Apr 292012
 

The most frequent dream job for an aspiring chef is working in a small to midsized restaurant owned by a visionary who cedes full control of the menu, concept and pricing, giving the chef full autonomy and the tools to gain the visibility that will lead to his own restaurant.

Sometimes it works..
When it does not, the greatest issue appears to be the question of the chefs’ autonomy. I love the quote from mostly Martha, “You are wrong. It’s your restaurant. It’s her kitchen,” even though it isn’t really accurate. The kitchen belongs to the restaurant and its expenses and practices draw from the bottom line. It, too belongs to the owner, which however by no means suggests that the chef cedes  responsibility or that the owner is free to override the chef in substantial decisions.

Actions by the chef – hiring an inappropriate person, ignoring labor laws or food safety standards, inadequate cost controls or low prioritizing of loss – come from the bottom line. Owners who call for new chefs complain that their current chef has hired friends without work visas or does not keep adequate time records because he does not consider them important. One chef who refused to note what he an apparently unimportant and trivial “sexual harassment” incident cost the restaurant $200,000 in damages.

Successful restaurateurs know enough to be cautious with menu autonomy, possibly the top item on any young chef’s wish list, so a lot of young chefs turn down promising positions for owners who keep control over their menus and concepts,  whether that means requiring a few well received items on the menu, or that all new dishes be approved before they are tried out at the beginning of the chef’s tenure.

“He keeps second guessing my purveyors,” says one chef, who doesn’t comprehend the owner’s desire to have a hand in the costs of the facility.

He has three sous chefs, sighs the plagued restaurateur. That’s one for twenty seats. Our food cost is great, but our labor cost is putting out of business.” “I have brought in great reviews,” says the chef, and raised the volume by 45%, not considering that labor or food costs may be resulting in lowering profits to an unacceptably thin or negative margin. Restaurants are not supposed to subsidize their guests.

“Visionary,” it has been remarked (often by me), “is a four letter word.” Grand ideas of new restaurant owners often collide head first with the economic realities and demographics of a location. There are of course those truly impressive first time owners who start on point and continue to run a successful restaurant for years with a strong vision and perfect chef interaction (I would mention Mark Pastore at Incanto here..one of the restaurant owners I most respect in the industry), but many face heart rendering challenges in their new ventures.

“This is not what I signed on to do,” sighs the new restaurant’s creative chef. They’ve changed the concept. They lied to me.” Well, actually they lied to themselves, following their dreams rather than the hard facts of who is willing to pay how much money for what kind of food on their plate. Once they figured it out, they told the chef to replace the basil scented vanilla bass with a burger or a steak, and he’s understandably ticked off. “This will ruin my career!” he moans. Actually it probably won’t but he has a point. Game changing is a bummer even when it is the only option.

Money in the restaurant business is a zero sum game. That would be simple, but the quest for kitchen/owner bliss is complicated by a number of factors including “culinary integrity”, prestige desires, ego on both sides and lack of communication on both sides of the kitchen door.  Often the chef sees additional value in press and recognition, which can only be achieved through more expensive food or a higher staffing quotient than the financials will bear. Owners appreciate the celebrity, but they still have to deal with budget questions. They also unreasonably expect to receive profit from their investments, as do their investors.

Chef’s with aspirations understandably tend to resent the consequences of these realities, which is somewhat like resenting rain.

Virgin restaurateurs, that is those with little or no previous restaurant experience, complicate the equation by lacking understanding of the boundaries between of the kitchen door. Many want to have a hand in everything. Others simply overstep their bounds. A dear friend was, for instance, known for demanding a hamburger in the middle or service. He went through a list of chefs before one slammed his fist on the table and said “No!”. Another, no longer a virgin, gives his generally very talented chefs full reign of the menu but makes up for the financial drain by shorting the dining room to the clear detriment of the kitchen. Good food needs to be delivered at the pre-ordained temperature without infuriating the diners.

First time owners and and some experienced restaurateurs, furthermore, tend to be more meddlesome than necessary. Stories abound of cooks fired for theft or other inexcusable behavior being hired back (thus undermining the chefs’ authority and necessitating his departure), of family members investors demanding special service on the busiest nights, of orders cancelled without the chef’s knowledge. When some lines are crossed,  irremediable barriers thrown up between employer and chef. Pity.

There should be a moral or an answer to all this. Instead there many which begin with decision making and end with communication.  And sometimes there is none. They will be addressed in the next post. In the meantime it would very interesting to hear your own experiences and solutions from either side of this, because you surely have plenty of them.

Please note that the verification for this site is a simple math question. If you can calculate food cost, you should be able to subtract five from six.  It should not stop you.

Dec 152010
 

Business cards, you may have heard, are no longer kept in books albums with  unwieldy plastic pages or in dozens of boxes, nor are smart people spending their time typing them into their laptops. After various card scanners – Neat Receipts  and the less buggy and more efficient Cardscan among them – had moderate success in the card storage market,  new apps on smart phones are allowing people to store and access their contacts by category just about anywhere.

I can, for instance, give you a list of seven chocolate makers or dairymen  in two minutes or find half a dozen sommeliers in the Miami area on my Ipod. If you gave me your card, I can reach  you from the road or from Munich. If someone calls me and asks for the address of a restaurant supplier in Kansas, I can pull him out of a pile in seconds. You want that. (Well maybe not a call from me, but being available or having your information available is one of the key elements of being successful in this odd business.)

During a week of card database restoration after my 2500 item card list was taken out by a rogue hard drive I have developed a sharp sense of the essence of good and bad business cards and what makes them effective. Let me share:

  • If you are between jobs and looking, you should have a card. If you have a card from  your employer,  you should also have a personal card with your permanent contact information. If you have a second business you should have a card for that. It’s how people find you.  Your card is your best advertising. People store them and pass them along.
  • Have your card printed professionally. Nothing speaks dilettante louder than a hand knit card on fold and tear stock.
  • Have it designed by someone who has a sense of look and proportion. Having seen the effects a company  like Noise 13 can achieve with  an image, we are believers. Our favorite printer, Red Dog Graphics,  and many other printers also offer design services.
  • Your printer will charge you a set up fee for putting your card on a plate. Make sure you get a copy of the set up and keep it in a safe place. I have one on a keychain thumb drive, in case I need cards away from home.
  • Use dark print on light background or vice versa – similar tones like dark grey on black or cream on white can’t be read by scanners. Your print should also contrast with your logo.  While scanners easily read really tiny print, some people can’t. You need to keep your print  small but not microscopic.
  • Fold over cards and dual sided cards are a great way to get more information into the small space allowed, but put all of the important contact information on one side.
  • Repeat: Everything that you need someone to know about you – Company name, Title, phone, email etc – belongs on one side of the card.
  • Use standard card size. Over-sized cards tend to get put aside and lost. Small ones can’t be found. Card shapes, on the other hand, are expensive but eye catching. A rough edge can make it interesting.
  • Don’t confuse cute with effective. A card printed on a beer coaster or a Chinese puzzle box won’t make it to or through the scanner. A fortune cookie is a great gimmick, but not a card (you can, of course, do both.)
  • Don’t go too wild with fonts. Fonts that look like trees or swishes, medieval scripts and crayons in the form of letters are not recognized electronically, nor are wild scripts or funny fonts. If you do have an exquisite, artistic and illegible card face consider double sided printing with the same information in a simple font on the back.
  • The fewer colors used in printing a card, the less it costs. New methods may change that.
  • You are working on small space, so your graphics should be simple and leave space for information.
  • You don’t absolutely need graphic, or at least not pictures. If you are an individual without a graphic, there’s nothing wrong with putting your photo on the card. It helps people remember you and find the card, if they are looking for you.
  • Add a Skype number if you deal outside the country. Consider adding a Google Voice number (this is a permanent number which relays to multiple phones.)
  • Explain what you do or are. If your company is “The Blue Bloom” something like “Purveyors of Fine Wine” or “Ambiance Consultant” belongs below it.
  • Be generous with your cards. I hear back from people who got mine ten years ago.