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…


Cynthia said...

Lisa, I cannot tell you how proud I am of you right now.

JACKIE said...

You totally rock. Keep dancing.