Wednesday, March 27, 2019

An Open Letter to Would-be Restaurant Owners

Dear Future Restaurant Owners:

So you want to open a restaurant. Great! Good for you! I am all for new business ventures, especially in the food industry. But, please, please don’t open (not even a soft opening) until you’ve got all the nuts and bolts (or in this case, forks and knives) firmly in place.

Now I know that the industry term “soft opening” means a restaurant is open but still working out the kinks. I get that. What I don’t get is how you, as the owner of a new restaurant, open without really training your staff. Or, how you as that owner, are dressed like you’re working at a construction site (even if your restaurant is extremely casual). You are the “face” of your restaurant; your appearance sends a message.

Case in point: I went to a new restaurant in our area this week. They don’t have a web site yet (mistake #1), but the person who answered the phone was very friendly and helpful when I asked about hours, menu, etc. She told me they had a limited menu right now and would have a web site soon. OK, fair enough. I decided to give a try.

Upon arrival, the hostess showed us to a table and gave us menus (food and beer). When our server came over, I said “I know this is a tap house so you have lots of beers, but do you have any wine?” Hmmmm, this seemed to stump her. Off she went to ask. I could see her speak to someone who was apparently a manager and I could hear his answer, “of course we have wine, go get the wine list at the bar.” Mistake #2. This should have been covered in training 101. As an aside, the server blamed the hostess for not giving us a wine list.

The wine list is small, but I’m still OK because I know their focus is beer. I ordered a Dr Frank semi-dry Riesling (NY Finger Lakes), and my husband orders Tito’s on the rocks. Our drinks arrive; the wine glass has lip smudges around the rim...I send it back.

Next, we have a couple of questions about the menu, which she had absolutely no answers for and had to keep running back to ask the manager (she said it was her first day; see Mistake #2 above for not fully training her BEFORE she hits the floor). I order the crab cake, and my husband, skeptical about the offerings, goes with the New England clam chowder. Twenty-five minutes later, my crab cake is delivered, lukewarm. Ten minutes later, still no soup. Now, I’m pretty sure they are not making the chowder from scratch at 6:30pm, so all they have to do is warm it up & ladle it out. We flag down the server who goes to check on it, and a few minutes later, it is delivered. 

We both stare at the soup. It is greenish-brown in color. I have never seen New England clam chowder in that color palate. My husband gives it a taste & pushes it away. He asks me to taste it. It is horrendous. Tastes nothing like chowder of ANY kind. In fact, I’m not sure what it tastes like, other than awful. In hindsight it tasted like a roux (a mixture of fat and flour used in making sauces); a bad, metallic-tasting roux. In addition, it had soup-skin floating on top, which indicates the soup had been sitting out for quite awhile. We  tell our server about the soup. She is apologetic, takes it away, and speaks to a gentleman I think is an owner. 
What NE clam chowder SHOULD look like!
(Credit: Serious Eats)
A few minutes later, he comes to the table. He is dressed like a construction worker (which is ok, if you are actually a construction worker and going to work at a construction site). He says “you don’t like the soup?” Notice there was no greeting? I say “no, it’s inedible.” He says “I had it today, it was fine.” I said, “it had skin on it.” The owner says “you coulda just let it sit there.” What does that even mean?? Then he walks away. OMG. (Big) Mistake #3. I felt like channeling Gordon Ramsey on Kitchen Nightmares: “TAKE THIS SOUP BACK INTO THE KITCHEN & HAVE THE CHEF TASTE IT!”

We pay the bill (the soup was taken off), leave a good tip for the waitress (the lack of training and kitchen failures are not her fault), and exit stage right. 

So, let’s review: Mistake #1, no web site. It’s not 1991 (the year the WWW went live). There is no reason why any restaurant cannot have a web site up and running prior to opening. It gives the public a sense of what to expect (hours, menu, pricing, BYO or full bar, handicap accessible, owner/chef bios, etc). Even if you don’t have a full site at launch, put something out there. 

Mistake #2, staff training. I know, you’re crazy busy trying to get everything done for your new venture. But trust me, if you don’t get this right, your new baby is going to fail, and it won’t be pretty. Today everyone is a restaurant critic, and people have no second thoughts about posting a bad review on Yelp, Open Table, Google, etc. A few bad reviews can tank your restaurant. For me, the service is right up there with the food. They are equal parts of the equation. And good service starts with you, restaurant owner. You may think you know how to train servers, but if you’re a newby to the restaurant biz, or have only run a small “mom & pop” establishment, you better get some help in this department (there are companies that can handle this for you so you can focus on the million other details of opening a restaurant). FOH (front of house) training is not as simple as it sounds. I eat out alot, and it never fails to amaze me how poorly wait staff have been trained. Even if the food is stellar, poor service will definitely influence whether I return to a restaurant again.

Which brings me to Mistake #3, customer interactions. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that we won’t be returning to this restaurant, based mostly on how “Mr Owner/Construction Worker” handled my complaint. If he had said “I’m so sorry to hear the soup didn’t meet your expectations. What else can I get you?” Or, “we’ve just opened, I appreciate your feedback on the soup; let me get you something else,” I may have given it another try in a few weeks. But he obviously was not interested in customer satisfaction and ensuring that I return. 

This restaurant lost a customer, and that’s a shame, because with some careful planning, thorough training and attention to detail, he could have had repeat business; and not just from me, but from all the friends I would have told about his new restaurant.

Note: pictures in this post were not taken at said restaurant.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Spring (recipe) Cleaning!

Happy Spring!

My attractive post-surgery footwear!
First, I must apologize for being off the radar for awhile. I had foot surgery in mid-February so my ability to do ANYTHING in the kitchen has been impacted by the requirement to always be on crutches or a knee roller. Kind of hard to bake or cook while navigating on those contraptions. Everything takes a lot longer & twice as many moves. I have a newfound respect for people with permanent disabilities. 

"Squirrel" Recipe Storage
Second, it is finally Spring, and with that comes the traditional "Spring cleaning." But given my aforementioned surgery, I am definitely not doing the typical cleaning (moving furniture, window washing, etc). No, my version involves something I can do while sitting with my injured foot elevated...going thru the hundreds (maybe thousands) of clipped recipes I've been storing in a mish-mash of folders for years. 

Now, you might be thinking "clipped" recipes? Don't you just download them and save to your Evernote file (or some other digital system)? Well, yes. Yes, I do. Now. But WAY before that was an option, people actually cut recipes out of newspapers and magazines and stashed them in some kind of file (like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter). You know, in hopes of making these recipes some day...

What was I thinking?! Was I really ever going to make "Chilled Veal Roast with Herbes de Provence and Fennel Salad?" Or "Breast of Duck with Cantaloupe?" Hmmmm, I think not, but for some reason, I saved those recipes.
Recycled Bag #1
Slogging thru my recipe piles!

After spending hours the other day going thru the file, I ended up with two huge bags of recycled recipes, and two much smaller file folders of recipes I just could not bear to part with. Even though I took photos of some of them to add to Evernotes, I decided to keep the paper version, too. Some are very old family recipes written by relatives long gone and I want to keep the recipe in their original handwriting. Some are from the late, great Gourmet magazine (circa 1998) and I'm not sure if all of their recipes have been digitally converted.

I've been meaning to tackle my recipe overload for a long time, and my surgery recovery was the perfect excuse. How do you store your recipes? Do you follow the "squirrel" method, or are you strictly a digital saver? Let us know. In the meantime, I'll be right here trying to decide if I should save this recipe from Food & Wine. It sounds so good. I'm sure I'll make it. Some day.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Great Olive Oil Dilemma

Olives on the vine in Sicily
While in Sicily a few years ago, we visited an olive farm where, of course, we sampled the wares (directly from the giant stainless steel vats). The oil had the luscious flavor and delicious scent of just-harvested olives that you would expect from tasting at the source.
Our prized tin from Sicily
We bought a BIG tin at the ridiculously low price of 10 Euros and carted it home. We used it sparingly, knowing that when the tin was empty, we could not replace it. After awhile, the tin ran dry and our search began for a new "house" olive oil.

We hopped around from brand to brand (Lucini, California Olive Ranch, Kirkland, to name a few) and while they were all good, nothing really made us jump up and down with joy. Which brings me to today's post:

Are you as confused as I am over what constitutes a really good olive oil?

You may have heard about the "bombshell" olive oil study done by UC Davis in 2010. The study concluded that 69% of imported olive oils labeled extra virgin, were in fact, not extra virgin. WOW! Understandably, this sent shockwaves through the food industry, olive oil producers, and the public. The report, funded in part by California olive producers, raised all kinds of questions and since then many olive oil groups have upped the standards for producing and marketing olive oil. But as an average home cook who uses alot of olive oil, I still have doubts if what I'm buying is the real deal. In addition, I am overwhelmed by the gazillions of brands out there. And unless I am at a store or olive ranch where I can taste a drop or two of the production, I am buying blindly (and most likely, so are you). 

I still don't have an answer to my ongoing quest for an above-average everyday EVOO, but I did find this article from Serious Eats very interesting. If you have a favorite olive oil, please share. Eventually, this long winter will pass and it will be tomato season and I need to have my olive oil dilemma resolved by then.
Jersey tomatoes, fresh mozz, Georgia peaches, with basil and EVOO!