The Making of a Restaurant

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Make pasta? No, let's grow it!

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Chain restaurants enjoy many competitive advantages over independents: sweet tax breaks, capital to spend on prime real estate, freedom from such hindrances as good taste and big-Q Quality. Most of all they benefit from economies of scale, in everything from toilet paper to national advertising. A restaurant conglomerate that buys a million tons of meat a year obviously gets a better deal than the lone restaurateur who needs only a few.

Here's something else that comes cheap to a chain: charity.

This weekend my family had dinner at the Madison outpost of a Chain That Shall Not Be Named. Like any urban snob worth his New Yorker subscription, I couldn't help but notice the phony decor, tacky furniture and the weary artifice of the teenage staff. Like any good son, however, I kept my mouth shut. Nonetheless, none of us failed to notice that our food was taking a long time to arrive. When it finally came, about 30 minutes after we had ordered, the waitress apologized, saying there was an "18 top" in the next room and the kitchen had been backed up accordingly. We told her not to worry and commenced to eat.

A few minutes later, my brother looked at my plate -- linguine in marinara -- and noted, quite accurately, that it looked like something he could have cooked himself in about five minutes. Alas, unbeknownst to my brother, our waitress was at this moment hovering over his shoulder, about to refill his red lemonade. She turned white with horror. Color drained from her face like checkers from a Connect Four board.* She looked, in a word, damaged.

As soon as she slunk away, my sister-in-law's gasp turned to giggles. Me, I shook my palms in the air. "My brother, you fool!" I said. "Because of your bad manners we will now have to add a dollar to our tip -- the Uncouth Brother Tax!"

It wasn't long, however, before the shift manager visited our table, mumbled another apology and left us with a $25 gift card, to be used then or at any time, at any CTSNBN.

I again shook my palms in the air. "My brother, you genius! Because of your cunning we've netted $24 -- the Brilliant Brother Dividend!"

We toyed with the idea of seeing how much a complaint about the cold draft would earn us, but decided not to be greedy.

I've been compensated for spotty service before, but usually in the form of a complementary dessert or drink, so $25 was extraordinary. To an independent restaurateur, $25 is a good chunk of a day's profits. CTSNBN probably spends that much illuminating its signage for a night, but in terms of soothing a disappointed customer, it's an unbeatable investment. Even though he cashed the card right away, my father couldn't stop talking about it, and I'm sure he's already told a dozen people about what a great experience we had at CTSNBN.

Are there ways to overcome the chains' advantages? Aye, that's the $300,000 question. While we look for answers, I know what I'll do next time I'm at a CTSNBN. First, bring an extra sweater to protect against the draft. Then, order the marinara and let the complaints fly.

* Most atrocious simile ever? Likely. I shudder to think of worse.

Friday, May 23, 2003

This week's New City has a fun profile on Doug Sohn, proprietor of one of my favorite hot dog stands, Hot Doug's. (He's famous for his duck-fat French fries, but other than as a paean to process, they didn't appeal to me.) "I never had any intention of owning a restaurant, ever. It's an extremely physical venture, running a restaurant. And, you know, the older you get the harder it's going to be."
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Thursday, May 22, 2003

There was an encouraging article in the Sun-Times on Friday about two buddies in Northbrook who've take over a local hot dog stand and opened a Tex-Mex place next door. Tell me if this sounds familiar:

"They had little experience when they bought the [restaurant] four years ago, but they, like many twenty-somethings, were determined to have fun and be creative."

Little experience? Check. Twenty-something? Check. Fun and/or creative? Check and/or check. One of us has the last name "Weiss"? Close enough. It appears all we need to do is move to an affluent northern suburb, and we'll be set!

I get the impression Benji and Pete are motivated by the same muses of creativity that have inspired us. I especially like their idea of sponsoring a Little League team, something we should certainly add to our list of YACMIs. Promote the world's second greatest game while it promotes you. Everybody wins.

For all the spook stories we hear about opening a restaurant, it's nice to hear a success story that falls so into line with our definitions of success.
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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Two Tribune stories on this week's National Restaurant Association show:

Through the looking glass: "I have seen the future of the restaurant industry, and from what I can tell, a lot of it is deep fried."

Restaurants seek less staff, more tech: "Efficiency-enhancing gizmos at the show were multitudinous, offering a range of ways to either trim positions or to track staff behavior, with an eye toward keeping cash from evaporating."

(The Sun-Times covered it, too, but I can't find any links.)
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Monday, May 19, 2003

Courtney Febbroriello was on WBEZ's Eight Forty-Eight last week (Real Audio link) to discuss her book, "Wife of the Chef." She stressed to would-be restaurateurs the need to have real-world experience first, in any capacity. "A lot of people think it'll be this great exciting adventure, but they don't know exactly what it takes."

Today, the Tribune's story on a restaurant-ownership seminar had some pretty scary stats.

  • Chicago restaurants average a 2 percent profit margin.
  • Each year 5,000 to 6,000 restaurants open in the United States. About 4,000 don't last 12 months.
  • A 3,000-square-foot, full-kitchen fast-food place with a few seats could cost as much as $300,000 just for the build-out. Count on another $100,000 for operating costs and payroll. (But 3,000 square feet is huge. That's three times as big as my home.)

Says Richard Melman of Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You restaurant empire: "You need two things: experience and money. You need one or the other, but having both is preferable." Sounds familiar.
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Saturday, May 17, 2003

Here's a long interview with Amanda Hesser, author of "Cooking for Mr. Latte."

The interviewer makes an excellent point on restaurant excess: "One goes to restaurants and sees the entree prices rising to the where you could feed a Central American village for a week for the cost of one. What are you paying for? Debt service for all the extras that go into the comic opera of fine dining: an expensive build out, a public relations firm, designer waitstaff uniforms and on and on."

And Hesser remarks on the chef's life and the temptation to trade focus and vision for financial success: " Kitchen life is tough. It's really difficult to have a social life outside of it. The hours are grueling. It's hot. Itís physically tiring. If you have done it for a decade ... [franchising] must be really seductive. Also, even top chefs don't make that much money. And if you can expand -- if you are living in New York City and living on a typical chef's salary and you can open three more restaurants, and then actually have bedrooms for your children or send them to a decent school -- it definitely makes a lot of sense."
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Thursday, May 15, 2003

We've spoken of selling logo-encrusted t-shirts and other doodads to support our brand, and there's one piece of novelty merchandise that I'd like to add to that list. Calendars are always a popular piece of marketing schwag -- the Cubs give a magnetic schedule out every opening day -- because they stay on your wall day-in, day-out, serving both as a utility and a piece of free advertising. We should offer our own branded calendar -- either as a promotion or for sale during the holidays -- but ours would have a twist. Our calendar's theme would be colanders.

I'm not sure there are enough different types of colanders out there to make up even a monthly calendar. America's Test Kitchen recently aired a piece comparing a variety of them, and there couldn't have been more than half-dozen. So we'd have to get creative. Pictures of colanders from the movies and television. Drawings of colanders from a variety of guest artists. Shots of colanders serving secondary purposes, like the helmet of a kitchen-themed Don Quixote (he who tilts at pepper mills). And for a title: "Holy Bowls! A Colander Calendar for 2009." How couldn't it sell?

Frankly, I'm surprised Marie Callendar hasn't already thought of this.

I laughed when I read this week's Hot Type and saw the Sun-Times' Stella Foster complain that Fogo de Chao's "portions were kind of skimpy."

Stella! It's an all-you-can-eat restaurant! How can the portions be skimpy? Dummy.

Then I realized that I'd made the identical complaint a few weeks ago at La Donna. Oops!
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Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Here are two tales of how food purveyors in Chinatown are faring in the age of SARS: one in The New Yorker, one in The Morning News.

From the former: "'You ever see a chef eat in his own kitchen?' came the bark, accompanied by a long, raucous, what-a-stupid-question laugh."

Yes, a stupid question, because everyone knows the answer is a mighty "Yes!"

In Chicago, a soccer teammate reports that now is the time to go to the usually packed Phoenix, as SARS hysteria has thinned the crowds a bit.
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Monday I plowed $40 into a modest plot of parsley, basil and oregano, with hopes of cooking with homegrown herbs this summer. Why do I feel like the fisherman who buys a $20,000 boat in order to catch a 10-pound salmon a few times a year? It's all about the rewards of process, I suppose.

Next year I hope to start from seed, but since this is my first go at this I went with nine starter pots: four basil (sweet), three parsley (two Italian, one plain) and two oregano (one Greek, one Italian). I wasn't sure which oregano to get, thus I got one of each. Any advice?

Monday, May 12, 2003

In case we feel like we still have a lot to learn about building a restaurant from the ground up, we could always invest some time in mastering Restaurant Empire, a new computer simulation game. According to the developers, the game "faithfully recreates all the challenges of building and operating a restaurant franchise through a unique blend of business-simulation and RPG gameplay."

It's been a long while since I've delved into the computer gaming scene, so I'm understandably blown away that a game like this can possibly exist. How real could it be? Does it let you overcook the chicken? Accidentally spill the split pea soup on a customer? Slice your finger off with the mandoline? From the screenshots, it appears that you can even have your chef-avatars -- in full chef regalia, as if he never leaves the house any other way -- negotiate prices with the hydroponic farmers. Nifty.

I'll have to coerce a friend with a Windows box to buy this and let me play. With enough practice, I imagine my sim-empire will be magnificent enough to give me the confidence to start a real one.
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Once we finally start interviewing potential employees, I fully expect the hiring to go a lot like this.

I hope "The Restaurant" fares better than FoodTV's "Date Plate," whose artificial flavorings I found overdone yet bland and mushy.
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Sunday, May 11, 2003

Posts here have been unforgivably few and far between lately, but fortunately some of our readers have picked up the slack, including one Mary, whose writes a thorough critique of some of our name ideas. It's an important aspect of any new restaurant, and it's on a lot of people's minds. Quite a lot of our traffic comes from people who have Googled "restaurant names." Most of our ideas have been proposed merely for the giggle factor -- Dessert Caravan? Come now. -- but Mary's absolutely right: A name must be as memorable and clear as it is appealing and inviting.
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Friday, May 09, 2003

EUREKA, Calif. -- Enjoying food often is a balance between process and product. Me, I subscribe to a product-based tautology: A meal is good if it is good. But I just read "The Man Who Ate Everything," by Jeffrey Steingarten, and he is clearly one who delights in process. He's impressed by a paella flavored not with rosemary but with rosemary-fed snails, and his favorite beef is the Wagyu, from Japanese cattle sustained on a diet of sake, massage and pilates. The beef is good; the decadent process makes it great and thus worth $150 a pound

Process often pops up in creative menu writing. I've found many neighborhood joints offer something called "Chicken and vegetables in brown sauce." It's usually $6 and very good, but there's no hint of what transpired on the dish's journey to your table. At The Room, however, one gets a "Roasted half chicken in a honey apple butter sauce and cashews with sauteed green beans" -- in other words, chicken in brown sauce -- for $17. "Pan-seared" is often worth an extra buck on an entree, too.

What I love about Paul's food blog is the focus on process as he details his trips to the grocery store, his kitchen improvisation and his impressive plating. His joy -- and ours -- is the creation more than the consumption. Never in his pork post, for instance, does he mention how it tasted. Although I'm sure it was excellent, his achievement is in the mouth-watering process, not necessarily the product.

Last night I made chicken and pesto for my parents. The results were fine, but nothing remarkable. The novelty was in the process: I cooked the chicken using Kass' take on beer-can grilling, and both the pasta and the pesto were made from scratch. Thus Mom gets to brag to her friends about fettucine dangling from her clothes hangers, and Dad gets to brag to his about eating a chicken that had a can of Hamm's stuffed up its ass. (First rule of restaurantship: Know your audience.)

Lately I've restricted my taqueria visits to places that make their own tortillas (and have yet to find one that matches those of Maxwell Street Market; tips?). In our restaurant's quest for process, it would be novel to have some unusual staple that's handmade. The trick is making it cost-effective. My pasta, for example, used about 40 cents of flour and 30 cents of eggs to make the equivalent of two 80-cent boxes of dry pasta. In addition I spent an hour kneading and cutting, meaning my labor had a payoff of about $1.10. Unless we can find a crew of pasta makers willing to work for $1.10 an hour, it might be hopeless.

Monday, May 05, 2003

EUREKA, Calif. -- If someone ever tells you to go where the sun don't shine, you could do a lot worse than Humboldt County. To say that it's been dark and soggy since I got here Thursday would be a gross understatement. In truth it's been dark and soggy since time began. There's a reason the trees here rise hundreds of feet into the air: It's the only way to break through the fog and get a bit of sun.

In short, it's soup weather, so Friday my family and I headed to Arcata for Japhy's Soup and Noodles, an over-the-counter emporium of Asian-influenced soups. (All vegetarian, natch. "Oh, seitan, you see?" is the town's anthem. I once saw graffiti here that read "Jesus loves U," or had until someone changed it to "Jesus loves tofU.")

One neat thing Japhy's does is hang customers' frequent-souper cards near the counter, sort of the same way Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown stores its customers' gift certificates. It's a smart way to encourage regulars, saving them the trouble of remembering where their cards are. It also opens the door to karma development: What's to stop someone from applying a stamp toward a stranger's card? Nothing, nor should there be.What a pleasant surprise it would be to come in and find that you have a free soup coming, thanks to anonymous kindness.
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