I find myself, as many of us in the restaurant business do, in a strange time. What was the way we've always done business a year ago is now just not enough. Those busy nights bookending the weekend, for some of us, are gone. Those little extras that made the final plate or were given away as a token of thanks just aren't in the budget. We've said goodbye to coworkers and didn't get a chance to say goodbye to some customers. They just couldn't make it in as often and just faded away. The last year has forced many of us to change the way we do business. We've had to cut out some things. We've had to do some things that we just didn't want to do to keep the doors open. For every restaurant that has hung on this long there are three more that didn't make it.
So what's a guy supposed to do? I've got a restaurant that people enjoy, a good crew behind me, and for the moment the doors are open. I lay awake at night fighting it out in my head. Is this what I want to be doing? Should I pack up and move to a bigger pond where I know things are jumpin' or do I stick it out as long as I can. Do I run a happy hour? Two-fers maybe? Do I sell out completely and put out a coupon for one last rally before the restaurant grim reaper shows his face? HELL NO!
The answer for me was to keep things consistent. Give the regulars what they want. They're the ones that help keep my restaurant open. So how do I help them out? How do I make it easier for them to keep coming in?
The Change would have to be me. My dial would have to go to 11.
I have spent a good amount of time, (and this blog is proof), looking to other chefs for inspiration. Watching entire cities out class mine in food culture, knowledge, and ingredients. I'd watch my customers eat their Fettuccine Alfredo with glee and wash it all down with a Root Beer and a smile. I couldn't be mad. They asked for it and I gave it to them. "If only things were different. If only I was somewhere else." Can't sell the place, no one is buying. Can't go back in time, time machine is broken. I was kicking the can big time.
The goal was simple. Stay open. But how? We'll get through this together and watch each others back. Sounds a bit aggressive I know, but shit, this is my livelihood. I sat down with my family and they were all behind me. And Chef? Thank god for Chef Luis. He straight out said, "I'll stick with you till that last day." And there you have it. Time to start scrapping.
The change would come in the form of us doing what we do but now even better. That one dish we did a year ago? We'll do it again but better. That one thing we've been wanting to do but haven't? We'll do it now. What's that? They don't have the cut of meat I need? Tell me what part of the animal it comes from and I'll cut it out myself!
We'd rally the troops and tell the locals that it's ON at my place. Get there early and come hungry. While the guy across the street gives his customers an endless pasta bowl and the lady on the corner gives away sliders, I'll be giving everyone the only thing I know how to give them. My energy, My passion, My love for what I do.
Sounds all good and exciting, right? The problem at hand was that my skill set wasn't as deep as my enthusiasm. No one was going to knock on my door and show me how to do new things, I would have to teach myself. I've spent the last months pouring over new and old cookbooks, asking questions, calling in favors, and arranging for weekend lessons in the meat department of a market I once worked at.
It was in changing the way I do business that an unexpected change began to happen. In changing the way I do my job I have changed my attitude, which in itself broke the roof off the possibilities that I had limited myself to. I will make of this what I will. If I want to learn something than I will. If my customers don't know what they're missing then I will show them what they're doing up the way, across the pond, or across the street in the barrio.
So far it's working. The customers love the thrill of the surprise. They don't know what I'll do next because I don't know what the hell I'm doing half the time! When it works it works. When it doesn't we learn from the mistake and make it work the next time. Customers have begun talking and now they're asking what's for dinner? Along with me they've become a bit more adventurous. I tell them what I'm learning and how. For them its an experience and that in itself is why people go out to eat. For the experience.
If I do all of this and it still doesn't work out at least I'll know that I got everything I could out of it. This downward swing that has affected so many in horrible ways has pushed me to better myself. It has been a year of changes. Some for the worse, some for the better.
Stay Hungry, Guy
Special thanks to Judy Witts of Davinacucina.com and @davinacucina on twitter. Your blog, recipes, and emails have been a big help and my customers thank you.
Thanks to all of the Chefs who have taken the time to answer all of my questions. Check them out on twitter. @Ginadee @linecook @Coreynead @Cookerguy