On Saturday night we had our busiest night at the restaurant since last Fall. This is what we have been waiting for all during what has turned out to be a 6-month long winter. Having worked in Napa Valley for many years, I can usually predict with some certainty when the busy season will hit (March/April, if the weather is nice, otherwise Mother’s Day), when we will get our lull (first week or so of June), etc; but not this year. No one around here, or anywhere else in the country, has ever experienced anything like the business fluctuations of this season. Not unless, that is, you are a Waffle House lifer who has been out on the floor, cracking your gum since The Depression of 1929 (how much were hairnets back then, anyway?) No, this “season” has been a horse of a different color all together.
When you consider the way the World is these days, we have been doing okay. Last fall, we were filling the place pretty regularly, but as we had just opened, we were way overstaffed. We have adjusted, learned, and I have thinned out the herd quite a bit, so now we can do bigger numbers of people with far less staff than back in September. Good news for those of us still splashing about in the service charge pool. My worry, being in the business I am, is that many people are eliminating things like high end dining experiences and trips to Wine Country out of necessity now, but will these excesses return to their places in the budget when we have reached the magical point of “recovery”? Many (me included) have started to take their personal debt a bit more seriously. We are paying off credit cards, vehicles, our houses, and putting that money in the bank. Extravagances are being toned way down and, at the end of the month with less debt to bog us down, we are looking at our checking accounts and saying “Damn, look at all this money I have in here…” At the restaurant, we have seen a dramatic increase in things like corkage charges as people economize their dining experiences a bit; but over the past several weeks we have also seen a steady uptick in numbers, so it looks like the “season” is finally here, such as it is.
On slower nights we have to be careful about pacing the guests’ dining experience a bit more slowly, regulating the tempo at which the room is seated and the kitchen puts out the dishes. We want to be efficient, but serving a five course meal in less than two and a half hours is ramming it down their throats a bit. On nights when we are full, the pace is somewhat self-regulating as plates come out a little slower when the kitchen has more of them to produce, the waitstaff has more tables to serve, etc. So we were full on Saturday in the dining room, had a party of 18 on the patio and the place is humming along at full tilt boogie. Nights like this one are what I live for. When the joint is jumpin’ and the staff is working at peak efficiency, there is nothing I’d rather be doing. Things roll along, the place has a great vibe and the both the staff and the guests pick up on it and have a better time. We experience far fewer complaints or service issues on nights like these than we do when we have the time to actually think about what we are doing.
On nights when we are fully booked, seating the room can be a real dance. I have to be combination choreographer, usher, air-traffic controller, orchestra conductor, puppeteer. Every restaurant has great tables, good tables and shitty tables. Through experience, I have developed a pretty good idea of which of our tables are which and, on slower nights when turns are not an issue, I usually seat them in a certain order: deuces next to the fireplace first, then the booths along the kitchen, etc. I will put the larger parties on the perimiter of the room to help give them the feeling of more space, and to keep the major traffic arteries clear for the staff. Depending on factors like age, physical size, and number in the party, I have a pretty good idea which guests are going to be comfortable at which tables and seat them accordingly so I won’t have to field any “Can we sit over there?” requests; but a full book means the room needs to be full. All tables seated, even the shitty ones.
Seating the great locations is a snap; the good ones, fairly easy with a little applied psychology (“I’ve got a lovely corner picked out for you two…”). Large parties like a 6 or an 8 really have no choice when the place is full but to sit where I tell them. It’s always satisfying when I am pulling the chairs for the ladies in Mr.Yacht-Club-Blazer-with-an-Ascot’s party of 8 as he is visually scanning the room to assess the quality of his table’s location, and the expression on his face goes from “Oh no, you are not going to sit ME here, don’t you know who I AM?” to “There’s got to be something next to the window for ME”; and finally the realization sets in that “Crap, the place is packed. He’s got me…” Grab some pine, Meat.
Seating the shitty locations is the real challenge. Getting people to stick at the worst table in the house requires employing some distraction. Many places put some cute, vapid young face at the door who merely turns on her spiked heel and, with no more foreplay than a “Follow me”, does what I like to call the Duck Walk (imagine Mama duck leading her line of babies down to the pond) through the room. If you don’t engage the guests in some form of distraction (“Are you enjoying your stay?” or “Have a good day at the wineries today?”) to keep their minds off where they are going, you are going to end up with “Table shoppers”. “Can we sit over THERE?” or “Can we have a booth?” are not questions you want to allow to happen. They can turn your well choreographed plan from pro-active to reactive. In a heartbeat, all those balls you have in the air can come down to smack you in the face. I had a Spanish couple (they spoke that really cool Castillian dialect that has a kind of a lisp on certain syllables) and the woman had requested a “romatic patio table” when she made her on-line reso. Perfect. All my servers inside are just one table each away from being totally in the weeds, so patio here we come. Two minutes later, I get called over to their table outside. The husband is embarrassed and apologetic at his wife’s exercising of the Woman’s Perogotive, and could they please have something inside. All I had inside was Table 6.
Our restaurant has an open design that allows the atmosphere and energy of the kitchen to filter out into the dining room. We have no doors seperating the guests from the hot line. So, at first glance Table 6 looks comfy enough. It is a fairly large, semi-circle of a booth in a corner; but the corner is right next to the ingress/egress of the kitchen. So the filtering I mentioned goes right through Table 6. If it was any more involved in the kitchen action, you’d have to give the people sitting there a pair of rubber gloves and an apron. I seat the Spaniards, and do my “Safe and Sane Fireworks move”: Light fuse and get away. I wanted to eliminate any possibility of yet another re-location as I had nothing else to offer them. I went back over later on to check on them after first courses were served and they were having a blast. The loved the fact that they were close to the action. Go figure. They reminded me of this Brazillian GM I worked for once who would walk into our dining room, packed full with tables of drunks blathering on and families with screaming kids and say, “I loave de EH-nurh-gee!” After dessert La Señora Guapa from Table 6, is IN the kitchen, having a group picture taken with the Chef and crew ala Marilyn Monroe and the Marines on the Bob Hope USO tour of Viet Nam. Sometimes “best” is a matter of perception.