This year for One Blog West, I have decided to do something a bit different, based on what my winemaker friend Jeff White did on his blog last year. I’m going to make updates on the first and 15th of each month in the form of a running diary about what is going on at the restaurant just like Jeff did for his winery last year.
The past couple of years, I have not been updating my blog all that frequently, in part due to these new things called the OBW Facebook page and the OBW Twitter feed that occupy time that used to go to the blog, but mainly because I haven’t felt that I had much new to say. But in reading Jeff’s blog over the last year, I think I have found a new sense of purpose for my blog, at least for the next year. So Jeff, thank you.
And so I am sitting here on the first day of the new year in what is the beginning of our ninth year typing away about the business. It is hard to imagine that the past eight years have flown by so quickly. I started this business when I was 40 and I’ll be 49 next month. Where does time go? In an industry where the average life span of a restaurant is under five years, I guess I have beat the odds.
Our New Year's Eve dinner, always one of the busiest of the year, went off very, very smoothly. The only real issue that I noted was that customers from our first seating chose not to vacate their tables and so created a bit of a logjam as guests for the second seating arrived. It wasn't a bad logjam though and we got everyone seated with a minimum of delay. We give tables a two hour and fifteen minute window before reseating and in the past, that has worked quite well. Not sure what the issue was this year. The kitchen was pumping food out very efficiently, so we weren't the cause. I think people just wanted to take their time this year.
We had a fantastic menu last night including oyster stew, our famous prosciutto-wrapped scallops, caviar, terrine de foie gras, rockfish, cassoulet, free range veal chops, lobster risotto with fresh black truffles, and several other delicacies, including a vegetarian feast we called Winter's Bounty.
Given all these great things on the menu, I thought that we would have a pretty good entrée mix. We're always aiming for a good mix to keep the food spread out among all the stations in the kitchen to balance the workload. I was shocked and somewhat dismayed that half of our appetizer orders were for a green salad and half of our entrée orders were for filet mignon. Even after we cut a large number of steaks before service, we had to cut more during service, not once, but twice!
It baffles me why a customer would come to a seasonal ingredient-driven restaurant with a creative chef and pay to have the one dish that he could have at any restaurant anywhere in the country: steak and salad. Time and familiarity with this scenario have dulled my feelings; I used to get really irritated that people would not try anything creative on the menu. Now, I just shrug it off. That the filet mignon is the most expensive entrée on the menu helps as well!
I hope each of you has celebrated a wonderful holiday season. For me, as a business owner, I hated that we were essentially forced to be closed on two Saturdays, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. In this economy, a restaurant is a two-day a week operation: Friday and Saturday. Taking two of them out hurts. But, as a guy who never gets time off, having two back-to-back two-day weekends is amazing! So this is what the rest of the world experiences for a weekend! I am loving my time off and being able to spend some quality time with my girlfriend Ann.
January is always a strange month at the restaurant. Trafficwise, it is one of the slowest months, but workwise, at least for me, it is one of my busiest months. Sadly, like most business owners I am busy doing things other than what got me into the business in the first place. Although happily I did spend the last two days in the kitchen for the entire day prepping for New Year's Eve, cooking is not what is keeping me busy this time of year.
Deskwork keeps me busy. When we started nine years ago, I hired a bookkeeper, but the value-add was not there. Certainly, she spared me the hours of data entry, but the incessant questions about how to expense every nickel and dime were intrusive on my hours in the kitchen. And the additional time that I would have to spend to correct the books at the end of the month before closing them was as I am fond of saying, “¡No bueno!” So, after some months of this, I let her go and took on the bookkeeping myself.
Over the years, I have built several Excel spreadsheets that have greatly simplified the daily bookkeeping and accounting, keeping it down to about 20 minutes per day. These spreadsheets mainly ensure that the data is correct before it gets entered into QuickBooks. (As an aside, if you are running a small business, QuickBooks is essential. It is the best investment you will ever make.)
While each week’s bookkeeping burden is minimal, January is a different story. I have to close not only the last week of 2010, but the month of December, the fourth quarter, and the year of 2010 on top of that. Final tax deposits and tax returns have to be made to the IRS and the states of Virginia and West Virginia (because I have WV-resident employees) as well. Then there are 1099s, W-2, and the W-3 to generate and distribute, with copies to the states, the IRS, and SSA. And I have to make my final unemployment returns with both states and the Feds, joy of joys!
Then I have to file my annual reports with Virginia ABC about my sales of alcohol. Despite being able to enter the data onto their web site and upload my inventory spreadsheet directly to their server, it takes a solid half a day to extract all the information needed from QuickBooks. All this nonsense is to ensure that I have food sales of at least 45% of my gross, according the archaic Prohibitionist laws to prevent bars in the Commonwealth. God forbid that somebody should open an old-fashioned bar in the Commonwealth of Virginia!
Then my insurance company wants to extract its pound of flesh: they have all manner of forms that must be filled out so that they can audit my workman’s comp policy to make sure that I was paying the right premium: each year’s premium is based on an estimated payroll. January is time to check the estimates versus the actuals.
And it doesn’t end there, but this gives you a flavor of why my January is so damned busy, doing work that is not enjoyable and does not help move my business forward. I have all this crap to look forward to this month and it will keep me busy up until about the 20th when I file all the taxes from December and turn my books over to my accountant, but more on this in the next edition.
January in recent years has been a month of hope: I hope the economy gets better, I hope I can manage cashflow until money starts coming back in to the restaurant after the weather breaks in April, and I hope it doesn’t snow. Cashflow is primary in my mind right now because December 2010 is on the books as the third worst December ever. Customers abandoned us in December, but we weren’t alone. Most restaurant owners are singing the same blues. Typically, we put on fat during the holiday season to help us through the bad weather months. This year, we took off fat during the holidays. ¡No bueno!
Snow is the bane of our existence in the winter. The mere mention of it in the long-range forecast is enough to send customers scurrying to their phones to cancel reservations. After all these years, I am reconciled to the fact that forces beyond my control can and do impact my business. And I know that we will find a way to survive through the winter, but that doesn’t keep me from taking it personally when our whole reservation book cancels and it doesn’t even snow. And when it does snow, we have significant snow removal costs to clear our parking lot in case customers get brave enough to venture out. Low traffic and high expenses can make me a grumpy boy. Snow, I hate you!
Coming up on the 20th is our first third Thursday wine dinner of 2011, this one with Tarara Winery from just north of Leesburg. We have Greek wines and South African wines on the schedule for February and March. I'll need to get busy in the next few weeks scheduling dinners for the second quarter. But back to January's dinner. With the arrival of a new winemaking team at Tarara a few years ago, the quality of the wines has increased to the point where I am comfortable pairing my food with them. There are still a lot of Virginia wineries whose wines I would be embarrassed to pour. It's always a delicate issue dodging their requests to do a dinner.
Fresh local produce this time of year is a real struggle. We buy as much produce as possible from local farmers. Beth and Gene Nowak at Mayfair Farm grow the bulk of our produce, but we also buy from five or six other local farmers. We’re at the tail end of local kale, mustard, and Italian parsley. Beth told me that she has picked all her mustard and there is no more cavolo nero from our other farmer either. Beth has greens in the greenhouse coming such as arugula and Chinese broccoli (gai lan), but they’re not ready yet and because she always takes a week off between Christmas and New Year’s to visit her mother on the West Coast, we’re hurting for green veg. I finally gave up the struggle last week and ordered a case of broccolini from the produce company. I hate doing it, but I have to put something green on plates.
But now is prime season for both black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms. I have a friend who is a forager in Oregon who keeps me well supplied with mushrooms and truffles all year. And it is prime game season as well. So, January menus will focus on game, mushrooms, and trying to do creative things with storage vegetables such as winter squash, parsnips, celery root, dried beans, sweet potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, cabbages, brussels sprouts and the like. And if Beth brings us something green from the greenhouse, it will be a bonus.
It's time to wrap up this epistle. 2010 is in the books, somewhat down from 2009 but just how far awaits a bit more deskwork next week. I'm hoping 2011 brings optimism on the part of customers. It would be nice to get back to the days of 2007 and before when we didn't have to watch every penny like a hawk. I am optimistic that 2011 will be a better year (but then I was optimistic about 2010 too!). I'm looking forward to the slower pace of January and some time to catch my breath, get some of the tasks ticked off my myriad lists, and perhaps think about some new dishes for the coming spring. Until the 15th, then.