Sunday, May 1, 2011

2011: May 1st

This is the May 1st installment of my twice-monthly series documenting a year in the life of my restaurant. The previous installment mentioned that this one would necessarily be late in getting posted for the simple reason that we always close this time of year for vacation. And so it is late, but better late than never.

This two-week period started off in crazy fashion with torrential rain on Saturday, April 16th. I knew just driving to work that the rain would not help our business and sure enough by 9am the phone started ringing. People weren't calling to book tables, just the opposite—they were calling to cancel on account of the rain. On the weekends, we depend on customers driving out from Northern Virginia, DC, and Baltimore and if it is raining, they are likely to stay home. And so it was this particular weekend.

While all this spring rain has not been great for customers, it has been great for two things: asparagus and morels. We have lots and lots of both. Currently we are serving the two together in a cream sauce with pancetta, shallots, thyme, and strozzapretti pasta. The kitchen smells amazing each time we cook one of these dishes. There is something fundamentally awesome about morels and cream!

The renovations of the restaurant are moving along and now we are just starting to paint the dining room, which is the first change that is getting regulars to notice that we really are renovating. Many people have not really noticed the total changeout of the table tops, the reorganization of the dining room, changes in lighting, new window treatments, new plants or any of the more subtle changes. But now the regulars cannot help but notice the dining room going from a vivid scarlet color to a warm tan. All the comments so far are very positive, with the exception of one guy who is not amused that his favorite table lost the bulky bench seats in favor of chairs. So be it. He'll grouse for a minute but it won't stop him from coming in.

Speaking of grousing, amongst all the positive reviews we received this week on the web, we got a pretty miserable one that complained (in part) about the ceiling, which admittedly looks a little like a patchwork quilt as we are replacing old damaged ceiling tiles in preparation for painting the ceiling a rich chocolate color. Obviously, this person did not want to see that the ceiling is in the process of renovation.

But any amateur restaurant review that leads off grousing about portion size and then takes the décor to task without mentioning how the food tastes is all about one thing: price. Our prices are higher than this woman wanted to pay. So rather than just state that, she had to spew venom about everything else. We're used to it by now. We just hope that people stumbling across her review will recognize the comments for what they really are and weigh them against the preponderance of highly positive comments left by others.

We were closed for our annual holiday the last week of the month and it was a scramble just to get ready to go on vacation. A lot of paperwork has to be accelerated or delayed, plants have to be watered more heavily than usual, mail has to be stopped, all our digital media updated, refrigerators have to be cleaned out and unplugged so that they will defrost, and so forth. It's just like going on vacation at your house only on a larger scale.

It's always terribly difficult to manage the menu just before closing for a week. We don't want to waste food by having it spoil while we are away and we don't want to run out during the final dinner service before we leave. So we plan proteins that can be frozen without compromising quality while we are away, or proteins that we can prep little by little as we need them, or proteins that are not terribly expensive. We end up eating a big staff meal before we leave, sending food home with employees, or donating it to another restaurant down the block.

We close on account of the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, the celebration of the local apple industry, an industry that is struggling against imports from China. This year was the 84th festival. Although it was a bigger deal in decades past when it drew US Presidents and major celebrities, it is still a big deal with Val Kilmer headlining last year. According to various estimates, attendance is between 200,000 and 400,000 people, all of whom descend on our little town of 24,000 people.

You would think with that many people in town needing to eat that it would be a boon time for the restaurant. So we thought the first couple of years toughing out the festival, but we were sadly wrong. The entire week, we didn't make enough money to cover even a day's expenses.

As you might imagine, logistics are a nightmare with this many people in town. Just getting around is difficult. This coupled with the fact that we are inside the parade route means that vehicles cannot get through the barricades on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, the only nights during the week that we hope to turn a profit. The other nights of the week are unprofitable to breakeven.

Our downtown pedestrian mall is lined with out-of-towners hawking all manner of junk food: fried onions, corn dogs, funnel cakes and the like. And so that food draws droves of people seeking junk food and not high-end dining. Those people that do make it over to our alley a block west off the pedestrian mall are largely tanked on cheap beer, stuffed with fried junk, and seeking a place to use the bathroom. Our restaurant becomes a 2400-square foot public toilet.

Rather than deal with all this, we just close up shop for a week and give everyone a chance for some down time. For my part, I went to St. Martin, the so-called culinary capital of the Caribbean. I've got to say that we produce better food at One Block West than at any of the high-end places at which we dined down there. Poor bastards have everything shipped in from overseas, mainly France. There is no local agriculture. We have it pretty good right here in the lovely Shenandoah Valley!

My big regret in leaving town was missing the barrel tasting at Linden Vineyards. and being unable to provide food to pair with the barrel samples. I just love pairing food with Jim's wine. Oh well, maybe the calendar will line up better next year so that I can make it.

And that's it for the very abbreviated May 1st update. Thanks for reading and I hope you will stay tuned for the May 15th edition.

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