June 19, 2024

You’re the Boss: The Hardest Part of Running a Restaurant

Southfork Kitchen servers: Eliot Wandel, Roxanne Lelchuck, Javie Smith.Chris KoszykSouthfork staffers: Eliot Wandel, Roxanne Lelchuck, Javie Smith.
Start-Up Chronicle

Rafael thanked me for offering him a dream job. A fisherman since childhood, a painter of fish by day and a server at night, he had been waiting for a sustainable seafood place in which to work. He was well-spoken and mannerly, a good listener. We talked for an hour, going over his experience, his ambitions, how he stretched his canvases. He wanted to start work immediately. We agreed he would start the next day, at noon, train and taste and get familiar with our steps of service. That was a month ago. We have not heard from Rafael since.

The hardest part of running a fish restaurant in the Hamptons is not getting the wreckfish from the bottom of the sea to the kitchen. It is not getting the permits from the health department or the liquor license from the state. It is not finding a chef or guests or organic mesclun. The hardest part of running a fish restaurant in the Hamptons is getting the fish from the kitchen to the table.

That’s it. Kitchen to table. What a concept! I kid you not: getting the food from the chef to the guest in a timely and polite fashion by a timely and polite staff is the great white whale. Those last 50 feet may as well be an ocean.

Doris was a genteel and educated person, and a pretty fair server. Unbeknownst to me, she dabbled in real estate during the day; sometimes it seems as if everyone in the Hamptons dabbles in real estate. One night, a client to whom she was trying to sell a multimillion-dollar house came into Southfork Kitchen for dinner, and Doris was so flustered, so conflicted about her dual professions, that she resigned the next day. She had had an epiphany: never let servings interfere with closings.

Everyone warned me. Managers and owners of other restaurants told me about the impossibility of hiring a staff in the off-season. Even my wife warned me, and she is the first to admit that she knows precious little about restaurants. But she knows a few things about the Hamptons and empty roads and closed taverns and snow drifts and the eccentricities of members of a nomadic professional tribe. She knows that servers, like farmers and tennis pros and sane people of privilege, head south or west when the Earth freezes and the population of humans on the East End of Long Island drops below the population of geese.

One server who worked with us was a very smart fellow. Read books like other people read traffic signs. He didn’t read traffic signs. He didn’t own a car — or a scooter or a bicycle. He hitched to work or bummed a ride or resorted to buses when the first two modes failed. He walked into the restaurant most afternoons with stories of what books he had just read, who gave him a ride, and how he had converted the previous night’s tips into some sort of powder or pill and got hammered. Knowing every taxi company’s phone number, and not owning a driver’s license, seemed to give him license to drink all night at any bar without worrying about waking up in jail or purgatory. He was almost as good at math as English. He kept count of the beers he consumed each night. Reaching double digits was not uncommon. He was a nice guy and a good server and lasted a couple months before entering Alcoholics Anonymous and leaving us.

I just didn’t believe that one restaurant would struggle to find three excellent servers year round and three more in the summer. That’s all it takes to cater to 100 guests. With a backstaff to match. I still don’t believe it’s impossible even though I have lived through the drought, the turnover, the unanswered advertisements, the ongoing frustration, the searching, the sudden abandonments — of runners and bartenders and hostesses as well as servers.

A French server had worked at a half-dozen local restaurants and sought us out because he missed “zee fine dining of Parees and Provence.” His first words to us were, “My costumeers love me. They wheel follow me to here.” The first night, he accidentally forgot to charge one table for an expensive bottle of wine. They loved him all right. The second night, he started to complain about pooling his tips with “zee amma-tours.” The third night he had to work at his previous job. The fourth day, he took me outside and said, “Pooling teeps is crazee. I run the circles around theeze pathetique keeds. I make you more money, I serve more peep-hole. I know ‘alf your costumeers from other jobs. Pooling teeps, it is crazee, yes?” Non.

The Frenchman was in it for the money and made no bones about it. And no one blamed him. He had the years behind him, a mortgage ahead of him, and the ability to work almost any place. He was a free agent, an independent contractor. We wanted team players, staffers who would pick up each other’s slack, share the challenges as well as the tips. So we shied away from seasoned pros — in any season — and started hiring the nicest, smartest people we could find, people with little or no experience who bought into our game plan, who wanted to be part of our culture.

We hired a new floor manager to be mother hen. The chef was already a four-star general in the kitchen. The head of the wine program concentrated on wine. All three spent afternoons training the staff and hosting guest speakers: the owner of Paumanok Vineyards held a wine tasting for the staff; a representative from Blue Ocean Institute talked about fish; the cheesemaker from Mecox Bay Dairy passed around his creations and answered questions. We asked everyone to memorize our “100 Rules.”

Steven was excellent. He had been out of the business (and clean and sober) for 10 years, but his other profession, masseussing, was not going well, and he wanted to earn enough money in the spring and summer to take him through the manipulative winter. He started on a Friday, training and trailing. He was so good, so natural, that by the end of the night, he had a couple of tables of his own. Around midnight, the restaurant all but empty, we talked about how well he fit in. He too was pleased. Then the front door opened and Steven’s career walked out. An old friend, a server with whom he had worked in the city many years ago, came into Southfork for a drink after his shift around the corner. He was happy to see Steven and they embraced. The friend was slurring words and struggling to keep his balance. Steven took it all in and turned to me and said, “I have to leave now. I am sorry, but my past life just came rushing back and it scares me and I have to leave. Sorry.” He took off his black Bragard jacket, said good night to his old friend and was gone.

I know what you are thinking: this is the guy with the 100 Rules for Servers? No wonder he can’t find a waitstaff. It’s payback, dude. It’s called instant karma in some circles. A guy slams servers in the e-paper of record and now he wants them to work for him? No wonder they’re making his life miserable; servers have memories like elephants.

Servers remember guests by face and name and vodka preference. They remember orders and seat positions and the good tippers from bad. They remember the specials of the day and the ingredients of every dish and the ice cream flavors du jour and what ticks off the chef, the manager, the owner, the hostess. Many a Wall Street banker has hired a server for the floor of the stock exchange because servers think fast, pay attention to detail, move quickly on their feet, and possess pachydermal retentiveness.

Servers are a breed apart. Don’t even think about pushing them around. And whatever you do, don’t write 100 Rules for them.

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

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=cb799e4bc0c24cbc700402d80afef96f

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