Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Change of Plan

In the wake of some news of which I have been getting wind in the past week, it has come to my attention that I need to plan an exit strategy for the café. Seems like a strange thing to be thinking about right now, while we’re enjoying being one of three less eating establishments in our immediate vicinity. But, even in these rough economic times, people just can’t seem to be able to leave well enough alone.

Early on in this economic debacle, our little town was able to score some major “Stimulus Money,” to fund a couple of projects that have been on the town’s wish list for decades. One of the projects involves the railroad tracks which neatly divide our town east from west. All the railroad crossings currently are in the center or north end of town, which has created quite an access problem for neighborhoods and institutions southeast of the tracks. The stimulus money is going to create a crossing at the south end of town, improving access to existing neighborhoods and businesses. And opening up a huge area for new development.

So of course there is a shopping center planned for the site. And of course someone is going to put a nice, big, shiny new restaurant in the center. The rumor mill is already churning, attesting to everything from a huge pizza parlor to an Olive Garden. I’m reasonably certain that Olive Garden would not be stupid enough to try to open a location out here in the sticks. But it’s a sure bet that someone is going to upset our delicate economic balance and inflict another eating establishment on us.

And that, my friends, will pretty much spell the end for the Hot Flash Café.

I am not certain of the timing of this new construction, yet. It could be next year, two years…five years. All I know is, every time a new place opens anywhere in the county, those of us who have been toiling in the trenches for years suffer big time. Seven months after we bought the café, the grand opening of a restaurant five miles up the highway nearly put us out of business. Three years and two or three ownership changes later, that place up the road closed down—in fact, it’s one of the three that went out of business recently.

And, yeah, we’re still here. We outlasted it. But that’s the point. That’s ALL we are. Still here.

Three and a half years ago, instead of being able to take the helm of our new enterprise and move forward, no matter how slowly, we had to first endure being dragged backward—almost to oblivion—by a situation over which we had no control at all. New at the game and not willing to cry “uncle” quite that quickly, we put our backs into it and dragged the thing forward again. It’s felt like a great victory to get just slightly beyond where we started out. I really feel like we’ve accomplished something.

But I can NOT go through that again.

I cannot commit to staying in this game if we’re constantly going to be dragged backward by idiots who have no idea what they’re doing, upsetting the delicate economic balance of regional eating establishments, cocking up our sales for thirty-six months, and then going belly-up themselves. I am not attracted to a business plan of simply outlasting a barrage of ill-conceived competition.

There just is not a large enough customer base out here to support more than “X” number of restaurants. Even if they DO build houses along with the commercial developments, there’s no guarantee that houses will equal potential new customers. There are houses around town built during the last economic “boom” that are still standing empty. And since our area is being touted as a bedroom community for Portland, there’s no guarantee that folks moving out here will not merely choose to take their custom to the Big City. It’s not that far away.

But a new restaurant down the street guarantees instant competition for my existing customer base. And I am not willing to share anymore.

So I’ve formulated a tentative plan. The trick is to stay on top of the information. To know when the competition is going to open. And make the move before that happens.

Keep the restaurant going and growing. Make all the improvements and innovations I would make if I was going through with my original plan—which was to hold on to the café until we retired (another twelve years), pay off all debt associated with it so that we own it free and clear, and then sell it. The proceeds would be a decent retirement nest-egg.

Now, my plan is to pay off as much debt as we can, and put the place up for sale as soon as they start construction on the shiny new restaurant up the road. List it for exactly as much as we owe on our house. Come out of the whole deal as close to debt free as we possibly can. And…go on from there.

It sounds good. Very practical, very cut–and-dried.

But it breaks my heart…

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Into The New Year And Beyond

Having three less eating establishments with which to compete over the past three months has been a gift for which I feel peevishly grateful. Grateful because I cannot possibly justify NOT appreciating any gift the Universe chooses to bestow upon me. Peevish because our enhanced sales are not attributable to anything I personally have done. And because I so wish we were getting an even BIGGER spike from the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

With another place scheduled to open in a few weeks (the guy’s an idiot, but that won’t change the fact that his potential entrepreneurial faux pas will negatively impact our sales for at least a few months) I wish we had banked a few thousand dollars more than we have. Unfortunately, circumstances have conspired to cause us to spend the windfall almost as quickly as the till drawer closed upon it.

Our enhanced sales set us teetering on the fulcrum between being seriously under-staffed and adequately- or even over-staffed. Attrition, both foreseen and out of the blue, called me to embark upon a major hiring project. The Good and Faithful “D” is slated to leave us in a very few months; plus Flaky Cook up and gave her notice—completely out of the blue—a week into the new year. And for the past three months, we’ve been doing high season business with low season staffing. Obviously we need more help. Right?

As predictable as the dawn, no sooner had I made the decision to put an ad out there and add two or three bodies to the staff, than the bottom dropped out of sales. We now have two new staff members, and potentially two more on top of that, which current sales cannot support, and who are having a hard time learning the ropes because there is a serious shortage of customers upon which they can practice. The Double-Whammy Bullshit Peter Principle of Staffing a Small Business. Happens every time.

Big changes are in store for the Hot Flash Café. Flaky Cook’s exit is, like it or not, a major turning point for us. She represents, basically, the Bad Old Days. The times when I couldn’t beg, borrow or steal decent employees. The times when she, and a string of others like her—with all their drama and personal disasters and time off for illness, career changes, insanity—were the best I could do. I had no choice but to bend over backward for high-maintenance employees, because I needed them. I didn’t have the skills to run the place by myself, and the labor pool was about as deep as a cookie sheet.

But things have changed. The state of the economy gives me many more options when it comes to hiring. My requirements no longer consist of, “Does the applicant have a pulse?” Not only that, but I have changed. I’ve learned my business. It took me three years, but I am now confident that if every one of my kitchen staff deserted me tomorrow, I could open that restaurant and git ‘er done—by myself, if need be. I no longer live in fear of being forced to be my own staff.

I’m every bit the breakfast cook—at least for MY restaurant—that Flaky Cook is. I’ve known, in fact, since she took her sick leave last winter that the restaurant could function quite nicely without her. So when her chronic case of chef-envy finally got the best of her and she tearfully grumbled her resignation, I knew I needed to let her go. I suspect that there are others who will follow her soon enough. But I can’t worry about that. We will go on—to bigger and better things—without those albatrosses around our necks.

For me, change is always scary. I’ve always been one to cling to the past, to hang on to and glorify the “good old days.” To compare today to yesterday, and find today wanting. It seems like I’ve spent my whole life walking backwards…making forward progress, but almost against my will. Always looking back with too much fondness. Not looking ahead at all.

But you can’t run a business like that. Business is about planning for the future, looking ahead, striving for the next dollar, the next improvement, the next innovation.

So…here we go.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

It Doesn't Get Any Easier

The restaurant has been busy, so I have been either running around like a headless chicken or too tired to write anything that makes any sense. Besides being busy, we are going through more employee dramas…might be that we will experience some real crew turnover within the next couple of months.

All is not well behind the scenes at the café. We are in that space where long-term staff’s know-it-all complacency is running up against ownership’s desire to take the place to a new level. Staff is not particularly interested in going where ownership wants it to go. And is in fact planting its feet and pulling backward on the lead like a recalcitrant mule…

I hate the idea of having to indoctrinate a whole new set of employees. On the other hand, I hate having to drag my current crew kicking and screaming to the place we need them to be. It might just be a whole lot easier to start with a completely clean slate. I am torn between clinging desperately to the devil I know and taking the chance on throwing that demon over for…whatever else is out there. It would be just my luck that the “whatever else” would turn out to be infinitely worse than what I’m currently trying to manipulate. In the end, the choice will probably be taken out of my hands. The attrition has already begun, with the exodus of Flaky Cook and the impending exit of the Good and Faithful “D.”

To complicate matters further, business has been entirely wonky. We’re either empty or swamped, no in-between, and no predicting when or how. Mondays are improving, Mondays suck. Senior Night is crazy, Senior Night is tailing off. Fridays stink, Fridays rock. No rhyme or reason whatsoever. My crew of eight (and myself) were exhausted after our record December. But as soon as I made up my mind to post an ad and bring on more help, sales tanked. Called a halt to the hiring binge, and sales cranked back up to record levels.

As my mom used to say, “I can’t win for losing.”

And then there is the “small-town economy” dynamic with which we have been contending since Day 1. We have learned a lot about which conditions will spell success and which will spell disaster for those of us in the business of vying for the limited dining out dollars within our isolated little market. We keep tabs on the comings and goings of other eating establishments as vigilantly as a cat at a mouse hole. The demise of three local competitors in the fourth quarter of last year has been responsible for our current rosy numbers. One could almost believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, if things could just stay this way. If no other fool would decide to muck up the water by dipping their ignorant and ill-conceived oars into it.

So my life is, still and forever, a roller coaster. Which I’m afraid might be starting to wear me down. But, just when I think I’ve had it, I get my second (third, fourth, hundredth) wind, and I go back at it with a vengeance.

Can’t live with it, can’t shoot it, I guess…

Monday, January 11, 2010

Look Out--The Home-made Stuff Will Kill You

I got a call from the County Health Department today. The Health Inspector. Following up on a complaint that had been called in against us. (Let me just say for the record that we received a 100% on our last health inspection, so it’s not like there’s a whole array of glaring violations for folks to choose from around here… )

This particular complainant was concerned about our home-made baked goods, which we display under glass far away from nasty hands or sneezes. And we handle only with tissue pick-ups or tongs when serving to any guest. But how we handle the product was not the issue. The insidious means by which we are poisoning the community is—


We make our own cream cheese icing. We use butter, powdered sugar, cream cheese, vanilla, and a little dash of half and half to make it spreadable. What are we thinking?

Cream cheese, being a dairy product, can be categorized as a high-risk food. Which should not, by state health law, be kept for more than four hours in the “danger zone” of temperature range—that is, warmer than 41 degrees or cooler than 165 degrees. So the fact that we keep our lovely pumpkin bars, cinnamon rolls and gingerbread in our un-refrigerated pastry case is, evidently, a BIG no-no.

No matter that we have been serving these things under these conditions for three years, and no one has ever gotten sick off our cream cheese icing. Nor, because of the high sugar content of the icing, are they likely to. And it’s not like they sit in there for days. We put them out fresh each morning, and generally run out before the end of the day.

So now, we have to keep our lovely baked goods in the refrigerator, since we do not have a refrigerated display case. Sales of these wholesome made-from-scratch goodies will now dry up and blow away. Eventually we’ll probably have to stop making them altogether.

And do you know what the sad thing is?

If we used some kind of crappy, factory-made institutional white “mystery icing,” full of chemicals and preservatives and who knows what not all…

We would not be having any issue at all with the local Health Department.

Doesn’t that just make you want to scream?

Cross posted at "Women On..."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Year in Review

And so we say goodbye to the “double-naught” decade of the 21st century. Politically, environmentally and economically, it has been a decade which we will probably be happy to put behind us. But this is not a political, environmental or economic blog. This is the story of the Hot Flash Café, for which this has been the only decade—or 1/3 of a decade, to be more precise.

Which is not to say that the political, environmental and economic high jinks of the past year bore no influence upon the fate of the Hot Flash Café. Oregon was hit hard by the bursting of the bubble…in fact, it kind of blew up in our face. The industries that didn’t go bust and close their doors, cut back to the bare bones. Jobs disappeared and discretionary income dried up; and those of us in the service industry held on by our heels, teeth and fingernails while we watched our balance sheets fill up with red numbers.

For my part, I plotted my strategy early on in the crisis. I would put my head down, point my feet in a forward direction and

Just. Keep. Going.

As long as the doors stayed open and the bills got paid, I could not worry about the numbers. THE Numbers. The “Percent Increase Over Last Year” numbers by which I have measured our success since July 1, 2006. The numbers that had finally, finally started to fall into place in 2008. Until last December, anyway.

December 2008 was dismal—but it was hard to say whether it was the economy or the hideous weather (feet of snow!) that did us in. January 2009 almost convinced us that we might dodge the economic bullet. But the bottom fell out in February. And though we held on for single-digit decreases through October, we knew we were not going to get through the year unscathed.

Still, every week seemed to bring news about the performance of our industry in general, and our local competitors in particular, that led us to believe that perhaps we were faring better than the average little local restaurant. Or even the average giant chain establishment. A competitor up the highway tried everything but giving away food for free to put butts in the seats. We heard that another hadn’t paid their rent in three months. One local restaurant closed, re-opened under new management, and then closed again less than six weeks later.

Industry-wide, I read of famous fine-dining establishments shutting their doors when the demand for over-the-top gourmet meals disappeared. Employees of a Portland-based multi-unit franchise of a national chain arrived at work one morning to find their workplaces closed forever with no warning.

It was a mine field out there; if you let it, the bad news could intimidate to the point of paralysis.
But in the end, our concept, our “good food at low prices” appeal kept us solvent. Solvent enough to stretch out our necks and make some changes that might prove to make us—or break us. Changes that could set us up for a promising future. Or set us back on our heels, shaking our heads and wondering what hit us.

And though they haven’t taken us to the poor house, the jury is still out on many of those changes...

So, here are “THE Numbers:”

2009 % increase (decrease)
FEBRUARY (12.43)
MARCH (3.19)
APRIL 1.62
MAY (2.80)
JUNE (1.01)
JULY 1.58
AUGUST (1.61)
OCTOBER (0.68)

You might note the impressive turn-around of the last two months. For which I wish that I, and the aforementioned “changes,” could take credit. In reality, to quote a favorite fictional character of mine, “Random factors seem to have operated in our favor.”

We were lucky. Three of our local competitors closed their doors during the last three months of 2009.

There’s something to be said for being the last man standing…