“93% of new restaurants fail in the first year. 85% of those who make it through that first year will fail in the second year.” –Integrity Consulting Group
Red’s was one such restaurant. I know, because I was there. If anything, Red’s stands as an example of what not to do, and thus may ultimately spare the next entrepreneur’s dream. Dreams should never end up in Chapter 13.
This was my first fine dining position. As a veteran waiter of 30 years, I had skillfully avoided anything resembling the pomp and circumstance of frou-frou dining service. I was more adept at fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, high volume, quirky restaurants where I earned my tips with humor rather than finesse. Well, at Red’s, we all soon learned that it would take a sense of humor to get through any shift, and all the white linen couldn’t compensate for the pratfalls taken daily.
In fact, the only constant was the white linen, but this is where continuity ended. No two tables had the same drape; no two place settings had the same napkin fold. But from one day to the bitter end, we had our starched white linen delivered without fail. We may not have had produce or liquor, a sober dishwasher, bartender, or liquor license, but we had a lot of white linen.
Actually, there was another constant: we were constantly out of cash. We never had more than $20 in the opening register. The waiters simply did pinch-hit banking at the bar across the street. While we were racing through traffic and then bellying up to the bank/bar to beg change from the teller/bartender, food orders for our other tables would be dying on the vine under the unmerciful and unforgiving heat lamps. Returning, sometimes 10 minutes later and out of breath, to the paying table with their change neat but damp with beer, we’d offer the stale excuse (stale as table five’s meal in the kitchen): “Our manager thanks you for your patience; he had to break this bill for me.”
Invoking the imaginary manager was not a lie. Improvisation and embellishment are tools of the trade and just as essential as a wine key or tray. At Red’s, softening the ugly truth was an art form.
“Oh, that little furry thing. It’s not what you think! That’s the upstairs tenant’s little dog. Cute, isn’t he?”
“Oh no! That’s not iceberg lettuce. It’s a new hybrid of endive.”
“French bread is so passé. Try these Keebler crackers. Here, allow me to tear that open for you.”
“You say our bartender just stripped for $200? You must be mistaken. Yes, those Hurricanes are kinda strong.”
Nightly, we had to become creative to spare our customers the harsh reality. They simply did not need to know that the sous chef was really more of a dishwasher and that their “medallions of beef tenderloin topped with a rich reduced bordelaise sauce” just went out the back door with him, along with a case of Jack Daniels. They also did not need to know that the snapper offered in lieu of the stolen entrees was not caught fresh that morning, but rather chipped out of the freezer. Little lies.
One waiter opted for the truth, the whole truth, and won over customers (and tips) with his honest asides. “Tonight, I do not recommend the soup. As for the crab cakes, well, you already have bread. They would be a bit redundant. I would describe the wine as quite unpretentious. No, there really is nothing special about the special tonight.”
Red’s was short on professionalism, money, common sense and staff. Oh, they’d hire anyone who walked in the door in a heartbeat when one of the staff chose to be a no-show. Hires were made without benefit of interviews, references or training, and we soon had a steady stream of wanna-be goths working alongside us.
Dress codes and uniforms have always rankled me, yet I was begging for some sort of decorum. Our surly 20-something waifs sported tattoos, metal-stapled flesh and black fabric unacquainted with laundering. If the Fab Five had been there to cast a queer eye, they would have opted for a mercy killing.
From day one, Red’s did enjoy some professionalism in its ranks. In the beginning, there was a bartender who knew how to pour, count, serve, and stay fully dressed. Of course, he had to go. We had some waiters who understood the concept of “running side-work” rather than running from work. They even knew how to serve customers and earn tips without padding the check or stealing gratuities with the disdainful practice of “double gratting.” They had to go. In the beginning, Red’s also enjoyed a local clientele eager to see the chef they knew and admired succeed as a restaurateur. Unfortunately, they saw him too much when he should have been creating and supervising the kitchen, so they had to go. And after a year of trying to outsmart the Peter Principle and translate culinary skills into business savvy, Red’s had to go.
(Note: “Red’s” is a fictitious composite based on many restaurants in which I carried a tray.)