It's late on the fifteenth as I sit here writing this, the April 15th installment of the twice-monthly series documenting the year 2011 at the restaurant. The previous post was on April 1st. Thanks for reading along.
Happy Tax Day! I just paid my first quarter taxes for 2011 and the balance on what I owe from 2010, how about you? For us self-employed individuals, there is no payroll deduction of taxes, so it always seems to come as a shock to my system when I have to mail that quarterly check to the Feds.
I wish I could report otherwise, but our business like that of most restaurants that I know has been very slow this April as it is every April. Looking at the restaurant business from the outside, you would assume that business would be increasing with the good weather in April, but on the contrary, it is one of the slowest months of the year. At the beginning of the month, the NCAA basketball tournament distracts customers and then taxes distract customers until after they are complete at mid-month. After that, the Apple Blossom Festival hits town and totally kills our business, but more on that in the May 1st installment in a couple of weeks.
At the beginning of the month, we attended the barrel tasting at Glen Manor Vineyards south of Front Royal where our good friends Jeff and Kelly White make outstanding wine. After tasting in barrel, I can confidently say that the 2010s are delicious and easily the best vintage ever in Virginia, way better than the phenomenal 2007 vintage. For those who escaped the May frost in 2010 and set fruit, the drought stress from the hottest summer on record yielded amazing fruit. I am looking forward to 2012 and beyond as these great wines hit the market.
On the way down to Glen Manor, we stopped at Old House Parts in Front Royal and scored three window sashes for a divider screen to separate the server station from the dining room, part of the ongoing renovation of the restaurant. Having restored an old Victorian house in a former life, I have a special fondness for recycled building materials and am happy to incorporate those into the restaurant. All the stuff coming out of the restaurant that is salvageable is going to Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, to help them out. We recycle everything at the restaurant, so why not building materials?
Our specialty goods supplier had its first food show in 10 years and we attended it on the 5th. They carry so many thousands of items in inventory that it is nearly impossible to get a handle on what they do carry. Although it was a huge scramble for me to get the restaurant open, fly down to the show, hurry through, and fly back to the restaurant, it was great to meet a lot of the vendors and not only see, but taste a lot of their wares. If there were no other reason to drive/fly the hour into Springfield, at least I confirmed my suspicions about our brand of chocolate.
Our chocolate company was acquired about a year ago by a big multi-national conglomerate and I have been concerned that the chocolate we have been receiving is a) not the same product it was when we first selected it and b) of decreased quality. Tasting through five different brands of chocolate absolutely confirmed for me that we are switching chocolate brands on the next re-order. My policy of never settling for second best in terms of our raw ingredients has always done well for me. I will always switch to get better quality, as long as I can keep the price at a level where customers can afford it.
I also got samples of a new risotto rice to try. I am excited to blind taste this rice against our current brand. Then I have to find out what the new rice costs, if it proves to be as good as I think it is going to be. I'm almost scared to ask.
Another standout for me at the show was the product line from OLLI Salumeria Americana from Richmond. We are already using their guanciale and based on how good it is, I had very high expectations about their prosciutto which I had never tasted before the show. I was unprepared to be blown away by their prosciutto. Great job guys!
One of the cool things about this business is that from time to time, really interesting people show up at the restaurant unannounced trying to sell us really good stuff. The first of this month, a tiny gentleman in plain dress walked into restaurant and offered me samples of his cheese. Turns out that he is John Esh of Goot Essa in Pennsylvania and his Alpen Käse is excellent. It now features on our cheese list and probably would not have had John not taken the effort to introduce himself and his product to me. Win, win.
Our new menu covers arrived on the 8th, a week ahead of schedule. How nice is it to get something ahead of schedule? If you've been to the restaurant, you have seen our old book-like menu covers with our logo on the front cover. After three ceiling collapses in the past three years, many of them were destroyed by water flooding down from the apartments above. And those that the water didn't destroy were ruined by customers who folded the covers back on themselves, ripping the spine. People who wouldn't dream of destroying their own hardback books by maltreating them apparently had no qualms about destroying our menu covers. At $45 apiece, it ripped at my being each time I would look out into the dining room to see someone else abusing the menus.
Knowing the propensity for customers to abuse our menu covers drove me to get rid of the elegant folding covers in favor of single page cover with the menu on one side and the by-the-glass wine list on the other. They still look great and are way less expensive. The only downside is that customers cannot close their menus to signal us that they are ready to order, not much of a drawback at all. If anything, it will force the servers to pay just a little bit more attention to the customers and their body language and that cannot be bad.
Speaking of bad, right at the first of the month, the back of the restaurant started smelling bad, like there was a dead rat somewhere. We got the landlord involved to check the apartments upstairs and the basement and when he got to the basement, it was full of waste water. We systematically checked all the drain lines and found that the sprayer sink in front of our dish machine was dumping straight into the basement. Special. After a consultation with the plumber, we're getting all the drain lines in the kitchen redone. Life in old buildings: love it, hate it.
On April the 8th, the first morels of the year made their appearance as an appetizer on our nightly menus, heralding the switch from winter to spring mushrooms. The annual parade of local foragers coming in the front door with bags of mushrooms has started! Since last fall, we have been running both hedgehog and black trumpet mushrooms on our nightly menus. In many years, trumpets and hedgehogs end a month before morels start, forcing us to scramble with lesser, but still very good mushrooms, such as yellowfoot chanterelles. By the 12th, we had run through all the black trumpets in the cooler and the morels moved from the appetizer slot to a wild mushroom entrée slot. Morels will be with us for a few weeks before we make the summer transition to fresh porcini and chanterelles.
On the 13th, I taught my final cooking class of the current series. This class was on cooking an Easter Dinner, just in time for the big day next Sunday. I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching these classes and Michelle and I will schedule more later on in the year, but first, I need a little break. Prepping for these classes is very intense and takes me away from restaurant operations for about six hours.
As mentioned in the past several postings in this series, renovation of the restaurant is underway. At the first of the month, our new batch of chairs arrived and we proceeded to rip out some of the bulky booths and replace them with chairs. Just this simple change has really opened up the space. I've been painting, patching walls, and doing little things here and there as I had time.
Yesterday and today, I tackled the first big project, building the divider screen between the front server station and the dining room. The screen is a wooden frame that holds the recycled window sashes that I mentioned earlier. A few hours priming wood, a few hours on the chop saw and with the nail gun, and a couple more hours with paint brush in hand and the deed is done. We're still getting used to the new look, but customers are really making positive comments.
Last posting, I included a copy of our April Fool's menu with the goofy dish names and prices multiplied by 10. Just this evening, I got a confessional note from a would-be customer who cancelled her reservations that evening because she pulled the menu up on her phone on the way to the restaurant and saw the "outrageous" prices not realizing it was a joke. Win some; lose some.
Tonight was the first night of the two-day wine festival here in downtown Winchester, an event that is really pretty good for business. This year, however, it seemed to degenerate into a young people's drunkfest (basically a very large postwork Friday night happy hour) and it didn't do much for our Friday night book compared to years past. Our Saturday book looks great however and it seems that a lot more of our potential clientele are planning to come out from Northern Virginia, weather willing. Given the forecast, mass cancellations will not surprise me. Expecting large crowds, I have a ton of food on hand and I am on pins and needles hoping that we can sell it all. The weather gods seem to be against us.
Finally, next month's installment of this series, the May 1st posting, will be a few days late. I will be in St. Martin on the beach, rum drink in hand, the week before flying back on May 1st. I promise to regale you with the tale of why we close during what should be a very good week for us. Until then, eat, drink, and live well.