Welcome, my friends, to the show that never ends—1,500 restaurants and counting in New Orleans, and not counting filling stations, bars, and stores (convenience, Mom and Pop, or grocery) that sell food. Restaurants come and go here: 62 new ones in the last 12 months, and they go out of business just as fast. And as one goes down in flames, a new one rises from the ashes—the Phoenix Factor. A New Orleanian would have to dine out every night to support them. Lucky for us that we have visitors; if the visitors stopped, the restaurant industry would be in the creek, not just up it.
There’s no end to the uninitiated who believe that they can buck the odds and open a successful restaurant that will stand the test of time. Also, there seems to be no end to the successful owners of places like the Petite Elite Sweet-Treatery, Tiny Toney’s Taco Take-Outeria, or Nunzio’s Newfoundland Nosh Emporium who make an attempt at opening locations two, three, or four. Been there, done that. When people decide to try their hands at making a living feeding people, they are basically in for a life without a life. Restaurant work doesn’t end at the closing of the day; it’s a 24/7 occupation on the scale of walking up to your neck into oncoming surf in Murphy’s ocean. Whatever can go wrong, will. But I happen to love the business.
Many establishments have run-of-the-mill, self-aggrandizing owner/operators with authority issues and indecorous countenances who act like sandbox intimidators when things go awry, and effectually unsettle everyone around them when things don’t go their way. They place “managers” in charge and motivate them using a self-perpetuating, corporate inspiration/submission system, then wonder why good people leave and rationalize that “quitters” cannot take the pressure (that they have created). This is the best way to success: spend your time perfecting surreptitiousness; stay alert to discrepancies in productivity; and rationalize that if one site is working up to expectations, two or more would be better for you financially, if not spiritually. Make sure that your staff never works unprofitable schedules, avoid offering benefits, and never shy away from terminating the weaker links. To some, this is de rigueur.
Sometimes, a person will ask me if I ever miss the work of owning or “chef-ing” in a joint, bistro, or low-brow or high-end gourmangerie, and I tell them, yes. That’s because the work is the easy part. It’s all the rest of the stuff that goes along with being a conductor in this field of dysfunctional cacophonic Merry Melody orchestras that tests.
Basically—at the beginning—passion is its own reward, until the challenges start to fly at you like an octopus pitching bedlam fastball in an asylum world series.
Numero uno, though, is that to be successful, you have to be able to pay the bills—the 27 different baseballs that you have to knock out of the park each month to stay in the game. This, of course, is relative to the dollars you take in and how creative you are at spending them. If you want a pretzel-logic, Chutes-and-Ladders exercise, try conceiving how a $16 pizza cut 20 ways is divided financially for any culinary entrepreneur. Slice one goes to the rent. Slices two thru five pay the waiters, dishwashers, busboys, and bartender; six thru 11 pay for the cost of the pie (averaged out over the whole menu). So, now you have nine slices left. Telephone, electricity, gas, water, trash, insurance, linen, alarm system, computer, booze, office supplies, paper goods, taxes, and workman’s compensation—munchers in a Pac-Man game eating into your cash flow. And then the ice machine breaks; the drains back up; a rainstorm floods your business, closing you down for two weeks.
The work is the easy part. You get up, suit up, show up, and never give up. You become defined by your work, and you try to balance empathy and discipline with your staff, knowing that you can never pay them a decent wage and realizing that few of them will ever reach their potential. You try to lead by example, admitting when you’re wrong and having that “Come to Jesus” talk when you have to. You fight your demons on your own time and leave your other life (if you’re lucky enough to have one) at the door; you have a job to do. And you mistakenly expect everyone around you to live up to your standards.
And then there’s the food, and that’s what it’s really about. That’s why you’re here—working “the product” so that your customers are whelmed, the critics approve of you, and some crumbs hit the bottom line. And then the dishwasher shows up drunk on Saturday night and passes out in time for the 7:30 rush. You find out that the cleaning crew is having Surf and Turf while working, and the bartender is giving free drinks to his friends and big tippers.
The best thing about working in a restaurant is that you can take your craft with you anywhere in the world. The worst thing about running a restaurant is knowing that that is also going to happen with your most talented staff, and while the worst of your people will fade away (hopefully before damage occurs), what you’ll be left with will be mules that you can rely upon to do their job, but not much more. And all the hopes that you have for making a mark on the world will be forgotten as you row, row, row that boat.
Having been around this block more times than I can count, I’ve seen it all from the inside. Now, instead, I cook at home every night and leave you with the last line, which is also the first line: welcome, my friends, to the show that never ends.