The Making of a Restaurant

Saturday, March 03, 2001

What are the challenges of running a restaurant? Staffing is a big one, most owners say.
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The complimentary starter is a good opportunity to define and distinguish ourselves. One of my favorite starters is at the Tied House Cafe and Brewery in San Jose. Most places serve bread, but Tied House serves a small, unsliced loaf on an attractive cutting board. Slicing the bread is, well, fun. Including an activity with food -- such as shelling clams into the bucket at Davis Street Fishmarket or filling the floor with peanut shells at the Nut House -- is a good idea, and slicing makes the customer think she is eating more than she really is.
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Thursday, March 01, 2001

I'm looking over the maze one must go through to get a city liquor license. It is long and winding, and this doesn't even include keeping the state and ATF happy. Just to apply, one must have, among other things, a signed lease, a menu and a diploma from a "beverage alcohol sellers and servers education and training program." And then, once all the documentation is in, the review process can take up to 80 days.


So, notes to selves: Months before we think we'll be ready to sign a lease, we should gather paperwork, create a menu and attend booze school. Then, when we have a lease, we should apply for a license ASAP. If all goes well, it should arrive not long after we're ready to open.

And it should go without saying that, until then, we're going to have to continue being "of good character or reputation in the community." In the interest of good business sense, we must resist the urge to keep a "house of ill fame." (I do not know whether an apartment of ill fame would raise any flags.)

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Until the place runs itself, we're not going to want to be open seven days a week. We'd burn out inside of a month. However, it would be nice to be "semi-open" a few nights, especially if we can get a liquor license. We wouldn't transform into a bar, just a quiet place for our friends and neighbors to relax, play games and knock back a few Bagel Bites (assuming Sandy remembers to check the toaster oven). We could even allow time for readings, meetings and the occasional putsch.
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YANI: Rochambeau.

Luke's quite fond of the simple game, which you may know by the more traditional name of "Rock, Paper, Scissors." The etymology probably goes back to General Rochambeau of the American Revolution, but exactly how, I'm not sure. The word/game doesn't have anything to do with food, as far as I know, but perhaps we could encourange patrons to settle simple disputes -- e.g. who gets to sit in the booth seat, which kind of dessert to order, who gets the bill -- with a civil 2-out-of-3 match of rochambeau.

Cons: it's hard to spell, and people might make the assumption that we specialize in French fare. And though we haven't decided exactly what we'll serve, I doubt it'll be that.
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I'd like to have a special menu the week leading up to the Chicago Marathon. Lots of carbs, maybe all-you-can-eat spaghetti. We'll have our employees join us in wearing running shoes and race bibs with our regular dress clothes.
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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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