The Making of a Restaurant

Saturday, March 31, 2001

According to its Reader Ratings, Angelina Ristorante gives a 20% discount on Wednesdays to residents of Wrigleyville.

This is an excellent promotion. It brings in extra traffic on a slow night and extends goodwill to neighbors. Sandy, still have anything with your old address on it?

Angelina also has one of the more inviting storefronts, and for that alone it is on my "to dine at" list.
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Friday, March 30, 2001

Long ago, on that fateful trip to Madison, one of my first marketing ideas was to seed the personals with fake ads. Later, Bob would mention that punk bands have done this for years. Now it appears another restaurant has scooped us, judging from how my fake-o-meter quivered when I read the following Missed Connection:

Zealous Restaurant on Superior Street, 3/16. You: beautiful blonde in drop-dead red with two female friends. Me: Handsome (or so you said) male in dark Zegna suit with business colleagues. You said you'd never had a more perfect meal in a more beautiful room. I told you it was better than Tru -- though that's not saying much. I didn't get your name, but I can't think of a better place for our first date. Call me.

It's exactly what I had in mind, for it accomplishes many things: 1. Identifies its demo (beautiful, well-dressed, single professionals). 2. Talks up the food and decor. 3. Links the restaurant with romance and intrigue.

This particular ad takes it two steps further by dropping the address and, in a brazen yet brilliant move, dismissing a rival. I am in awe.

It's still an idea that could work for us, and the sooner the better. I'd like to start once we have settled on a name. Why wait until we're open for business? That could take years!
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Tuesday, March 27, 2001

At Deleece last night, I complained that the portions, although delicious and masterfully presented, were tiny. It raises an important trade-off: Among taste, size and eye appeal, I consider eye appeal the least important, but it seems the more upscale a place is, the more likely a chef will push presentation at the expense of everything else. This is nonsense. If I wanted to look at something pretty while I ate, I'd take a sack lunch to the Art Institute (or make better-looking friends, ho ho).

This nonsense is partly explained in today's Trib interview with author-chef Anthony Bourdain. He says chefs know few joys, but presentation is one of them: "The perfect moment of happiness is those few seconds when a well-made plate of food is assembled and put in the window. It's almost a personal moment. You find yourself cooking for yourself and your peers in the kitchen."

Piffle. Presentation shouldn't be neglected, but we should never allow our chefs to cook for anyone other than the customer. This, I feel, is what makes Andie's so great: If something comes on a bed of cous-cous, the bed is king-size. Deleece should have said its chicken would be arriving on a mere futon of cous-cous.

Other nuggets:

  • He says drug use is common among chefs. "The amount of cocaine use ... is still pretty wild. ... I don't do any white powders anymore and I don't tolerate it in my kitchen." Speaking of white powders, "SaSR" discusses how easy it is to accidentally fill the sugar bowls with salt. I guess if the book were updated for 2001, it would warn not to store your blow near the flour jar.
  • "Big Night" is the only American movie to accurately portray chefs.
  • He says brunches are an industrywide scam. Restaurants use them to move leftovers, and the shifts are staffed by people not trusted to work Friday and Saturday nights.
  • He's sold his book's film rights. Reportedly, David Fincher will direct, and Brad Pitt will star. Cool.

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We will never, ever substitute for bacon.

Tonight I made clam chowder and used turkey bacon, which is much cheaper and healthier than the real stuff. It looks the same, too. Unfortunately, it has the texture and taste of a bicycle tire. Blech!
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Monday, March 26, 2001

We should clarify that we are not the same Luke and Sandy rebuilding a 1960 Imperial LeBaron in New Zealand, although I'm sure our endeavors have many similarities.

YANI: The Imperial LeBaron

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Friday, March 23, 2001

If we could get a hold of this technology, we'd be the hit of the neighborhood.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Yet Another Possible Location:

There is a vacant building at Broadway and Winona, just north of the Lakeview Lounge, that has long caught my eye. Today I took a closer look.

Its mostly made of brick, garnished with the Germanic brown-and-white paneling common to older buildings in the neighborhood. A great wrap-around marquee says no more than "Restaurant." The second floor has a gorgeous rounded corner that looms over the sidewalk, and on the third floor is a turret with porthole windows. There is ample patio space.

But this is the best part: High atop the east wall jut the remnants of an ancient Schlitz logo. The building must have been one of Chicago's many tied houses, just like the Schubas building. Although I don't foresee our place becoming a bar or beergarden, there would be glory in a similar restoration. (I figure it would cost no more than $500,000 to buy the building, maybe $1 million more for restoration. Once my investment portfolio pays dividends, this should be well within reach.)

In addition to walls literally thick with history, the building has a decent location, just a few blocks from the Green Mill. Indeed, I am surprised that, other than a few places around Argyle Street, there aren't any mid-scale restaurants in the heart of Uptown. The suburbanites who come for Patricia Barber want a place with a table cloth and a wine list. We could be this place. (Not that we'd go out of our way to participate in or encourage gentrification. We'd be sensitive neighbors.)

A major drawback is its location on Broadway, a busy thoroughfare. This stretch is particularly anti-pedestrian, littered with strip malls and a car wash, and right across Winona is a Burger King with a busy drive-thru.

One a scale of one to three "Location!"s, I rate it a two.

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We could distinguish ourselves by being the only place in town that makes change in golden dollars.
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Tuesday, March 20, 2001

One of the quickest ways people judge the quality of a restaurant is how occupied the place looks from the outside. A small percentage of tables filled on the inside translates, to the casual observer on the outside, to a place not worth visiting. It's a superficial judgement, to be sure, but it's a fact of the business. Fortunately, not everyone uses this logic, for if they did, no one would ever enter our restaurant. (Unless we employed shills to sit at tables all day pretending to eat. [Hmmm, that might not be a bad idea. Mental note: come back to that idea later.])

As a temporary remedy to this problem, we should start out with a very small number of tables. Like, ten. The fewer tables, the more crowded it'll look when one of them gets filled. And the less likely an indecisive diner will pass us by. Later, after we survive the empty dining room stigma -- which could take months, if not years -- we can add more tables to accomodate the growing clientele.

The backlash to this idea is, of course, that we become too successful and demand overcomes supply. This would be a glorious problem to be burdened with, and I think we'll be able to deal with if and when the times comes.
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Thursday, March 15, 2001

I work with a guy whose folks run a restaurant in Wisconsin. I asked how long they work. "Oh, Dad's really cut back," he said. "He's down to about 70 hours a week."
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Monday, March 12, 2001

"Brought together by friendship and timing, the owners of Tsunami feel they are at the right place at the right time and ready to take off."

Good news: 18 months later, it is still in operation.
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Saturday, March 10, 2001

The impression our restroom makes will be almost as important as the impressions our kitchen and dining room make. We should ensure that the W.C. gets a little T.L.C.

It starts but does not end with cleanliness. For instance, although we don't want people to lose themselves in there, it would be nice to have light reading material. Maybe copies of our newsletter in the stalls, a la CRC, and that day's sports agate over the men's urinals (what could we put over the women's urinals?). I also like the Italian conversations that Buca di Beppo pipes into its stanze da bagno. We could pipe in loops of Cubs games (live or taped; or would this be the kind of unauthorized rebroadcast they're always forbidding?), Keillor monologues, "Whad'ya Know?", or any spoken word that entertains while projecting the character of the place and its owners.
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Thursday, March 08, 2001

There are many, many, many reasons why I'd like to prohibit smoking. In theory, we'd be to appealing to a health-conscious clientele, and a CDC study says citywide bans don't affect sales, but some restaurateurs have found that not to be the case:

Mar. 6--The Duluth (Minn.) Grill is closing on March 19 largely because it canít be profitable under the cityís new restaurant smoking ban, its owner said Tuesday.

Kay Biga, whose family bought the restaurant in 1985, cited the cityís smoking ban and other reasons for closing the Lincoln Park (West End) business.

But the smoking ban is ``the largest reason,íí Biga said. ``Itís put us in a position where we canít operate profitably.íí Biga said sales at the restaurant were down about 15 percent in February, compared with the same month last year.

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YACMI: Depending on our location, we should publish a weekly e-mail newsletter, full of neighborhood news and announcements: upcoming shows, meetings, bake sales and so forth, even if it means announcing events at rival restaurants (like the Macy's Kris Kringle recommending competitors). Not only would it would be a good service, but it would promote loyalty and accelerate our sense of belonging. Plus, free advertising, especially when people forward it to friends. Everybody wins.
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Wednesday, March 07, 2001

If we can secure the right real estate, we should definitely have an outdoor terrace. There are few things I enjoy better with my meal than the ability to eat it outside. Besides being a treat for the diner, it's also an easy, free way to market your food to casual passers-by. And if we're able to become masters of good-smelling cuisine, then we'll have already satisfied two of a potentential customer's five senses before she even steps foot into the restaurant. (Four, if she ends up swiping a bite off the plate of an unsuspecting diner.)

Of course, if we really want to do it right, we'll need to get a place with a rooftop terrace.
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Tuesday, March 06, 2001

The more of "SASR" I read, the more I realize our start-up capital may have to depend upon the Big Game after all. Insurance, payroll, utilities, health-code compliance, fees, rent, equipment, marketing, food costs, furniture, taxes, remodeling ... and on and on, all before the first dinner roll is served.

That we can walk into a typical restaurant and get a complete, delicious meal for less than $50, let alone $10, is a miracle to rival parted seas and the '69 Mets. If you start to see me bowing my head before meals, this is what I'm thanking God for.
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Monday, March 05, 2001

When I sent for information from Kendall College, there was a field that asked me to describe myself. I was a wise guy and said: "I am a Libra who likes Scrabble, jazz and long walks on the beach."

The packet came today, and inside was a hand-written Post-It: "Luke, We just wanted to let you know the beach is only 2 blks away. Student Services is happy to play Scrabble with you and there are always music events taking place around campus, including jazz."

That cracks me up.
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I took the liberty of making our first capital outlay: $7.07 for a used copy of "Starting a Small Restaurant: A Guide to Excellence in the Purveying of Public Victuals." Between this and our Amazon donation, we are now $6.37 in the red.

The introduction calls running a small restaurant "one of the last vestiges of true enterprise and inventiveness left in our corporate concentration camp ... Like the lowly mushroom, the small restaurant, if prepared properly, can overcome even an inauspicious beginning and add a unique and distinctive flavor to life."

It then devotes the first chapter, "So You Think You Should Open a Restaurant?", to debunking this urge, "to discourage you from acting out your fantasy -- or someone else's."

I think he's talking about us.
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Sunday, March 04, 2001

Also, I'd like everything to be priced in whole or half dollars. $10, not $9.95. $1.50, not $1.49. I find it refreshingly honest when restaurants do this.
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I'm often a "second-cheapest" kind of guy. I want to be cheap without looking cheap, to be a duck without quacking. Consequently, I own the second-cheapest suit, the second-cheapest stereo and the second-cheapest bicycle. This happens when I dine, too. If a restaurant's entrées are priced at $9, $10, $11, $13 and $15, I tend to choose one that costs $10.

My hunch is that this is common among diners. If it is, we should take advantage. If we have two similar dishes that each cost $3 to prepare, we should price one at $9 and one at $11.

Using cost to manipulate desire could work best with wine, where few are savvy but all are thirsty. If our two cheapest merlots each cost us $7 a bottle, we should price one at $10 and one at $14. People will a) assume the second bottle is a better wine; b) realize the wines are similar and pick the first to save money; or c) realize the wines are similar but pick the second to save face.

I do not think this would violate our commitment to honesty. When we update menus, we can experiment by alternating which gets the "second-cheapest" premium.
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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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