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If you're thinking of opening a restaurant, you have a lot on your plate!
Dig into this comprehensive guide from successful restaurateur and author Christopher Egerton-Thomas, who dishes out good advice on everything from coming up with a winning concept, choosing a location, and equipping a kitchen to designing the menu, decorating the dining room, and managing a staff. Whether you want to open an upscale restaurant or a diner, a bistro or a burger joint, specialize in ethnic cuisine or go with an established franchise, How to Open and Run a Successful Restaurant, Third Edition gives you the essential information to do it right.
The Third Edition of the celebrated soup-to-nuts classic is updated for today's competitive marketplace and features an expanded examination of the franchise system, in-depth discussions on customer relations, and a wealth of information on staff training-one of the most important ingredients for success. It covers:
CHAPTER 1: HOW IT ALL BEGAN.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE RESTAURANT INDUSTRY.
THE MODERN INDUSTRY.
REASONS FOR FAILURE.
THE THEATER OF RESTAURANTS.
WHO OPENS RESTAURANTS, AND WHY.
THE MASOCHISM FACTOR.
THINKING POSITIVE—THE FUN SIDE.
THE CASABLANCA FACTOR.
CHAPTER 2: LOCATION.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LOCATION.
Country and Suburban Locations.
HOW TO FIND PREMISES.
CHAPTER 3: WHAT KIND OF RESTAURANT?
WHAT IS THE TARGET MARKET?
Which End of the Market?
Appealing to Different Age Groups.
ALCOHOL AND LICENSING.
WHO ARE THE CUSTOMERS?
WHAT DO CUSTOMERS WANT?
CHAPTER 4: RAISING THE MONEY.
START-UP MONEY: HOW TO GET IT.
Small Business Administration.
THE PROS AND CONS OF PARTNERSHIPS.
Working and “Sleeping” Partners.
An Ideal Marriage?
The Go Position.
BUYING A FRANCHISE.
CHAPTER 5: EQUIPMENT AND DÉCOR.
EQUIPMENT—OLD OR INHERITED.
THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF LAUNDRY.
The Art of a Well-Set Table.
CHAPTER 6: THE BAR.
PROS AND CONS.
FOOD AT THE BAR.
THE SERVICE BAR.
STOCKING THE BAR.
Beer on Tap.
Sodas and Mixers.
Types of Liquors.
THE EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL.
HELPFUL HINTS FOR BARTENDERS.
Turning Away Unwanted Guests.
Organizing the Bar.
Dealing with Personal Issues.
Protecting Against Dangers—of All Sorts.
Serving the Drinks.
CHAPTER 7: THE KITCHEN.
DECIDING ON THE MENU.
FOOD AND TASTE.
CHAPTER 8: THE DINING ROOM.
VENTILATION AND HEATING.
DUTIES OF SERVERS.
SYSTEMS FOR SERVERS.
HELPFUL HINTS FOR WAITERS.
KEEPING DINERS HAPPY.
PERSONAL HOUSE ACCOUNTS.
To Pool or Not to Pool.
Tipping Other than the Wait Staff.
Pros and Cons of Tipping.
CHAPTER 9: HYGIENE, HEALTH, AND SAFETY.
Vermin and Exterminators.
Garbage and Sanitation.
HEALTH OF RESTAURANT PERSONNEL.
CHAPTER 10: PUBLIC RELATIONS.
THE NEED TO ADVERTISE.
Placing an Ad.
Using a Public Relations Firm.
THE FOOD CRITICS.
Reviews and Their Consequences.
DEALING WITH THE PUBLIC.
PEOPLE STRESS (OR COMBAT FATIGUE).
DRESSING THE ROOM.
AVOIDING NASTY SITUATIONS.
CHAPTER 11: EMPLOYEES.
THE EMPLOYEES’ POINT OF VIEW.
CHAPTER 12: MAKING YOUR DECISION.
THE “UP” SIDE.
THE “DOWN” SIDE.
QUESTIONS BEFORE DECIDING TO GO INTO BUSINESS.
UP AND RUNNING.
APPENDIX I: EATING OUT FOR RESTAURATEURS.
APPENDIX II: GLOSSARY.
Chaucer's fourteenth-century pilgrims were lucky to get a bite to eat at the Tabard Inn. Food was not always provided for travelers in those days. They often had to carry their own or buy from farmers and stores along the way. Salted pork was the most common meat and, even if April's showers had been unusually sweet that year, the choice of vegetables would have been small. Neither tea, coffee, chocolate, nor peanuts had yet arrived in Europe, and it would be nearly 300 years before Louis XIV examined his first potato (of which only the sparse foliage was eaten at that time) and sighed, "Always something new from America!"
Fortunately, Chaucer's crew was on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, which, like Santiago de Compostela and a score of other places on the continent, drew thousands of religious visitors every year, just as Lourdes and Mecca do today. They were in effect early tourists, and their routes were as well marked as those from New York to Miami or London to Paris now. Naturally, the locals along the way soon cottoned to the fact that there was money to be made from feeding them. At Chaucer's Tabard Inn, the pilgrims were doubly lucky. Their host offered a free meal to the traveler who told the most entertaining story. Is this the first recorded instance of what might be called the "theatre of the restaurant experience," using a gimmick to drum up business? Travel was dangerous then. Finding a meal and a bed before nightfall so as not to be "benighted" were real problems. Highway robbery was common. Jaded modern tourists may opine that, in some respects, little has changed.
There are scarcely any references to any aspect of "dining out" in European or English literature up to the middle of the eighteenth century. There were always taverns, at which Falstaff and his cohorts could quaff vast quantities of sack-cheap, and probably rough, Spanish red wine. At the Globe Theatre you could buy oranges from the baskets of budding Nell Gwynnes. For the small middle class there were clubs and coffee houses in the major cities.
The rich usually ate well at home, judging by household records and menus. Even Roman villas well inland have been found to contain large quantities of oyster shells, presumably brought from the shore along those long, straight roads in carts with regular changes of horses. But there weren't any places where, for a few denarii, you could pop in, check your toga, order a medium rare dormouse with lark's tongues in aspic on the side, and inquire the way to the "vomitorium." (Incidentally, at the risk of disappointing generations of schoolboys, a "vomitorium" is NOT where gourmands go to throw up what they've just eaten in order to eat more. No such room was to be found in a Roman house. A vomitorium is simply an exit, from an arena or theater, for instance. The only known concessions to the need to surrender to "reverse peristalsis" are the handles installed at shoulder height on either side of the men's urinals in old German barracks.)
Even for the affluent, foods were largely seasonal. Medical historians believe that the bleeding gums and other symptoms observed in late winter in medieval times were probably early signs of scurvy. There were no vitamin C-bearing fruits or vegetables until spring broke through. The problem of food storage was acute throughout the ages. The fact that food had to be transported fresh, and was subject to swift wastage, inevitably made the notion of restaurants as we know them today a highly risky and expensive business.
In 1795 Francois Appert invented heat sterilization of food, which led to canning. Although used by armies as early as the Napoleonic Wars, canned foods were expensive and not a common consumer item until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Ice was used at the ancient Roman and Chinese courts, and was brought at great expense from the Arctic to Europe and America. It was often stored underground during winter, but was generally a luxury until the end of the nineteenth century when steam-driven refrigeration was invented, This created the massive meat industries of New Zealand and Australia.
In 1913 the Domeire electric refrigerator was invented in Chicago, followed by the English Electrolux silent electric refrigerator in 1927. In 1929 Clarence Birdseye invented deep-freeze food, and by the early thirties frozen foods were a fixture in many grocery stores. Interestingly enough, the first frozen vegetable was asparagus.
The repertoire of recipes was expanding continuously throughout history. Ancient corpses preserved in mud usually reveal a depressing diet of porridge. Someday, someone may write a paper relating the effect of increased protein in the diet to technological improvement. But useful accidents were happening, starting with the realization that meat tasted better and was easier to chew when burned a bit, and grain was more easily digested when cooked in hot water, progressing through famous incidents which produced such dishes as Peach Melba and Chicken Marengo.
Strasbourg geese were stuffed to enlarge their livers for pâté in the sixteenth century, the trade in spices from the East was always a lucrative one, and the court of Louis XIV went wild when peas were imported from Italy.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution increased travel and created commuters and-that indispensable element to the restaurateur-an affluent middle class. Gradually, supply and demand created the modern restaurant industry.
By 1776 a few restaurants did a roaring trade in the major cities of the United States. The Bull's Head, Fraunces Tavern, and Mr. Little's were landmarks in New York. They laid on banquets with extensive menus, but the ordinary bill of fare was usually limited to beef, ham, and vegetables. Restaurants had become commonplace in Paris by the time of the French Revolution. In 1814 an allied army of English, Dutch, Belgian, Prussian, Spanish, Russian, and Austrian troops occupied the city, having defeated Napoleon at the Battle of the Nations. The World War I song, "How ya gonna keep 'em, down on the farm, after they've seen Parcel" might equally well have been composed at this time. All ranks had a high old time in Paris. Those lucky enough to have received wages could spend their money at last. Officers' families paid long visits.
The troops took home the memory of the fun they'd had and they spread the word. As society changed from agricultural to industrial, the demand for restaurants grew naturally. An increasing number of people needed to eat away from home. But growth was slow. Then as now, the rituals of courtship and adultery provided restaurants with regular customers, mainly from the ranks of the rich and the newly rich. By the 1820s strangers entering Stephen's Hotel in London would be stared down by the waiters and served with reluctance-an early example of what's now called the in crowd! At Crockfords, a gambling club where fortunes were lost, dinner was served from midnight to five in the morning by a named chef, Ude. There was no charge for the expensive delicacies and excellent wines. But the gamblers were encouraged to leave a £10 note on the green baize, if they chose.
Socializing, the privilege of the rich, took place mainly in private houses. In London in 1821, Lord Alvanley, a Regency character, had an apricot tart on his sideboard every day of the year, at a time when eight months' wages for a domestic servant would buy one bottle of champagne. The menus for the Prince Regent's feasts at his Brighton Pavilion by super chef Antonin Careme indicate the vast array of foods available for those who could afford them. The Prince Regent couldn't, as it happened, but he enjoyed them anyway.
As the century went on, restaurants boomed. Railway travel all over Europe increased. By 1880 Dickens was complaining about the sandwiches at the railway buffet. In 1908 Edith Wharton mentioned four restaurant experiences in the same love letter: "The last course of luncheon was being served with due solemnity . . . our first luncheon at Duval's our waiter at Montmorency . . . you . . . caring about the waitress's losing her tip if we moved our table.."
France, where gastronomy is a national passion, remained the fountainhead of the trade, and many elements of restaurant routine originated there, although Italophiles will insist that the French only stole ideas from the Italians! It is at this time that restaurants became common in America, but only in the major cities. Maxim's system of chefs, sous-chefs, sommeliers, and brigades was widely imitated in the grander restaurants, and still is.
THE MODERN INDUSTRY
Today, in the United States, there are thousands of eating places. They range from coffee shops where an early bird special-orange juice (sometimes freshly squeezed), two eggs any style with bacon and toast, and coffee-costs as little as $2.95, through every type of ethnic cuisine from Tibetan to Thai, to the kind of restaurant where the white truffles are whisked in from the airport by special messenger (or so the restaurateur's public relations firm would have you believe!) and the set menu, without wine or tips, costs $80 and up. At these prices, of course, the set menu becomes the table d'hote-literally, the "host's table." There are about 100 restaurants in America where dinner for two can cost $250 with very little effort, and above 200 more where the same punishment can be exacted by insisting on outlandishly priced rare wines.
All restaurateurs are in the same business and are bound by the same dynamics: supply, demand, competition, fashion, rent, the state of the economy, and the weather. Some restaurant chains include hot dog stands and luxury joints, taking the profit from each with equal pleasure. Whether it's preferable to sell 100 hamburgers at $10 each or 20 roast pheasants at $50 each is not merely a matter of taste, however. Different circumstances require different operations.
An old military cliché states that "Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted." The more you know about the restaurant business, the better. You must start observing when you go to restaurants. And thinking. Why is this place a success? What's it got? Why isn't this joint jumping in such a nice location with such great decor and marvelous food? What an unimaginative way to position the tables! Is there some structural reason why the restrooms are in that awkward spot, killing three tables stone dead? Why don't they partition off the entrance? Couldn't someone tell that busboy not to crash a load of dirty plates into the tray so noisily every two minutes? The maître d' is handsome, but why does he look so sad? Why did that waitress suddenly burst into tears and rush off the floor? What a boring menu! Ah, but here's a good idea! And so on. Discussion will help, though there will come a time when the requirement is not for conjecture hut for action.
Most restaurateurs work in the business and graduate to open their own places. They learn on the job and rarely undertake any formal study, confining themselves to occasionally checking out the competition. They start young and gradually absorb information. A long line of successful restaurateurs started as chefs, but they often employ "front men" as managers and maître d's to cope with the fine art of handling the public and staff.
Reading is important. Advertisements, food critics' reports, and an enormous number of publications covering aspects of the industry will all yield useful information and ideas. The public library should have a copy of the Small Business Source Book, which lists publications pertinent to your business.
You should be aware of the ways in which you can learn about the business. Most major cities, but not all, have places where you can study.
Since tuition is expensive, the cost of travel and board should be considered. If you live in, and plan to open your business in, an "under-restauranted" part of the country-a very smart idea-you'll have to travel to a city to study and get your first jobs.Cooking Schools
There are cooking schools everywhere, but they don't all teach chefs how to prepare 300 dinners a night. The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) at New Hyde Park, New York, has a good reputation and offers a full training course.
An important aspect of restaurant school training is that they get you out into functioning hotels and restaurants so that you can undergo your baptism by fire.
Many colleges also have courses, most notably Cornell, which has a Hotel and Restaurant Management School. In addition, there are wine courses at various colleges in New York and California that are part of their agriculture curriculum. (For a list of schools, see Appendix I.)
Most major cities now have bartender and waiter schools, which are not terribly expensive and offer short courses, sometimes lasting only two weeks. Most of them are no better than adequate, but they do orient a complete beginner in the basics. They'll teach you how to make a Bronx cocktail, which nobody orders anymore, and how to separate a locked shaker and mixing glass with a sharp blow to the heel of the hand instead of a hang, hang, bang against the bar, and with a bit of luck, they'll teach their pupils not to slam cheap glassware into ice cubes so that it breaks, necessitating replacement of the ice and possibly a trip to the emergency room. They'll show servers how to organize their orders and marry up half-empty ketchup bottles. They don't teach charm, deportment, or the way to a customer's heart, however.
Although some of these schools have a job placement service, most of them can't offer any public exposure. Only the better established college schools can do that, and their training restaurants, which are open to the public, are a good bargain. (Because the students are willing and positive in their approach, the service and food are often better than you'll find in many a "real" restaurant. They offer a good bargain and are well worth checking out.)
All these establishments are good sources for staff as well as places where you can learn the business. Students have to make the transition from the ideals of the classroom to the reality of business. Only real experience can teach you how to feed everyone at 8, how to lie convincingly, or how to compromise when you can't reach the standards you've set for yourself.
It's worth repeating that many-possibly a majority-of restaurateurs have no formal education at all. Many hardly speak English. They work in all the disciplines of the business until they have enough confidence, money, and initiative to go it alone. On the whole, they don't seem to do any worse than those who have expensive training, but this is a matter of some controversy.
One head waiter decided it was time to teach his young son the ropes. He had him work as a busboy and general lackey for a while. Then one night he threw him in the deep end when a regular, friendly couple came in. He thrust a pencil and a pad into the boy's hand and said, "Go over to that table and say 'Good evening, sir'-and we'll take it from there." Despite some trembling, there were no disasters. The young man knew he could do it, and he soon became an expert. It doesn't much matter how you learn, as long as you do learn.
There is no proof that greater profits accrue to those who are expert chefs, scour the vineyards of the world, and know every fine restaurant in civilization. They probably enjoy life more because knowing one's job and liking it usually means less stress and worry. But there appears to be no correlation between worth, merit, talent, and success.
In the process of learning the restaurant business, many people learn a lot about themselves. Occasionally, they may regret that greater self-knowledge. So may their friends and loved ones. For better or for worse, it's a business that can change people.
It's a tough business, arguably a bit tougher than many, because of the hidden stresses. But it doesn't have to be depressing.
The grim millionaire restaurateur who was heard to snarl, "There's two kinds of people. Those who pay plastic, and those who pay cash," is a classic figure. But there are happy restaurateurs! Some of them still find the human race quite tolerable.
How often one hears it said, sadly, of some twitching, morose, recently divorced fellow: "He should never have gone into the restaurant business!" This isn't said only of people who went in and got hurt. It's also true of people who are enormously successful. It takes a lot out of you. Only the very strongest characters-some might say the least sensitive- will not be affected by the constant contact with people and the need to wear a dozen hats a day in order to survive. The power of detachment is an elusive one.
Many people will tell you that the restaurant business is the highest-risk business in the retail spectrum. This simply isn't true. That dubious accolade belongs to apparel stores, with furniture and camera stores in close pursuit.
Nevertheless, the restaurant business lies comfortably in third or fourth place in the list of failures, according to Dun & Bradstreet's Business Failure Record, which is mandatory, if harrowing, reading for people in business. The failure rate for "eating places" in general is above average nationwide. There were 142 closures per 10,000 in 1986, compared with 172 apparel store and 157 camera store failures, and 91 closures in 1987 compared with 138 apparel store closures. Some may doubt relevance of comparing apparel stores to restaurants. It may not be realistic. Apparel stores just sell clothes. Shirts don't rot, but lettuce does. Many restaurants don't just sell food. They sell service, convenience, atmosphere, escape, ambiance, theater, romance, adventure, excitement, love, therapy, and dreams. They offer their customers a unique playground. And they require a large capital investment-the single biggest roadblock to entering the business. Perhaps a better comparison would be between Broadway musicals and restaurants, but market research hasn't gotten that far yet.
Unfortunately, no one has found a method of refining the figures to the point where the failure rate for licensed restaurants seating 50 to 200 can he calculated. Alcohol licensing agencies can give no clue either, since the failure of a restaurant doesn't mean the cancellation of a license. Ten percent of the 5,000 (approximately) full liquor licenses in the five boroughs of New York City turn over every year, and the figure is just about constant. Turn over doesn't necessarily indicate failure; it indicates change-which might be due to failure, sale, retirement, death, or expiration of lease.
Reasons for Failure
The stark reasons for business failure are worthy of study. According to Dunn & Bradstreet, most retail businesses (68%) fail as a result of economic factors, some of which may be beyond their control. These include loss of market and no consumer spending. A more significant figure, perhaps, is the next most common reason for failures (22%), grouped under "experience causes." These include incompetence, lack of line experience, lack of managerial experience and, quite important, unbalanced experience. Kitchen experts with no flair for the handling of the public, beware! Most experienced restaurateurs agree that the two most common reasons for failure are:1. Inadequate funds. You run out of money before the restaurant attracts enough customers to go into profit.
Sometimes it becomes apparent soon after you open that a restaurant just isn't going to work. The chef, whose credentials were so impeccable, turns out to be a drunkard or incompetent, or both, when you actually commence operations. A replacement takes time to find, because the next two you try out are no better.
Poor security may mean that your takings are stolen. Food and alcohol may disappear, too. An unattractive crowd may monopolize the place, driving other customers away. A know-all manager may insist on loud rock music when the average age of the potential clientele is 50.
Then there are the ordinary accidents of life. Key personnel may drop dead on opening day or-as is common-just not show up. Remember, everyone dreads working in a new restaurant, and if a prospective employee finds a job in an established place before you put her on the payroll, you've lost her in a majority of cases. That is why you should always compile a list of prospective employees that is larger than your basic need.
Remember also that employees are likely to quit on the spot, Day One, if their worst fears are confirmed. They will be particularly irked by managerial eccentricities that are not immediately matched by good earnings. Suddenly remembering a heavy, time-consuming task that absolutely must be done just as staff are thinking of going home is a real morale killer. One owner insisted that every single movable item on the bar had to be sent down a long flight of steps and locked in a cellar, only to be brought up again at the commencement of the next day's business. It's simply no good saying "They're there to work." "They" don't necessarily share your mystical conviction. Another owner insisted upon examining the contents of employee's bags before they left-a common and highly degrading house rule in many places.
In time, everything can be perfected. But if the money runs out, you fail. A sudden rerouting of traffic or the disappearance of a local parking facility can ruin a restaurant. And kitchen fires are extremely common.
Sabotage by rival restaurateurs is fairly common, too. They'll burn you down, report violations real or imaginary, or stage incidents in the restaurant.
In spite of the endless discussion of the subject, you rarely hear of a restaurant failing because of its lousy food. That's because, although finding the chef of your dreams isn't easy, it is feasible. Some restaurants fail because they were never intended to succeed but only to launder money or provide some big shot with a private supper club, No one can estimate the number of restaurants that are simply not intended to be anything but a money-laundering device of some kind. One bartender tells of an excellent job he once had where there was no tape in the cash register, and only a trickle of customers, invariably bedecked in diamond rings and yellow leather jackets, accompanied by beautiful women. They tipped lavishly, but laughed when they were presented with bills. "Don't gimme no tab, pal!" Excellent food and wine were served, but ordinary customers were positively discouraged from entering. After six months, the bartender went to work one day to find the place burned to the ground.
The bartender was understandably sad, but felt it'd been a good run for the money. Interestingly enough, he felt that, had the restaurant been operated with serious intentions, it would have been a roaring success.
There's a big "fools rush in" factor in the restaurant business, meaning that like any other business, efficient management is essential. It isn't a difficult business, but it isn't quite as simple as it looks to the casual eye. Many people are overwhelmed by it and can't get out fast enough.
The purpose of this book is to steer budding restaurateurs in intelligent directions and to reduce that inevitable X-factor--luck-to the smallest significance possible.
Fools often prosper where the wise fail in the restaurant business. There are also accidents. Many failures remain unrevealed, except to those who lost money in the process. No successful restaurateur is likely to bend the ears of her admirers with the story of her failures or of the businesses she owns that are losers and that she's dying to unload. Loathsome establishments offering indifferent food and offhand service often make fortunes, even if nobody visits them twice. It is not too fanciful to suspect a "masochism factor" at work somewhere in the consumer psyche! In the 1970s a restaurant in New York was called Coup de Fusil. That means "gunshot," literally. But it's also French slang for rip-off! Nice places close, much to the chagrin of their founders. It would be nice to be able to say there are a few basic rules that can guarantee success, but it wouldn't be realistic to do so. In the end you'll be on your own.
There's another business where fools often prosper and the wise fail. It's the business that has 82% of its union members out of work at all times. You guessed right-show business!
THE THEATER OF RESTAURANTS
Even if you don't have a proper kitchen, you can easily fix dinner at home for one for $3 or less, without alcohol. A middle-class saloon, bar-and-grill, bistro type of restaurant (which is the main target area of this book) will not feed you for that amount. If you feature a bowl of soup for $2.95, you'll occasionally get thrifty customers who'll order just that and no more, and eat all the bread in sight. If the place is busy enough, you'll hardly notice. If it isn't, you'll find that waiters and waitresses have a way of freezing out such people-or, if it becomes a standing routine, pocketing the money without making a check! In the words of the old song, "Ya git no bread with One Meat Ball!" Since it's clearly possibly to satisfy the basic human urge to eat for quite little, why are so many people prepared to pay the truly astronomical prices to be found at some restaurants? Note the precision of the question. The question is not, Why do restaurants charge such high prices? There are plenty of reasons for that, which will be discussed. The question is, Why are people prepared to pay them?
Clearly, the desire to eat is only one of the reasons why people go to restaurants, because you don't have to go to a restaurant just because you're hungry. The worker too far from home to return for sustenance and the traveler obviously need to eat somewhere, although it's amazing how many people either take a sandwich to work or buy a sandwich and eat it on a park bench during the lunch hour.
Most people go to restaurants in order to socialize, talk about business, or happily mix both. The enormous affluent middle class, with 128 hours a week to spare after its 40 hours of labor, has both time and money on its hands. Restaurants could be said to form part of the leisure industry. In the television age, some argue, conversation is a lost art. Cute one-liners are what most people give and seek. The alternative is the long, often repeated speech from the soapbox.
Since entertaining at home always poses the threat of conversation, it's not surprising that so many people, who could easily afford it, avoid it like the plague. Even when people entertain at home, in cities it's quite common for them to take their guests Out for dessert and espresso. Also, with spare money available, why shouldn't people avoid the labor of preparation and planning, especially if they have jobs?
Thus, the restaurant takes its place alongside the cinema, the theater, and Things To Do. It has become a modern ritual. The fact that business entertainment is tax-deductible assures many a restaurateur of a good night's sleep. Some put the percentage of city restaurants that would close if all bills were paid from personal disposable income as high as 60%.
Restaurants offer a useful service and solve a lot of problems, including what to eat and where to meet, for people who live at a distance from each other. The restaurant is also a heaven-sent compromise for the affluent but inarticulate person who nevertheless wishes to "relate" to someone, whether for business, sexual, family, or social reasons. It provides unthreatening neutral ground, as well as an arena offering opportunities to flatter and impress for any number of purposes. If conversation suggests itself, you can have conversation. If it doesn't, you can discuss the other customers, the food, the view, other joints you've been in, or the way mother used to make whatever it is you're having. "Whatever happened to mashed potatoes/chicken a la king/garlic bread?" you can wittily demand, often prompting a flood of responses. Many people visit restaurants as an exercise in itself, in search of escape, in the same spirit that they would go to the movies.
Other customers can be very important, as people watchers watch other people watchers in a sort of built-in cabaret that doesn't have to be listed in the owner's overheads. Experienced maître d's soon learn the art of "dressing the room" by putting the most beautiful and affluent people at the most prominent table. Regular customers sometimes reciprocate by always wanting the same table, and that is just one typical restaurant situation you have to learn to handle. Nine out of ten times customers accept alternatives with good grace. Sometimes they'll sit at the bar for a while, and sometimes they'll take another table on a temporary basis, which can cause some gnashing of teeth if, while two tables are occupied, only one of them is consuming. Customers who don't conform to the happy, beautiful, glossy ideal and who look as if they might talk or swear loudly are usually consigned safely to an out-of-the-way spot.
For some people, being greeted by name by a hostess or maître d' is the very stuff of heaven. Magazines regularly show restaurant floor plans, indicating the "power tables," where famous regular customers sit. At many restaurants, such as Smith and Wollensky's in New York, there are brass nameplates over some tables, indicating the names of their favorite occupiers. "Abe Weinstein sat here." "The Irving Schwartz chair." Glory indeed!
How long will it take before a diner commits suicide after being forced to occupy a table of less "power" than usual or after being consigned to "Lower Slobovia" instead of "Banquette Number Two" (the hot table at the old El Morocco)?
It's a form of theater and a form of escape. Often, newspapers accord more pages to the subjects of food and restaurants than they do to theater and cinema combined. Restaurant scenes are hard to do on stage, but it's unusual to see a movie without one, and at least one restaurant scene is de rigor in the modern novel. Dramatic events occur in restaurants. People decide to get married, occasionally die, are murdered, or give birth. Both sexes have been known to remove their clothes. Customers walk in with lions or ocelots on leads, parrots on their shoulders, and boa constrictors around their necks.
Fights are not uncommon. Tablecloths offer an irresistible target- usually for jealous lovers. One vicious tug and there's chaos! At the Hotel Lexington in New York, a plaque on the wall in the bar commemorates the occasion when a woman blew her brains out, though whether this was meant as a comment about either the service or the prices isn't indicated. Incidentally, what happens in restaurants when murders or suicides or lights occur is quite simply. Everybody leaves. They very sensibly don't want to get involved. And they often never return. For a version of what happens in a restaurant when a diner simply drops dead, Tom Wolfe's bonfire of the Vanities makes highly entertaining reading.
Thankfully, few customers are as eccentric as William Astor Chandler, who became impatient while lunching at Maxim's one day in the l920s because he had a horse running that afternoon. He threw his artificial leg plus sock, shoe, and garter at the waiter's back and shouted, "Now may I have your attention?"
Budding restaurateurs will breathe a sigh of relief at the assertion that 90% of customers enter, sit, drink, eat, pay, and leave without any noticeable contretemps. Smiles are part of the ritual. It's vitally important that restaurateurs be able to put themselves in the customer's chair and sense what they're thinking. Here are two examples of people with strong views on restaurants. What they have to say should be taken with a pinch of salt, and it's unlikely that you'll recognize any of your friends. But what they say may be illuminating and interesting.
Here's what a woman who loves to lunch and dine and take afternoon tea-in other words, a woman who just lives to go to restaurants- has to say:
I simply love going out to restaurants. It's such a wonderful escape from the cares and woes of everyday life. I have my favorite places, but I like to explore new restaurants, too. One of the things that makes being a woman such fun is that I often get taken to quite expensive restaurants free, because my charming male escort pays. If I'm with a woman friend, or a guy who really can't afford it, I pay my share. I think you can learn a lot about people from watching the way they behave in restaurants. I don't just mean their table manners. I mean the way they handle waiters and the various little situations that occur. Some people are gracious, kind, understanding, and forgiving, even when things aren't quite perfect. Others are quick to complain. I always notice how much men tip, because that's a good indication of what they're really like. Undertipping indicates a mean streak. Overtipping indicates insecurity and a desire to impress, and that always leaves me cold. I always take an interest in the decor, and what people around me are wearing. I think fresh flowers can turn a restaurant into a fairyland.
If I have new clothes I like to wear them to a restaurant and gauge the effect they have on people. Above all, I love the moment of entrance, when everyone looks up at you. Sometimes it can be a little intimidating, hut it's exciting, too. You feel like a great actor stepping on stage and about to deliver a thrilling line, Of course, this sensation is heightened when there arc real actors or celebrities in the restaurant! I do like good service, when the waiters really convince you that they want you to enjoy the whole experience, and try to satisfy your faintest whim. Good waiters know exactly when to take away your plate and when to serve the next course. They anticipate your needs. It's nice to be treated like a star. I especially like it when the help can answer your questions properly, like "Do you use first pressing olive oil in the salad dressing?" or when they fall over themselves to get you something that isn't on the menu. I simply hate it when they get the orders mixed up and you suddenly find yourself looking at a Canard Rôti when you were expecting a veal chop. It's even worse when they interrupt important business conversation or intimate confessions by asking, "Who gets the steak?" In my favorite restaurant, the maître d' always presents me with a carnation the minute I walk in, which makes me feel so wanted and cherished, and the waiters are so kind and sweet, they actually run when you ask for something, which shows they really care. At the other end of the spectrum, which one might describe as the extreme right-wing of restaurant customers, a restaurant-hater-by no means an uncommon species-says:
I loathe restaurants, and have done so since I was a child, when I could never believe the enormous amounts of money my father was paying for food which tasted funny and not at all like we ate at home. Although the people smiled at him a lot, I could tell they didn't really like us. Nowadays I notice the awful pain in the eyes of some of the restaurant help, particularly the hostesses. It can be quite heartrending, and is hardly conducive to a good time. That servile whipped-cur look. Am I their temporary jailer? The other customers were a real turn-off, too. All those phony voices and smiles, Restaurant customers always look faintly embarrassed, like children on strict orders to mind their manners. All that intense buttering of bread and dainty chewing!
One of the reasons I hate restaurants now is that I can't escape the ritual. I have to go to lunch and dinner as part of my business, and I resent it, even though it costs me nothing, because important discussion of business gets lost in discussion of restaurant trivia. I hate having to listen to long descriptions of the Daily Specials delivered with the solemnity of medieval High Mass, and loud-mouthed conversations from other diners, often sprinkled with four-letter words I can do without.
Nor do I like the sound of my own voice as I desperately try to get something to eat and drink that approximates to the way I'd have it if I were at home. "Rare, but not too rare" and all that sort of thing sounds so inane. No wonder the waiters sometimes look at me in an indulgent, pitying way, as though they knew I was just recovering from serious brain damage! At home I just cook things my way, and shrug it off ill get things a bit wrong. I sound so cantankerous insisting on a fresh bottle of soda for my drink, with just so much ice and extra lime. I often suspect the server thinks I'm a jerk, and who's to say he's not right, temporarily, at least? But at home I make my drink like that automatically, with a huge piece of lime, and top it up with a little vodka or soda the split second I feel like it-not when I at last manage to catch the waiter or the bartender's eye! The fact that the drink is costing me $3.50 plus tip, when I can buy a whole bottle of vodka for less than twice that amount, doesn't help. Sometimes I feel I'm locked with the waiters by mutual consent in a form of ritual imbecility! Banging kitchen doors, dishes crashing into bustrays. Nor do I like to be sneered at by a waiter or waitress who's obviously just doing a little social research while awaiting the release of the hit movie in which he or she has a starring role. I don't like seeing people grubbing for tips-it doesn't seem very American to me. And, although I tip a straight 15% or more in order to make sure I get out alive, I really don't see why I should pay the restaurateur's payroll as well as his entrepreneurial markup, not forgetting a dollar to hang up my coat! Mind you, I was in Russia once, where you're not al lowed to tip, and the service was so bad I thought I was going to starve to death!
As to the food, it's not what I'm in a restaurant for, so it hardly matters. If I'm paying, I just have the smallest, cheapest thing on the menu, having fixed myself a sandwich at home before I go out. But I do notice that, unless you're in an expensive gourmet joint, there isn't a damn thing on the average menu that I couldn't fix myself at home in five minutes flat for $2. Bah! Humbug! There's no escape. I shall just have to grin and bear it. However, there's a bistro place not far from where I live that isn't too expensive and the food's okay. They have good value wine specials. The owner's a nice guy, and the waitresses are efficient and friendly. I go there pretty often.
Experienced restaurateurs would not be impressed by these comments. They know there's resentment out there, and they know how to bear it and turn the most reluctant cynic into a paying customer. They also know that business people are, in fact, the best customers and the easiest to deal with. Prompt service, decent food, and good drinks in a pleasant atmosphere will send people home having had an agreeable experience. That's the way to make them come back.
WHO OPENS RESTAURANTS, AND WHY?
If your objective is to be in business for yourself, there are lots of things you can do besides open a restaurant. To some budding entrepreneurs, the prospect is unattractive. For one thing, you need a large amount of start-up money. You might just get off the ground with a 50-seat bar and grill in the country with $100,000. in a major city, $500,000 would be a more realistic figure, given current rents.
There's a lot to be said for sticking with the business you know, and a lot of restaurateurs are people who entered the industry young and can envision no other way of life. They're usually the ones who succeed, but good privates don't always make good sergeants.
Many restaurants are inherited. For instance, many immigrants into the United States have received the call from an ailing relative to begin learning how to hustle their way into the restaurant world. It's amazing how swiftly and easily most of them take to their new role in life. Opening a restaurant is sometimes the only way of making an old much-loved home viable. Many European aristocrats, notably Lord MacDonald and Sir Fitzroy MacLean in Scotland, have done this, and the syndrome exists in the United States. The success rate in such operations seems to be high, but the aristos invariably complain, both in public and private, about the hard work involved. They look forward to their vacations.
A dangerous illusion persists that the restaurant business is one in which personality counts for a lot. There's some truth in this. After all, you're selling goods at the retail level to people who may be seeking entertainment and relaxation as well as simple sustenance. The ability to make easy small talk with customers is obviously no bad thing, and restaurants do exist where the owner is established as a figurehead, sometimes a charmer, sometimes a rogue, but always wise, warm, and welcoming. Such owners build a following that is great for business but sometimes a bit of a problem for the new incumbent if the restaurant changes hands. ("Joe here? No? He retired? Oh, well, give him my best if you see him. Er. . . . no, we don't have time for dinner, we just thought we'd look in.")Sacred Monsters
Some of the most successful restaurants in the country are owned and run, often with an iron fist and a beady eye on the cash register 14 hours a day, seven days a week, by highly unattractive people with no personality whatsoever, who are delighted to proclaim their contempt for mankind in general and their customers in particular. The total absence of any kind of sense of humor-the factor that made the Bible unique in literature, according to Northcote-in some owners is quite striking. Those in the "people business" often rely upon their sense of humor to keep themselves sane. Even airline attendants with their chilling plastic smiles will sometimes unbend if they're not too tired and don't feel themselves threatened. But many restaurateurs reflect, in their unswerving cold seriousness and dedication to the dollar, the pomposity of some of their bullying and demanding customers, who know what they want and intend to get it by hook or by crook, the irrefutable punchline excuse for their hideosity being, always, "I'm paying for it, aren't I?"
Many restaurateurs develop absurdly inflated egos, perhaps as a reaction against the essentially menial nature of the work. Small wonder that a magazine reviewing restaurants recently referred to "Restaurant Gods"!
The late Henri Soulé made a great ceremony of tearing up the checks of customers who dared to query them, informing his foolishly impetuous ex-clients with a sneer that they had "dined as his guest, but that they needn't expect ever to be served again." "When anyone offered the slightest comment he would bow sarcastically and say, "Je suis Simonizé, m'sieur!" (It's a labored joke in translation: "I'm Simonized"-in other words, "I'm waxed, impervious to your remarks.") It's difficult to imagine him ever smiling or even being remotely polite to anyone. Yet Le Pavilion is often invoked with nostalgia by elderly gourmets who remember the food as being outstanding. The place always had the air of a funeral parlor, such was the profusion of flowers. The bill for flowers was supposed to be enormous. (One restaurant in New York today claims an annual flower bill of $60,000. Skeptics may reflect that every petal and every stalk must be paid for by the customer.) Bing Crosby was turned away after daring to enter without a tie. "An insult to my restaurant!" the owner cried, lacking the gumption to lend the crooner a tie for an hour.
Italian war hero and socialite Gianni Agnelli's proudest moment was when he was allowed into "21" wearing blue jeans!
Another "sacred monster" is the woman who spends all night at the end of the bar and makes out all the checks herself, using a selection of very sharp pencils. She pads the checks shamelessly, and when, as regularly happens, her unseen, undelivered, and certainly unconsumed additional "2 Stuffed Mushrooms, $28.00" is discovered by an alert diner, and she is forced to erase the line from the check, her language would make a stevedore blush! The hapless waiter makes the necessary apologies. She never explains, often complains, and never apologizes. Quixotically enough, apart from occasionally foaming at the mouth, she doesn't bother her employees much, and they speak of her with wry smiles rather than contempt. They make good money working for her. Her employees are queasy allies. They are not the enemy! She has been known to physically attack customers who displease her. On one occasion she insisted on levying a cover charge on an ambassador's bodyguards, who'd hoped to sit discreetly at an adjoining table while their master dined. And when the ambassador declined to pay the sales tax on the bill, pleading diplomatic immunity, she socked him in the nose with the cry, "I pay sales tax in your country."
Nevertheless, restaurants like this attract celebrities, and their public relations firms keep them appearing in the gossip columns even though their food and service are mercifully forgotten. The probable reason for this joint's undoubted success is that it's always full, and there's always a buzz of noise from the crowded diners, which helps to dampen the loneliness of the many lost souis who go to the restaurant, not only to eat and socialize, but for some reassurance that there's life out there. Whether you like it or not, busy restaurants are generally more attractive than empty ones.
Then there's the ex-haberdasher restaurateur whose normal battle station is beside the cash register. He manages a thin smile as he regales his admiring customers with stories about the time he bought a large quantity of white wine of such poor quality that the customers actually noticed and kept sending it back. He had the bright idea of using it only to make spritzers (white wine with seltzer and a twist of lemon-what the Victorians called hock and seltzer). Lo and behold, he got away with it and turned less than $1,000 into about $20,000.
Often, people are turned away from his restaurant even when there are tables available. Since reservations for "deuces" or couples are not taken, it's assumed that he's hoping someone a little more interesting or glamorous will come in. If they don't, that's okay, too, because he's a multimillionaire.
One might suspect a variation of the old joke about the masochist and the sadist. "Hit me!" begs the masochist. "No," snarls the sadist. "Please let me come in and be ripped of," implores the would-be diner. "No!" says the restaurateur.
Lots of society functions are held at his restaurant for grandmothers hoping to he mistaken for debutantes, their incredibly distinguished, sensitive "walkers," and rich foreigners desperately trying to be Americans. The monster is easily distinguished at these black tie gatherings: he's the one in the crumpled polyester business suit and the garish tie. The list of guests, which is always the same, is faithfully recorded in the widely syndicated "Suzy Knickerbocker" gossip column. If you call him and ask for the number of his public relations people, he'll snap, "I don't do public relations," and hangs up.
But the truth is, his public relations effort is relentless and expensive. Again, every celebrity you could name has been to his restaurant, including Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Madonna, Jackie Collins, Joan Collins, Tom Collins, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Margaret, the Dukes and Duchesses of Roxburghe and Westminster, the Earls of Erroll and Westmoreland, the Aga Khan (who employs at least three gourmet chefs of his own at home), the kings of Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania, and the wife of a president of the United States with her sandalwood-scented "walker." Unlike our lady monster, this owner is not looked upon by his staff with wry fondness. On the contrary, one of them tried to "put a contract" on him!
This is an excellent example of snob appeal. People will go to a restaurant because it's the place their crowd-or the crowd they aspire to join-goes. Such restaurants work very well when they work. But groups are fickle, and it doesn't take much to make the flock suddenly switch its allegiance. Should its leaders start going elsewhere, if the food is too awful or overpriced, or if the staff become rude in a way that is merely offensive and tiresome, affords no grotesque, pseudobaroque amusement and no masochistic delight, then death will come quickly. No restaurateur should assume that today's recipe for success will last forever.
The Masochism Factor
In the face of such success, it may not be too fanciful to suspect that a masochism factor exists and that some people really do like a little punishment. We all know the "fashion victim" syndrome, where people squeeze themselves into uncomfortable clothes that really don't flatter them at all, for the sake of being up to date and state of the art. Some people want to go where they're told they can't, in the same way that some cannot resist touching what is clearly marked as wet paint. Establishing exclusivity, or the illusion thereof, can pay. Some people don't care how they're insulted or ripped off as long as they can enjoy the warm conviction that they're in the right place, the hot spot where the action is and the movers and shakers congregate. But most experienced restaurateurs feel it's a dangerous game. There's too much competition in most cities.
But are people really that much into pain? It's more likely a slavish following of fashion, relentless PR, and the attraction of a restaurant which is known to draw celebrities or a certain group or profession. Precisely, it is the pleasant prospect of seeing either someone you know or someone you'd very much like to know, which brings affluent socialites, or would-be socialites, to a restaurant like moths to the flame and, credit where credit's due, these ghastly ogres deliver! Your hamburger might be like minced shoe leather, your wine reminiscent of a herbal concoction, and your cognac of dubious provenance and measured with a thimble at an exorbitant price. But the modest, unassuming fellow at the next table, should you be so lucky, really is Mick Jagger. You are temporarily part of his world. If you catch his eye, he might even give you the Famous Grin. With a little effort, you might almost arrange to surreptitiously touch the hem of his garment.
Thinking Positive-the Fun Side
There's no doubt that a successful restaurant is a wonderful thing to own. There are many restaurants that turn over several million dollars a year. Cash flow is immediately. The sight of new restaurateurs queuing at the local American Express office to get the cash for the day's slips is quite common. It's mostly cash on the barrelhead, and the restaurateur suffers less than other business people from the curse of credit and unpaid bills. Also, there are many attractive, perfectly legal tax and expense perks. A little bit of flair and personality can go a long way. And, although the initial work effort is enormous, once the thing is flying, you can put it on automatic to a certain extent and work on a normal healthy schedule. Ideally, you should be able to say, like the owner of Le Cirque, "Our Foundation is so strong that the restaurant could function for quite a while without any given chef, or maître d'hôtel, or me."
An awful lot of people open restaurants for reasons that are not purely businesslike. There's a certain mystique about owning a restaurant which makes it a dream for some people. You create a world which others enter. Sometimes there's reciprocity and you're invited into their worlds, too! One might call this approach the Casablanca factor.
The Casablanca Factor
Few cult movies enjoy a greater following than Casablanca. Most would agree that it's a good flick-Claude Raines and Ingrid Bergman help it along. It's a set at a crossroads of time and circumstance, in the subtropical Moroccan city of Casablanca, just before America entered World War II. Vichy French view Nazis with suspicion. Rick is played by Humphrey Bogart, that ingratiating basset hound with the sybilant, distinctive voice. The owner of Rick's Café oversees his own microcosm of mankind through a sad but compassionate eye. Rick's Café is a white tablecloth restaurant with a black singer pianist and is, very conveniently, the general rendezvous for the cast.
The truth is, Rick lives! While making a better than average living and calling his own shots, he is the catalyst and sometimes supreme arbiter of people's lives. We never know quite where he comes from, whether he has brothers or sisters, or prefers fishing to football, or whether he's 30 or 60, but one thing's for sure: In Casablanca he has stature, authority, and identity. He's a reference point of local life, and he knows all the "usual suspects," or regular customers, intimately. When people want to sing their national anthems, they do it in his place. No arena could be more appropriate. And Rick? Well, he's lonely and sad, but chances are he would be no matter what he was doing. His white tuxedo never has sweat patches, it's unlikely that he pays for his cigarettes, and he eats three squares a day.
Many budding restaurateurs want to be Rick. All successful restaurateurs become Ricks, whether they like it or no. (Some don't!) Their restaurants become the center of many people's lives, a reference point and arena for their employees and customers alike.
But in the movie, we only see Rick enjoying glamorous dramatic moments. True, the police close him down at one point, but we don't see him trying to find two waiters or waitresses, a bartender, and a dishwasher who fail to show for work 20 minutes before 40 customers arrive to take up their reservations, with two sinks blocked, a toilet out of order, the air conditioning on the blink, and not a loaf of bread to be found because of the bakers' strike. The languages of Casablanca are French and Arabic. So why does everyone so conveniently speak English?
The escapist function of the movies wouldn't work if, instead of looking at the interesting bits of people's lives, we wallowed in their plumbing problems. But to enjoy the ephemeral delights of glamorous Rickdom, one must first suffer a little. As the old English motto has it, "Through mud and blood to the green fields beyond!"
Posted August 13, 2012
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Posted June 28, 2010
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