Friday, March 28, 2008

The Myth of Sysiphus

"The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor."—Albert Camus, from the final essay in Le Mythe de Sysiphe

It's been more than 25 years since I read Le Mythe de Sysiphe, but it seems most apropos to pull it off the bookshelf and have another go. Come with me as we accompany Sysiphus for a time.

Five years ago I embarked on a mission, a seemingly simple mission at the time, a seemingly trivial mission to be precise. And what was this mission? Merely to start serving tapas at my restaurant. Well, perhaps there was a more subtle mission behind the obvious one: to bring a tapas culture to our small town. It was simple conditional logic, really. If I bring tapas to my restaurant, over time, tapas culture will come to Winchester.

Tapas are ingrained in Spanish culture and you won't find a big city in the US or even some smaller ones such as Frederick, MD, without at least one tapas bar. So why not here? Why not here?

I'm sure many of you are wondering, what are these so-called tapas?

This seemingly simple question is remarkably difficult to answer. On the surface, tapas are tiny dishes that are served as bar food, primarily as after work/before dinner snacks. But below the surface lies a great deal more to do with culture and life style, which Penelope Casas has captured more eloquently than I could hope to:

"The tapas way of life is completely in tune with the Spanish character. To eat tapas-style is to eat by whim, free from rules and schedules. It is meant for those who wish to enjoy life to the fullest and who love to while away the time with friends."—Penelope Casas, from Tapas: the Little Dishes of Spain

This way of life seems to suit most chefs to a T. Many of us in the hospitality business are gregarious by nature and so it makes sense that we love to go out with groups of our friends. If we're a little boisterous, so much the better! And by occupational circumstances, most chefs are grazers for the simple reason that we rarely ever have time to sit down to a full meal. So tapas is a natural way of eating for us and one that appeals to our desire to taste a wide variety of foods and to celebrate what little free time we have with our friends. And a crawl from tapas bar to tapas bar is a great way to celebrate!

Back to my local tapas mission. It surely wasn't hard to start serving tapas at the restaurant, not much more difficult than serving any other kind of food, except that tapas are perhaps a bit more labor intensive. Still, within a week of taking the decision to serve tapas, we were up and running, serving an array of tapas every week night from 5pm until 7pm when we started to get busy for dinner. Running a full dinner menu and a tapas menu out of the same tiny kitchen is difficult at best, so we cut tapas off at 7pm to concentrate on normal dinner service.

We quickly discovered that there is no culture of going out after work in Winchester. As amazing as it might seem to some readers, if people work here in town, they leave just as soon as work is over. By 5:15, all the business parking lots around us are deserted. If people commute to work, they're still on the road between 5 and 7 and are not going out anywhere after their long drives.

Did you hear that rock rolling back to the bottom of the mountain? Poor Sysiphus.

After listening to complaints that we ended our tapas hours too early, we picked a few nights and extended them. The result? Customers wanted to eat a full dinner after 7pm and would not order tapas, even when presented the opportunity.

Two years ago, we decided to serve only tapas on Wednesday nights, to try to create an event night in town and we put a lot of marketing money behind it. Every now and again, we would draw a good crowd, but just as frequently, we'd be empty. For a time, we were seemingly grossly under- or over-prepared. In the end, we developed only a small following of customers who would come somewhat regularly, meaning about once a month.

Ultimately, we found that most customers will not sit for two or three hours and order small bites every now and again, as whim strikes. Our customers wanted to order at most three items and wanted them at once, all to themselves. It was incredibly rare to find a table that would order food to share or that would order a few tapas every 15 or 20 minutes.

And this caused us no end of difficulties. We would serve all the tapas ordered at one time family style, with as many tapas on a single plate as would fit comfortably, simply because our tables are not big enough for bunches of small plates. Family style service went over like a lead balloon, for the simple reason that people are very territorial about their food.

For example, when a table of four would order four orders of scallops, we would put all four scallops on a single plate. I cannot count the number of times that someone at the table would pull the entire plate of scallops to himself and eat all of them. Then the table would be screaming at the server that she only brought one order of scallops rather than the four that they ordered. Once the server explained the situation, the table would grouse about our tiny portion sizes. You can surely imagine the impact this had on our servers' tips.

Sysiphus trudges back to the bottom to start pushing again.

The poor servers were constantly dealing with irate customers because "my food is on *his* plate," when in fact, there were several communal plates on the table. It always amazes me to watch people at a communal table who grab a plate from the center and pull it up close to them and shield it with both elbows down on either side of it, like a hawk shielding her fresh kill with her wings. Sadly, territoriality and tapas do not mix.

Besides this awkwardness for the service staff, we were damned by portion size. For better or worse, Winchester, Virginia, lies smack in the heart of the Land of the Golden Trough, where all you can eat is a way of life, a sport almost.

Over the years, we found that customers were predisposed to order only three tapas from the menu regardless of the size of the tapas, probably out of reflex from years of ordering an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert. When we started tapas, we were doing traditional one- or two-bite tapas.

Customers, after ordering the requisite three tapas, would still be pretty hungry as you can well imagine. Rather than order more food, they would grumpily ask for the bill, pay it huffily, and depart quickly to go tell the world what tiny portions we served. It mattered not that their bills were minuscule in comparison to a standard dinner bill.

Inexorably Sysiphus trudges on, knowing the darkness to more fully appreciate the light when he sees it.

After a few weeks of being bad-mouthed around town, we started gradually increasing the portion size (and the price) until at the end of 2007 we were no longer doing tapas at all, but rather half-sized entrées with full garnishes. As a result, in the kitchen we were doing all the work of a full entrée, but for only one third the money. And the planning for the garnishes and plating took all the joy and spontaneity from tapas service.

Even more disheartening was that each Wednesday night, an average of two tables would get up and walk out without ordering, after looking at the menu. On more than one occasion I heard "I don't want this tapas shit," as disgruntled would-be patrons exited stage left.

We continued to suffer these walk-outs even after we included traditional entrées on our tapas night menus, a lesson that we learned early on was necessary to appease a large segment of our clientele. Moreover, the actual walk-outs were on top of the customers who refused to book a table on the phone once they discovered that we were offering tapas.

Now Sysiphus takes a hard look at the rock, laying in a gully at his feet.

To cap off our tapas experience, we looked at our books, which were very clear. We were still drawing the same number of customers as before we started tapas, but our ticket averages were off by 30% on tapas nights. The expected extra customers never showed up to compensate for the lower checks.

Clearly a marketing person would look at the equation of more labor, more disgruntled customers, fewer reservations, more walk-outs, and less money and arrive at the conclusion that the product offered was not demanded by the market. But Sysiphus is not a marketing person, is he?

And here we, like Camus, leave Sysiphus at the bottom of the mountain, where finds himself weary and his back sore. Will he summon the strength to start pushing the rock towards the summit once again?

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