The Making of a Restaurant

Tuesday, May 29, 2001

I fear I'm going to sound like Bob Greene here, but I'd like to take a moment to lament the passing of the great American road restaurant.

Road food once was one of the joys of travel. Not only did each region have its own specialties and inventions -- cheese steaks in Philadelphia, horseshoe sandwiches in Springfield, Ill., Frito pies in Santa Fe -- but individual cooks had their own takes on the standard hash browns, burgers and what-not.

Here's Kerouac on local flavor:

In the window I smelled the food of San Francisco. There were seafood places out there where the buns were hot and the baskets were good enough to eat too; where the menus themselves were soft with foody esculence as though dipped in hot broths and roasted dry and good enough to eat too. ... And oh, that pan-fried chow mein flavored air that blew into my room from chinatown, vying with spaghetti sauces of North Beach, the soft-shell crab of Fisherman's Wharf-nay, the ribs of Fillmore turning on spits! Throw in the Market Street chili beans, redhot, and french fried potatoes of the Embarcadero wino night, and steamed clams from Sausilito across the bay, and that's my ah-dream of San Francisco.

And in "Blue Highways," William Least Heat-Moon says the best indicator of honest food on the road is how many wall calendars there are.

No calendar: Same as an interstate pit stop.

One calendar: Preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey.

Two calendars: Only if fish trophies present.

Three calendars: Can't miss on the farm-boy breakfasts.

Four calendars: Try the ho-made pie too.

Five calendars: Keep it under your hat, or they'll franchise.

One time I found a six-calendar cafe in the Ozarks, which served fried chicken, peach pie, and chocolate malts, that left me searching for another ever since. I've never seen a seven-calendar place. But old-time travelers -- road men in a day when cars had running boards and lunchroom windows said AIR COOLED in blue letters with icicles dripping from the tops -- those travelers have told me the golden legends of seven-calendar cafes.

This weekend I met Sandy in the Quad Cities for a wedding, then drove up to Madison and finally back to Chicago. That's a 600-mile circuit, and I'm not sure I passed a single exit not fouled by a Chili's, Olive Garden or similar family-style chain. Driving through Beloit was hardly different from driving through Moline. I worried I'd made a wrong turn and had wound up where I'd begun.

When 11 of us set out for lunch in Bettendorf, we asked the hotel manager for a recommendation. I was hoping for something along Main Street (Do towns even have Main Streets anymore?), but she offered the Holiday Inn and Bennigan's. "Well, we'd sort of like something locally owned." She was stumped. The closest thing she could think of was a place called Cheddar's Casual Cafe. It sounded homey, so we went.

Cheddar's, it turned out, is just another gimicky chain, one of those synthetic places "The Simpsons" lampooned a few years back: "If you like good food, good fun, and a whole lot of crazy crap on the walls, then come on down to Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag!" (Only now do I grasp the significance of Moe changing his bar to a restaurant in the same episode that Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for five dollars. Duh!)

What were Cheddar's crimes?

  • Replica farm signs and "old-time" baseball equipment on the walls.
  • The bottomless coffee ... one thimble-size cup at a time. It was maddening having to hail a waitress every third gulp.
  • Spasagna.
  • The blank look the waitress gave Gabe when he asked whether the Spasagna was vegetarian.
  • Laminated menus clearly conceived not in the mind of a rural restaurateur but by a marketing committee in a Dallas laboratory.
  • Iowa appears to have made great strides in cloning. Although they varied in dimensions, the waitress corps was a fleet of perky, blue-eyed blondes named Jennifer in khaki pants and blue shirts. In "Children of the Corn," the youth slaughter their parents with scythes and axes. Today's children of the corn kill them off with a steady diet of cheese, grease and schmaltz. I'm not sure which terrifies me more.

In "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," Phaedrus goes mad amid the hollowness of the big city. "It is the little, pathetic attempts at Quality that kill. The plaster false fireplace in the apartment, shaped and waiting to contain a flame that can never exist." He's talking about Chicago, but I'm afraid a lot has changed since he took to the road, for he'd find that this hollowness has since blanketed America.

It wasn't Cheddar's lack of Quality that got me down. It was, as with Phaedrus, "the little, pathetic attempts at Quality," such as the fake mementos and artificial plants. The final straw came when our waitress offered to grind pepper over my salad. You're in Bettendorf, Iowa, you've just been served a pale-green salad with exactly four slivers of pinkish tomato, and a few turns of the pepper mill is supposed to make it a classy joint: Do you laugh or cry? I'm a polite person, so I pulled my fork from my paper napkin and ate.

Americans' bondage to chains is, if not excusable, at least explainble. After a long day on the road, we're tired, and the last thing we want to do is stretch any brain muscles thinking about where to eat. So we head to places we are familiar with and where we know what to expect, no matter how low that expectation may be.

For a nation that tamed the West and alleges to have visited the moon, we're a timid lot. We'd rather be guaranteed a mediocre meal at a chain than risk a bad meal at an unknown, and it's not just with restaurants that this is the case. We'd rather suffer the stigma of Starbucks than risk a unique independent. Given a broad slate of foreign and independent movies, we defer to blockbusters. Most sentient beings, myself included, knew that "Pearl Harbor" was but three hours of pabulum, but millions of us, myself included, went anyhow.

Maybe it would be different if travelers had a better idea of where trusted restaurants could be found. Here's one possible guide. If Blogvoices were working, I'd set up a road-food forum there. For now, feel free to e-mail me your suggestions, and when I get enough, I'll post a list. I'm looking for good, independent restaurants close to interstates or major highways. Service should be fast, restrooms should be clean, and meals should be under $10. Bonus points go for authentic quirkiness and delicious inventions.

And here are some applications for our place:

  • Our wait staff should be cordial but sincere. Perky waitresses will be warned the first time, shown the door the second.
  • There will be no dress code more formal than, "Look nice, OK?"
  • If we offer bottomless coffee, we will mean it. No tiny cups.
  • From our bacon to the knick-knacks on our walls, nothing will be fake.

Now, where did I put my atlas?

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Jason's gyro-buying experience expresses the kind of attitude I'd like our employees and our ambience to evoke. People shouldn't only find our service acceptable, they should find it let's-give-them-all-the-money-in-my-wallet fantastic.
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Thursday, May 24, 2001

Today, Bob Dylan turns 60. Countless words have been written about Dylan's legacy, his impact on modern music, the quality of his work, and so on. But not nearly as much attention has been paid toward Bob's influence on the restaurant industry. It is our duty to make up for that loss.

When Luke and I were tossing emails back and forth about starting up this thing, he suggested that we incorporate reverence for Dylan into our menu. Specifically, he said this: "The blueberry pancakes will be named 'Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues.' Many of our dishes will be named after Bob Dylan songs." Here are some more ideas:

Bloody Mary On The Tracks

• Every May 24, as part of our rotating appetizer scheme, we'll serve something Dylan-related, like Subterranean Homesick Blueberry Muffins, or Absolutely Sweet & Sour Chicken Satays.

• Our employee handbooks will be titled, "Gotta Serve Somebody."

• If we really wanted to pay him some serious homage, we'd name the whole dang place after him. One possibility is "Mabinogion," the name of a collection of 11th century stories about Welsh mythology. It's there that the name "Dylan" first appears.

• And, of course, Dylan albums will be on a heavy rotation in our stereo system, on May 24 and on every other day.
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Wednesday, May 23, 2001

I mentioned before that our marketing should build off the lessons of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point." I just got to where he talks about word-of-mouth marketing. "Think, for a moment, about the last expensive restaurant you went to ... In how many of those cases was your decision ... heavily influenced by the recommendation of a friend?"

How do we facilitate word of mouth?

Here's an idea I've had since the very beginning: With each bill we include an attractive, prepaid postcard. On it we have a template message, something like: "Dear _______. It's been a while since I've written, but I wanted to tell you about this curious restaurant I went to. The decor was very _______ and I like the way the owners have _______. As for the food, the _______ was a little _______, but this was more than made up for by the _______, which was _______. Try it! I'd love to know what you think. Cheers, _______. P.S. The owners tell me that if you present this card, you'll get a 20 percent discount. Neat!"

The idea, of course, is that patrons mail the card to food-loving friends and family. We could pre-print "Chicago, IL" on the address portion to ensure the cards are sent to likely visitors. If it works, customers get to speak their mind, their friends get a coupon, and we get feedback and more customers. Win, win, win.

Word of mouth, however, depends on whose mouths are at work. Gladwell says trends and sensations must appeal to "connectors, mavens and salesmen." I'll speculate more on this once I finish the chapter.
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I watched My Dinner With André last weekend. After silently nodding my head in agreement as I listened to Wally and André discuss the struggles of the modern urban dweller -- necessity to find the spark in life, routine vs. change, interpersonal communication as theatre, etc. -- my mind quickly turned to the more pressing matter of how to cleverly tie the movie into a YAMI for our restaurant.

It's tough, as there's not much in the movie to latch onto besides a bucketful of philosophical ideas. (And the characters themselves, of course.) How's this: We offer a special called "Your Dinner With André." It includes the choice of bramborová polévka or terrine de poisson for an appetizer, a pair of small quails with rice for entree, and an espresso and a shot of amaretto for an after-dinner treat. But here's the kicker: you get to eat all of your food during an impassioned discussion -- about the virtues of electric blankets, Charlton Heston's autobiography, whatever -- with former Chicago Cub and National League MVP André Dawson.

If we can't get Mr. Dawson -- though I'm sure he's got nothing better to do than sit at our restaurant night after night for the purposes of fulfilling a half-witted and barely amusing pun -- we can always try for André Braugher. Sadly, André the Giant is dead.
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Monday, May 21, 2001

Here's a story about Ruth Reichl, whom I blogged earlier. She mentions a place she helped run in the '70s. "The small collective restaurant in Berkeley had neither a single chef nor a single owner. 'We were a collection of overeducated, passionate cooks.'"

I wonder how well this worked, and whether it could work again. Our circle of friends doesn't exactly lack for overeducated, passionate cooks. Get seven people together, let each person take responsibility for one day of the week? Or let one person handle salads, another the seafood, another the wine, and so on?

I have a feeling that too many chefs and too many owners would spoil the soup -- and the flan and the veal and the pasta -- even in Berkeley, even in the '70s, but especially in Chicago and in 200*.
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Friday, May 18, 2001

Two stupid waiter tricks:

  • In his review of One Sixty Blue, the Tribune's Phil Vettel notes how impressed he was that the waitress addressed him by his name. She had cribbed it from the reservation book, and even though it wasn't his real name, it made a favorable first impression that carried the meal.
  • Once at Andie's, the waiter introduced himself and, with the flair of Zorro himself, scrawled his name on the paper table mat. Clearly it was a well-rehearsed trick, for he was able to deftly sign upside down (rightside up from the diner's perspective).

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Other ideas worth stealing from those silly neo-futurists:

• The cost of a meal is determined by the price in the menu plus the roll of a six-sided die. (See: step 2.) If we priced all dishes $3.50 below normal, over time the friendly law of averages would help us recoup that discount.

• Waiters take orders while wearing headphones. (See: step 3.) The customer would ask for one thing, the waiter would write down another (it wouldn't even have to be food that he wrote down), and when the "meal" is delivered to the table, hilarity would ensue.

• Meals begin when the waiter places everyone's plate in front of them, sets a timer in the middle of the table to 60 minutes, and with an ethusiastic "GO!", lifts all the plate covers at the same time. (See: step 8.) The timer buzzes, the waiter yells "CURTAIN!", and he magestically swipes the tablecloth off of the table, settings and all.

Do I smell a partnership? "Before going to the Neo-Futurarium, have a quick bite next door at our sister restaurant, the Neo-Cafetorium."
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Thursday, May 17, 2001

As you reach the top of the stairs at the Neo-Futurarium, a poster greets you with the latest statistics on the history of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. How many plays performed. For how many nights. For how many total attendees. Stuff like that.

Granted, I'm a nut for trivia, but I think there'd be a global appeal for installing something like this at our place. It'd track such things as: number of patrons through the door, number of meals served, latest Zagat rating, and so on. In the beginning, when the numbers were low, our customers would be able gloat that they ate, for example, only the twelfth dinner ever served at our place. Later on, when the numbers got fairly high, the statistics would enhance our stature and, hopefully, our respect.

Obviously, we're not the first people to come up such an idea, but the difference is that instead of placing the sign outside and using it as advertising, we'll keep the sign inside, where it'll hang as a piece of informative art.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2001

We will never, ever charge for water.
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Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Blogger has selected us as a Blog of Note! Thanks, Ev!
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YANI: Forty-two

"The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases.

"For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question, How can we eat? The second by the question, Why do we eat? And the third by the question, Where shall we do lunch?"

-Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, p. 215

(Because The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is too long, because TRATEOTU is hardly pronounceable, and because either would be highly illegal.)
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Monday, May 14, 2001

Keeping our staff happy will be our biggest challenge, so Sandy's right: If possible, we should engineer bigger tips for our waiters and waitresses.

Consider the commerce of holy communion at church. If I were a beer vendor there, I'd much rather sell for $4.25 a cup than for $3.75. At $4.25, a vendor gets a 75-cent tip on almost every pour, as opposed to 25 cents at the cheaper price. Everyone knows, for example, that I'm tighter than Britney Spears' trousers, but not even I will ask my beer man to fish around for 75 cents in change, no matter how close it is to laundry day.
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Luke was reminded of this story when we received the check at lunch last Sunday. At the bottom of the receipt, in standard cash register typeset, was a line titled "Gratuity Guidelines." It listed two things: the cost of a 15% tip and the cost of a 20% tip. Using these two numbers as reference points, logic dictates, one can figure the appropriate tip for services just rendered.

I suppose you could find the tactic presumptuous, but short of coupling the bill with a calculator, this is probably the handiest way to help the customer determine her tip. And as I imgine undertipping is a more common problem than overtipping, a gratuity guideline will help the waiter make sure he gets what he deserves.

A more indirect way to guide the customers' gratuity is through careful manipulation of the total price of the check. Say, for example, the total came out to $16.95. Laying down a twenty dollar bill would cover the check and an even 18% tip. Even if the customer thought the service was only at, say, a 15.5% level, don't you think she'd rather give up those extra 42 cents instead of waiting for change? I think she would.

Obviously, forcing prices like this is very hard. The only conceivable way I can think of to do this is through fixed price lunch specials. (Or fixed price dinner menus, for that matter.) For only $8.50 you can get a sandwich, a basket of sweet potato fries and a bottomless soda -- and by paying with a ten, it gets your waiter a 17.5% tip. Hassle-free dining.

Sunday, May 06, 2001

Once upon a time -- it was in Albuquerque, New Mexico -- my bill came to $10.66. When the waitress brought the check, she gave it a second look and said, "Hmmm, Battle of Hastings." It took a moment to register: "$10.66. Battle of Hastings. 1066. Aha!"

It was a clever touch and probably earned her an extra quarter or two on the tip.

We should equip our waiters with a timeline of world history so that they, too, can impress customers.

"$12.15. Magna Carta!"

"$16.92. Salem Witch Trial!"

"$19.07. Cubs win the World Series!"

"$19.08. Cubs win the World Series!"

"$19.75. Hmmm. Rather forgettable, if you ask me."

"$20.01. Cubs win the World Series!"
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Friday, May 04, 2001

"Fresh Air" today featured Ruth Reichl, a former waitress and New York Times food critic who is now editor of Gourmet and an author.

Among the highlights:

  • The kitchen, she says, is at war with customers. The waiter's job is to hide this fact from the customer. So, when a steak is turned back for being overcooked, the waiter should supplicate to the chef: "I'm sorry, Chef. The customer said 'rare' but I wrote down 'well-done.' This is my fault." The chef will grumble, but he will replace the steak, because he is at war with the customer, not the waiter.
  • Employee theft, especially among chefs, causes many restaurants to fail. An Ann Arbor restaurant at which she waited was done in by a chef who would wrap an entire side of beef in foil, hide it in the trash, retrieve it the next morning and then sell it to other restaurateurs. (This is one more reason why I think we're going to want our chef to join us as a third partner. An owner wouldn't steal from herself, would she?)
  • When reviewing restaurants, Reichl would go a minimum of three and as many as nine times. To conceal her identity, she would wear one of 11 wigs.
  • She describes her mother as being "taste blind" but infused with a love for the "theater" of the restaurant. I, too, love this theater, and it's part of the reason I love La Cumbamba. It's also one of the metaphors employed in "Starting a Small Restaurant."
  • Customers shouldn't hesitate to turn back food, but they should never withhold tips from a waiter based on failings that are out of his control, such as the food's quality or timeliness.
  • Her biggest peeve as a waitress was customers who asked for excessive alterations to the menu.

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Thursday, May 03, 2001

John Davis of Geja's Cafe says that long ago he "recognized that it was important to regularly schedule special events such as wine festivals to keep our name in front of the public and to sustain the interest of our patrons and our staff."

I, too, have noted the importance of events distinct from the dining experience. At Geja's, this means Winemaker Dinners, but for us it could be anything: small concerts, "Weakest Link" seminars or even giant ice cream parties.
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Tuesday, May 01, 2001

Regarding Loud Food: I concur with Sandy. I have fond memories of Mom pulling a casserole straight from the oven to the table, its cheese still popping and sputtering and gurgling and saying to my brother, father and me: "Eat me! I'm good!"

There's another way for food to appeal to the sense of hearing, and that is through the purring, lip smacking and -- dare we dream? -- moaning of the diners who are enjoying it.

As a side note, this inspires a menu idea: We should name a dish -- perhaps something with honey, oysters and kelp, yum! -- "What She's Having," the all-too-obvious gag being customers who say, "I'll have What She's Having."
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Heather has a thing against Loud Food. Heather says, "food should be seen and not heard." I disagree.

Without trying, a meal will appeal to -- and hopefully satisfy -- four of your senses. Why not go for the fifth? Kellogg's has long made a business of marketing the snaps, crackles and pops of its Rice Krispies, and it's done them nothing but good. When the waiters at Tango Sur bring me my sizzling Argentinian parillas, I can hear it before I can see it, and my mouth waters even more. Food that speaks will widen the eyes of the other diners, forcing them to ask themselves, Why the hell didn't I order that?

Let the food speak, I say. If we're worried about upsetting those sensitive to Loud Food, our menus could specify which items qualify as such. Our waiters could provide a gentle warning. Worse comes to worst, we can offer our customers some protection.
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I'm not a fan of dream recitations, but I'm compelled to share last night's: I was a guest in Baghdad, which is truly beautiful. Did you know that? I didn't. I was staying in a palace, of course, but the rest of the city was beautiful, too, especially along the Euphrates River (Which has been rennamed the Saddam River. Did you know that? I didn't.) and there were some amazing castles on the outskirts of town.

My host ran a restaurant out of his palace. The walls were enormous and bare. He had painted them lima-bean-green, but left a patch blank. I asked why, and he said imperfections like a poor paint job add to a restaurant's charm. Then he started talking about how the paint was a metaphor for Iraqi imperialism, but I wasn't paying a lot of attention at this point. Mostly I was thinking: "Imperfections = charm. I have to post this to the blog! I wonder where I can get online around here."

And I recite this dream not because it's terribly interesting, but because it shows how steeped in my consciousness the restaurant idea is.
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Oh, sure. Announce it to the world.
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