A View from the Kitchen – Bullethead’s Last Stand
Some years ago, a study conducted by a leading educator in the Bronx determined that “wherewithal” quotient is a leading predictor of individual success. Beyond IQ and such, the likelihood to prevail over life’s adverse conditions most belongs to those who dust themselves off and try again.
Two decades earlier and just north, as an incoming freshman I was welcomed to the high school bus by senior Dominick DiBenedetto. “Nice hat, Bullethead,” initiated an eternity of verbal abuse. I planned regularly for the day that his mates would elevate the harassment beyond shooting rubber bands at my head from the back seats. Ultimately, they would call me by my name.
Life’s challenges are presented and overcome. Take, for example, my first bully-boss, Big John. “BJ” actually taught me how not to treat staff. Years later the dean of the UMass hospitality program rejected my plea to tailor a targeted curriculum toward ownership. Graduation was followed by restaurant gigs in which my potential went unrewarded. Seven long years later I opted to open our own restaurant.
How ’bout them apples?
Cobblestones’ legacy began in June 1994 during a recession. Hours before our grand opening, the electricity blacked out, leaving us with no lights, soda and beer systems, or kitchen hoods. “Light all candles, go buy bottles, no grill food.” I directed our new staff to stay cool, despite no air conditioning and 200 expected guests. “If you can keep your head while all those around you …”
Back then, a sage family member suggested I bypass a friend as general manager who insisted on owning equity. “He’s trying to leverage your insecurity. You don’t need him.” I hired another. When a precious $2,000 went missing, she claimed to have needed a nap: “I must have forgotten to lock the safe.” (And, apparently, the office door). Number three lost his license to drive. Next up.
Triumph and disaster, fires and floods would follow. We launched Moonstones in Chelmsford, Mass., in 2007, as the good times rolled. Months later our existence was threatened by the Great Recession. That same mentor urged “… razor cuts like a surgeon.” We went on the offensive. Avoiding pay cuts, we added a seventh business day, Sunday brunch, increased portions and comfort food options while “trimming fat.” We flexed and prevailed stronger. The economy ebbs and flows, compounded by unrelenting financial challenges to our industry too great to list.
But now, this here.
With every past trial there has been strategy atop hope. Confidence, adrenaline, defiance, solutions. Yet never have we stared down such widespread trepidation. We combat a microscopic menace that hunts from the air we breathe. We blindly stab it with our steely knives, no cuts made. Those in charge respond by further attacking our livelihoods as they, too, struggle for answers. Too often officials don’t know how to say they don’t know. “The numbers” go up, then down, then up. Our operating hours are cut. Apparently the virus thrives after 10 p.m. Will we be forced to close again? How will we return sales back above expenses as our debt mounts?
We’ve purchased hospital-grade air filters, table dividers, sanitizer by the gallons, masks upon masks — attempting anything to diminish significant loss. We prayed for more government support to close more gap. It seems that equipment breaks down more frequently than “the before times.” We do without. “Use the other computer terminals,” we say. “For now,” we say. Cooks do dishes to maintain full-time hours. Managers mop bathrooms while accepting pay cuts. Servers now pool tips to foster team and togetherness. We promote cautiously, as not to appear dismissive, but desperate for those who are willing and able to sustain us while the news irresponsibly casts all restaurants as “high risk.” Being conflicted is now a permanent state.
This here goes well beyond sales and expenses. Our decisions often weigh threat — our personnel and professional health intertwined. A staff member responsibly “calls in sick” after a friend tested positive. We are grateful, concerned and, now, shorthanded. If we choose to shut down, we put dozens of our people out of work. Balancing quality operations with safety, morale, ethics and budget has never been more fragile.
In case of emergency, we are told on flights to first put on our own oxygen masks before assisting others. We are taught to protect the weak, but also that the strong survive. This here is Darwinian. Who is right? Who has the right? Whose survival is weighted how?
The uncomfortable solace of childhood lessons reminds: “There is always someone worse off.” We recognize our inability “to breathe” is different from those who’ve fallen ill. Nevertheless, we are crushed that our businesses, finances, dreams, ability to support others, and over 30 years of sacrifice and investment are at risk.
Unlike many others, we are unable to quarantine. We struggle for that next eureka moment, increasingly demoralized by futility — denial itself having an expiration date. I wish that a still mind and sleeping later these days was a good thing. It is not. It reeks of powerlessness — an unfamiliar feeling. We promote positivity, expand takeout, add fees and forego linen. Touchless technology? Seat outside in winter? We mine for strategies to sustain our people to the other side of this here — as we shed a tear each time a friend permanently shutters their restaurant. And another one.
Months ago, guess-who quipped: “There is no greater indicator of economic woe than when you open a restaurant.” My uncle’s tongue-in-cheek observation humored me, sadly. Concurrent with this perpetual pandemic, we’ve opened Stones #1 Social in Nashua, N.H. — our “brand of the future.” One of my strong, beautiful, incredible and courageous daughters, fighting alongside us, recently emailed a humble strategic suggestion. Acutely aware that my very own children are also assuming risk in our daily struggle, this much I know — I’d much rather be fists raised and nose to nose with Dominick once again.
She then consoled: “Are we having fun yet?”
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell, moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass., and Stones Social in Nashua, New Hampshire. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which are available here. >>>