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…