January is now in the books and it was one for the books: our worst month ever in nine years of business. The press keeps touting that the recession is receding but from my vantage point, I can't see it. Recession or not, the weather was a crucial factor in lack of January sales. In the last two weeks of our first four-week month, we lost 7 of 10 sales days to weather. (Aside: our year is divided into 13 4-week accounting periods so that we compare the same weeks every year; calendar months complicate things because for example, January can have four weekends one year and five the next). As I have said before, the actual weather doesn't matter and for the record, we only had one bad day of snow. Just the forecast of bad weather is sufficient to stall business. I don't like the weather forecasters very much right now.
This is the time of year that gift certificates come back to haunt us. We sell scores for Christmas and consequently stockpile a little cash to help us get through the winter. In the last couple of weeks, those gift certificates have come out of the woodwork. At this, the slowest time of year when we are starving for cash, we’d love to have everyone pay cash, but it is not to be. Perversely, this is the time of year when we take in the highest percentage of gift certificates. So what really matters to our business, cashflow, is at its worst of the year at a time when the weather causes traffic to be at its worst too. But such is the business; I'm used to it.
It's not all gloom and doom, though. I have two pieces of good news. First, while business overall continues to be weak, I’m pleased with the strength of our Saturday night book. The majority of our business is coming from 703, 571, and 202 area codes. Thanks to everyone in Northern Virginia and DC for making the drive out and keeping us in business. While our restaurant is one of the more expensive ones in Winchester, by Northern Virginia and DC standards, our prices are on the low end of the spectrum. To quote a customer from a recent anonymous dining survey, "the best tasting fine dining meal I've had for the lowest price in a long time."
The second piece of good news is that all my year-end bookkeeping was completed by the 19th, well ahead of my usual schedule of the 23rd or 24th. I put my head down for 8-hour stretches at a time and motored through the paperwork. Thankfully, it is all behind me for another year.
Last posting, I talked about needing to revamp the lunch menu. Here’s another reason. Since the debacle in the Gulf of Mexico last spring, the price of shrimp is through the roof. And shrimp is king of our lunch menu. Our shrimp and grits lunch entrée is easily the biggest seller we have. And now, the shrimp we use has escalated from $6.50 a pound to $9.25 a pound. The shrimp and grits entrée priced at $12 is no longer pulling its weight. As currently constructed, this dish needs to sell for about $16.50. My options are: keep on sucking it up and pray for shrimp prices to recede, raise the price to reflect the true cost of shrimp, shrink the portion size, raise the price slightly, reduce the quality of shrimp, or some combination.
This is an example of a problem that food purveyors and grocery manufacturers deal with continually: how to maintain profitability when a commodity escalates sharply in price. I’m not a big business: I can’t stockpile 1000 pounds of shrimp in my freezer. My freezer is barely big enough to hold ice cream for desserts. I can’t lock in prices on long-term or futures contracts. I have to deal with market prices. For our dinner menu, this is not a problem. I change it daily, so if, for example, rockfish were to spike to obnoxious price levels, I would serve another species of fish. But the lunch menu is a different beast. It changes about six times a year, leaving me vulnerable to price fluctuations.
In the last two weeks, guests have really pleased me by latching on to two of our more creative dishes that are not the typical salad/crab cake/steak dishes that we sell so much of. The Sweet Potato Bisque with Crab appetizer is a silky smooth soup that we make with sweet potatoes, coconut milk, kaffir lime, red curry paste, fish sauce, and Thai basil. On top of this fairly thick soup we nestle a mound of jumbo lump crab marinated in kaffir lime vinaigrette.
Also popular is the vegetarian Israeli Couscous “Risotto” with Goat Cheese entrée, Israeli couscous cooked like risotto in vegetable broth, seasoned with a little garlic and pimentón, garnished with tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts, and finished by swirling in goat cheese, grated pecorino, and baby arugula. It may be selling because it is a really good dish. Or it might be selling for a reason that I mentioned in my last posting: people are prone to try to eat what they perceive as healthier food at this time of year because of their New Year’s resolutions. In any case, I applaud them for trying a dish that they cannot find at another restaurant.
I polished the Valentine’s menu and posted it on the web site on the 17th and opened up the reservations book for Valentine’s Day reservations. We do not accept reservations more than 30 days in advance; our experience has been that we have a very high no-show rate for tables booked more than a month out. Almost immediately, all our tables from 7:00 to 7:30 filled up. We still have a lot of tables from 5:00 to 9:00, but those really won’t start filling up until the final week before Valentine’s Day and a large percentage of people calling then will grouse about not being able to get a table in the 7:00 to 7:30 time slot. Not much I can do about that.
For Valentine's Day and other days when space is at a premium, we require a credit card to hold tables; it keeps our no-show rate right around zero. Before we started requiring credit cards, we would have a significant no-show rate for the early and late tables. The game that some people play is to wait until way too late to book a table then call a bunch of restaurants, booking any table (or even a couple of tables at different restaurants) closest to the time that they want. Then they will waitlist themselves at all the other restaurants. If a table opens up at a more preferable time, they will take that table, but not cancel any of their reservations. And they still stay waitlisted hoping for a still better table. It’s a despicable practice, but it happens frequently.
We were in the highly unusual position this year of cancelling one of our prime time tables. We held the table because the customer said, "I’m at work and my credit card is at home." We didn’t believe that—who goes out without their credit card?—but still we held the reservation on the off chance that the customer may have truly forgotten her card. After three unanswered phone calls to her and messages requesting her credit card number, we left her a message stating that her reservation had been cancelled and her table given to someone else. This has never happened before for a prime table. And as we get into February, this won’t happen again. No credit card, no reservation.
Also in the past couple of weeks, I’ve sent photographs to Virginia Wine Lover magazine for an upcoming issue featuring the City of Winchester. And I did an interview with a writer for the National Culinary Review about using kale and winter greens for a forthcoming issue as well. I also sent them photos and a recipe for a couple of soups featuring kale, including my ribollita.
We hold a wine dinner each month, typically on the third Thursday and in January, we scheduled a dinner with Tarara Winery from just north of Leesburg. Unfortunately, we had to cancel it because we didn't have enough reservations the week before the event. Sadly, we could have gone forward with the event because true to the recent fashion of waiting until the last possible moment to book, several people called for reservations after I had already cancelled it. I don't think people realize that it can take up to a week to get the necessary wine delivered so I have to make a go or no-go decision about a week in advance of the dinner. Speaking of wine dinners, we're planning a really cool dinner featuring excellent new-style Greek wines on February 24th. We'd love to have you at the dinner; just make sure to call by the 18th. I promise that we will not serve retsina at this dinner or ever!
Speaking of wine, we make major revisions to our wine list twice a year, just before Memorial Day and just after Labor Day. The spring sees the addition of rosés and juicy summer patio whites such as Vinho Verde, Rueda, and Torrontes. The fall revision ushers these wines out; actually it’s nothing we do actively. When the weather starts to turn, we all reflexively reach for the reds for the fall and winter. It’s the normal scheme of things.
I mention this now because we are already starting to think about revisions for the spring, about what sells well in our market and what does not, about which wines are trendy right now, about which regions had great upcoming vintages, and about which distributors are doing well by us and which are not. We currently have a sales rep who is not doing a good job for us; worse still, the distributor for which the rep works is undergoing a lot of internal turmoil, turmoil that is readily apparent to us, the customer. This is bad for the rep because we are actively searching for replacements for that rep’s wines. Although there are a bunch of wines that we cannot move away from this rep, this rep will probably do 50% less business with us in 2011 than 2010.
As you know, we take the local sourcing of our ingredients seriously and get some of them from some surprising sources. The Grafton School in Berryville, home to many special needs students, has a greenhouse on site for one of their programs in which they grow various things, including red ribbon sorrel for the restaurant. We just took delivery of a couple of flats of beautiful sorrel that reside in our kitchen to be used for garnish. This is a great win-win program.
As I mentioned in the last post, teaching cooking classes is in my future. The major stumbling block to doing cooking lessons at the restaurant is that the kitchen is too small and too busy. By teaming up with a local catering company and using their kitchen, I'm going to be able finally teach cooking classes. The schedule is posted on the restaurant web site.
I'm full in the throes of trying to replace Chris. Over the past week, we have interviewed several candidates and brought them in for test shifts to see what their skills are, to see what our mutual chemistry is, and to see how cleanly and efficiently they operate. Speed and efficiency is key but that has to be balanced with with executing dishes correctly and beautifully. So far, I've seen several meticulous cooks who are very slow. We still have a couple more candidates to test out. Hopefully I will hire someone in the next few days and get on with the process of getting the new cook up to speed.
I'll close with a story of a hateful table from last week, a couple of self-important types who wanted everything just so with their service, yet wouldn't let us approach the table to give them the service that they wanted. This type of table tells you they’re not in a hurry and gives you clear signals to stay away and not to interrupt them, yet are the first to jump down your throat when they need more butter. If you’ve ever waited tables, you know the kind. Your tip is screwed no matter what. Either you give them the service they want and get screwed on the tip because you wouldn’t leave them alone or you leave them alone and get screwed because you didn’t give them the service that they wanted. Why do these people go out to eat?
Looking forward, I have two Chef's Tastings this week to focus on and then I have to get really serious next week about Valentine's Day. There are a lot of logistics to be managed that I am certain I will discuss in the next posting. So, until right after Valentine's Day, thanks for reading along.