Getting Gassed at The Mus-(re)-tard Festival

March 15, 2010

This past weekend saw Downtown Napa hosting one of the main events of the two-month long “Mustard Festival” which has firmly established itself as one of those good ideas gone bad. The Mustard Festival was started in the early 90’s as a way to generate some business in the “slow season” here in Napa Valley.  Mustard flowers, originally planted as a cover crop to hold topsoil in place during winter rains, come into bloom as soon as we get a few sunny days and turn the still dormant acres of grapevines into seas of golden blossoms.  So someone decided that maybe more tourists would come to see them if there was a party involved, and the Mustard Festival was born.  Originally held on a single weekend at the end of February, it has now turned into two months of events like marathons, photo contests, winery-hosted parties and other marketing ploys that start after President’s Day weekend and continue well into March.

The festival, especially the “Marketplace” weekend, has morphed into a drunkfest, filling hotels and eateries with crowds of people who feel that coming to Napa is a license to drink like a fish and act like morons (or more of a moron, as drunken idiots are usually idiots to start with).  They act as if  “what happens in Napa, stays in Napa” which is, for the most part, true.  But we who live and work here, and have had the unpleasant task of cleaning up your vomit the last time you visited, also “stay in Napa”.  So “what happens in Napa” will be waiting for you when you return; and we will most certainly remember you even if you don’t remember what you did.

This unfortunate transformation has posed a real dilemma for restaurants in the area over the past few years.  Do we take part in the event, show up and dole out tastes of our food and wine to the throngs of people hoping they will pick up a menu or business card and maybe visit the restaurant for a full meal later?  And will the wineries pass on what would appear at first glance to be a golden “marketing opportunity”?  Many of us have learned there is too little of a return for manning a table and giving away thousands of dollars worth of free food and/or wine.   After a couple of years of the drunken masses sticking a glass in our faces and demanding “Red!” or “Chard!” without so much as making eye contact or really giving a rat’s ass what they are eating or drinking, we have taken a pass on participation in the “Marketplace”.  We have learned that the vast majority of attendees are not interested in any details about our food, or in joining a wine club.  Their primary, driving motivation every year is eating and drinking as much as they possibly can to get their $40 worth, and then bitching wildly about it when they feel they haven’t.

Even those of us who don’t participate have to deal with the run-off crowds of drunks at 5:30 when the Marketplace ends, and this year was no exception.  We were fully booked on Saturday, with almost 90 reservations.  Saturday nights have more ups and downs than Chrysler stock, with people canceling and booking at the last minute.  I usually overbook by a table or two because of the strong possibility of 9:00 no-shows, and I am always ready to sell the menu to people who pop their heads in the door at opening.  Getting a table, any table, in at 5:30 is like finding money.  I have, however, learned a valuable lesson about drunk diners and having to go through the uncomfortable song and dance of cutting people off:  if you don’t let them in, you don’t have to worry about cutting them off later.

Two guys have walked in just as we are opening the doors, and they are hammered.  They are either the the drunkest of the group, and as such, were easily convinced (or volunteered) to find some place for the rest to eat. Or, equally frightening, they are the most sober of their group and were chosen as the envoys because the rest are unable to speak coherently.  Either way, all I can see is a Lose-Lose by letting these two and the rest of their merry band in the door.

“Can I help you gents?”

“Could we speak to the Manager?” My hostess had already told them we are booked, but they felt going up the ladder would help their case.

“That would be me…”

“So, you’re the Manager?”  Slurred speech, elevated voices, questionable equilibrium.  Oh, boy.

“Yes, how can I help you?”

“We had a reservation for 7.”

“Seven o’clock?”

“Shevven pee pull…”

This is when I love having the awesome power of the Open Table database at my fingertips.  “What’s the name on the reservation?” I ask, knowing full well this is all bullshit and I have no seven tops on the book.  He gives me a name, I type it in the search box, letter for letter.  Not in the system.  LLPOF, you drunk mo-fo.

“Sorry gents, there’s nothing under that name and I am completely booked tonight.”

“Well, we’re from El Dorado County, and we came on down for the Mustard Festival this weekend…” he continues, unabashed.

His wingman on this mission has decided he needs to take the wheel here, and he chimes in with, “Listen, I own a Chevy dealership in Auburn and I need a party of seven tonight.  Can you do anything for me?”  Oh my!  A Chevy dealership!  Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?  That’s an El Camino of a different color altogether…

“Sorry guys, but I’m full.”  And now you can leave, as my early reservations are beginning to arrive.

“So you’ve got 15 tables and they’re all booked?”

“No, I have 23 tables and they’re all booked.  Sorry…”

“Would this make a difference?” Wingman asks, literally waving a Franklin under my nose, as if it was coated with magic smelling salts that would make me snap to and do whatever he wanted.   While I have no moral problem with taking a discreetly palmed C-note from a guest as a thank you for special considerations, I have no patience with people who think I will dance to whatever drunken tune they are calling just because there’s money involved.   I might be cheap, but I’m not easy, and this guy is a douche besides.  I resist the very strong urge to unload on this dolt by telling him what function that hundo might serve the next time I need to use the Men’s Room.  Instead I just give him my best Maitre’ D stink-eye, shake my head,  and say quietly, “No it wouldn’t (you retard).”

So these two, suitably rebuffed, finally give up and stagger off.  Next!

A woman who was in with a party of six the night before has returned with her boyfriend.  She left her camera in the Ladies’ Room and has been in twice already, bugging the hotel desk to check Lost and Found.  They obliged both times and found nothing.   Now she wants me to stop what I’m doing, go to Housekeeping and check for a third time, like I have some magic ability to make her camera reappear.   Instead, I take down her name and phone number and promise to look later (I won’t).  I tell her I’ll call her either way.  I’ll wait a few hours and then call and tell her I couldn’t find it; and that I’m really sorry she was so stupid, and got so drunk she couldn’t keep her shit together.  She gives me an exasperated “thank you” and they leave.  Next!

The boyfriend comes back a couple of minutes later with that sheepish look of embarrassment by association, hands me a twenty and thanks me for putting up with her.  No problem dude;  I only had to deal with her  for a few hours.  You get her 24/7, and good luck with that.

And that’s the real lesson here:  there is really not enough money in the world to make dealing with drunken assholes a profitable enterprise for me or the business.  The real rub is that I probably could have squeezed the party of seven in, but they would no doubt prove themselves to be as obnoxious as I already suspected they were, disrupt the entire dining room and piss off the majority of my other tables for the better part of three hours; and, in the end, it would just not be worth it.

Maybe I need to find a different line of work; or maybe just a different place to do it.  Somewhere that has some other reason for people to visit besides getting hammered. Whichever the case, I am finding myself increasingly impatient when it comes to dealing with people who don’t know when it’s time to say when and go to bed.  And I have really come to enjoy the power of being able to turn off the taps on them.

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"Scary Movie VIII: Bachelorette Party, Napa Valley"

March 8, 2010

Let’s face it, people come to Napa Valley to drink.  Some do it in “moderation”, trying to experience new wines and wineries, some just do it.

Working for a couple of years at Domaine Chandon’s étoile Restaurant, I’ve had more than my share of power drinkers.   Limos full of  tiara-wearing bachelorettes were a common occurance at 6:00pm on weekends all summer.  After a full day of wineries, a salad for lunch, and maybe a “what the hell” margarita, or a couple of shots in the car, they decide it might be a good idea to stop in and power down a bottle or two of Sparkling.  They get the “drunken munchies”, see the restaurant is now open, and think that eating a five-course meal loaded with foie gras and pork belly sounds like a good way to top things off.  The survivors of the group always seemed mystified as to why some of their party end up in the bathroom driving the porcelain bus.  Chandon had the distinction of being open later than many tastng rooms, so we would end up with a lot of these “end ups”.

We ended up with a similar group at La Toque on Saturday night.  A woman had called in to see if we could take a party of 10 at 8:30 that night.  I am always wary of late Saturday night reservations made at the last minute, say around 5:30pm that day, called in from a winery.  Most of the time, it goes like this:

1)  Make reservation after a full day of visiting wineries.

2) Return to hotel room to change at 6:00pm.

3) Fall asleep for three hours.

4) Wake up with the “fuck-its”, and order a cheeseburger from room service.

5) No-show, no-call at the restaurant.

Or the alteranative scenario, where they go through Steps 1 and 2, but instead of proceeding to nap at Step 3, they try to power through and just keep drinking, resulting in them being a hot mess when they show for dinner.  Even though I have always been a fan of the “Go Big or Go Home” philosophy, most first timers to Napa don’t have the stamina they think they do, and this second scenario always spells trouble.

So when I got a call for a last minute 10-top from the hotel next door at around 6:00pm I was, to say the least, skeptical they would actually make it.  But having a late 10-top is like finding 50 bucks in your jeans when you are folding the laundry.  So on the off-chance that they would show, I offered them the only option I could, which was to seat them on two separate tables of five.  “Okay, we’ll be there…”

The night is going fine, busy yet smooth; and as 8:15 rolls around I actually have two adjacent tables available, so I tell the crew to put them together and we’ll give this late party a thrill by letting them all sit together, if they show at all.   Then, as it always seems to when things are going well, that other shoe drops.

The advance guard of the 10-top has arrived and two of them can barely stand and are propping each other up; the other two are distancing themselves slightly, talking loudly on cell phones in the foyer.  I approach, ask if the rest of the group is en route and am told they are now eight.  Okay, only eight.  Thanks for calling.  Normally I would know better and not make a table adjustment until I have the entire group assembled, as drunk chicks are notoriously bad at math; but I look out the front door and see the other four ambling up the stairs, with no stragglers in tow.  They are all pretty buzzed.  So the table is adjusted and they are seated, the loud-talkers quieting down somewhat as they enter the dining room.  Safe so far.

I tell the back waiters to get some bread to the table immediately as these chicks clearly need something in their stomachs.  They get themselves situated, get the menus and start looking them over.   As I do a walk-by, I see that one of them has folded her napkin into a little square pillow so she can comfortably lay her head down on the table for a little snooze.  Another, a couple of seats over has put on her sunglasses and is trying to navigate the menu through her Chanels in our dimly lit dining room.  The girl seated next to Shades is groping over at her face, trying to grab the glasses off of her head, “Ooh, those are CUTE, let me wear them.”  One of them, who actually still has her wits about her, asks me for a Wine List.  Uh, no.  I proceed to explain we will not be serving their group any more alcohol for the obvious reasons.  A tall blonde looks up at me and whispers loudly, “I’m not THAT drunk…”  Yes, you are.

There are really only three of the eight that needed to be cut off, but in group situations you are asking for trouble if you attempt to serve only some, as those that are banned will attempt to drink covertly.  Drunks are not good at being sneaky, so you will have to cut off the others anyway.  Might as well deal with it right from the get go.

The two that were doing the three legged race trying to hold each other up earlier, offer to leave if I will agree to serve the rest.  Before I can even get the word “No” formed on my lips, they are up, pinballing back out of the restaurant and down the hall.  I follow them out to make sure the bartender at our other bar in the lobby is aware of their status.  Their situation couldn’t be more clear if it was tatooed on their foreheads (“Ooh, cool!  Lesh gedda taTOO!!”), but better safe than sorry.

So I get back to the table and the remaining six are debating whether to stay and not drink (“Where’s the fun in THAT?!”) and “threatening” to leave.  Really?  Promise?  But most of the group seems okay to me now, so I acquiesce and they decide to stay.  Four of the six order the Wine Pairings with their dinner, the other two are smart enough to stick with water, and lots of it.

This group is like one of those horror movies with the eight Summer Camp girls in cut-off jeans and bikini tops huddled together in the dark cabin, with a maniac on the loose in the woods.   Two of them have already been picked off, but now another one goes off to try to find help, or get wood for the fire, whatever; and when she doesn’t return, another says, “I wonder what’s happened to her…” and one by one off they go, until all of them are in pieces in Hefty Bags.  Halfway through her first course, one of our Survivors gets up and walks quickly out and towards the restroom.  She reappeared briefly about 15 minutes later.  She gets her check, pays quickly and leaves, obviously preferring to vomit in the privacy of her own hotel room.  And then there were five…

"Maybe we should go see if Lisa is okay..."

The rest of the evening passed without incident, and several of the girls actually thanked me for letting them stay, and for helping get rid of their drunk friends which they had apparently been trying to do unsuccessfully for most of the day.   Like a movie where the Mob Hitman has an attack of conscience but needs proof the job is done, they ended the night by having their waiter take a photo with the rest of them in “passed out” poses, with a couple of wine glasses knocked over for effect.  Good thing they got the photographic evidence as actually remembering the events could prove problematic.  We go a phone call from one of them ten minutes after they left saying she had lost a sweater.  I didn’t even bother looking as I knew she was probably wearing it.  Girls just wanna have fun…


"This Is No Hash House…"

February 2, 2010

In previous posts about “The Continuing Saga of nativenapkin” I recalled how I had finally made my move from Prep Cook to the Hot Line.  I had transitioned from an almost invisible member of the crew to a bona fide member of the restaurant social elite.  As a cook on the hot line, I partied with the Big Boys, got laid a lot, and could make waiters cower in fear. Granted these are not the best characteristics for a team player whose only interest should be providing fine food and service to our guests; but as a 20 year-old line cook my investment in guest satisfaction ended when the plates left the window.  I could give a rat’s ass if the guy’s coffee or water was re-filled, or if the dining room was clean and comfortable.  In my mind, the food was all-important; servers were just there as “plate porters,” a necessary evil because someone had to bring the food from kitchen to table.  In my mind, these people would sit on over-turned boxes at picnic tables to eat the perfection that emanated from the Hot Line pick-up window.  It wasn’t until years later that I would begin to see the Big Picture and back down from my mental pedestal.

After my somewhat unceremonious promotion to the Hot Line at Lyon’s of Napa (I know, I know.  You’re saying, “You were a cook at Lyon’s, and thought you were just the shizit?”), I stayed on the schedule as a full timer for several months until an internal Kitchen Mutiny resulted in 6 of us quitting in unison over wage demands, thinking the place would go down in flames without us.  (You can read more on this in my post “Are You…Experienced.” If you are so inclined.)   Some of us, like me, went on to other jobs; some went back to prison for the parole violation of quitting a job without having something else lined up; some just disappeared.

I made my way up the local restaurant food chain, going from fry cook at some “hash houses” to nicer “Dinner Houses”.  I was in the throes of “New Restaurant Fever” and every time a newer, more stylish place would swing its doors open, I would jump ship.  It was partially an insatiable desire to learn new techniques and dishes and elevate myself to an eventual Executive Chef’s position; it was partially the lure of the shiny new stainless steel appliances in a new place; but ultimately it was just for a new gaggle of waitresses and hostesses to bone.  Like I said, I was in my 20’s.

I worked at a couple of dinner houses.  One was a glorified Steak and Potato joint opened by the second generation of a venerable San Francisco restaurant family; one, an Italian place run by a dysfunctional local family whose only real claim to fame was the patriarch’s hand rolled ravioli and malfatti, which were the stuff of legends at Knight’s of Columbus and Catholic Church fundraisers.

After the Judgement of Paris in 1976, Napa Valley wines were beginning to receive their due, so investors thought the time was ripe for a few restaurants that were on a par with the wines being produced.  Some of my contemporaries had gone on to work at The Restaurant at Domaine Chandon when it made its splashy Napa Valley debut in 1978, propelling Napa Valley onto the Bay Area’s fine-dining radar.   This was a real, world-class dining destination in an area where the Mom and Pop Shops had held sway over the dining scene for decades. The Miramonte in St. Helena, owned by the unceremoniously deposed opening Chef at Chandon, Udo Nechutny, made some headlines when it opened about a year later;  as well as La Belle Helene, owned a raving madman of a Chef named Gregory Lyons.  And a funky little place named Chez Panisse had opened in Berkeley.  But the real buzz for the Napa Valley and the Bay Area began in earnest in 1980, when San Francisco restaurateur Claude Rouas lured Chef Masataka Kobayashi away from Le Plasir in New York’s Palace Hotel, and broke ground in Rutherford for The Auberge du Soleil.

As someone born and raised in the Napa Valley, to me the borders of civilization in those days ended at Trancas Street in the City of Napa, and didn’t start up again until you reached St. Helena.  All that was in between were prune and walnut orchards, a few bars and the Veteran’s Home in Yountville, and some vineyards that supplied the several dozen “stinky wineries” we’d been subjected to as kids when out of town relatives came to visit.  So when the Auberge opened and my former Restaurant Guru from Lyon’s, Brian Porterfield, reached out to me to apply, I was confused.  Why would someone put a restaurant, and a fine dining restaurant at that, in Rutherford of all places?  Rutherford was literally just a Post Office, a bar, and the La Luna Market (old timers may remember the sign that said La Luna Market, “The Handy Store,” on the old building that faced Highway 29 back then, before it moved down Rutherford Cross Road about a hundred yards).   If you blinked while driving through, you missed it.  But prohibitions on hillside building in The Valley weren’t yet even a twinkle in the eyes of the Board of Supervisors, and the Jaeger family had carved Rutherford Hill Road out of a rocky eastern hillside to access their aptly named, new Rutherford Hill Winery.  Monsieur Rouas had jumped on the opportunity and grabbed a chunk of the valuable, newly accessible real estate overlooking the Valley.

I was working mostly day shifts at my current posting then, so I  made my way up in the dark one night after work, about a week before the scheduled opening date.  I was heading up to apply for work with Brian, who had gotten the job as the Sous Chef.  I followed the unlit, pristine new single lane of blacktop upward, thinking it looked more like the road into a State Park than a restaurant site; and I followed the sharp curves toward the soft glow of light emanating from the new restaurant’s parking lot.  When I arrived at the entrance, I was transported to a scene that was more like Disneyland than a State Park.  The curved, terra-cotta colored walls of the building were lit by footlights, as were the mature olive trees from the original grove that covered most of the hill, and were now part of the new landscape design.  It was a surreal setting, this brightly glowing island of light in the inky blackness.  I parked and found my way to the delivery entrance off to the side, way too intimidated to just walk in the front door.

As I walked in the back door to the kitchen, I saw a huge Groen steam-jacketed kettle, the size of a Hot Tub, simmering slowly in the prep area, filled to the brim with Veal knuckle bones and Mire-Poix.  (I had no idea at the time what Mire Poix was, or what it meant; or that the controlled slow cooking of this gigantic kettle was beginning to transform the mixture of bones, vegetables and water into Fond du Veau, the source of all goodness and light when it came to sauces.)  There was a smaller, more conventional stockpot simmering on a stovetop.  It was filled with Crayfish bodies, doing the same thing to them.  I walked up and took a whiff of the steam rising from this second pot.  It was unlike anything I’d ever seen or smelled before.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment was my first true “Food Epiphany,” a sudden opening of my eyes and mind to how new and different this experience was going to be for me.

Brian noticed me standing there, trying to take in food and equipment that were as foreign to me as a Martian landscape, and beckoned me over to the Chef’s office.  He was sitting on the floor just inside the door, sipping a cold Coors, and chatting with a tiny little man who was sitting at the desk with an opened book and a yellow legal pad full of scribbling in front of him.  The two of them had just finished up a 12-hour day of unpacking equipment and setting up the walk-ins and hot line.  That tiny little man was Chef Masa; the book was Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier; and I was about to enter a whole new culinary world.

The "Holy Bible" of Cooking

Next Up: Pommes du Terre, a Wilkes-Bashford Fashion Show, and Opening Day.


"Pull This…"

January 25, 2010

Out of 32 parties seated in the restaurant last Saturday night, almost half of them brought their own wine.  While we are always happy to accommodate our guests who bring in their own wines (especially those that share things with us like a 1990 DRC!) this is getting out of hand.  And while we love it when our friends and neighbors in “the business” bring in their product, in our area you really can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone in the wine business.

Our corkage right now is $20 for a 750ml, $40 for a mag, with no limit on number of bottles;  we use Riedel Vinum Extreme, varietal-correct glassware; bottles are de-canted (where applicable);  honest, educated  suggestions are made by our Somms about which dishes/courses the guests’ wine would pair with best; and we are fairly loose with the “buy one, waive one policy.  If a party participates in our Wine Pairing for the first three courses, then wants to enjoy their own wine with the fourth, we often waive as well.

We do have a preponderance of bottles over $100 on our list, but many of them, especially older vintage Bordeaux and Burgundies, are vastly under-priced for what they are.  Our check average is around $120 per person so, to me anyway, $20 per bottle is a deal…

Is our corkage too low?  Should we limit the number of bottles that we will allow or maybe work on a sliding scale, increasing corkage fees for the 3rd, 4th, or 5th bottle (we had a party on Saturday that brought in 10, ended up opening 7!)

Is is because the wine list prices are too high?  I don’t think so, as many of the guests last Saturday were first timers, and our wine list is not published on-line, so how would they know?

Or is this just a product of things being the way they are in the world these days?


"Screwbie…"

January 19, 2010

A recent post by “So, You Want To Be A Waiter?” (excellent blog, by the way, with lots of interesting posts, links, news, etc.) talked a bit about the increasingly common occurrence of screw cap, or Stelvin Closure, wines on wine lists, even in the “higher end” establishments.  Indeed, check average at our place is well over $120 per guest, and the wine list has an extensive collection of older Burgundies, Bordeaux and Napa Valley Cabs.   Yet, we have quite a few screw-top bottles in inventory.

The now somewhat subsiding wine glut of the early 2000’s put an incredible amount of strain on cork suppliers resulting not only in increased prices due to the supply and demand curve, but also in inferior, too-young, and tainted cork entering the market.  Wineries like to tell the public that TCA or “Cork Taint” affects about two percent of their product.  Those of of us that open and serve wine for a living know the real number to be closer to ten.  I know of no other industry where you can stay in business when so large a percentage of your product has the potential to be flawed.  I can guarantee you that if they were making brake pads with these percentages, they’d be in Court being sued and out of business soon after.

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"Anything That Can Happen, Does…"

January 15, 2010

My wife stopped by to visit me at work last night as she had a little time to kill while our daughter was at her nightly swimming practice. She will often come in to sit at the bar, have a beverage, and chat a little. Because she has a “real job” and works 8 to 5, we see each other for about half an hour in the morning, and then that’s it until my days off. So a visit from her is always welcome.

As an anal-retentive manager, my eyes and my mind are constantly on the move when I am at work. John Madden used to call it “Linebacker Eyes,” always moving, looking, trying to stay ahead of the curve and on top of the situation. So it’s not that I feel justified in giving more of my attention to the “paying guests” than I do her; and it’s not because the restaurant is so slammingly busy that I need to go bail out some server, or run food (indeed, last night we had only a handful of tables, as it is January in Napa Valley, after all); but I usually end up feeling a little guilty for not giving her my full attention while she is there.

The main reason I am distracted is that I have learned, through years of personal experience, that I absolutely need to watch and be aware of everything that is going on in the restaurant, because the minute I am not something shitty happens. This is not a theory, or a matter of coincidences; it is a proven postulate that bears out every single time I let my guard down.

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"Now, How Much Would You Pay?"

December 18, 2009

A veteran of the restaurant business and a fellow blogger, Waiternotes, posted a piece on his site recently that brought up some sobering thoughts about restaurants, specifically individual, non-chain restaurants, and their ability to survive in the current economy.  Waiternotes writes an excellent blog, and I heartily recommend a visit to his site.  More than just the usual rants of the vindictive waiter, he is a guy like me, who has been through the wars, seen both boom times and bust; he’s done the corporate thing and the Mom and Pop shops; and as such has developed his survival skills.  He has a sense of humor and perspective on our business that only comes with years of experience.

The entry, called “Money, The Ultimate Hammer,” starts out as a discussion on guests haggling with restaurants over wine list prices.  Specifically, guests who offer less than the listed price on the more expensive bottles to see if the management would bite, simply to move the inventory.  He noted a supply/demand relationship, as incidents of corkage have increased (more and more guests doing the BYOB thing) and upper end wine sales have decreased, that might encourage management to take an “offer they can’t refuse”.  This is a truly frightening trend; and the reality is that many restaurateurs are desperate for some cash flow, and are being held hostage by both their guests and the competition. They are succumbing to what would have in the past been considered outrageous demands.  Diners and wine-drinkers have become drunk with power lately, as they discover that more and more wineries, restaurants, and retail stores have become more and more desperate for their dollars than ever before.

With things being the way they are in the world these days, there has been a steady shift to the paradigm of a buyer’s market in restaurants, with many mid-level or higher-end places offering special prix-fixe menus, waiving corkage, offering half-price wines on certain days of the week, and a lowering of prices overall just to put the butts in the seats.  Many of these restaurants are the same ones that enjoyed packed houses and higher-than-insane wine mark-ups during the dot-commer boom of the 90’s and all the real estate “paper millionaires” of the 00’s.  It has been my philosophy, since all this began in earnest last winter, that if you live by the discount, you die by the discount.  That is, if you lower your prices to fill the chairs, all those chairs will be empty when the economy improves and you attempt to re-establish the pricing structure that was intended to make your place profitable in your original business model.

Now, this kind of high-minded philosophy is all well and good if you have a corporate backer, or a money-man with a bottomless pit of cash to help you make payroll and keep the product rolling in the back door.  But what about independent operators, or even those smaller “restaurant groups”, who have built up a couple of successful spots through hard work and sweat, have a fairly steady clientele, and now face increased pricing competition and an ever-tightening credit market?  Many can no longer draw upon a “line of credit” at their local bank to get them through the winter or off-season months.  Many of those “local banks” (and many larger banks as well) are either no longer in existence, or their interest rates and lending policies have become prohibitively tight.  There has always been one hard and fast rule in banking when it comes to restaurants:  Don’t lend money to restaurants.  With a 50% or higher failure rate in small businesses in general, and higher than 85% in the restaurant universe, even in boom times banks were hesitant.  Now?  Pretty scary if you’re a small businessman and you are looking at a $10,000 stack of invoices, fixed costs of $50,000 a month, plus payroll for a crew of 40 every week, with a checking account that has a $4000 balance.  Suppliers also are tightening their belts and getting more aggressive on collections for accounts they used to let go for 60 days or more.

Many places that fall into this group are simply in “Restaurant Hospice.”  That is, they are hanging by a thread, hoping that the economic tide will rise and float all boats before they are forced to lock their doors.  If you see a place that has never done breakfast suddenly flying a banner  that says “Now Serving Breakfast!” you can bet their slow-death march has begun.  Staff at one local spot arrived yesterday to find doors padlocked and a note saying they have closed.  No notice, no severance.  Merry Fucking Christmas.  It can be argued that the place in question has had more that its share of ownership changes and management miscues, and is now lying on the bed they made themselves.  Anyone with any sense and foresight could see the signs:  declining cover counts, a building that was frayed around the edges because of a lack of maintenance money; but all of that is little consolation to the servers, cooks, busboys, and managers that are out of a job in the dead of winter.

I know, I know.  This is not my usual light-hearted banter about life in the restaurant business.  But for many of us, this is the reality of today’s economy.  I have the good fortune to be gainfully employed at a successful, well-run operation that is in fairly strong fiscal shape and has a dedicated, regular clientele; and despite the aforementioned closure, the local economy is showing signs of life.  A couple of new spots are opening, some empty spaces are being leased for future openings with a couple of big-name, big-draw Chefs signing on, and we are lucky enough to be in a tourist-driven area that people can still afford to visit on a regular basis.  So maybe we are not heading inevitably towards the dystopian future depicted in that really bad Sly Stallone/Sandra Bullock movie “Demolition Man” where “all restaurants are Taco Bell.” Oh, the horror.