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.
Dedicated to my daughter, who only saw me in action when things were really bad. She missed the 20 years of highs and lows in business before she was born. I hope this helps explain what I was doing in my life before she stepped on to the planet.
Some names and places have been changed, for obvious reasons, mostly so the guilty don’t sue me, or better still, don’t recognize themselves. The stories, though, are all true.
And a huge thank you to my friend Laurel Delp in L.A. – writer extraordinaire, for your help, knowledge, guidance, and support during what turned out to be a long writing journey.
1: CHURROS – QUE?
“…The blood drains from Rod’s face as he realizes that he has now joined ‘the other side’…”
“Ice! There’s no ice. I’m going to get some ice.” It’s six o’clock on opening night, of our first restaurant, and business – ever – and the dining room is already full when Pete, my husband, announces he’s going to drive across three suburbs to get ice. Ice? Now, he thinks of ice? We’re BYO and we have ice buckets, but no ice.
The customers, mostly local business people, sit in what is obviously a virginal environment, (with new cloths and napkins hand sewn by me) chatting noisily and drinking wine…. and waiting to order. They scan the room and nod approvingly. Bare brick walls punctuated by the odd mirror to allow them to admire themselves, charcoal carpet, topped by tables with bright pink and white cloths, and beside them, ice buckets, no ice. Pete promises to be quick. But with Pete gone, the only waiter is Javier (pronounced ‘Hhhgggghaveeyay’), who has recently arrived from Spain and speaks almost no English.
Why on earth did almost everyone we know turn up on opening night? I had specifically told everybody it was to be a ‘soft’ opening. Read that as ‘don’t come’. No fanfare, no free drinks (that should have swayed a lot to stay home), not even any advertising – yet. I had wanted to slide into service without too much pressure and break our small team in as easily as possible. We were, collectively, green. But word travels fast in the food industry, excitement with potential punters was high, and it seemed as if the whole world had turned up on opening night. Shiiiiiiiit!!!
At 6.10pm Javier flies into the kitchen and screams in Spanish to Janie, his wife (the other cook besides myself).
“Mira, Javier, mira!” (‘Look, Javier, look!’) Janie yells back at him – something I am to hear endlessly over the next 18 months. The rapid Spanish between them is something to behold. It seems his limited English has deserted him completely, and he needs help. Even with pointing at menus, he can’t understand what the customers want, or so Janie translates. I poke my head out of the kitchen to have a look myself: my brother Rod and father Bob are happily sitting at one of the tables showing their support, and are already on to their second bottle. Oh shit.
Dad’s trilby hat is plonked on the table – the hat a permanent accessory from his generation, and years of working as a plainclothes detective. He never left the house without a hat, after copious amounts of Listerine (mouthwash) had been rubbed into his balding pate. I don’t think that ritual was ever responsible for one extra hair, but he lived in hope. Rod, with his thick black curly hair and Viva Zapata moustache, looks like a revolutionary doing deals with the establishment as he and dad survey the room. Rod notices the chaos, but is hoping for better things to come. He says something to dad, whose head – decorated with a few mournful strands of grey pulled across as a last-ditch comb-over – nods sagely; a total police-born “Yes I know everything you say son, and we will see this play out…” Rod looks up and catches me, hanging out the door and mouths, ‘Smells good.’
I nod to Janie. “Tell Javier to go and ask Rod to help with the waiting, until Pete comes back. I’m sure he’ll jump in if he’s needed.”
She fires off some Spanish to Javier and pushes him out.
Javier, small and impeccably dressed Barcelonan medical technician, approaches Rod with a napkin draped theatrically over his arm.
He leans in to the table. “Erm, Rod, ….. do you mind waiting?”
Rod looks at Javier, accepts the apology and answers – magnanimous. “Not a problem, Javier – you go ahead, look after the others – we’re fine.” Rod waves him away.
Javier’s sharp Iberian features purse in frustration, he does a small tsk tsk with his teeth as he does when he’s displeased, adjusts his aviator glasses, pushes back his thinning but perfectly cut light brown hair, and heads back into the kitchen. After another barrage of Spanish, Janie pushes him out, and again, he approaches Rod.
“Erm, no, no, Rod, d… do you mind waiting?”
Rod looks at him, rolls his eyes, and says, “No. We’re fine….”
“No, no…… Roderick …. Do … you…. Mind…. Waiting…” Javier is pleading, poking the napkinned forearm at Rod’s face.
Rod looks at Javier, scans the ever noisier room now reaching new heights of raucous, then glances back at the napkin on the arm, and the penny drops. Finally.
The blood drains from Rod’s face as he realizes that he has now joined ‘the other side’ and is no longer a smug, slightly sozzled, critical and safe bystander. I move a little further out of the kitchen and wave him up – on his feet. Our first night begins.
Enjoy more of the journey next week… or buy the book! 🙂