latest adornments. And we all have to demand to be treated like Mr. and Mrs. Got-rocks by any person charged with the unfortunate task of waiting upon us in any place of business. As a result, the Service Industry—that place where more and more folks find themselves toiling—is becoming a less and less attractive place to work. At our sides are people who don't want to be here and aren't any good at it, and from across the counter, a heretofore unprecedented degree of rudeness and aggressiveness is exploding in our faces.

So maybe THAT'S why good customer service seems to be a thing of the past. Ya think?

Sunday, September 12, 2010


September again. Already. I swear, I'm still trying to figure out what happened to last Christmas.

This summer has flown by. And it's just as well, because I think it has been one of the most miserable summers on record. Weather-wise, our summer didn't start here until well into July. But the weather has been the least of my problems. Except the part where the ONE heat wave we had all season had to come on the ONE weekend when it would do the most damage—the weekend of our big Scandinavian event down south. Probably cost us a couple thousand dollars in sales. Typical of this particular summer, I guess. If it was bad, it was going to happen, and at the worst possible time.

When California Chef took his leave in the middle of May, he seems to have snagged a thread that caused the whole fabric of the café to unravel. We started to shed crew members like my cats shed their winter coats. Systems deteriorated, equipment broke down or had to be replaced, my marriage nearly ended… It was kind of like the Universe was going to show me every bad consequence that could possibly befall us as a result of last summer's bid to "take us to the next level." This will teach you to be "too tired" to properly appreciate random factors operating in your favor. Because those same random factors turned on us like a snake; and if I thought I was tired last winter, I've learned a whole new definition of the word in the past three and a half months.

We lost California Chef; my long-time morning counter girl; Chef's erstwhile but completely unworthy replacement—Ms. California Chef; the woman I had hired to be front of the house manager to replace the Good and Faithful "D" (who is still with us on a limited basis, and still good and faithful); Ms.Pastry Chef; and a parade—I can't count how many… Six? Nine?—of possible replacement crew members, none of whom lasted more than two weeks. Some as little as a day. And, actually, there are reasons why the exit of each and every one of these players is a good thing. But it would have been ever so much nicer had they not all have crapped out at the same time.

Oh…and two of my three remaining long-ish term employees (they have been with us since 2008) are pregnant.

Talk about snake-bit. I've never seen anything like it.

But I don't want to whine about this anymore. Because I'm too tired. And because I'm officially on vacation. As of about 2:00 this afternoon. Until noon on Friday.

I've been stretching my neck out toward this particular carrot since I made the reservations three weeks ago. And now, by golly, I'm chomping on it as if it were my last meal.

And not a moment too soon.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Yesterday was not a good day.

It took me longer than usual, after the "signing up" discussion, to digest and absorb the information brought to light therein. But, a week and a half into it, I thought I had built a pretty good foundation for a bridge, leading back to a tolerable status quo in my marriage. Turns out the bridge was made of tin foil instead of steel. It was easily brought down by the husband, with one unwarranted accusation.

As luck would have it, my sisters were in town and got to witness the…well, I won't call it a fight, because we actually didn't argue very much. It was basically a meltdown. MY meltdown. MY coming to terms with the fact that my marriage was probably irrevocably damaged, and I couldn't face living out the rest of my days in the context of this crumbled, non-functional relationship.

There has been this issue of "fault" haunting the husband and me for quite a few years. When things go tits up, and we are both miserable, we seem to invest a lot of energy into whose fault it is. And you know, I really hate that. I hate that fault-finding has become a standard of our society, and I particularly hate that it has invaded my marriage to the degree that it has. But there it is, nonetheless.

So Sunday afternoon, with my sisters in tow, I drove…anywhere. Away from the most recent demonstration of my being not much more than the primary irritant in my husband's life. One sister made a stab at trying to play marriage counselor. "I think," she said, "that you both need to stop trying to blame each other. It's clear that he thinks everything is YOUR fault…"

Now, the circumstances of our married life have found me taking the role of instigator most of the time. If I hadn't, I truly believe we would never have gone anywhere, achieved anything, or made any changes at all in our lives. I dragged us out to Oregon to be with my family. I yanked us away from our life in Eugene to follow a job opportunity. I took us back there when the job failed and my life fell apart. I needed a life, so we bought the restaurant. Our entire married life has consisted of me trying to make it work, and him coming along with me, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. So when things go badly for us, it IS more than likely my fault, to some degree. And I have to live with that.

So when my sister declared that we were each trying to blame the other for our problems, I couldn't entirely buy that. "Don't you think," I asked, "that I carry around a ton of guilt about everything that has gone wrong with our lives? I'll always have that. I'm not trying to say everything is his fault. I'm just trying to say it's NOT ALL MY FAULT. It can't be. I can't own the blame for every bad thing that has ever happened to us. If I did, it would kill me."

I don't know why, but this time, the hurt wouldn't go away. I tried hiding it under some "retail therapy," (shopping at the Goodwill with my sisters.) It just got worse. I dropped my bundle of possible purchases on a convenient rack, went out to sit in the van. And just…cried. And thought. And cried some more.

In fact, I spent most of the day in tears. I haven't cried so much in years. But I was thinking, and planning, and, saying goodbye, really. To my life. To my home. To my restaurant. To everything I believed had been poisoned by, or was poisoning, my dying marriage. Because I had decided that if my choice was going to be between continuing in a relationship where I was nothing more than the biggest pain in my husband's ass, or being alone, I would choose "alone."

Life is too short. The idea of spending my remaining days, however many or few they are, with someone to whom I am barely tolerable on a good day…just didn't appeal anymore. If my fate—my burden—was to fuck up everything I touched, then I needed not to be touching anyone else. I could take full responsibility for screwing up my own life. But I could no longer bear the burden of messing up another person's life along with my own.

We've had Serious Arguments in the past. With increasing frequency, in fact. As time has gone on, I've begun to think I've worn out my welcome as a partner… as I always suspected I would, from the very beginning. And I have said to him, "You know, if you would be happier doing something else or with someone else, you need to do that." I have given HIM permission to leave. But of course, husband being husband, he would never do it. This time, I understood that if the hurt was ever going to go away, if the changes that needed to be made to point us toward peace were ever going to be made, I had to make them. I would have to be the one to say, "I give up. This needs to end. I will leave." Things end. People change. Nothing is forever. No one stays. That is the way of life. I get it.

For the first time in my life, I thought about dissolving the union. I made lists of what would need to be done and in what order. I would find a place to live and move out. (Or should I ask him to move out, and pay for an apartment for him closer to work…since one of the things he has recently confessed is that he hates the house and doesn't really care if we live here anymore…) We would sell the restaurant. And as soon as that was done, I would take any money left over from that and find somewhere to live. Somewhere. Far away from here.

And then he could either have the house (since HE pays the mortgage) or not. Whatever he chose. And if he sold the house, I would ask for some small sum of money from the sale, and that would be that. He would probably move back to the Midwest to be with his family. And it would be over.

I planned and I thought and I said goodbye all day yesterday. And I cried. 

Pitchers and pails and flasks of tears. I couldn't stop.

Last night, after everyone went home, we talked.

Truthfully, I don't remember most of the details of the discussion. Maybe some things were ironed out. Maybe some hurts were apologized for. Maybe some promises to do better were made. All I know is, enough was said that it gave me hope that we might be able to live amicably together for a few more years. 

Or months. Or weeks. I don't have to leave. Now…

But I also know…that I can. Leave. If it comes to that.

And that is a powerful thing to know.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Signing Up

What does it mean when your partner tells you that your life is "not exactly what I signed up for?" After more than three decades?

What DID we sign up for, exactly?

What did we know, at twenty and twenty-one, about a relationship that would span almost as many years as our combined ages?

I always thought we got married because we were too stupid not to. We were "in love." That's what people did when they were in love. They got married.

Were we signing up for something? I wouldn't have had a clue what to ask for or where to sign for it. And I've always believed that cluelessness, that naiveté, that "What the hell, let's just DO it!" …was mutual.

Evidently not.

After thirty-five years, I find I am not what he signed up for.

I have no idea where to go with that…

"Not what I signed up for…" I couldn't shake those words for days. Brooded about them almost non-stop. I thought I could bury them under work and other concerns, but they kept rising to the surface like a fresh corpse. For me, there is no such concept as, "Ignore it, and it will go away." I can set things aside until they lose their sting, and go back and deal with them later. But I can't just pretend they never existed and go merrily on my way.

The pronouncement that any endeavor, thirty years in, is not what one signed up for is, at best, grossly immature; at worst, blindly narcissistic. Either you went into the thing thinking you had no particular expectations, and now find that any vague picture of fulfillment and happiness you might have had in mind does not resemble what has actually come to pass… Or you had a specific agenda (that did not take into account any other person who might have been involved in the endeavor along with you…say, a life partner, for example…) which you suddenly realize has not been accomplished. And probably never will be. And time is running out.

So, what? Is the husband a hopeless Peter Pan? Or is he an unfeeling taskmaster ruled by schedules, goals, and quantifiable results? I don't think so. I think he's just feeling tired and old and a bit overmatched by his life. To say that we have a lot on our plates right now would be a laughable understatement.

We may have, in fact, "signed up for" a little more than we are actually capable of accomplishing, at this stage in our lives. At an age when most people are backing off the throttle and beginning to coast into retirement, we are working harder than we ever have. 

There is a physical and emotional cost to all this, which is harder on a couple of semi-centenarians than it would be on a pair of twenty-somethings. But there are two ways to look at it, really. Though it can be said that, after thirty-plus years together, we'd rather be relaxing in our side-by-side recliners than fending off challenges to the emotional well-being of our partnership; it might also be true that if our relationship did not have that thirty-year strong foundation, we may now be chucking everything, turning our backs on each other and on the challenge, and going off in search of something more fun and more immediately gratifying. Isn't that what children DO these days?

Part of the problem with the husband is that he is NOT the type of person to TAKE control of life. He is happy when he has the underpinnings of job, home and family, and then he kind of takes whatever life happens to build upon that foundation. Oh, he's a hard worker. Tireless and obsessive to the point of workaholism, in fact. But he's not particularly creative or idealistic when it comes to what the job is. His credo is that you do whatever your employer demands, and then some. And you never, NEVER ask for a favor, or preferential treatment, or even for some things you might have earned or deserve after a term of dedicated and faithful service. Which would make him anyone's dream employee. But which also makes him suck as an entrepreneur.

Because you have to realize when you work for yourself, you are not only your own employee, you are also your own boss. Which means you work hard, yes. But you are also the person responsible for rewarding that hard work. If you try to do one without the other, you burn out very quickly. Which, unfortunately, is the place where the husband finds himself at this moment. He still has his "day job," where he works very hard and has been consistently under-valued and under-compensated for sixteen years. But now, rather than coming home and going to the gym or puttering around the garage or whatever else he used to do to let off steam from work, he has the café to work at and worry about. To the point of obsession. And he can't put himself into the mindset that HE is the one who has to take control of some aspects of his life, to tweak it so that it doesn't turn him into a smoldering cinder. He just works and works and works, and then gets put out with me because our life is "not what he signed up for."

For my part, I believed him when he told me that he wanted to partner with me in owning the café. I believed we were setting ourselves up for the time when his job would go away. Which looked imminent four years ago, but these things have a way of dragging out way longer than seems possible. So he's still toiling away for the sinking ship AND trying to help me run the restaurant. Of course, this is an impossible situation for him. But it's just as impossible for ME to run the café without a partner. Especially now, when I don't think I could buy a decent employee with a winning lottery ticket.

We are stuck, he and I, in this protracted limbo…responsible for almost more than the two of us can physically handle. I don't think either of us would have signed up for this had we known it was going to play out this way. But it is what it is, and we have to not only work, but THINK our way through it. It's the thinking part, the planning part, the pro-active "I have to fix this so that it can work for me" part that the husband is not so good at. And, truth be told, he gets pissed off at me when I try to do that part for him. Or suggest that he do it. "This is the only part of my life that I have control over!" he whined to me the other night during the discussion that spawned the whole" signing up" remark.

Fine. Then control it, goddammit. If you won't let me help you fix it, then deal with it yourself. But don't whine to me about what you did and did not sign up for.

Fix. It.

Wow. That was amazingly unsupportive, wasn't it? 

But it felt SO good…!

Whatever. I'm pretty sure we'll ride out this storm, as we have so many over the years. But sometimes, feeling exhausted, partnerless and friendless all at the same time just…sucks. And this, this blog, is the only place I have to go with this stuff. So I won't even apologize for whining.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Wrap-Up

Monday morning, and I feel like today is the first day of the rest of my life. That giant catering job has been strapped to my back since mid-May when my chef crapped out on me. Now, I wish I hadn't worried about it so much. The facility we worked in was huge and well-stocked, we got all our prep done handily a few days before, and things came together quickly and beautifully (thanks to Chef Hope) the day of the wedding. Not only did we NOT run out of food, we have tons of leftovers. Which, as a business owner, I should be unhappy about…but all I wanted to do was make sure everybody got some and that it was good. And it was!

But of course, the day could not have gone off without some kind of attack by the Bullshit Squad. It would have been too much to ask for my staffing woes—which have gone from annoying to scary to unbelievable to ridiculous—to abate for just this one day. The "experienced breakfast cook" I hired three weeks ago ( pretty much so that I would have someone to run Saturday breakfast while Chef and I concentrated on this catering job) got her nose out of joint when she received her first paycheck on Friday and decided to terminate her employment with us by no-show, no-calling on the day she knew I needed her most—the day of the catering job. Classy. Very classy.

I ended up having to stay at the restaurant through breakfast, and then going out to the catering site. Which, in the end, was just as well, because we were SO well prepped that there was a lot of "hurry up and wait" going on. I had sent Chef and her assistant over to the church kitchen at 8 am, service was at about 3:30, and there were really only a couple of hours of real work to be done. As it turned out, our very capable lady Chef had everything well in hand, and all I had to do was throw a couple of chicken breasts around at the very end, serve the guests at the buffet line, and clean up.

So now, on this gray, yucky, cloudy day that seems to be part and parcel of summer 2010 in northwest Oregon, I'm ready to start MY summer in earnest. I have no idea what that means, really. But I just want to suspend the work and worry and planning and scheming for a couple of weeks, and grab a little gusto out of whatever the rest of this summer has to offer.

How about it?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Learning to Trust

Tomorrow is going to be a big day for us. Another "first" for the café. We'll be catering entrees for a wedding reception. To the tune of 250 guests. Wow.

I made this commitment way back in late winter, when I was counting on the services of the lately departed California Chef. (Who, by the way, bounced back handily from his unfortunate experience with his succeeding position, and is now employed by the restaurant right across the street from his most recent ex-employer. Sigh!) Believe me; when California Chef flew the coop, I was more than a little cowed by the scope of the job. But since CC left us a mere six weeks before the wedding date, I didn't feel comfortable telling the customer (who is also my hairdresser and a friend) that she would have to make other arrangements. So I sucked it up and decided, come hell or high water, we were going to make this happen. And do a good job of it, too.

So, tomorrow is the big day. And, truthfully, I'm feeling (perhaps uncharacteristically) confident. The food is simple—things that I personally know how to make, rather than the slightly off-the-wall hairball haute cuisine that California Chef often came up with. I'll be assisted by the Dear Husband, Chef Hope and an intern from a Portland culinary school. Everything's good. Right now, I'm sitting on my deck enjoying a glass of wine and engaging in my alternate passion. Tomorrow morning, everything will fall into place. And by this time tomorrow evening, it will all be history.

Dear husband, on the other hand, is completely unglued by the enormity of the commitment, and is fussing in every direction possible. He feels like a helium balloon with a defective gyroscope, and I'm trying to keep him from flying off in weird directions, or flying away altogether. Tonight, sitting in the car returning from a short buying trip, he confessed he was really freaking out about this whole thing. (No, duh?) And I said, "What's the big deal? It's easy stuff, we have most of it prepared already, it's not something we can't do. Do you see ME freaking out?" "No," he said. "And that's what freaking me out."

"That's silly," I scoffed. "Sometimes, you just have to trust yourself."

A couple of years ago, I could no more have said that than I could have quoted the Koran in Arabic.

Maybe I have learned something.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Losses, Foundations and Lessons

I've been having a rough time of it, the past six weeks, raking myself over the coals for my inability to retain employees. Good, bad, or indifferent, they all seem to have decided they don't want to work for ME.

But of course, in this small town, it's an ongoing drama. I can't help but hear accounts—sometimes told With Great Relish—of the exploits of my former employees. The juvenile delinquent is going to nursing school now. Cook In Training #2 bombed out of her medical assistant training, went to work at McDonald's for awhile, drama-ed herself out of that job…I pretty much could have called it all at the time she left us, though I had hoped so much more for her.

Former counter girl is still plugging away with my competitor up the road, but the story is she is no happier there than she was here. Gotta think her problems go deeper than that she just couldn't get along with California Chef.

And, speaking of California Chef, I got the latest news on him yesterday. (This is one of those stories passed on to me With Great Relish…)

Seems Chef is no longer employed at Pizza Restaurant cum brew pub cum comedy club etc. etc. His problems began on Father's day, evidently. ( How apt, since he left us just after Mother's Day. So that gives him, what…five weeks of uneventful association with his new employer?)

The story starts with California Chef choosing to serve Cornish game hens for a Father's Day special, which he proceeds to undercook and then refuses to re-cook. Necessitating that disenchanted restaurant owner throw away fifty unservable Cornish game hens. Thereby not particularly endearing Chef to boss.

Shortly thereafter, Chef is running a dinner service, with one other cook and a dish washer assisting. Early in the service, a plate is sent back to the kitchen (not clear to me whether the customer sent it back or the server refused to take it out.) Chef throws one of his "Wait-staff-is-the-source-of-all-bad-things" hissy fits and makes a big issue out of the remaking of this particular plate. (He threw one or two of those during his tenure at the Hot Flash Café. And they are not pretty.)

This one, however, seems to be the straw that broke some camel's back—whether his or the wait staff's, I don't know. Whatever the reason, Chef chooses to embark upon a course of action calculated to have the greatest possible negative effect on those he believes have wronged him. He plugs along for a little while, by and by telling his assistant cook and the dish washer that, since it's not busy, they can go home and he'll take care of the kitchen by himself. He then proceeds to let the dining room fill up with guests before he walks out , leaving the restaurant with no one at all manning the kitchen.

Wow. The boy knows how to make a point.

So now I wonder.

Should I really be beating myself up over the fact that employees are deserting the Hot Flash Cafe like rats from a sinking ship? Or should I be patting myself on the back that I managed to hold together a rag-tag band of misfits and turn them into at least a semi-functional, mildly effective team, for as long as I did? After all, I held Chef in check for almost a year, and he did give proper notice when he decided to leave. Cook #2 worked for me for almost 2 years, which is by far the longest period in her young life that she has ever stuck with anything.

I think I don't give myself enough credit. When everything started to fall apart, I began to believe we had merely been lucky that we'd enjoyed that stretch of time—nearly two years!—where we had amassed a group of a half-dozen long-term employees. Now, though, I think it was more than just luck. It took plenty of skill: choosing battles, soothing egos, playing up strengths, maneuvering around weaknesses, walking the fine line between managing people and letting the inmates run the prison.

I like to think I haven't lost the knack…but there is a certain amount of bringing the right people together before we can make it happen again. And I think that's getting harder, especially in the tiny, shallow labor pool of this small town. Once you shoot through the available talent (such as it is), it takes a while for the pool to refill. We experienced the "empty labor pool" phenomenon right after we bought the restaurant. Maybe we'll just have to go through that same cycle, over and over, every x-number of years.

Won't that be fun?

But perhaps the problem was, to a certain extent, my own fault. I rocked the boat. I made the mistake of trying to change things too much. Perhaps I would still have most of the people I've lost in the past year if I had never tried to haul my quirky little business to the "next level." If I had never entertained those fantasies of what the presence of California Chef could do for us. My staff was perfectly content with the level we were on. I knew that…and it drove me crazy. But in the end, maybe they were right. As it turned out, the "next level" chewed us up and spit us out. Because here we are, perched squarely back on that same old level, feeling lucky to be here at all…and with almost no staff left to tell the tale. Sigh!

So maybe I've learned something.

And maybe The Universe will be kind enough to send me two or three good people upon whom I can test my newfound knowledge. The knowledge that change is not always necessary. Or good. Or even possible.

I get it.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Not Likin' Me Much

Sleep deprivation and stress seem to be turning me into a person I really don't like very much.

Time was, when I hired a new employee, I could observe how that person learned, analyze his/her talents and strengths, ferret out the weaknesses, and—taking all those things into account—almost immediately turn that newbie into a functional member of the team. Not so much anymore. I just do not have the patience.

Three weeks ago, I hired two young men—one twenty-two-years old, and one twenty. Each of these kids possessed a resume that included some months served in some kind of commercial cooking environment; and each had some degree of formal culinary schooling. On paper, they appeared to have what it took to make them successful candidates for a cook's job at the café. Yet it took less than three weeks for both of them to go down in flames.

I'll just say here and now that, after all the staffing hassles I've encountered since buying the restaurant four years ago, I take nothing, and I mean NOTHING, for granted. I no longer bring people on staff with an expectation of success. I find it hard to even stand back and wait to see what happens. My attitude is more like, "I know the highest probability is that you are going to suck, or if you don't suck NOW, you'll suck shortly down the road. Prove me wrong…!"

I hate having that attitude. I hate expecting the worst from people. Negative thinker that I have always been, I have up til now had a way of expecting good from people. Expecting honesty, respect, empathy and a knowledge of some kind of decent work ethic. But somewhere along the line, the things I just took for granted from people have become almost extinct. These qualities are not only not part of prospective employees personalities; the words are hardly in their vocabularies (and they would not be able to spell them if they were…but that's a rant for a different day.)

Recently, I've been doing a lot of thinking about my work. I realize that I have been working myself to death just keeping the doors of the café open. I'm wearing every hat, doing every job, nose to the grindstone, hardly looking up to even see or recognize the faces of the people who inhabit my world. The customers. The staff. I don't know their stories, and I can't care about them. I have too much on my plate to care about the people. And there is something drastically, tragically wrong with that picture.

I feel like, within the next, say, six months to a year, I'm going to have to make a choice. Because just opening the doors and serving food is not what I want my business to be about. I have to be able to disentangle myself from the eternal knot of bullshit that has ensnared me since I took over the café. It seems like it's been drawing me in deeper and deeper, binding me tighter and tighter, until I can't pull far enough away from it to see the Big Picture. To BE the moral business owner I want to be. To care about my staff, the customers, ALL the people I come in contact with every day. And act accordingly.

What I have to figure out is, the way people are these days, CAN I care about them? Because part of the problem is that I have a really hard time caring about people who can't or won't reciprocate in any way. Have people become so self-centered, greedy and rude that I just can't find a way to care? It's not that I expect kudos or gratitude or…really, anything positive when I go out of my way to be kind or fair or respectful of people. I just don't expect to be treated like crap…which, unfortunately, is what happens most of the time these days. It's my misfortune that I tend to treat people as they treat me. Altruistic I am not, apparently.

So what I know is that I don't like this person I have turned into since I bought the restaurant. What I have to figure out is if I can change that, or if I just have to…bail.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Painful Encounters

I'm trying to decide whether I'm just overtired, or if hyper-sensitivity is something I've always had, but is serving to make my current life that much more difficult.

This business of long-term employees leaving "the nest" has been much harder on me than I would have thought.

Because we live in a small town, I can't help but casually encounter just about everyone who ever worked for me. I'd have to never go out and about in my own home town if I wanted to avoid these meetings. (Not very practical...but I have to admit, somewhat attractive, at the moment.)

Saturday afternoon, we had company, and since my own restaurant closes at 3 pm, we decided to try one of the other local eateries. It's good to keep tabs on what the competition is up to, anyway. But this particular place happens to be where one of my lost employees obtained employment (BEFORE giving me her notice...) I hoped against hope that Ms. Former Employee would not be at work that day. But I only had to glance through the glass as we headed for the entrance to understand that was a vain hope.

She saw us immediately. I smiled, waved.

We sat in this nearly empty restaurant in the middle of the afternoon, and Ms. Former Employee did not come any where near us. Avoided us like the plague. Hid in the back room, I think, when possible.

This girl who shared my Thanksgiving table two years ago, will now not even speak to me.

Who knows? It may not be that she hates me. It may not be that I am the total scum of the earth (which is how I felt.)

It may be that she was just so uncomfortable about the way we had parted that she couldn't deal with my presence on any positive level.

I held it together as long as we were at the restaurant. Made believe it didn't bother me. Pretended not to care.

And when we got home, I excused myself to my bedroom sanctuary...threw myself on the bed and sobbed like a toddler. Just for a few minutes...

I told my sister I was happy I had never had kids.

Because if other people's kids could break my heart like this, being rejected by my own children (and they WILL reject their parents, at some's part of their job description) would probably kill me.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ten Minutes on Why Staffing is a Nightmare

I have ten minutes and only ten minutes to write this today. You will see WHY I only have ten minutes after you read it:

Here is a timeline which suggests the challenges of staffing a small business:

February 1: Applicant walks in the door. She is breathing and has a pulse and I am desperate, so I hire her. She has a smattering of restaurant experience and is currently working two very part-time jobs (one involves a thirty-mile round-trip commute for what amounts to about nine or ten hours per week. At least I can offer this girl more hours and a shorter commute.)

March 1: Girl is working out okay. Not exactly a fireball, but she shows up and wears the uniform. Does everything I tell her to do, but doesn’t exhibit any kind of self-directedness. Kind of frustrating.

Mid-March: Chef comes down with pneumonia, and this girl steps into the role of lifesaver. When I need someone who can come in early, stay late and take on additional shifts, she steps right up. I’m starting to change my mind about her. But, oh…wait. She is starting classes soon. Needs Monday and Wednesday afternoons off…

April 1: Girl lets slip that she is getting married at the end of the week. Apparently, her intended is joining the army, and they want to hurry up and tie the know before he leaves. Very WWII…but sweet. Oh, by the way…this girl is 18 years old. Husband is 20.

Mid-April: Girl comes to me and says that over the summer she wants all the hours I can give her. She is totally free and just wants to work, work, work.

Mid-May: Girl comes to me and confesses that she is pregnant, “But it won’t affect her work at all.” I nod my head and say, “Oh, yeah. Sure”. Regardless of how the pregnancy affects her, I now know that she will be leaving our employ before the end of the year. Not going to be the person upon whom to start building a new stable of long-term employees, I guess…

End of May: Girl complains to other staff members that she is getting tired of the restaurant always being under-staffed. Why does she have to work so many hours (she is working five 6-hour shifts a week)? We have all these people coming in and leaving off resumes (unqualified high school students who are looking for a way to make money for about six weeks and then will go back to their studies and extra-curricular activities in September, never to be heard from again….) She would be happy working four days a week… Because now that husband is safely in the military, and they are safely married, the Army is paying her rent and a food stipend. So she really doesn’t have to work anymore.

Oh, and by the way… Young husband is now pressuring her to join him in Georgia when he is finished with his first phase of basic training. This will take place sometime around mid-August. Mind you, SHE hasn’t broken any of this news to me, but in a workplace as small as ours, you tell one person something and everyone (except ME, generally, but this time is the exception) finds out eventually.

So this is the way of things. Since January, I have lost three long-term employees and my chef. I have had one new hire work one shift and never come back. Last week, my new hire ("Wisconsin Woman") worked five days and quit. My husband interviewed a girl on Friday (referred by going-to-Georgia-girl) who started out saying she could only work four days a week, but oh, sometimes not even that, and, oh, by the way, I’ll need a week off in June, and a week off in July. In other words, “I don’t really WANT a job. I don’t actually have time for one…” This is WHY we have all these resumes coming in and we are chronically short-staffed. I have no idea how these people live, anymore, without an income. Maybe the army is paying all their rent.

I am frustrated, tired (that’s news?) and desperately afraid that, in a few weeks, I’ll be running that restaurant all by myself.

And in Washington, they’re STILL screaming, “There are no jobs… “

Friday, May 21, 2010

Found Him...

Last night, I chose to rub salt in a wound that had not healed over as much as I had thought.

I had heard on the grapevine (from my manicurist—the resource library for all of the county's juiciest gossip) that one of the major restaurant players in The Next Town Up The Road had recently lost its chef. Using what deductive powers haven't yet been compromised by my chronic state of overwork and undersleep, I put two and two together and guessed that this was where California Chef had landed. So, last night, husband and I made a little "market research" field trip up the road to see what was shaking.

And yes, there was my ex-chef, toiling away in the open kitchen of the pizza restaurant-cum brew pub-cum comedy club-cum whatever else will put butts in the seats, which has also been struggling to add "dinner house" to its list of various personae. And while I am the first to admit that, in our-pint-sized demographic, success is built upon how many market niches an eatery can successfully fill, Pizza Pub Up The Road has enjoyed about as much success in the dinner house category as has the Hot Flash Café.

There are reasons for this; reasons that became more abundantly clear to me during the ten months I personally struggled to morph the Hot Flash Café into something that would optimize California Chef's talents. The truth of the matter is, there is an extremely limited market, out here in the exurbs, for what California Chef does best. He can make beautiful, tasty, trendy food. And that, unfortunately, is not what our customers are looking for in a local restaurant. They want clean, friendly, edible homey stuff. If a restaurant can kind of nudge them toward the 21st century without their knowing it, they're good with that. But they are definitely not looking for nouvelle cuisine out here. If they want trendy, they make a day or night of it and go into "The City." Or they go west to one of the more upscale communities on the beach.

When California Chef took his leave of us, it didn't take me long to realize that he had to leave…that we were never going to be able to make proper use of what he had to offer. I thought, "Okay. Failed experiment. Chalk this one up to experience and move on." But as cantankerous and hard to get along with as the kid had proven to be, I had made a sizeable emotional investment in him. I really believed he had talent and a bright future, even if it wasn't with my restaurant. As much as, in the end, his leaving was obviously best for everyone, it was not painless for me to see him go.

If only he HAD gone on to somewhere that his talents could be nurtured and properly utilized. But, no—he's at a stupid, small-town restaurant of ambiguous identity that is really just a bigger, more ambitious version of the Hot Flash Café. Churning out humdrum food that is NOT his, to keep the unimaginative patrons happy, while straining to attract a market that does not exist with specials like "Halibut Picatta."

My greatest regret with California Chef was that I worked elbow to elbow with him for ten months, and couldn't teach him a damned thing. I knew I had little to offer in the way of teaching him how to cook, but I had hoped I could impart some wisdom about how to run a kitchen, how to assemble and relate to a staff, even what kinds of food might appeal to our demographic. Seeing him last night, ramming his head against the same brick wall he'd encountered (erected?) at the Hot Flash Café, it really brought home to me how utterly deaf and blind he was to anything I had tried to impress upon him during our short and obviously fruitless association.

Within comfortable commuting distance to the city of Portland and its exciting up-and-coming culinary scene, California Chef chooses to go…sideways. Or even backwards.

It was a blow my bruised heart was less ready to absorb than I thought…

Friday, May 14, 2010

Time to Hunker Down and Re-Group

So he's gone.

After ten months of struggling to meet California Chef's needs, and trying to get him to meet ours, he decides to up and peddle his services to one of my competitors in the next town up the road.

I assume he believes he'll be taking his "following" of devoted customers with him.

I don't think he realizes how small, possibly even non-existent, that following is.

Now that I can let myself think about what really has been going on at my restaurant for the past ten months, I'm feeling…relieved, chastened and somewhat smarter.

Relieved that the source of so much discord is finally out the door. Hiring a chef/kitchen manager was supposed to make my life easier, but California Chef didn't make life easy for anyone. Quite the opposite, really. He browbeat the front of the house staff, patronized his kitchen crew, and fought me at every turn. He burnt his bridges with my entire existing staff and was working on alienating the people we had brought on to replace them. It wasn't that his awesome skill level set the bar too high for our old staff (or the new staff, for that matter.) He was just cranky, moody, and often outright rude to the other employees, and basically set a standard of perfection for them that he was not willing to uphold himself.

And I let him get away with way too much for way too long, just because he was so damn talented.

Oh, yes, he's an outstanding cook. But he was not a Kitchen Manager. In any sense of the word. He didn't want to manage the people or the menu or the physical plant. He just wanted to cook. And he wanted to cook what he wanted to cook. Not necessarily what I wanted him to cook, or what was going to work with our concept or our customer base. For ten months, I struggled to point him in a direction that was going to work for him and for us. Every day, every day with him was a challenge.

Soon enough, it became obvious that he just hated everything about the restaurant. He hated the other staff members, he hated me, he hated our menu and the things he had to do every day. As time went on, he viewed our operation and our methods with more and more contempt, which he didn't go out of his way to try to hide. He just made everybody—including himself—miserable.

So it's not as if the idea of terminating our association had not started to dawn on the horizon of my consciousness. He just beat me to the punch. When he gave his "notice" on Tuesday (too cowardly to come to ME about it, he cornered the husband out on the sidewalk at the end of his shift) it only took me about fifteen minutes to go from shock, anger and disbelief to a feeling of tremendous relief. Though it was going to be inconvenient and challenging, this was exactly what needed to happen, and I knew it. And I felt like a 200 lb. (distinctly chef-shaped) weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

Now that I feel like I have my restaurant back, any hole he's left behind will be healed quickly enough. I'll have to rethink the dinner menu I have been struggling to build around his whims and was just about to unveil. And I have a catering commitment in July that was heavily contingent upon the presence of someone with extensive catering experience, which I do not possess, so he definitely left me in the lurch on that one. But we will work it out one way or another.

The Universe, for its part, seems to be looking out for me, as it has done since I took on this challenge four years ago. Back in March, I was fortunate enough to hire a young lady who is a classically trained chef (went to one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the country, in fact) and happens to live on a houseboat about ten minutes from the café. She was not hired, as I'm afraid California Chef was convinced, as his replacement, and I am not going to ask her to take on that role. But I do anticipate that Chef Hope (yes, that is REALLY her name) can help me complete my dinner menu, and possibly coach me and my other cooks in some skills to carry it off.

And then there is Wisconsin Woman. Two days before Chef jumped ship, I hired a woman who had owned a couple of espresso/sandwich shops of her own (one of which was in Wisconsin, hence her Hot Flash Café nickname.) Her first day was Wednesday—the day I was going to attempt to work open to close after being up literally the entire night wrestling with the questions Chef's abrupt exit screamed to be answered. Wisconsin Woman proved to be miraculously competent, and should be a more than adequate schedule replacement for at least some of the late cantankerous Chef's day shift hours. So, thank the Universe, I am not left tearing my hair out trying to figure out who is going to help me open the doors every day.

So, an era of what I thought would be change and advancement for the Hot Flash Café has come to an end. And yes, I have regrets. I regret that I sacrificed a handful of what used to be my key people for what amounted to a failed experiment. But, truthfully, those people obviously did not have much of a commitment to me, the café or their jobs (who does anymore?) So I guess I didn't lose anybody who was irreplaceable. I have to adopt the attitude that "I was looking for staff when I hired you…" and just keep looking. Forever and ever amen, from the looks of things… :(

And of course, I have to learn the lessons that this experience has to impart. One of the primary things I have learned is that you have to dance with the one who brung ya. The Hot Flash Café IS a hodgepodge of concepts that has uniquely fitted it for success in our little market. Our ambiguous identity—some people see us as a coffee shop, some as an ice cream shop, some as a great little place to grab a fast business lunch, and some people even realize we serve dinner—has kept the doors open for five years. Ten months of trying to re-invent the café into the dinner house California Chef envisioned it to be has proven that we are what we are, and we just need to be the best one of those (whatever it is) around.

A humbled, somewhat frustrated but definitely smarter owner is now ready to reclaim her kitchen and go forward, on a path of much less resistance. I am so ready to fall back in love with the Hot Flash Café…

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


About those "random factors..."

The ones that are definitely no longer acting in our favor:

Chef quit today.

Wish I'd made it more of a point to enjoy the good luck a little more.

Because it's crunch time again.

And I am sooooooo tired.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's Day is History

With Mothers Day out of the way, it might actually be time to lean back and let the café go on auto-pilot for a month or two. NOT! Though I've managed to pull myself together enough to get a few things done in the long-term promotion category, I still have a list of things ten feet long that I want to/need to accomplish. Not the least of which is get the ball rolling on this air-conditioning thing before it gets really hot out. We've had a miserably cold spring (if we were at 3000 feet we would be buried in snow…) that has, up 'til now, saved our bacon air conditioning-wise. But we all know it's going to get warm sometime, and rather sooner than later, I would think. I cannot have my guests trying to choke down a meal with sweat running down into their pasta.

Speaking of Mothers Day, it went rather well. We didn't have any big disasters, reservations were taken and filled promptly, people complimented the hell out of the food, and we had a fairly good sales day. So I'm going to call it a success, though our food cost and labor costs for the week were unfortunately way out of line, so I'm thinking we didn't really make any money on the whole thing. We hope, however, that we did make some friends. And that is what keeps the doors open.

So, yes…Mothers Day went well. As well as can be hoped for a motherless, childless workaholic. These days, Mothers Day just means a day of extra stress and work work work for me. Which is, in the end, probably a good thing. Because May is just a…hard month, if I let myself think about it. Mothers Day and my parents' wedding anniversary were always within days of each other (my folks were married on May 12, 1945). With them both gone, mid-May would be a time of sighing and missing them, if I had ten minutes to rub together to dwell on it. Plus, my sister passed away five days after Mom & Dad's fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1995, so that is not a good memory, either. So though spring—May in particular—is a beautiful time of bloom and renewal in the Pacific Northwest, it is not without its barbs, at least for me.

Ten minutes are up. Time to make the donuts…

Sunday, April 18, 2010

One of the Crappiest Weeks Ever

I posted on Facebook yesterday that I had just made it through one of the crappiest weeks ever.

Now, I know I have had much worse weeks. Like everyone else who has endured life on the planet for more than half a century, I’ve weathered illness, disaster, deaths of loved ones. But those things are in a different category. The term “crappy” would trivialize those life-changing, soul-wrenching times.

But this week was an undeniable shit-fest from the word “go.” I endured all kinds of indignities, up to and including a serious brush with the shadow of divorce court. How about a Crappy Week Re-Cap (Re-Crap?) a la those wonderful (and long gone) Ten Good Things Lists (you knew it was only a matter of time, didn’t you?)

1. First thing Monday morning, my longest term employee--one of the two who are left that I “bought” with the restaurant--hands me her two weeks’ notice. She tells me she feels like she put in her five years, she just doesn’t enjoy it like she used to, and she has a lot of vacations lined up for the summer that she doesn’t want me to have to worry about. Truthfully, this girl has been a steady and dependable presence, and I will miss her…but it IS time.
In the way of all things (at least for me) the change for which I believed I had opted last July when I hired California Chef is taking an entirely different form than I had anticipated. Rather than a kind of gradual metamorphosis, with disenchanted old employees dropping off one by one, it has been much more of a tug-of-war. While I slung my ideas for change over my shoulder and endeavored to drag the café forward, the old employees planted their feet and pulled with all their might in the direction of “We Like Things Just The Way They Are.” It appears that now, nearly nine months later, the rope has snapped, the old employees are tumbling out the door en masse, and the restaurant is going to shoot forward with a vengeance. Can’t say I was really prepared for this turn of events, but it is what it is. We’ll make it work.

2. California Chef is fully recovered from his bout with pneumonia. One would think this would be a good thing, but of course there is a bug in the ointment. During and just after his illness, while I was being particularly solicitous of him and basically running the restaurant by myself, he seemed to have finally developed a respect for me that he had heretofore lacked. I thought, “Ah, now we can finally conduct a healthy business relationship based upon mutual respect. The sky is the limit!” Um…or not.
Is this a generational thing? Have the twenty-somethings upon whom I must depend to run my restaurant (because I can’t run it alone) simply been brought up unfamiliar with the concept of “respect?” For anyone or anything? That would not surprise me, given the political/pop-culture climate of the past ten years-- the years of their coming of age. Respect is a hopelessly outdated concept. But I have to say, ancient relic that I am, I’m having a really hard time figuring out how to relate to and motivate these children. I am not/cannot be their “friend,” and there seems to be no comprehension, on their part, of “boss-hood.” They can be eager and cooperative as long as they are in the mood, but they’ll turn on me like a snake at the slightest provocation. There is no carrot I can dangle in front of them, no stick with which I can threaten them, to alter their performance or their attitude toward me or the job in any appreciable way. They make up their own rules--which I do not know and would doubtless not understand if I did--and when I break one, I suffer.

So, Monday afternoon, I’m showing my twenty-six-year-old chef (yes, I am not only his boss, but I’m old enough to be his mother’s older sister…) how to perform a new task. He is going to take over the provision ordering, and I’m trying to make a point about why we order a certain item a certain way; and he says to me, “This isn’t the first time I’ve ever filled out an order, Sweetheart.”

And any small hope I had cherished that he has finally deemed me and my methods worthy of his respect, melts and runs down the floor drain.

3. I’m sitting in the dining room taking a rare food break, and a regular customer shows me an article in the local paper about, you guessed it, a new restaurant opening in town. Ugh! Looks like here comes the end of “random factors operating in our favor” when it comes to the business…

Seems that a local real estate agent has taken it upon herself to collect a ragtag bunch of small food operations and bring them together under one roof, that roof specifically belonging to the huge empty space a mile up the road which has, in its short history, housed three unsuccessful restaurant concepts. Mostly because it is a huge space, and carries a walloping $7000/month rent, no one yet has been able to generate the sales it would take to pay the bills. And no one is likely to, in this small town. But people just don’t seem to GET that. Ms. Real Estate claims to have the knowledge and experience it takes to “get the restaurant open and get it sold” to some unsuspecting soul, the like of which, according to P.T. Barnum, there is one born every minute. And it will require that the unsuspecting buyer be unaware of Ms Real Estate’s most recent history, which had her pulling the same “bait and switch” with a restaurant in the next town up the highway. Which went tits-up less than a year after she passed it off to some poor slob who didn’t know any better.

So now we all get to take the hit to our sales numbers while we watch another restaurant struggle into existence, limp along for a time and slump to an ignominious end within, what? The next twelve to eighteen months? Augh!

4. The air conditioning project that I have delegated to my husband and my landlord is going exactly nowhere. I cannot have another summer’s dinner sales ruined by our lack of proper air conditioning. But husband, landlord, and any and every local heating/air conditioning contractor we have attempted to enlist do not seem to understand the urgency of the situation. In the two days of over-sixty-degree weather we have experienced so far this spring, the temperature in my dining room has shot up to 80 degrees.
For whatever reason, we have the devil’s own time trying to get any work done on that restaurant. From floor stripping to HVAC maintenance to electrical work, we have been stiffed by just about every local small business that handles these sorts of things. And getting anyone to come out here from “the big city” is like trying to talk a Viking ship into sailing off the end of the earth. One after another, we make appointments that are either blown off without a word, or are called off or postponed to death. This is another instance where I hear how bad the economy is, and how small businesses are struggling, going out of business, laying people off for lack of work…and we have a job available and money to spend, but we can’t get anyone to touch it. WTF???!?

5. And then there was jury duty…
How can I describe (in less than a book) the debacle that was my unfortunate experience with that Constitutionally conferred civic duty? And the perfect storm created when my attempt to fulfill said obligation collided with the restaurant’s busiest day in months, a “B” team front-of-the-house staff (of which the over-worked husband was an integral part), the unexpected illness of a cook, and my cell phone lying forgotten on top of my dresser?

The resultant confrontation between my business partner and myself, carried on in the parking lot outside the restaurant as my unsuspecting foot touched the pavement outside my van oh-so-too-late to salvage the “Senior Night Dinner Service from Hell,” was the essence of the “serious brush with the shadow of divorce court” I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

It was, to paraphrase Lillian Gilbreth in Cheaper by the Dozen, not the penultimate, nor the ante-penultimate, but the ultimate straw.

And that was only Tuesday. Shell-shocked, brow-beaten and emotionally shut down, I had four more days--two of which were twelve-plus-hour marathons--to endure before the crappy week could be officially declared over.

So today is Sunday. Arguably the beginning of a new week (although it is actually the last day of the week on our staff schedule.) Husband and I have hashed out some of our issues (after going three days without speaking.) Staffing hassles at the restaurant have not let up for an instant. And I have the gift of two days off in a row (one of which is already 75% over.)

I have every intention of spending tomorrow doing anything at all that is not restaurant related--preferably fussing with plants and house and yard issues.

I’m so looking forward to a badly needed and richly deserved one-day vacation. And, please...a slightly less crappy week to come.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Goodbye Again

I knew it would be difficult; I knew there would be casualties. And I paid lip service (or pen service?) to all that a couple of months ago.

Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any easier to deal with when it happens.

Another of my long-term employees gave her notice on Saturday. I was kind of blindsided by the whole thing; especially since, not three weeks ago, she had sent me an impassioned email about how much she loved working at the café and how she felt like it was home and that she just wanted to work, so I needed to give her x-number of hours every week. So I was a little unprepared for the "I love working here, give me more hours, I quit" progression of events.

I suppose I should not have been surprised. When an employee is stressing out about the job enough to fire off unsolicited emails, you have to guess something is up. It's safe to assume they are not getting what they want, and, in all probability, what they want is not within my power to give. I'll remember that for next time, I guess.

Still, I can't help but wish there was an open line of communication between myself and my employees, so they would not be afraid to let me know when something is bothering them. I try not to act like the Wicked Witch of the West; I try to be understanding, try to be fair; I try to encourage and praise good performance as well as point out failure. Unfortunately, I've learned a few things about human nature. First of all, "fairness" is in the mind of the beholder. If I go out of my way to accommodate YOU, I'm being "fair." If I do that for another employee, it's "favoritism." Secondly, human beings are, apparently, deaf to compliments and hyper-sensitive to the sound of anything even slightly smacking of criticism. So there's almost no point in even bothering to praise. They don't hear it.

If I worked at it, I think I could set myself up to be considered a "friend" to all these young people. But I'm afraid that would involve abandoning any effort to improve or critique anyone's performance. And I'd have to take on the role of "Scheduling Fairy," accommodating their every request ("I need more hours, I can't work THOSE hours, I can't work with so-and-so, I need to take two weeks off starting tomorrow") with a placid smile on my face and a consoling pat on the back.

Sorry. I need to be in charge, need to be able to tell them what to do. Need to tell them when they screw up. Need to try to get them to adhere to my standards, which aren't impossibly high, by any means. So I cannot
be their friend.
Because then I would have no control at all. I have little enough as it is.

They say "It's lonely at the top." I couldn't agree more. The thing of which I am on top may not be huge or glamorous, or even particularly high. But it does consume most of my life force. So I keenly feel the isolation of spending seventy hours a week working elbow-to-elbow with people who are not—who cannot be—my friends. And because they are not my friends, it's inappropriate for me to feel sad and betrayed when they exercise their freedom and choose to move on.

Inappropriate. Yes. But there it is. To not acknowledge that I DO feel sad and betrayed would be like trying to ignore the elephant clinging to my back. But I cannot let that elephant flatten me. I have to peel it off, put it on the ground, pat it on the head and keep walking.

So, good luck to my dear departing employee. I hope you find what makes you happy at your new job.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Where Have All The Workers Gone?

Ah, I remember the "Good Old Days." The days prior to July 1st, 2006, when I was semi-self-employed, and had a life outside the four walls of the Hot Flash Café. Those bygone days where I had time for political zeal and media addiction, so diametrically opposite of my life today. Now, I actively ignore the political scene and any and all "news"—unless there's a nuclear attack or some such disaster. It is all just so much noise, and I have all I can handle within my circumscribed little struggling neophyte-entrepreneur world.

Of course, some stuff filters down to me, anyway; right past the fingers in my ears and "La-la-la" chanting from my lips. Current events that should or do effect my daily existence—the health care fiasco, the tanking of the economy, rising joblessness—wave their arms and point at themselves no matter how much I'd like to ignore them.

It's odd, though, how the things that should be negatively affecting the Hot Flash Cafe are not, so much…and the things that should be cutting us a bit of a break are…not so much, either. We've come out of the tanking economy smelling like a rose, at least for now. Though I'm not naïve enough to declare us forever unscathed by the evil economic goings on, I have to say I'm happy enough, and grateful enough, that we are where we are.

But then, there's Unemployment. This whole issue has me utterly flummoxed. Traditionally, high unemployment has been a good thing for businesses like mine, down here in the bottom layers of the economic strata. Even though the pay and the benefits routinely suck in the hospitality industry, when there are no other jobs to be had, we generally get our pick of the litter when it comes to job applicants. In past incarnations of economic hard times, I have assembled some of my best crews out of stacks of applications submitted by over-qualified people who were happy to get any job, and held on to it for dear life once they got one.

Since the first of this year, I have lost two cooks, most of the services of Good and Faithful "D," and had California Chef out sick for two weeks. I've suffered through my worst staffing nightmare ever, when I had to call the husband away from his REAL job so that I could open the doors of the restaurant. Sales have been up and I have been exhausted and desperate for help. What happened to those stacks of over-qualified applicants that the "employers' job market" is supposed to be sending me?

Round One: Place Ad on Craig's list. Decent response, about twelve acceptable applications. Invite twelve applicants for interviews. Eight applicants accept interview. Five show up. Hire one inexperienced Culinary School Student. He works six weeks then quits when his wife lands a better job. Call back another young inexperienced applicant, hire her as a dishwasher. Two days ago, she asked me if it was okay if she used us as a reference for the new job to which she has applied.

Round Two: Upon discovering that relief Breakfast Cook will not be returning after her hand surgery, place an ad for breakfast cook on Craig's list. Five responses, all from obviously unqualified folks responding to ads just to perform the required "job search" to keep their unemployment benefits. No interviews scheduled.

Round Three: Post another ad on Craig's list, this time avoiding any mention of "breakfast cook" (evidently the young folks out there who DO want to work as restaurant cooks are not interested in getting out of bed before noon…) Seven or eight decent responses. Schedule five interviews. Two show up, one after chasing him around and playing "Let's Make a Deal" with the interview time for two weeks. Hire both these folks. One—Ms. California Chef—is a nice girl with loads of credentials who has been with us for one week and I desperately hope I can hang on to. Monty Hall, however, works three days, then calls in the middle of the lunch rush and quits.

In between ads, I interview and hire two "walk-in" applicants. One has turned out to be a godsend and truly helped bail my butt out of the "California Chef Pneumonia" episode. The other quit after one shift (I should have known better than to give her a uniform shirt on her first day…evidently, that is the kiss of death. I'll never see it or her again.)

Final Score: Since January 1, I have hired seven, retained two beyond their sixty day probation, and am clinging to a third for dear life. So what has happened to the "High Unemployment" windfall I'm supposed to be enjoying?

Talk about the Good Old Days! Fifteen or twenty years ago, people still nurtured an element of pride about working to earn a living and not accepting "charity," or entitlements, unless the wolf was literally pounding down their door. They were willing to accept good, honest (if unglamorous) work, without benefits or a long list of perks, if that was what there was. But in today's market, it's all about weighing how hard you might have to work to earn an honest dollar against how much you can get for sitting on your dead ass. What is the motivation for someone who is getting, say, three hundred dollars a week on Unemployment to give that up and work for me for four hundred dollars a week? My personal work ethic and sense of pride would point me toward the work. But younger workers who have grown up with the realities of today's job market just don't look at life the same way I do. It's every man for himself, put out as little effort as you can for the highest possible compensation. And some jobs—like (ew…) food service work—don't even appear on their radar screens. (And you wonder why there are so many illegals working at restaurants? But that's a rant for a different day…)

I find my experience of the system sometimes at odds with my politics. Yes, I believe that the government should be responsible for helping those in need. I believe in programs that many in today's political arena are labeling "socialist" or "entitlements." People who lost their jobs due to the economic breakdown caused by the Administration from Hell should be given a hand. They need a roof over their heads and food on the table. But something is wrong with the system when there are small businesses like mine dying for help, yet everyone—from economic analysts to the guy next door who lost his job at the mill but keeps getting his unemployment benefits extended—looks right over our heads and cries, "Woe is us, there are no jobs!"

Oh, yes. There are jobs. They are just jobs that nobody wants. So those of us small business owners who didn't get killed by the tanking economy just might, in the end, work ourselves to an early grave. Pleasant thought, no?