A View From the Kitchen – Writing the Restaurant Rule Book, Still
or Chief Problem Solver and Bottle Washer
“Sir, my shrimp are cold.”
No matter how long I live, remembering my first complaint as a new restaurant owner remains. Survival in this business commands an ability to problem-solve without a manual — to derive solutions, often in split seconds, generally every day, mostly small in the grand scheme. That is why, in my yet-to-be-written book, the chapter “When the Guest Is Always Right” will be, like, a million pages long. Applying that philosophy covers most solutions.
Of note, she had ordered a shrimp cocktail: “Four chilled jumbo shrimp. …” True story. In the flash of silent space that followed, I processed: Did she forget her glasses? Is she crazy? Is she messing with me? Am I crazy? Then, does the truth even matter? “So sorry. Let us get those heated up for you right away, dear” — the no-brainer of possible responses.
My steak is overcooked. My salmon is undercooked. It’s too cold in here, it’s too warm, it’s taking too long, it came out too fast. And, there’s a pandemic and no sales, you need a mask, you don’t need a mask, there aren’t enough employees to handle the recent surge in business — like, this is what we do, we’ve got this.
But actually, do we?
In a recent manager meeting, my lips said things never before imagined: “Until we have more staff, forget about driving sales. Close stations. Create a wait. Limit reservations.” They eyed me like I was maybe drunk. Telling restaurant managers to slow down, particularly after months of pandemic-ravaged wasteland, is like telling fish not to swim. “We must protect our reputation for the long term,” I said, uncomfortably. Even I wondered if I was drunk. Forever, these things have worked in tandem — great food and service drives sales — ready, set, go.
We’ve created waits before, but never with half the tables empty. It’s long been a rule (Chapter 3?) that guests will (mostly) wait patiently until seated, when the timer starts ticking. “Our server took 10 minutes to greet us.” “Our drinks took 20 minutes.” So it goes. During these seemingly never-ending, never-before days, our small, heroic staff loops relentlessly from table to table, kitchen to bar, to the phone and front door — “30,000 steps!” a server recently boasted while checking his pedometer app. Another exclaimed, “I’ve never made this much money before,” more excited than exhausted. To be young!
We’ve placed “Help, I need somebody” postcards on tables offering guests $1,000 in gift certificate bonuses for staff referrals, while also asking for kindness and patience. Our Facebook pages double as job boards. We employ recruitment firms, post memos, urge staff and family to send friends: “We will train.” We remain closed on days we should be open to preserve the team we have.
Recently, my wife, some friends and I were waiting for a table at a favorite Lowell restaurant where they refused to serve us drinks to avoid overwhelming the bartenders. Yikes! Our restaurants were not delivered burgers due to a shortage of burger makers. Short on drivers, our largest supplier can only deliver once a week. Chicken wings doubled in price due to supply chain issues. It’s never been like this. We hired back a whiny cook at 30 percent more than what he was making pre-pandemic, while giving similar raises to others in the kitchen, unsure of the best strategy to afford all the increases we face.
Months ago, with both trepidation and resolve, we added a supplemental charge to our menus — rather than simply increase menu pricing, thereby avoiding additional tax and gratuity expenses — in order to legally, directly bonus kitchen staff, as they are typically lower paid throughout our industry. (It’s a problematic, systemic thing). In Massachusetts, kitchen team members cannot legally share in the percentage of sales (gratuities) paid by guests to servers — an ancient compensation system now being called into question. Guest reaction has been overwhelmingly positive (and greatly appreciated), as we assumed a leadership role in establishing greater wage equity. In a year’s time, the only verbose, ornery response was from a (former) regular guest who happens to be a multimillionaire. Go figure. His complaints came after consuming two dozen oysters, a steak and a couple of martinis. To me, this epitomized our challenge, both as a society and as small-business owners. How do we ensure that “essential workers” can afford their rent or to order the steak they cook? It is a problem worthy of a solution — on behalf of our economy and collective souls. Whether you look away or offer dollar bills to outstretched hands, homelessness hurts us all.
When a local newspaper reporter asked my perspective on the current labor conundrum, to his disappointment I answered: “Fascinating.” He skipped using my quote. As suspected, his slant was to simply chronicle the obvious. He expected that I’d be distressed (I am), but that I’d also blame liberal unemployment benefits — the easy target (I don’t, entirely).
And it’s here that the whole thing becomes super complex for my problem-solving powers — this chapter ultimately to be a doozy. Heating up shrimp cocktail with a smile and sincerity; not rocket science. But this here …
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. >>>