"Happy Trials to you…"

For 10 years, our restaurant was located in a small country inn on a small country road right smack in the middle of the Napa Valley. Not a real “foot traffic” location given that we were only open for dinner. If we had 76 reservations on the book, we were pretty much going to do 76, that is if we didn’t get no-shows. Now there’s a strange concept: getting the no-shows. How do you “get” people who don’t show? (Dude, thanks for the hit, but I gotta jam, man…)

Anyway, now that we have moved down Valley and are in a much larger, much more central location (the middle of town vs. the middle of nowhere), walk-in business has turned into a fact of life for us. It can be a little scary, the walk-in factor, when staffing the restaurant. It’s sort of like spinning the big Wheel of Fortune at the carnival, “Step Right Up and Guess How Many Waiters We’ll Need Tonight!” If you hit it just right you get the big purple stuffed animal and look like the genius you truly are; get it wrong and you’re the paranoid moron who over-staffs. With things being the way they are in the World these days, I often walk a pretty fine line between being adequately staffed to take care of our guests (reservations) and looking like an idiot who doesn’t know how to run a restaurant when we have to run our asses off to handle the walk-ins. I mentioned in an earlier post about how one of The Cardinal Sins of The Restaurant Business is having an open table and refusing to seat someone because you don’t have enough people to properly serve them; or, The Cardinalest of Cardinals, using the excuse that you are “too busy” to serve them. So, some nights we have to fake it. Maintaining decorum and a calm demeanor while the guests are coming at you like Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima is the mark of a true pro.

Thursdays mean danger at the restaurant. On three consecutive Thursdays we have started out with fewer than 12 reservations and have ended up doing over forty. It’s always the same crew on Thursdays and we are all very good at our jobs. We know how to stick and move, jab, jab, stay off the ropes, and not get tractor beamed in by anybody. I have learned how to be a good trail boss and keep them doggies rollin’, Rawhide! So, danger yes, disaster no. However, we have recently begun an incentive program with the hotel’s concierges and valets to reward them for sending more hotel guests our way. One guy at the front desk has fully embraced the program, and is threatening to single handedly turn “Get along little doggies! ” into a bad day at the Running of The Bulls at Pamplona.

Last Friday I had quite a few VIP tables in the room. I had Bill Phelps, son of Joseph, and CEO of the Joseph Phelps Winery with a table of 8 doing a special 5 course dinner; I had Eileen Crane, CEO and Winemaker for Domaine Carneros, who is one the original high-powered women in the wine business (but just as nice as pie, by the way), dining at another; Gene Burns, who does a popular food and wine talk show on KGO in San Francisco with a party of three; and one of our minor, yet very vocal and opinionated, investors at another table with a party of four. The night was humming along nicely, even though Chef and one of our Sommeliers were off the property doing benefit events.

Our new benefactor, the Table Pimp at the front desk, has a party of four that want to dine. That’s cool, except he has decided to do a Statue of Liberty impression and send us some of his tired, huddled masses. This “party of four” turns out to be an Italian-only speaking couple with a four-year old, plus a baby in a covered wagon-sized stroller. The only table I have that is large enough to accommodate them is right between Mr. Phelps’ party and the Talk Show Host, who is surely going to mention us prominently on his live broadcast the next morning.

So, the baby is screaming, the little boy is darting around the lobby of the restaurant like it’s the first day of Pre-School and, in my mind, I am seeing my happy little cattle drive drowning in the Rio Grande. Papa Paisano, who is dressed in Old Navy cargo shorts, a T-Shirt, and old running shoes, is in the lobby desperately trying to feed the baby and quiet her down, while Mom is at the table, attempting to rein in their careening boy. The language barrier is keeping Dad from fully understanding my polite suggestion that “the children might be more comfortable” at our other, more casual restaurant in the hotel lobby. No, they were staying. It was all good, though, as the baby did calm down, they strapped Junior into his chair, ate a nice meal and left; and thankfully nobody seemed to notice.

Even though it’s a general rule that waiters will always complain even when they get the very thing they asked for (“Why don’t I have any tables? Why did you give me so many damn tables?!!”) I really can’t get mad at someone for doing what I asked them to do.  Just be careful what you wish for…


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