"For Once In My Lifetime…"

April 17, 2011

An entry in the “For Once, Everything Goes According To The Plan” category: we close at 10pm on Sunday nights (one half hour earlier), and tonight we got no 9:50 table of two star-crossed lovers that wanted to order one $8 appetizer and gaze into each others eyes for two and a half hours, until I wanted to stab them in said eyes with a salad fork. We got no solitary, scary dude sitting at the bar, staring at the TV until Sports Center was over. Our last table sat at 8:15pm, the bar emptied out at 10pm when the NBA game ended; and I beat the kitchen out the back door for the first time in over 3 months. George Peppard would’ve been proud..

"I love it when a plan falls together..."

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"Oh yes I did, girl…"

April 21, 2010

Here’s a link to one of my favorite blogs about the restaurant business, “In The Weeds”.  Although the author now has a “real job” and doesn’t post as often as I or the thousands of her other readers would like, she can still sling it with the best of us….

“In The Weeds” is on the Froth Girlz site…

In her latest post, CJ talks about a recent dinner out, on a Saturday night, no less.  Like most of us in “The Biz”, she is a little on edge to start with (looking at the picture of the table they tried to foist on her party will help you understand why).

Going out to dinner on a Saturday makes most of us a little more than uptight, especially if we are dining somewhere “foreign”, where we are not assured of comped wine, appetizers and/or dessert because we know the Chef, the owner, the Manager, used to work there, whatever.  No, when we are plunking down real dough, it’s a rare comfort to discover that your server is as good or better than you are.  Being able to relax and get out of that “If I Were Waiting on Us, Here’s What I’d Be Doing” mode is a pleasure not experienced often enough.

Anyway, read her post, and then I’d encourage you to delve into her archives (ooh, that sounds kinda dirty) for more…


"Well Boys, Break's Over!"

April 2, 2010

Well, we are back from vacation.  The wife just left for her first day back at work; mine begins later today.

Returning to work after a vacation is always a bitter/sweet situation for me.  I am a realist and, as such, know that I am nowhere near having the financial wherewithal to be on a permanent vacation (a.k.a. retired); and that having bills and working for a living to pay them will be a necessity for many years to come.  Still, after a week of having nothing to do and plenty of time to do it, going back to work can be a depressing reality.  That’s the bitter.  The sweet?  I really do love my job and what I do; and I generally don’t mind going back to it.  So, as they say, “It is what it is…”

Anyone who knows us will tell you that eating and drinking is a big priority for us on our vacations.  Being in Atlanta afforded us copious opportunities to do both.  We had some good, some very good, and some excellent food at restaurants there; but there always seemed to be just one or two pieces missing from the puzzle.  Food is great, service is poor.  Service is great in one aspect, but lackadaisical in others.  With the closing last year of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton (see a lament on their closing here…), there are now no dining venues in Metro Atlanta that require a jacket.   This is not such a huge deal for us, as this trip was on somewhat of a budget; so the $150 per head places were off the itinerary.  Service in general here has been suffering of late from a “casual dining” malaise; and the lack of attention to many of the seemingly small details is an unfortunate result.

Our last meal of the trip was at a supposedly great, fairly new (1 year) neighborhood restaurant run by a well-known, highly-regarded local Chef.  It’s in one of those converted warehouse spaces so popular in Atlanta because there are so many of them:  condos or lofts upstairs, Big Name restaurant downstairs.  We were a party of 5, but arrived as four, with one in transit.  It was a lovely, warm Spring evening, and their patio tables were available; our thinking was the outside might become too cool later to enjoy what was surely to be a two-hour dinner, so we asked if we could sit outside for a drink while we waited for our “fifth”.

The hostess was quick to oblige, and told us we could stay outside or move in for dinner, whatever we wanted.  Good first step; but before we had even ordered our drinks she informed us that the waiter inside would be a different person from the one outside, and would we mind settling our tab before we went inside, if that’s what we decided to do?  I am always willing to settle up, or at least tip, a bartender or server if there is to be a transfer involved; but I am decidedly against being required to do so.  I recognized their POS system, and knew it had the capacity (as most all of them do) to transfer a check, so why put the onus on the guest?  Bad form.

Then came the “outside server” who looked to be about 16 years old.  She was friendly enough, but didn’t know the liquors available, and had to return two different times to inform us they didn’t have the particular spirits we had asked for.  Okay, bring me a Hangar One Lemon instead of Ketel One Citron.  Five minutes later:  Okay, bring my wife’s Negroni with Hendricks instead of 209.

There were maybe six tables already sitting inside a cavernous dining room that just screamed “Cafeteria” in its decor, with some banquettes around the perimeter but dozens of tiny tables all in perfect, straight lines out in the middle.  The place was practically empty, and yet a solid ten minutes passed between ordering and the server returning to inform us of the liquor substitutions.  Through the windows I could see the bartender, (not exactly a bolt of lightning he, when it came to making drinks), serving four people at the bar.  There were four others at the bar, already with cocktails in-hand.  This guy was not busy, yet when I inquired about our drinks taking so long, she informed us the bartender was “slammed” and he was trying to get to our order.   As I have mentioned in a previous post, using the excuse that you are busy to explain away poor service is a big, big Restaurant No-No.  You are supposed to be busy, you dolt!!  It would be more honest to just say, “Sorry, we are too lame to have hired and trained our people properly, and the long wait for service you are experiencing is the result.”  Bad form.

Another five minutes passed so I went in to inform the hostess, and someone who looked to be a manager, that they were really getting off on the wrong foot with us.   I was assured that our cocktails were on the way, so I returned to our spot on the patio.

Then the drinks started appearing in “Chinese Restaurant Service” fashion: one at a time.  First our friend’s Hendricks and Tonic; two minutes later, my wife’s Negroni.  Then came my Hangar One martini.  It had a slight pinkish tinge and a distinctly bitter flavor, likely from being made in the same shaker as the Negroni, without rinsing.   I don’t think it’s being overly picky, considering the $12 they were charging for this drink, and the fact that it was the subtle flavor of it’s one and only ingredient I was after by ordering it, that it should be free of any unwanted residue left by a lazy bartender.  Bad, bad form.

Now we are in a real quandary.  Our fifth guest had arrived and we are faced with cutting our losses and leaving, or taking a leap of faith that the “inside server” would be better and things would improve.  Literally having a bitter taste in my mouth from the poorly made drink and the bad service up to this point, I was in favor of the bolt.

Fortunately, for us and for the restaurant, we decided to stay and things went decidedly uphill from there.  Our “inside server”, a pro, was lots of fun; and all the dishes we ordered (many on her recommendations) were delightful.  Corner turned, we ended up having a great time for the rest of the night.

Even though there are positive signs of recovery from our recent economic downturn, the impact on service quality due to the rise of the lower priced, casual dining venue cannot be ignored.  In addition to some relatively new places that had the wisdom and foresight to keep menu prices more realistic, and have been packing in the guests as a result, many others have also “down-priced” their menus, or offered other economic concessions, in order to put the butts in the seats.  Great idea; but  allowing service  to slide, with the excuse being that “we are casual dining”, is not so great.  There has also been a thinning of the herd with regards to the labor pool, both in management and service staff, with the result being a general drop-off in overall service quality.   Patrons have learned (or been forced) to settle for less in terms of good service standards and fundamentals.  Service quality has now somehow been linked to price; and as a result has spiraled downward alongside the check average.

At several other meals, some at “top tier” spots, there were glaring service gaffes; things that just made me cringe.

  • Many occurrences of what I refer to as “pivot point” service, where the waiter serving or the busser clearing, stands at a fixed point at the corner or end of the table and just reaches across to put down drinks or clear/serve plates.  This is an understandable tactic in booth service, but not on tables that have the easements available for staff to move around their perimeter to serve guests individually.  Just plain lazy.
  • “Chinese Restaurant” Style Service, where the food is brought according to when the dishes are ready, with no concern by the kitchen over timing the plates so everyone’s eating at the same time.  This also happened with drinks, as I already noted.
  • Auctioning food:  One local restaurateur told me that people have gotten so used to this “Waiter 101” rule being ignored, that they are blown away when a table is served without asking who had what.  Many guests will now ask for verbal verification that what is being served to them is actually what they ordered, because staff didn’t have to ask.
  • Silverware in “roll-ups”.  (Sigh.)  There are some battles that will probably never be won.

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille…"

February 13, 2010

I almost got (another) 15 minutes of fame last night.  KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco, called to talk to me about my role in helping take down the website that was scalping Valentine’s Day reservations.  I spent about 20 minutes on the phone with an editor, telling him what, when, where, why, etc.  But I guess the rain, traffic and other stories took precedence, as no Satellite Up-Link Truck showed, no Klieg lights were lit to put the spotlight on this story for the public-at-large.

This is pretty disappointing to me, not just because I didn’t get my ugly mug and some footage of our restaurant on the Toob, but also because no “non-internet” based news agency in The Bay Area has mentioned squat about a story that is troubling on so many levels.

The last year has just plain sucked the weenie for restaurants across the country.  Places here and in SF were folding like lawn chairs; but, recently we have seen a definite up-tick in business, both in cover counts and check average.  So people are starting to return and they are spending money again (although corkage incidents are still out of control, but all in good time my pretty, all in good time…).   Many places, who have been hanging by a thread for the last 18 months or so, since Bernie Madoff, AIG and all the rest floated their big turds in the economy’s punchbowl, are now faced with the prospect of empty tables on the one and only really busy weekend in the Winter slow season.   Many local restaurants are depending on Valentine’s/President’s Weekend to pay their February bills.  And now they may be faced not only with empty tables when these fake reservations no-show, but also they have probably turned down a dozen legitimate parties for each of these slots by now.

So it is disappointing that no one with any reach in the “Mainstream Media” is concerned enough with this story to air it, or even publish it on their websites.

So, in addition to KPIX no-showing last night (the CBS affiliate in Atlanta did a piece on the scam on Thursday night’s news), e-mails sent, by me, to Michael Bauer and Grace Ann Walden at the SF Chronicle’s Food section have gone unanswered, unpublished and apparently unnoticed; and I have to think I am not the only one who sent one.  So, two local writers who make their living on the backs of the Bay Area’s restaurant community, did not see fit to use their reach and influence to help get the word out.  And it’s not just the owners of the restaurants that lose out on a scam like 911Reservations.com was trying to pull, it’s the servers, hosts and bartenders who will have empty stools and tables, and all the would-be patrons who can’t get in because these bogus reservations have clogged up the pipeline.   I had a sheepish Voice Mail message at the restaurant yesterday from someone calling to cancel a reservation they had obviously “purchased” from 911Reservations.com before their site went down.  They probably saw the internet buzz generated by the story and correctly figured we would, how should I put this, cut their balls off? if they showed their faces and claimed to be “Bruce Banner, party of 2, 6:30…”

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association boasts over 1000 members, yet has not mentioned Word One about this story.  Multiply that by just two fake reservations for each restaurant (many had more), and multiply that by even a modest $25 check average per guest (many are much, much higher), and you have a substantial bag of cash that was lost.  By contrast, the Georgia Restaurant Association had the story on their homepage on Thursday night, and it was picked up by UPI, Associated Press, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, etc.  Granted the scam originated there, and was much more widespread in the ATL, so it was a much hotter topic for them.  But still, a pretty weak showing by a local trade group who is supposed to have our best interests at heart.

I am, however, very pleased with the spirit of cooperation shown by our local restaurant community in helping sound the alarm, and alerting everyone they could by phone, emails, Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs.  The pyramid of contacts started by just a few of us here and in Atlanta, took these A-Holes down in a matter of hours.

This has always been the case, especially here in our incestuous little gang in Napa Valley.  If one of us needs linen, coffee, or printer paper for our POS systems on a busy weekend, all we need do is call our neighbors; and if they have supplies enough to help us out, they always will.  If we have a catering gig and need servers or cooks, we call around and see who has staff that need or want some extra hours.  Plus, there is about 2 1/2 degrees of separation in our business, so we all know/have worked for/party/sleep with each other.  We may all be in competition for the diner’s dollars, but we really know how to circle the wagons when someone fucks with us.

So, props to Elizabeth at Auberge, Tony at Bouchon, and to John and Rob at Martini House for their assistance; to my old boss Kevin Brown at Chops/Lobster Bar in Buckhead, who was truly the first to sound the alarm there; to Don Hart, former Napkin and server with me at Piatti and the old California Cafe in Yountville, who is now Director of Operations at JCT Kitchen in Atlanta’s Westside, for getting the word out via Facebook.  Thanks to foodiebuddha.com and Eater SF for posting, and continuing to update, the lists of fake names and phone numbers used.

Nice to know somebody is listening.


"Mike From Reno"

February 4, 2010

We were busy at work last night.  Not so many reservations, but one of those “all at once” nights where the several parties we did have were all scheduled within a half an hour of each other.

I had checked with the Front Desk of the hotel and found out we had only a dozen or so check-ins that night, so I didn’t think the Walk-In factor would be in play.  I decided to go with a lean crew to give us all a chance to make some dough on what looked to be a fairly quiet February weeknight.

Our Wine Director was off, out sick actually; and our other Somm was getting ready for his Master Sommelier’s Exam coming up later in the month, so I had let him have the night off to study.  So, it was just me, again, wearing the many hats of Manager, Host, Bartender, Sommelier, Expediter, Food Runner and Whatever The Hell Else Needed To Be Done Guy.  I would be walking the tightrope again; in a situation that is manageable, but can easily go all to hell if I get a stupid phone call, or get Tractor Beamed in by a table.

We had four parties all arriving at 6:00pm: three deuces and a 7 top.  Two of the deuces we knew (one an employee comp, the other a local vintner’s daughter) so I didn’t think it would be an issue getting them going. Usually, though, someone is late, someone is early; so it all tends to work out.  And whadaya know, that’s exactly how it happened.

We got them all seated, orders taken, and I had poured and explained the first course wines to the one table of the three that had opted for the Wine Pairing.  The other two ordered bottles off the list, so we were on cruise control.  I had even managed to take care of a local who had walked in to buy a Gift Certificate, which requires me to run back to the Chef’s Office and get on the computer, type it up and print.  Back to the POS to run the credit card, get them to sign and here you go, thank you very much.

The 7-top, which was due to arrive any minute, was a group from some of our “sister” hotels, although “Rich Uncle” would be a more accurate metaphor.  They were a bunch of GM’s from hotels in ‘The Luxury Collection,” a much higher priced group of properties under the Starwood umbrella.  They had proven themselves to be fairly demanding in their dealings with our Private Dining Department during their meetings earlier in the week, and with the crew at the other, more casual restaurant on the property, during breakfast.  But we deal with demanding all the damn time, so I wasn’t worried.  One of the seven was the GM from the 100-plus year-old Palace Hotel in San Francisco and was also the President of the San Francisco Hotel Council, a fairly high-powered trade group, and I wanted to show him some mighty Napa Valley Kung Fu. I could hear the sound of their voices from down the hall as they approached, but we were all set for them.  So it was all good, so far.  Just as the first of the group came into view, the phone rang.

“Thank you for calling La Toque, this is Patrick…”

Really drunk sounding guy on the other end:  “Who?!?  Is this La Toque?!?”

“Yes this is La Toque Restaurant, can I help you?”

“Didn’t you guys used to be somewhere up in North Napa?”

“Yes, sir we were in Rutherford for 10 years.”

“WHERE?!!?”

“Rutherford.”

“RUTHERFORD?!!?”

“Yes sir, Rutherford.”

“Where the hell is that?”

“About a half an hour north of here.”

“RUTHERFORD?!!?”

“Yes, Rutherford.”

“Rutherford.  Hey, that’s where you guys used to be, isn’t it?”

By this time my 7-top of Hoi Polloi Hoteliers had fully formed at the podium but were still occupied with their own conversations, and no one had really approached me to check in.  Etiquette in this situation demands putting the caller on hold, and dealing with the live bodies in front of you; and I could feel the quicksand of the drunk guy on the phone starting to pull me down.  I figured I had 30 seconds or so to see what he wanted or get rid of him before I had to deal with the GMs.

“How can I help you sir?”

“Your name is Patrick?”

“Yes sir.  How can I help you?”

“Patrick, this Mike from Reno.  Howya doin’?”

“Very well, sir.”

“Well, Patrick, The Wife and I,  we’re gonna be comin’ down from Reno next month and we thought we might stop in and see ya, ya know, have a little dinner, have some wine, visit some wineries…”

“Yes sir?”

“You know, Patrick, we were gonna drive on over from Susanville down across to Fortuna and then on down your way, so I figure what the hell, let’s go all the way down and have some dinner…”

“Uh-huh”

“So lemme ask ya Patrick…didn’t you guys use to be up North somewhere?”

Oh shit.  Circular conversation.

“Hey Mike?  Can I put you on hold for just a second?”

“So Patrick, you got some pretty good food there?”

I realized Mike from Reno wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  And much as I would have liked to, I couldn’t just blow him off, as the designated envoy from the 7-top of Hoteliers was now standing in front of me, ready to be acknowledged, and he was listening to my end of the conversation.

“So, Mike, did you want to make a reservation?”

“Well, ya know, I gotta talk to The Wife, figure out the days and alla that, so I’ll do that and give ya a call…you got a website or sumpin’?”

“Yes, sir, it’s La Toque dot com.  There’s menus, pictures of the restaurant (as I was certain reading was beyond Mike’s capability at this point) and links to maps and directions.”

“Oh, well, that’s great. I’ll take a look at that and I’ll talk to The Wife and I’ll give ya a call back…”

“Fantastic, Mike.  Thanks for calling.”

Whew!

“Good evening, are the seven of you ready for dinner?”

So the 7-top was seated, ordered some wine and displayed a real knack for the annoying tendency to all ask for stuff at the same time.  But being a pretty good multi-tasker/prioritizer, I listened to everyone at once then decided who got what first according to my own personal hierarchy of the table.  White wine?  Yessir, the Gruner would be excellent.  Red wine?  Sure, medium bodied Cab Franc.  Copy of the wine list?  Can I see the menu again?  Some lime for the water?  And a Campari and Soda, a Hendricks and Tonic, and ya-da-ya-da-ya-da.

I got the white opened and poured, made cocktails, served them, got the back waiters on the water and lime. I brought the menu and wine list as requested, and had retrieved the Cab Franc from the wine room, marked them with the proper glasses, and was on my way back to the table to present and open it.

Then it’s the phone again.

“Thank you for calling La Toque, this is Patrick.”

“HEY PATRICK!!”   Mike from Reno was back.

“So I’m lookin’ at this website of yours and it says ‘Three courses plus dessert, $78.’  What’s that mean?  How do I do that?”

Our menu is divided into three sections, first courses, middle courses, and main courses.  Desserts are listed on the last page.

“I mean, how do I pick stuff.  Do I just pick three things?”

“Well, Mike, do you see where it says ‘First Courses?”

“Yeah.”

“And, do you see where it says ‘Middle Courses’?”  Really wanting to get mad now, but keeping it together, barely.

“Yeah.”

“Well, you pick one from each of those, then a Main Course and a Dessert.”

“Oh, so that’s how ya do it…”

“Yes, that’s how you do it.”

“Well, that explains that.  Listen, Patrick, I’m gonna talk to The Wife…”

I got myself disengaged from Mike again, got the wine to the table, and the first two courses were served to my VIPs.

We are all at the table, clearing the second course plates, and as I am walking back toward the scullery with an armload, I hear the phone.  I dropped my load at the Dish Pit and hustled back to the podium to get the call before it went to Voice Mail.  My bad.  I looked down at the Caller ID window.

You got it:  Mike from Reno.

But me and Old Mike,  we’re way past the formalities of any kind of phone etiquette by now.  I pick up the receiver.

“Hey Mike!”

He doesn’t miss a beat.

“So Patrick, I talked to The Wife and it looks like we’re not gonna get by to see ya this trip, but we’ll be down real soon, okay?”

“Sorry to hear that Mike.  But give my best to The Wife and we’ll see you sometime real soon.”

“Okay, Patrick…”   Mike From Reno, ladies and gentlemen.  Let’s give him a big hand…

Good news and bad news, as I was now pretty certain that would be Mike’s last phone incursion for the evening; but had I been able to get a reservation out of him that night, I wouldn’t have to live with the Mike From Reno Sword of Damocles that will be hanging over my head until that happy day arrives when he and The Wife pack up the Pace Arrow and hit the road.

Oh God.  He’ll actually be driving.


Redux: "Help Wanted"

January 27, 2010

I’d been working on a post about the tenuous nature of the “friends with the boss relationship,” and how it can affect one’s ability to be objective about discipline and rules on the job.  And I have hit a wall.   Any good therapist would say, “Maybe you should take a look at that,”  and so I am.  More on this story as it develops…

An “incident” at work last weekend brought to mind one of my least favorite aspects of being in management:  hiring and firing.  So I thought I’d save some of my more recent readers the trouble of digging through the archives with a redux of a post I first published back in June of ’09, “Help Wanted”:

Restaurant people are transient types. Even if you provide them with a good income, benefits, and a friendly workplace, people are still going to move on eventually. Some move on to better restaurant jobs. Some go back to school, some get what we in the business call “a real job” actually using the degree they spent $80,000 on tuition getting; and some leave because there’s rad surf at Big Sur in the summer, dude. Regardless of the reason, one of the constants in our business is change.

At the restaurant I run we have been seeking a new hostess. Our current hostess is leaving for the “real job” category and more power to her for it. I can never fault anyone for wanting to better themselves, so I don’t feel abandoned when people leave for greener pastures; but hiring new people is a little like buying a used car. You’ve gotta kick the tires, look under the hood, and hope that you are not buying someone else’s problem.

There is a certain entertainment value in reading resumes and cover letters, though. Many are unintentionally (God, I hope it’s unintentional) hilarious. So many people are apparently so clueless about the process, that I put together this list of tips for job-seekers in the restaurant world:

Bring a pen: When you show up to fill out an application, bring a pen. If you are not the kind of person who can think just a little bit ahead about things like this, you are probably not going to do well with the constant multi-tasking required by our industry. At one place I worked we had a ball point pen that wrote with green ink, so if someone asked for a pen, we definitely knew which application was theirs when we reviewed the stack later. Guess who never got an interview?

Put on a tie: Now I don’t literally mean that women should wear a tie, but I use this phrase to indicate that you should get yourself dressed and be presentable. If you are trying to get a job in fine dining, dress like you are going to dinner. If you show up in a basketball jersey and baggy jeans hanging down around your crotch, keep moving, pal.

Pay attention to what it says in our ad: If it says “No phone calls about this position”, don’t call us. It will not make us think you are an agressive, go-getter that thinks outside the box, it will just piss us off. Especially when you call at 7:00pm on a Saturday night. Most of the people who do this have put somewhere on their resume that they “have an eye for detail”. Right. Another criteria I have regarding this is to find out where we are located BEFORE you get in your car. If you have to call for directions ten minutes after your scheduled interview time you might as well keep driving right on over to the unemployment office.

Change your e-mail address if it’s weird: If you are responding to an ad on Craig’s List, and your e-mail resume comes from “onehotchica@aol” or “jedimaster@yahoo” chances are you are not the buttoned down professional we are looking for.

Act like you really want the job even if you don’t: Once I got called out to the podium because someone was there who wanted to apply. I walked out and this guy was seated at our bar flipping through the TV channels with the remote. Without even turning his head away from the screen he proceeds to ask me if we needed any help in the kitchen. Not from you my friend. Another time, I was informed that my interview appointment had arrived. I told our host to have them wait in the bar, I would be there in a couple of minutes. When I got there, this guy is sitting at the bar drinking a beer and smoking. Oh Good Lord. I am not the one who needs the help…


"Party On, Garth…"

December 23, 2009

One of the more interesting Holiday Traditions practiced in Western culture is the Office Holiday Party.  When I say “office” I actually mean any Holiday get together that the company has organized, sanctioned, and most importantly, paid for.

We had our party last night and it was quite the enjoyable affair.  It’s always interesting, though, to observe the interactions of co-workers in an entirely social situation when you have removed what is often the only commonality for the participants:  the work.  Once you remove the work, co-workers often find they have very little in common besides the work. People, who normally have no other reason to interact with one another besides working at the same place, now find themselves making small talk and trying their best to remember their bosses’ wives names.

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