Tuesday, August 16, 2011

2011: August 15th

Knock, knock, knock on wood! As I start writing this next installment of "As the Block Turns," my twice-monthly update on the restaurant, business continues stronger than hoped for. Thank you restaurant gods!

I'm not sure what is going on, but people are going back out to eat after years of hibernating. Maybe we're starting to feel good about the economy (hmmm, unlikely) or just sick and tired of feeling sick and tired (more likely). Most of the dining seems to be spur of the moment. For example, the past couple of weekends, I have come into the restaurant at my usual 7:30am or so to get deskwork and thinkwork out of the way before employees, customers, and the phone calls, only to see a pretty dismal looking reservation book. Yet by magic, come dinner time, we are crushed!

I'm loving it and not complaining, but it really does make planning a challenge. How much food do I really need to purchase? I purchase my primary proteins days in advance of the weekend, so I really have to use my crystal ball and/or just roll the dice about quantities to order. I just usually go with gut feel that I have developed over the years. And my gut right now says order more than I would normally this time of year, so I am going with it.

Despite the increased business, we continue to ride the roller coaster. The stock market volatility is not helping at all. The first day of this recent downturn, the day that the Dow dropped 400 points, business stopped dead, both that day and the next. Fortunately, business rebounded nicely by the weekend. I am still amazed how external factors over which I have no control impact my business. Some days, I feel like I'm in a rudderless ship and we go in the direction the wind is blowing.

But those days have become fewer this summer and as an example of the recent positive trend, last Friday, the 12th of August, we had 11 tables (more than half the restaurant) seated before 6:00pm. This is totally unprecedented in my experience, for Friday nights don't generally get started until about 7:00pm, once everyone gets home from work. The kitchen was chaos from the moment we opened and then we had a lull during our normally chaotic 7:00-8:00pm hour. Then we turned all the tables again and we had another mad rush from 8:30-9:30pm. I was a hurting puppy when I finally got out of the kitchen to make table visits towards 10pm.

This is all good. Please keep it coming!

This update is a good bit late this month because of the crush of conflicting things that I have just had to do. I've had four special menus to get to clients in the last week, along with a tapas party to plan, our annual Harvest Dinner to plan, a magazine article to write, and pictures to find/take/edit for three different magazines. Look for articles to appear this fall. If this reminds you of "but I've got my country's 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I'm swamped." then we are on the same page.

I'm sad to report that it has been a spectacularly bad year for tomatoes. Many old heirlooms that we have come to love are not doing well, not ripening well or getting sun-scalded, showing stinkbug and bird damage, having large green cores, and otherwise just not producing well. The hybrid tomatoes are not ripening well either. If it weren't for the tiny varieties, we wouldn't have any tomatoes really worth eating on our menu this summer. And that kills me because I waited for 10 freaking months for tomatoes!

To compensate for that (as if there can really be compensation for lack of tomatoes), cantaloupes and blackberries are amazing this year. To celebrate them, I came up with (what I think is) a killer salad that I call Cantaloupe Carpaccio.

This is a salad of paper thin slices of cantaloupe, honey- and lime-marinated cubes of cantaloupe, blackberry coulis, blackberries, blackberry-marinated fresh mozzarella, and microgreens. The flavors are phenomenal! I count this among the very best dishes I have ever created and like most good ones, I didn't put any active thought into it. I was sitting in my chair around 3am one evening, trying to fall asleep, when the idea just appeared in my brain, seemingly out of nowhere. I sent myself a quick email to the restaurant lest I forget the idea by morning, and the rest is history.

I am generally doing paperwork in my windowless office in the far back of the restaurant most days until lunch gets started, so there are a lot of days when I have no idea what is going on out front. One day last week, I came out to the dining room just before noon to see both an empty dining room and a large truck parked in the alley outside the restaurant, obstructing the street. Looking further down the street, I saw that this was a city work crew and they had barricaded the entire street.

One Block West is in the middle of a landlocked city block on a one-way alley and there is exactly one way into the restaurant and one way out. If the way in is blocked, we have no business. I have had a running battle with the city and utility companies for years not to block the street during business hours. The utility companies are pretty easy to run off. They usually think they can pull a quickie and not file for a street closure permit with the police, so one call to the cops and they have no choice but to leave. Of course, in the hour it takes to get the cops on scene and to convince the utility company that it must leave, the damage to my business is done.

Naturally, the city is exempt from having to pull street closure permits. And equally naturally, they don't give a damn about impact on the local businesses that generate the tax revenue that allows them to operate. Imagine if I ran my business the way that the City of Winchester does. I'd be gone in weeks.

It does no good to abuse the workers: they, like most of us, are just doing what we have to do to put food on the table. But it doesn't hurt to remind them that we are in the same boat: if you can't work, you can't feed your kids; if the road is blocked at lunch, I can't feed mine. They are generally somewhat sympathetic to this approach and will at least call someone in management. And that's what happened this time. The crew that was doing the sewer work was really nice and called in a supervisor within five minutes. And I suggested a compromise in relocating the barricade that would allow them to work and cars to get by enough to get to the restaurant. The supervisor was extremely gracious and moved the barricade and this encounter went fairly positively compared to some in the past.

Just as soon as I had finished talking with the supervisor and arranging the compromise, who should walk into the restaurant for lunch but the new city manager? Poor timing! He was seated at the window table with a perfect view of the obstruction and I'm afraid he got a whole lot more than lunch as I vented my frustration his direction.

One of the key behind the scenes people at any restaurant is the dishwasher. Without a constant stream of clean dishes, no restaurant that does any volume of business could survive. Thus, the dishwasher is critical, as I have been reminded in the past couple of weeks as our normal dishwasher took his kids to the beach for a well-earned summer vacation. We are fortunate to have a really good dishwasher because working with most fill-in dishwashers sucks. The beach week was no fun: our fill-in guy thought that 90% clean is good enough. By the way, the dishwasher is a person. The dish machine is the big metal box that the dishwasher loads and unloads all night long.

And a final tidbit before I wrap up. We were one of the very first restaurants to take reservations on the Internet and so I have seen the Internet reservation trend from the beginning. In the early years, about 10% of our reservations came from the ether. We hit the 50-50 mark early in 2010. And now, nearly 75% of our long-term (tables booked more than 24 hours in advance) come in via the web. Like many restaurants, we accept requests on the web, but a person actually has to look at the request and make sure that we have room in the dining room at the requested hour. Then we contact the requester to either confirm the reservation or to negotiate a different time or date.

We ask the would-be customer whether we should confirm the reservation via phone or email and almost everyone selects email. So we send the email confirming the time and date of the reservation. And here is where it gets a little funny. Recently, we have had a bunch of people calling the restaurant to ask if we booked the request that they submitted over the web. When we say that we sent a confirmation email to them, the response has been, "Oh, I haven't looked at my email yet." Huh?

Finally, the dining room renovation, with the exception of a little painting and redecorating, is complete. Hallelujah! Come see!

Until next month, thanks for reading along!

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