Sun Tzu’s ancient and epic tome, The Art of War, is a staple in any serious business person’s armory. The same principles apply to life, and to running a restaurant. These are, and will always be, all about strategy. And preparation. And finally, luck.
The business of war.
My story continues in all its glory and mess. If you’ve missed the first two excerpts, they’re there in the website. Catch up.
2: CHURROS – Si
No money to start a restaurant? Not a problem. I had never let that stop me in the past, and we set out to rustle up $5,000 for each couple to borrow to begin our venture. Sounds easy now, you could put that on a credit card, right? But $5,000 then was a lot of money, when our new house with 3 bedrooms cost $36,000. This was 1977 after all.
The major banks knocked us back, but we found credit with a large company, CitiBank, American of course, home of risk. We signed our lives away, and proceeded to secure leasing credit to outfit the kitchen with equipment. Ah yes – a commercial kitchen in a shoebox. To that end, I found a very amenable Dutch man who owned a sizeable sheet metal business and had a passion for hotrods.
Dutch was tall, 6’5’’, and big boned. He had huge hands that looked ready to grapple trees or trolls at any moment, and sported gold jewellery around his neck and wrist. He dyed his hair black, and drove fast cars, and talked like a monkey on heat. Dad always used to say, “Dutch? He talks too much,” and left it at that.
Like many tradesmen, Dutch ran to his own timetable and would promise anything and any deadline you named, but of course he always had too much work on, so deadlines to him, were as flexible as the arms of an octopus. Opening day was looming, and we had half a kitchen.
“Dutch? Dutch?” I had him on the phone and was getting stressed. “Where’s our vent? Our second bench? Jesus, we need to prep before we open, Dutch, what’s the problem?”
His deep voice sounded smooth over the phone.
“Keep your shirt on tiger, we’ll be there tomorrow, I promise.” He chuckled.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.
If you want to get paid, you need to provide us with the equipment we ordered so we can cook!”
“It’s coming, it’s coming!”
I hung up, to focus on the zillion things that needed to be ready for our grand opening.
The equipment finally arrived, a fantastic job but just two days before deadline, and on our first night Dutch’s son was still in the kitchen trying to get the dishwasher to work.
I did say opening night wasn’t easy.
That kitchen could be noisy, hot, and heavy.
Melding as a team, especially in the kitchen, took us a while.
At this point, we were doing almost everything from scratch and it took time to develop some better ‘mise en place’ (preparation) skills so that guests didn’t faint from hunger while waiting.
Paella was the killer – a big complex dish, Janie’s specialty and a logistical nightmare. We eventually decided to finish the paella, covered with foil, in the oven, to speed it along. But we never did bow to convenience and pre-cook the rice. For our Spaniard, that would have been sacrilege. We made it through that first night, Janie learnt to multi-cook, and I learnt to work better on the preparation during the day. It was steep for all of us.
3.A FISHY BUSINESS
“Joe? You the manager who’s accused us of stealing?”
Ah, Javier. Spanish to a T, he must have found his new homeland puzzling, and at times, thoroughly frustrating. He found some English words really hard to pronounce and one memorable time, on a shopping excursion in the city, got lost trying to find “Whoa Whoah”. He asked people repeatedly. “Excusa me, er, can you tell me where is Whoa Whoa?” Why didn’t they understand him? Janie had given him strict instructions, but his pronunciation of “Woolworths” was far enough from the mark to confound even the best Samaritan. Janie learnt to write things down for him and he hated to have to point, but he hated even more, being lost, dazed and confused.
Javier was designated fish buyer and preparer, which included many hours of cleaning and gutting huge tubs of squid, one of our biggest sellers, while I shopped at the fruit and vegie markets. Both Javier and I loved bargaining and wheeling and dealing at our respective markets to get the right produce at the right price.
The fish markets in those days were something else. They were quite a distance away, and were run on the auction system, so Javier had to be up at the crack of dawn, beetle down to the site, and check it all out before he bid. To give him full credit, he did this religiously 3 times a week, but his habit of picking up, poking at, and sniffing the fish constantly to check on freshness didn’t endear him to the other restaurateurs, against whom he was bidding. And he was always immaculately groomed. He stood out like a Persian cat in this fishy, sloppy, busy world.
I got a call one morning from Javier – obviously upset. The head honcho at the markets had barreled Javier as soon as he walked in, and said he couldn’t bid – there was a problem. Javier was accused of bidding for a tub of fish and taking it, but there was no record of payment. This was a cardinal sin.
Javier arrived at Churros soon after. He looked like he’d sat on a porcupine.
“Are you sure, Javier, you paid for what you took – and we have nothing extra?” I asked, “No?”
He shook his head, “No,” and he tsked tsked with his tongue against his top teeth.
“No, Nothing extra,” and he crossed his arms and stood with them, akimbo. Defiant. Angry. He always paid and always took just what was his. Hmmmm..
I rang the manager, but quickly got nowhere – he was adamant, and Javier – and I – had no intention of backing down. I hung up the phone and leapt into the car. There was only one thing for it. I wanted proof, and they wouldn’t be expecting me – and Javier – to turn up on their doorstep.
Funny how even big men turn to water when confronted with crime…. Lucky for me he must have had an honest streak somewhere.