March 5, 2021

You’re the Boss Blog: Southfork Kitchen’s Owner Learns That Running a Restaurant Is No Joke

What used to be the communal table.Chris KoszykWhat used to be the communal table.

Start-Up Chronicle

Getting a restaurant off the ground.

A priest, a rabbi and a chicken walk into a restaurant. They sit at the bar. The priest orders a Bloody Mary and some oysters, the rabbi orders a garden salad and bluefish au poivre, and the chicken orders the five-course prix fixe.

In the kitchen, the chef sees the ticket for three guests — one has one course, the second has two courses, and the third has five courses. The chef wonders if the priest wants his oysters when the chicken gets his amuse-bouche or when the rabbi gets his salad. Does the rabbi want to hold off on his bluefish until the chicken gets his entree?

Just then, two parishioners see the priest at the bar and come over to pay their respects. The priest asks them to join him. The woman orders the pasta primavera and her husband orders clam chowder followed by the mussels kimchi. Now they are a party of five with staggered starts and a varying number of courses and a kitchen in a tizzy.

This lovely turmoil is no joke. Amusing perhaps at a local tavern or sushi bar, it will bring a fine dining establishment to its knees. With different silver for each dish, with a tight kitchen, 70 seats in the dining room and 18 stools at the bar, not to mention the communal table, polite chaos and gustatory anarchy can result. And did result several Thursdays ago when our bar turned over twice and the communal table was at full tilt. Walk-ins can share the 10-seat communal table or sit at the bar; the rest of the restaurant is reserved (on busy nights).

Half the 100 guests that night walked in willy nilly. And ordered with a goofy gusto. And everyone suffered.

On the other side of the fence, in the dining area, everyone ordered the prix fixe, by design, and their courses arrived in unison. There were exceptions (an additional dish), but they were the exceptions. On many nights — I am thinking about autumnal Wednesdays — the bar is a blessing to both guests and staff, but some nights — I am thinking about August Thursdays — the bar bites us on our striped bass and drags us through the mud. Needless to say, we don’t want to turn people away, especially when we have empty chairs, but when half the guests arrive unexpectedly and are given free reign of the menu, we are out of our depth and gasp for air.

As Yogi Berra might have said, the less you control, the more uncontrollable it will be.

We would like to control — subtly, delicately — as much of your visit as possible, so that you can sit back and let the evening go. We start with reservations and confirmations, then move to parking, lighting, music and seating; we help decide what you eat and when, the wine you bring and the glasses you drink from; we’d like to control the number of walk-ins and number of parties larger than six; we try to anticipate the bill you pay, the tip you leave, how tipsy you leave, the cab you leave in, and what you eat even after you have left, depending on the take-away or the doggie bag; and we give you a guide from the Blue Ocean Institute in an effort to influence what fish you will consume in the future. In other words, we try to gently rock your world and invisibly control your universe. For a couple hours. We are just a restaurant trying to reduce your burdens and increase your pleasures.

Scene Two:

A chef, a manager and an owner walk into their own restaurant and sit at the bar. They need a drink, but the bartender is off, and there is a nondrinking policy for all employees. It is the afternoon following the debacle — Murphy’s Thursday — when guests waited interminably and tempers flared all over the house. The three people at the bar have a no-holds-barred tete-a-tete-a-tete. Accusations and analyses. Analyses and accusations. One agreement: What happened the previous night can never happen again.

Regardless of the Hamptons mantra — “You have only three months to make any money” — we must resist being reduced to a slice-and-dice, slash-and-dash summer entertainment, even though we sacrificed June to a kitchen fire. Of course we want fannies in the seats and fish in the bellies, but shortsightedness will doom this venture. While our bankers yell “Yes” our hostesses cry “No.” It is far more advantageous to feed 90 people well than 125 poorly, both ethically and economically. We want to maintain our consistency and create a summer experience no less gratifying than a winter’s feast. We are here for the long haul, not just the tourist season.

We have made some changes: The bar menu is now a mini prix fixe — two courses for $50. There are four appetizers and four entrees, chosen for their popularity, and the ease and speed with which they can be composed. Bread and butter is included, but no amuse-bouche, no dessert, no petit four. Anyone can drink at the bar, naturally, or share a meal, but one may not order randomly from any menu. No doubt there will be protests, but the bar has been fairly hopping since the new policy and the overall service has been much smoother.

The communal table has been converted to a credenza, with flowers and a wine bucket. We can always add tables to the dining room to make up for the 10 lost seats, but guests appreciate the airier seating arrangement, and the staff has an easier time navigating the pathways. While currently out of commission, we can always remove the flowers and wines and book the table for a large party.

Ideally, we would love to have six guests arrive every 15 minutes, from 6:30 to 10:15, so that we would wind up with 96 people. Alas, only clocks work like that, so we are always dealing with cancellations and parties that grow or shrink at the last minute, and weather-delayed guests and hungry folks who jump the gun. Reservations and seatings will be paced with a gentle firmness; the hostess will have to ask folks to sit at the bar until our flow is regulated, allowing enough time and space to be gracious.

We are learning our limitations. We wish we could do more, and perhaps in time, we will, but this summer, our first summer, our restrictions are gestures of hospitality. Like the produce and the fish, we will be altered by the seasons ahead.

Now, let’s rewrite that opening scene.

A priest, a rabbi and a chicken walk into a seafood restaurant. They sit at the bar. The priest orders a Bloody Mary and the bar prix fixe. The rabbi orders a glass of pinot noir and the bar prix fixe. The chicken wants a Sixpoint ale and a side order of French fries. “I’m sorry,” says the bartender, “we don’t serve chickens here.”

Bruce Buschel owns Southfork Kitchen, a restaurant in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

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