Thursday, December 1, 2011

2011: December 1st

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! I certainly did and I was really happy to have a day off to spend with friends and family; what a great break away from the restaurant, if only for a day! Days off come rarely in this business and I cherish them. Welcome everyone to the December 1st update from One Block West Restaurant. It hasn't seemed like a full year since I started doing these twice monthly posts, but here I am sitting down to write the 23rd and next to last installment. Wow, has this year flown by!

Thanksgiving opens the holiday season and naturally causes a lull in business. For example, Wednesday night before Thanksgiving saw zero diners grace our doors. Getting blanked is highly unusual and is usually reserved for when it is snowing heavily. Those times are predictable and I will open the business by myself to save labor costs, but we had the full Wednesday night crew on that night, staring at each other and playing cards. I do believe that we will close the Wednesday before Thanksgiving next year.

Still Thanksgiving week was not all doom and gloom. Business the weekend after Thanksgiving seems to be a predictor for how people are feeling and I am happy to say that we are back up to 2007 levels. Not back to the glory days of 2005 and 2006, but back to the year when business started its long slow slide for the toilet. Despite the lousy start to the week, it finished fairly strong and that is promising.

Even though the general business trend this year is up over the past couple of years, business is, if anything, much more volatile than ever before. That is to say that the highs are higher and the lows are lower than I can ever remember. I've never known such a time when we have had so few customers one night to be followed with so many the very next night. This is making staffing and prepping damn near impossible. Years ago, I used to have a very good feel for how many customers we would do on a given night. Today, I have no clue. Unpredictable is the new normal as we head into the holiday party season.

I wrote that last sentence rather hopefully. I hope we have some holiday parties this year, but so far, none are booked and nobody's calling either, just like the last three years. Several years ago, 5 and 6 companies would be competing for the same time slots for parties and we would do double our normal monthly business in December.

The holidays always cause me anguish in trying to balance the need of the business to bring in money (and in the past few years, to survive) versus my employees' desires to have time off to spend with their families. And count me in on that too: I want time off as well! 2011 is especially bad because Christmas Eve, a day that we are normally closed, falls on a Saturday, our biggest revenue day of the week.

Christmas Eve is normally a horrendously slow and painful day in the restaurant business here in Winchester and so we gladly close. But with it being a Saturday this year, what to do? After much anguish and considering that 2011 has left us in a reasonable cash position heading into the dreaded dead months, I have decided to close as a gift to my staff and to myself. Naturally, immediately upon taking that decision, we have turned away reservations for a quarter of the dining room. And so it goes. There are never any right answers.

There's not too much more to say about this two week period because it has been so slow. We started off with a bang, with several back-to-back tastings that kept us busy in the kitchen. At least all these tastings gave us something to focus on during a slow time. They create a lot of work in the kitchen for the simple reason that in general nothing on the tasting menu appears on the nightly dinner menu, and so the entire tasting menu must be prepped from scratch. And they keep the front of house staff hopping during service because there is a new wine to be served with each course and new silverware to go on the table with each course. And of course, the servers are frequently in the kitchen communicating with us about timing and pacing of the courses. It's a lot of work for everyone, but we enjoy it. Here are some photos if you like.

Friday night after Thanksgiving saw more traffic on that particular night than in years, but it was a night when people who rarely go out to dinner, especially at fine restaurants, descended en masse on restaurants, very much like Valentine's Day. As a result, we had more food sent back on that one night than in the entire month of November. It happens. It can be a little (OK, a lot) irritating to have perfectly good food sent back, but what are you going to do? Make these customers happy once a year and they will go tell all their friends that they have been to your restaurant, giving you great exposure, and they will come back next year at the same time and spend more money.

Moreover, that evening we were doubly blessed with tables from urban areas such as Washington, DC and Westchester County, NY that had very superior attitudes, sending subtle signals designed to let us know that we are second class citizens, inferior provincial beings, out here in Podunk, VA. With these kinds of tables, it is a no-win situation. When the table starts with the idea that because we are in Nowhere, VA, the food cannot be as good as it is back home, the evening is guaranteed to be miserable for us, especially the front of house staff who bear the brunt of the superior attitudes. Some of these tables do come around by the end of the evening, but those that do not, they are a pain in the rear to the bitter end.

And speaking of pains in the rear, I spent 25 minutes out of my busy day yesterday on the phone with my dear friends at the Virginia Employment Commission because the dishwasher that I wrote about firing in the last posting has filed—quite unsurprisingly—for unemployment benefits. Despite the fact that during the interview the ex-dishwasher corroborated everything that I stated about his failure to come to work and his subsequent termination and despite the fact that he copped a serious attitude with the VEC examiner, it is my experience that it is only 50-50 that his claim for benefits will be denied.

In talking with other business owners, my experience is not unusual. Even in what appear to be open-and-shut cases, the VEC seems prone to award benefits. And we business owners don't like this, because we get taxed in proportion to the amount of benefits that get paid out. I suspect, on no particular evidence, that the VEC has a mandate to take it out of businesses' hides because otherwise, many of the unemployed would end up on the welfare roles, taking money not from businesses but from the general fund. Just saying.

And finally, an update on the renovation. The bar floor is now painted and the bar update is complete save for the bar stools, which the manufacturer now says will ship today, December 1st. And what do you know? I just got an email that the chairs have been transferred to an LTL carrier for delivery to the restaurant. Currently they are en route from Grand Rapids, so I expect them in about a week or so, the vagaries of LTL trucking being what they are.

The next edition will be the final, the 24th, in this series. I hope you will join me then as I wrap up 2011 and its highs and lows. And now, off to worry about our New Year's Eve menu and prep for the Chef's Table this evening. Thanks for reading along. Until next time, eat and drink well.

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