The Making of a Restaurant

Wednesday, February 28, 2001

The final news brief in this week's Onion offers a great suggestion for our dessert menu.
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Tuesday, February 27, 2001

A more precise measure of cost efficiency may be P/PV: price to perceived value. This is why reputation and word-of-mouth are so important. When you drink a shake from the world-famous Irazu, you perceive the value to be higher than a shake at McDonald's, and you would do so even if they were to be identical.

Nikki thinks La Cumbamba got its recipe for mango-salsa flank steak from "Joy of Cooking." However, because of brilliant presentation and salesmanship, we perceive its value to be much higher than something we could probably crank out ourselves.

So, yes: Comfort, character and ambience, although costly, are all good ways to pump up PV and reduce P/PV. Eventually, our reputation will be solid enough that we'll be able to pump up the P, too, and move out of Sandy's mom's basement.
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On Saturday evening, I ate for the first time at Irazu, a popular Costa Rican restaurant in Wicker Park. I was struck by the incredibly low price to value ratio (P/V) that they were able to get away with. For $3.50, I ordered a hearty steak sandwich -- more than I could eat in one sitting. For another $1.50 I got a side of fries, and then, for a drink, I had a $2.50 shake.

Clearly, this is way out of proportion with a normal meal, but I believe that's part of their gimmick: lure you into thinking that you're clearly not spending enough on this dinner, so you spend more on accesories, thus boosting your total up to a normal range.

Two things help with this technique: 1) Irazu is known for their shakes. They display them prominently on one side of the menu, and you know what -- they're damn good. Their signature shake is oatmeal flavored, and as disgusting as that sounds, it's scrum-diddly-umptious. So you don't think twice about it costing 30% of your meal's price. And 2) They cut back severly on the amenities. Cafeteria-style chairs that are a little too high for their rickety tables. Plastic red baskets with generic wax paper covering. Plastic to-go cups with plastic lids and straws. So, yes, they are authentically Costa Rican, but it stops at the kitchen.

At our restaurant, we're obviously going to want to keep our P/V as low as possible, but we're also going to want character. And ambience. And comfort. It'll be a constant compromise when designing the place between making the customer comfortable and keeping his wallet thick.
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Last night I overheard J___ and M___ talk about J___'s problems waiting tables at B___. J___ had been working three or four shifts a week, but lately it's been only two and lower-paying ones at that. She doesn't know why she's getting jerked around. She told a few horror stories about the managers' power trips, and she thinks the bad hours are their way of saying J___ is no longer welcome.

I shudder every time I hear or read the details of restaurant ownership. They reinforce how little we know about this business. B___ has only 25 tables, and yet it's still susceptible to such politics and bureacracy? With no management experience, how will we keep the peace at our establishment?

One thing that will help is size: I don't expect we'll start with more than 10 or 15 tables. This would remove the need for a layer of management between us and each waitress, chef and bus person, enabling us to be personally attentive to and responsible for each one's needs. We should be fair, respectful and generous to all employees, if for nothing else than to get back at every bad boss we've ever had. "Take that!"

Then again, some situations may call for tyranny. We'll have to decide ahead of time who's who when it's time for "good boss, bad boss." Maybe we can alternate.
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Monday, February 26, 2001

It is not our business to enforce good manners. We can promote them, and even encourage them, but only as long as it is not irritating to the customer. Forcing the customers to remove headwear does not belong under the "lose a customer, gain the respect of a dozen more" category. It is nit-picking, and I don't believe one patron would be offended by seeing another wearing a cap.

We must pick our battles wisely. Asking customers to turn off ringers is worthwhile, and people will thank us for it. Asking customers to take off their hats is silly. We want people to be reminded of their grandparents' cooking; we should check their grandparents' attitude at the door.
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My votes:

Smoking: No. Cigarettes will be allowed, but smoking them will not.

Ties: As owners, we should wear them all the time. I think we should somehow encourage customers to take theirs off, especially if they're coming straight from work. Maybe we have a tie rack next to the coat rack.

Cell phones: Not only do we want to protect customers from the jerk yelling into the phone at the next table, but we want all people to relax and focus on their meal and companion, not their phones. At a minimum, we should request that ringers be turned off.

Camp: Never.

Chops: On our customers, yes, with reluctance. On ourselves or our employees, never.

Capes: See chops.


Dogs: Not inside, but we should have a water bowl, like at Caribou.

Babies: See dogs.

Goatees: Allowed on a case-by-case basis.

Hats: Only on our chefs, never on a customer. We must enforce and promote good manners.

Bikes and Rollerblades: We should encourage alternative transportation, but I worry about clutter. We should have a bike rack out back. Perhaps we choose a slow night -- Tuesdays? -- and give discounts to people who have come on blade or bicycle. (People who arrive on Razor scooters will pay extra.)
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More considerations: Dogs. Babies. Goatees. Hats. Bikes. Rollerblades.
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My votes:

Smoking: Cigarettes will be banned, but we'll allow pipes and cigars. They'll have to be assigned to a special section.

Ties: Of course. As owners, we should wear them all the time.

Cell phones: My immediate thought is, "If they keep their voices at conversation-level volumes, then I don't see why not." But I can see it getting out of control. No decision yet.

Camp: Also tough. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but until then, I say no.

Chops: Absolutely.

Capes: Yes. Encouraged, in fact. Oh, wait -- is that campy?
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The Restaurant Report is a neat resource for the nuts and bolts of restaurant ownership, especially the question-and-answer section.
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Just a few of the things we'll have to decide whether to allow on the premises: Smoking. Ties. Cell phones. Camp. Lamp chops. Capes.

Make-or-break decisions, all. It is good we have five years to deliberate.

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Saturday, February 24, 2001

In regards to experience, humility and education ...

Young men and women often asked Mark Twain for recommendation letters as they embarked upon new careers. He would turn them down, responding with something like the following:

"There is an unwritten law about human success, and you must bow to that law, you must submit to its requirements. In brief this law is:

"1. No occupation without an apprenticeship.

"2. No pay to the apprentice.

"You can learn your trade in two years, and then be entitled to remuneration -- but you can not learn it in any less time than that, unless you are a human miracle.

"Try it, and do not be afraid. It is the fair and right thing. If you win, you will win squarely and righteously, and never have to blush."

When I first read this, I applied it to my journalism path. To this day I fear my career will be hamstrung by my lacking an honest apprenticeship. Sure, I did internships, but after college I went straight to the Merc. I wonder whether I should have spent two years or more at a much smaller paper where I could have learned more.

This applies to the restaurant business, too. To be square and righteous -- this is a goal, no? -- we must apprentice. Our biggest leap of faith may not be in launching a restaurant, but instead the two years we take off to wait tables and chop carrots.
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Friday, February 23, 2001

Today I stood in line for Cubs tickets. What once was Cubs fans' winter carnival of mirth, with Ronnie's first "Woo!" of the season heralding hibernation's end, is now a Cubs-sponsored journey through hell.

Most went on this journey in order to get bleacher seats. These are not a big thing to me. I've found that in one of every two bleacher seats there rests an ass there for the scene, not for the game. But as each game sold out of bleacher tickets, the scarcity seduced me more. I went home with a total of 10 tickets to three games -- on days I will probably be working.

It was a reminder of how scarcity creates demand (and power!). I can think of two reasons off-hand. 1) Scarcity rushes purchases. Many people, myself included, paid $20 for tickets in the morning because, had we hesitated, we'd be paying a scalper $60 in the afternoon. 2) Scarcity implies worth. If a thing is scarce, it means our peers have judged it to be worthy. And if a thing is good enough for our peers, it is good enough for us.

So, YACMI: We manufacture scarcity. Here's one idea: We have a special table, call it the Red Table. It will have a red table cloth, flowers, better lighting, armrests, the works. Same prices, but diners there will get bigger portions, and I will play them a song on my violin (provided that I have re-learned my chops by then).

We market the scarcity in three stages:
A. At first, the Red Table will be issued to whoever is lucky enough to get it, though we will tell them: "Usually one must have a reservation for that table, but something came up and the Mayor had to cancel. Please, enjoy."
B. Eventually the Red Table becomes the first and only table for which we accept reservations.
C. Finally, when demand for the Red Table becomes great enough, we seed and promote a secondary market: allow reservations to be traded, sold in the Reader, auctioned at eBay or raffled off.

The theory, of course, is that demand for the Red Table spills over into demand for the remaining white tables. The risk is that it becomes the only table we consistently fill.
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YANI: Infinite Jest

A nod to Shakespeare, a nod to Illinois-native David Foster Wallace, a nod to ourselves.

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This morning I added "Help, My Apartment Has a Dining Room" to my Amazon wish list. Sandy has the original, and it is a good resource.

However, thumbing through it at Borders made this pipe dream seem all the more ridiculous: We're thinking of owning a restaurant, but we still need to ask Mom how to set the table?

But then I reconsidered. My vision of the restaurant is a place a lot like home, but more so (except for the bad parts, in which case it will be less so). For that, we're going to need all the help from the moms -- and dads, siblings and grandparents -- that we can muster.
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Knowledge of food preparation would no doubt be a huge asset. And a giant step toward getting this thing off the ground.

A smaller, more immediate, less expensive step that I have considered is actually getting a job waiting tables at a restaurant. I have never worked in a restaurant, and as far as I know, neither has Luke. The closest I've gotten to the food business is stocking shelves and bagging groceries at my grandfather's supermarkets in downtown Indianapolis. Not exactly the experience one needs to run a restaurant.

As soon as my excitement levels for my current job peter out, and I start looking for a more satisfying vocation, I think I'll do part-time work as a waiter. I hate the fact I'm in a chair all day long, not meeting new people. Waiting tables would satisfy those desires and would give me great insight into how a restaurant is actually run.

I also expect it to be agonizingly humbling. Assuming it doesn't quash my enthusiasm completely, it'll be good to see first-hand how difficult it is to keep a restaurant running, without having to learn it all the hard way.
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Thursday, February 22, 2001

One of these days I'll discuss the pros/cons of the one-word name. Sometimes they work. In this case I think it would have to be The ____ Cleaver. The Clever Cleaver? Sort of like The Lucky Platter. A little too much like it, probably.
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I just sent for literature from Kendall College's School of Culinary Arts. If I get hired on at the Trib, perhaps I can afford part-time attendance this summer.
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YANI: Cleaver

Pros: food-related item; looks/sounds like "clever" -- potential for designing logo around this association; sounds like "beaver," as in Leave it to Beaver, which people associate with all things good and wholesome.

Cons: evokes images of butchers, which may turn off vegetarians; calling ourselves clever could come accross presumptuous, even though we're being sneaky about it (or maybe because we're being sneaky about it); sounds like "cleavage."

Actually, that last reason might be a pro as well.
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Good idea. If we're open for breakfast, we should explore the expenses and logistics of storing our regulars' personal coffee mugs. Humboldt County's best sushi restaurant, Cafe Tomo, does the same thing with regulars' chopsticks. I'm not sure if we should make it a club of some sort. As a customer, I'd love to pay $15 a month for unlimited coffee at Kopi. As a restaurant owner, I'm not sure how it would bear on the bottom line.

Remember Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown? I liked how they kept a stack of students' gift-certificate books behind the counter.
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To enhance that neighborly feel, we must, of course, have regulars. To reward those of our patrons who visit with enough regularity to be deemed as such, we should bestow upon them the honor of having their picture on our wall. Just like diners in New York do with their famous patrons. Except instead of celebrating an individual's fame, we'll be celebrating her commitment to good taste. We'll call it the Wall of Taste.

There will have to be an established threshhold, which, when passed, will warrant an invidual's picture to be hung on the WOT. It should be publicized so that people are aware of it and yearn to achieve it.

After a while, when there are enough WOT members, we should throw a party in their honor, where we'll celebrate their commitment to us, our commitment to them, and, of course, the music of Louis Prima.
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There's a bit of Primo and Secondo in both of us. In the kitchen, you have the ambition and perfection of Primo. I tend to cut corners.

The Primo in me comes out with adherance to petty social codes. Never pass on the right. Never eat the first or last cookie. Be kind, rewind. So, putting ketchup on a hot dog upsets me not as a culinary crime, but as an affront to tradition and culture.
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It seems clear to me that Luke will be more like Primo, not Secondo, as he assumes. Not that I'll take up the role, exactly, but if a customer wants ketchup on her hot dog, you might see some of the Stanley Tucci in me come out:

Sandy: "Table 4 wants ketchup on her Leroy's."
Luke: "Ketchup?!? Uh uh. Ketchup has no place on my sausages."
Sandy: "I know, I know. But if Table 4 wants ketchup, she can have it. She doesn't know better."
Luke: "Give people time, they will learn."
Sandy: "This is a restaurant! This is not a fucking school!"
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Regarding revolving themes: As I recall, there is a restaurant near Eureka that each month features a different ethnic cuisine. My parents -- who do not eat out much, much less drive an hour to eat out -- have made repeat appearances at the Scotia Inn's Redwood Room, just to see what's new. I think the theme was Swedish the evening I was there.
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Wednesday, February 21, 2001

The original Gold Coast Dogs is closing this week. I mourn the passing of another great Chicago institution. It is a sad day when downtown is safe only for crappy places like ESPN Zone, where beers start at $5 and burgers cost even more.

It was at the State Street Gold Coast that I first learned one should never, ever put ketchup on a Chicago hot dog. This was 1999. I was in town from San Jose and had some time to kill before a tryout at the Reader. I asked the server for a dog with onions, ketchup and pickles.

"Ketchup?!" she bellowed.

"Yes, please. Oh, and no peppers."

She stopped what she was doing, shook her head, clucked, and said something that haunts me to this day: "Boy, when you're a man you'll put mustard on your dog!"

I've since learned that keeping dogs free of impurities like ketchup was one of Mike Royko's many crusades. I've also developed a taste for the yellow stuff.

So: We should not be reluctant to politely berate customers, sort of like William's nephew at La Cumbamba. When someone requests ketchup for their arepas, he points to the door and tells them where they can find the nearest McDonald's. He may lose an occasional customer this way, but setting such an example gains the respect and loyalty of countless others.
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Our first dollar!

Somebody has contributed to our Amazon Honor System fund. There's no way to find out who it is, but I'm very curious, especially considering that few people, if any, know about the log. I hope they will return to see this and know how appreciative we are.

Now to work on a way to frame 70 cents.

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What that tells me is that we can achieve the same level of cred as punk bands, which, as I see it, is a highly desirable quality -- at least within the circle of people that would be involved in deeming and recognizing said credibility.
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Speaking of YACMIs, Bob mentioned, without prompting, that he feels behind the times when he sees an unfamiliar restaurant name in the Reader's Missed Connections. It makes him want to find out more about the restaurant.

I told him that a clever restaurant could promote itself by writing fake Missed Connections ads. Bob was not that impressed. He said punk bands have long used this ruse to promote their shows.
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I Dream of Eating, an Amazon list
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YACMI (Yet Another Clever Marketing Idea):

Being clever ourselves, we should make ourselves attractive to people who are in the business of noticing and promoting cleverness. For instance, NewCity publishes an annual Best of Chicago issue, filled with unique twists on the standard "best of" fare. Within the Food and Drink section, there is at least one category -- best menu design -- we should easily be able to immediately dominate, and several others that we could aim for. Winning the category is not necessary; they often list several honorable mentions.

This particular list might be harder than normal to conquer due to NewCity's habit of creating and removing categories on a whim. If we're really clever -- and we are -- we'll dominate a skill so well that they'll create a whole new category just for the purpose of honoring us.
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YANI: The Hot Seat
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While I wait for Regis to call me back, I imagine what our conversation will be like once I make it to the hot seat:

"What will you do with the money if you win it all, Sandor?"

"My friend Luke and I were thinking of opening a restaurant. It's been just a dream up until now, but with this money, I think it might actually happen. Of course, we'll have to name a dish after you, Reege, if not the whole damn place, since without you, we wouldn't have been able to do it."

"That's awfully nice of you. Say, any idea why your friend back there is violently shaking his head back and forth? Oh well, on to the next question..."
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Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Money. Experience. Talent.

I believe these are the keys to success. We will need plenty of each, though having some of any one will invariably assist in gaining more of the others.
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Here is a story about students who opened a restaurant in Providence, R.I., to be filed along with William's La Cumbamba under "If they can do it, so can we."

It's not a great story, but it captures some of the details that allure me:

  • Simple menus, lifting favorite recipes from one's grandmother
  • Sleeping on a cot in the basement
  • Regulars who help themselves to coffee and help clear tables
  • Developing a reputation for the best omelets in the area (we don't have to have the best omelets, but we should have the best *something*)

Sandy, we'll have to have your sister's stud go and see if the Cafe Terrace is indeed up to snuff.
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Amazon Honor SystemClick Here to PayLearn More
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Earning profit without spending a dime? I like this business plan. Our ROI will be through the roof.

I've taken the liberty to update some of my past posts with handy links. Click through, people! Your impulse buy is our gain.
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I'm pleased to announce our enterprise's first revenue stream, in the form of the Amazon.com Associates Program.

Our ID is makingofarestaur .

So, when one of us makes an observation like, "Our viral marketing should be informed by Malcolm Gladwell's 'The Tipping Point,'" we will earn much-needed capital every time someone follows the link and makes a purchase, something I expect will happen, oh, at least once a quarter.

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I have a list on my Visor titled "Band Names." Whenever I hear a word or phrase that has the right mix of eccentricity and cultural currency to make a great band name, I write it down there. (You know, for when I get the old gang back in the studio.) The very same list could be titled "Horse Names," for the two are practically interchangeable in style. Try it out the next time you're out at the track: pick out a horse's name at random and see if you can't imagine its name in big block letters on the marquee outside of the Metro.

I now realize that great band and horse names also make great restaurant names. Take some of the classics: Jethro Tull, Seattle Slew, Squeeze, Cigar, Pink Floyd. Assuming a parallel universe where the band Pearl Jam didn't exist, wouldn't that be a fantastic name for restaurant? And it works just as well the other way around: "$100 on Crackpot to win, please." or "Have you heard Crackpot's new single? It toally blows."

From now on, I'm titling that list "Band/Horse/Restaurant Names." I'll post any new additions as YANIs here. So far, the best one on the list is Cataplexy.
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If we're open for breakfast, we should explore serving Johnsonville sausages and promote this fact. It would show our commitment to quality.

On second thought, I'd like to use sausages from Leroy Meat Market in Horicon, Wisc. I could go up once a month to get a supply. Not only does Leroy process some of the finest meat in the Midwest, but it would give me an excuse to visit Grandma regularly.

If this makes economic sense, it would add to our "story." I can hear it now: "Have you had the sausages at _____ yet? I hear one of the owners drives 150 miles to get 'em, and they're worth every mile."
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Maybe we don't change the entire restaurant's theme, but each day have a different appetizer. Aug. 7 could be Cracker Jacks with julienned apples. Aug. 8 could be polka dot sweet bread. On Aug. 9 we could serve the world's largest french fry.

This would call for a lot of work and would probably be expensive -- serving a dish for one day only minimizes the economy of scale and could result in costly leftover ingredients -- but it could be one of our many endearing quirks and would give patrons a reason to return again and again.
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I'm kind of fond of modeling the restaurant after that college dorm room poster, partly because the sister of a friend is mentioned on there indirectly -- she's the one who on August 7 sued Cracker Jack for buying a box without a prize -- but also because it'd be fun to find our own historical trivia and incorporate it into the special of the day.

And if not that one, we could go with the one of John Belushi wearing the "COLLEGE" sweatshirt. It'd tie in nicely with the name Crackpotheroin....
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"YANI: Crackpot" sounds like a National Enquirer headline.
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This log has a cousin in Jamie Zawinski 's DNA Lounge log, in which he details the trials of opening a dance club in San Francisco. Fascinating stuff.

What I like about our weblog is that it starts at the very beginning of the idea. Jamie discusses the club's genesis, but by the time he starts keeping a log, he has already closed escrow. That's pretty far into the process. I'd love to know more about the fears and concerns he dealt with in getting to that point.
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YANI*: Crackpot

Not only does it sound like "crockpot" -- a word that I associate with good, hearty food -- but it is a whimsical nod to the restaurant's genesis.

Note: This must be one word and it must not be referred to as "The Crackpot," because we do not want it to sound like "pot of crack." Crack humor, in addition to being so 1993, is about as funny as, well, a crack addict pissing his life away.

But now I notice that "crackpot" is the unfortunate compound of two well-known drugs. We might as well name it Crackpotheroinmaltliquor, which would appeal to the college crowd but would about guarantee a perpetual state of BYO.

I rate this YANI a 6.

* Yet Another Name Idea, first in a series
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A good idea, though creatively intensive, especially when, according to some people, every day has a reason for celebration.
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Lilli put forth this idea at Kopi: Every day, the theme of the restaurant would be based on whatever holiday it was. We'd include any and all holidays worldwide, and the food selection would not only represent the culture whose holiday we were celebrating, but the people/events/ideas being celebrated. Any day without a holiday, we wouldn't be open.

We'd probably be closed most of August.
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Monday, February 19, 2001

I happened upon this textbook at a Madison bookstore. Of the millions of issues in running a restaurant, a few thousand are covered here, from how to safely chop an onion (use your knuckles!) to how to manage your chefs and wait staff (use your knuckles!). Thumbing through its pages was at once intimidating and exhilarating.

There is a temptation to think that if something can be described in a textbook, it is something that can be learned and executed. But running a successful restaurant, I think, is a much different beast from learning calculus. If it were as easy and scientific as differentials and integrals, the failure rate would not be four in five.
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The cabbie to which we refer is William Restrepo of La Cumbamba. Neal makes it sound pretty romantic, no?

One day, Sandy and I will have our Cumbamba.
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If a cabbie can do it, why can't we? Luke and Sandy set off to fulfill their week-long dream of owning and operating their very own restaurant in the great city of Chicago.
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