Restaurant 101: The Cell Phone Conundrum

The LA Times food section today featured a nice little piece on one new variable in dining rooms across the city, the potential hurdles that the presence of cell phones creates. A couple of additional things to consider:

For a restaurant, the cell phone truly is a hurdle to great service. It not only makes the table a minefield for potentially disastrous spills, but the cell phone in the restaurant is the culprit for more mis-orders than I can count.

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Share Plate: Hostages of Happy Hour?

Trot into the bar of any dining establishment that teeters on the edge of casual and fine dining on a Monday through Friday between the hours of 4pm-7pm, and you’re at ground zero of a daily battle.

Happy Hour.

It should be simple, right? After work drinks and a snack at a great promotional price. But you can’t get a reservation, you can’t get more than one drink at a time. No additional promotions. Happy Hour in the bar, but not on the patio. Or the Dining Room. Or to-go.

And your server’s smile is getting strained as she answers each successive question in the negative.

Suddenly the happy hour has become…. Cranky Hour. What’s the deal?

I asked around my network of fellow restaurant managers to get a picture from behind the lines.

Some Restrictions May Apply

 I think that the spirit of what happy hour can be is great.  You finish work, and you spend an hour or two with some friends to unwind without hurting your wallet.   Weekday happy hours should be…the intermediate, or warm-up to something bigger, without being a major commitment for the evening.  It was a win-win for both guests and restaurants… What it has become in the economic downturn, and what restaurants are trying to free themselves from, is the aberration  that it has morphed into.” — former general manager, current restaurant consultant

Bar Bites Menu from Drago Centro-- winner of Best Happy in LA in Los Angeles Magazine

From a restaurant standpoint, Happy Hours are designed to be a pre-dinner promotion, not replace dinner. In a downturn, they also enable restaurants with higher overhead costs to offer lower priced options in a particular area of the restaurant. The bar is a great place to do this, because you always need a bartender during service, so you  need to keep him busy. At the bar, restaurants typically don’t have high linen costs, the level of service is more casual, so you have fewer staff on the clock to make it run smoothly.

Bars are also usually at the front of the restaurant, so by encouraging guests to sit there, the restaurant looks busier to passers-by who will then want to duck in to see what is so popular.

Which is why no restaurant (other than the Outback), offers Happy Hour items in the dining room. The promotional price that most of these items are offered at is simply not sustainable. If a restaurant opens the doors to promotionally priced items all over the dining room, it’s a slippery slope…. that could lead right into bankruptcy.

Which is also why Happy Hour items also don’t make sense to package to-go. If you’re selling a chili-dog at $4 at the bar, there is really no profit margin on that. The to-go box costs an additional $0.25, the bag $0.45, napkins, plastic forks/spoons, any sauce that you want on the side needs its own container; it’s a losing proposition. But it’s impossible to explain all this detail to guests on the floor during service, so it’s more efficient to just say ‘ sorry happy is not available in the dining room/ to-go/ after 7…”

The battles of wrestling with guests about what time happy hour ends, whether or not they can have happy hour apps if they don’t order drinks, and feeling like a jerk when I tell people they can’t take it to go or have their kids at the bar, have turned me away from supporting happy hours until people can learn to enjoy them responsibly again”

Happy hours are also designed to draw in new clientele. And they do. But according to a downtown bar/ lounge manager

“Guests that come in may not be of the target clientele due to the price point.”

Similarly, another Silverlake general manager weighed in:

I hate [Happy Hours] because of the crowd they bring in.  People want to get drunk and somewhat full quick…we want our guests to enjoy what we offer.

But there are supporters.

Izakaya from Chaya Downtown's Beer Garden menu

Like one Downtown Beverage director:

“I am a big fan of Happy Hour, it has been responsible for marketing what we do to an entirely different group of people.  It really helps keep a buzz going and it benefits what we do in the restaurant because of the exposure.  I go through great lengths to make sure that we offer quality drinks, wine, and food at great prices.  Many outlets use Happy Hour as an opportunity to use subpar products, I believe this eventually works against them. ”

And another downtown dining room manager—

“Happy Hour is a careful dance you have to dance. It’s the age old Groupon or not for a business. Why would you discount something that people are willing to pay full price for? But in downtown it’s expected. So what are you going to do? Make some deals with your liquor reps and give the people what they want!”

And what about sticking to the rules?

“We keep the Happy Hour very clear, no substitutions of any type on cocktails
for example.  We do not have the time restraint so we do not have to deal
with that.  If someone is not “Happy” with our policies it is their own
problem but we do not have much issue with it.”

Best Practices

So, what are we left with?

Happy Hour menu from Figaro Bistrot

As a guest, the way to get the most out of happy hour is to follow the rules. If the posted signage says “in the bar only,” don’t arm wrestle your server to get happy hour drinks in the dining room. Getting up from your table and getting the drinks yourself is expressly banned in most places, but in the places that tolerate it, it is certainly noted and reviled.

From a restaurant standpoint, it seems to behoove you to have your restrictions to the promotion clearly stated and stick to them.

Avoid potential mis-understandings by offering a completely different menu for happy hour than is available outside of happy hour. It doesn’t make sense to guests to offer a Manhattan at $5 at 6:55pm, then charge $10 for the same drink at 7:00pm.

Horchata (cha-cha-cha)

the finished frosty glass

Horchata  is a controversial beverage. A beloved agua fresca, traditional in Spain and Central & South America—Its sweet milky refreshment is ladled out of glass pitchers the size of a small child on the hottest days, its starchy backbone quells the burn of the spiciest foods.

Steeped Rice getting ready to be dolled up

Is it just rice? Or nuts and rice? Milk or no milk? Or can you only call it a horchata when the beverage is wrung from the tigernut?

I recently tested four recipes to explore the differences.

  • Batch One: The Ringer, or “Horchata in a Hurry” rice milk, whole milk, sugar, cinnamon, and a kiss of vanilla.
  • Batch Two: Recipe from Fany Gerson’s  Paletas Steeped rice, Whole Milk, Sugar, Cinnamon
  • Batch Three: Steeped Rice, Rice Milk, Sugar, Cinnamon, Vanilla
  • Batch Four:Steeped Rice, Steeped Almonds, Coconut Milk, Cinnamon

    The Taste Test

After a blind tasting with my executive chef, general manager, several staff from the front and back of house, and of course the Gent, I hit upon the Final Where The Sidework Ends Horchata. It is a combination of batches two and four, so it has a few components….

But.

It should be noted that in the blind tasting, “The Ringer” batch scored very high. Many tasters, honestly, could not tell the difference…

The Final Where the Sidework Ends Horchata

2/3 cup long grain rice

3 cups warm water

¼ cup blanched almonds

¾ cup sugar

1 cup whole milk

1 13 oz can coconut milk (Goya brand is my favorite)

1/4 tsp vanilla

2 sticks cinnamon (or 1 stick of super-fresh, high-grade cinnamon, or ¼ tsp ground high grade cinnamon)

Ground cinnamon for garnish

Grind the rice in a spice grinder or blender until it is the consistency of  coarse meal. Pour into a pitcher with the warm water.  If using stick cinnamon,

rice before and after pulverization

add it now. When the water has come to room temperature, cover and place in the refrigerator  for at least 6 hours, or up to overnight.

When the rice has finished steeping, blend it in batches until smooth. Strain the blended rice mixture through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth.  Squeeze solids to release all the liquid. Re-blend the rice solids once more, and strain again to get as much rice-y goodness as possible.

Add milk, coconut milk, sugar, and vanilla. Stir until sugar dissolves. Taste for sweetness, and add more sugar to taste if necessary.

Server over ice, garnish with stick of cinnamon and a dusting of ground cinnamon.

A note on cinnamon—the second you open a container of cinnamon, whether it is whole stick or ground, it should overwhelm your palate with the aroma of cinnamon. If it doesn’t have a powerful aroma, it won’t have any flavor. It’ll taste like it smells.  Spend the extra two bucks and get a cinnamon with serious impact.

Horchata in a Hurry

3 cups Rice Milk

2 cups Whole Milk

½ cup sugar

1 stick, or ¼ tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp vanilla

Mix together all ingredients. Chill. Serve. See if anyone notices how easy it was……

Restaurant 101: It’s Complicated

It’s a contentious question in the operation of a restaurant, when to comp or not to comp? Is it better to send an appetizer or dessert to a guest who dines with you frequently, or to bank those freebies to compensate for errors made during service?
Each restaurant is different. Sometimes, the policy is to make new guests and regulars feel incredibly welcome, by:
·      Sending a complimentary amuse bouche or appetizer to first time diners
·      Sending complimentary appetizer, or additional new dish to regulars to get their opinion on it.
·      Getting a freebie dessert on the table for birthdays or anniversaries (see more on that here)
It’s a preventative, positive reinforcement method. Other restaurants feel that consistently great food and service are enough to hit the right note of warmth and welcome.
So they reserve their comps to smooth over any multitude of kerfluffles that can occur tableside. With any human invention, errors are inevitable from time to time. When, in the course of human events, any of the following occurs,
·      The order ticket gets lost in the kitchen (yes, this does happen sometimes)
·      The establishment is out of the wine (dessert, entrée) the guest ordered
·      A guest waited more than 5 minutes for a table when they had a reservation
·      the server is rude, (awkward, sick, inattentive, overly familiar, etc.)
·      the busboy throws away the ½ of a $40 ribeye steak that you wanted to take home and cook up as steak and eggs in the morning
There should be some icing spread over the top of that awkward cake.

And that ‘something’ can take the form of a round of drinks, all the way up to comping the entire check. For the incidents above, respectively:
·      comping the entrees, or the entire check, (depending on how long it takes for the food to actually hit the table)
·      A round drinks, or 50% off a different bottle of wine (dessert, entree, etc.)
·      Appetizers on the house, or a round of drinks
·      Re-assign the table to another server, send apps or desserts, all the way up to taking care of the whole check (depending on how bad it got)
·      Gift card, or an entire new steak to-go (depending on how long the guest is comfortable waiting)
Then there are comps as bouncebacks—things that bring the guest back in, to experience the food and service that are more indicative of the establishment under normal conditions. These are things such as:
·      a promise to take care of drinks or desserts next time around (usually accompanied by the manager’s business card)
·      a giftcard or coupon for a discount when the guests return
So, if the owner or management of a restaurant is serious about guest satisfaction, there are myriad options for them to rectify the situation.  It gets really touchy as a manager, though, when you have done everything you can to catch a situation as it develops in the restaurant, to acknowledge the errors, and to compensate for them, only to be dinged later on Yelp, or similar review sites.
The guests leave happy, accept all the comps and adjustments you send, then go home to write a terrible review. Those reviews always fail to mention that the errors were acknowledged and compensated for by the restaurant.  It’s completely within these guests’ rights to do– free speech and all that– but it stings when we see it on the other side.

Restaurant 101: Biting the Hand That Feeds You…

A comment on the Angry Chef Ron Eyester’s “Six Ways Customers Tick Off Chefs”.

Since the thing was posted on CNN.com’s Eatocracy, Monday 10/11, the Angry Chef’s words have caused a firestorm of commentary in my dining room as well as on the web.

The most disturbing part of the post is not, however, the chef’s rant; it is the melee in the comments section below it.

It is fairly obvious that the article is done with humor, part of the growing oeuvre begun by the Phoenix NewTimes regular Reasons Why your *Blank* hates you (insert: yoga instructor, housekeeper, cocktail waitress etc.). The chef is not serious, he wouldn’t throw a plate at your head for singing Happy Birthday is his dining room; he is venting. And hoping that, through humor, his comments will educate potential restaurant-goers about what it takes to run a restaurant.

In the comments section, however, a scary group-think has appeared. Posters who insist that people who work in the “SERVICE industry” are there merely to “SERVE ME!” Some gems:

“For you folks that CHOOSE to work in the service industry, your job IS to serve. If you don’t want to be treated like a servant, find a different line of work.”


“…Service industry personnel always have a story of how they got stuck doing “fill in the blank” these stories are as original as your local pole dancer “working her way through school”. People make bad decisions in their youth and pay for it as unhappy adults….a chef who serves sandwiches…has to be a University of Phoenix grad…another $10,000 and they will call you DR. CHEF.”


“…Take a good look at your $40K education and then take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Repeat to yourself. “I am a cook”. That’s what you are…They are the customers, you are the cook. They pay you to cook. If you don’t like that job, get another one.”


“Oh, pleeeze. You’re chefs and you work in restaurants…for the pleasure and whims of the customers.”

Umm… Ouch.

All of these comments miss the mark completely. True Hospitality has no resemblance to the “servant-master” relationship, whatsoever. Sadly, people that buy into the set of beliefs listed above are missing out on some really incredible experiences.

It’s hard to see sometimes, but most people who choose to work in hospitality do it because they are passionate about food… and because they like people.

Dr. Chef has an interesting ring to it, though… I wonder if the CIA has thought about adding a PHD program…?

 

Hospitality @ Home: When a Turkey Runs You Over…

When I think about hospitality, what it is, what it requires, I think about holiday dinners at my parents’ house. It seems, obvious, I know, to wax nostalgic about Midwestern childhood dishes and their inevitable companions (ice! Fireplaces! Piles of leaves and hot apple cider!), but this is not one of those posts.
My parents always hosted the extended family Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners in Oklahoma. As soon as you can hold a spoon, you’re old enough to contribute, whether constructing the relish tray, or mashing the potatoes while the Macy’s parade trundles through its menagerie of marching bands and Snoopy balloons.
After I went away to college in Central New York, it made more sense for me to spend Thanksgiving with family on the East coast, and as the holiday drew close during my freshman year, I fielded many phone calls from my father. His voice raised to a nervous octave when considering the many ways a turkey could go wrong; cooked to sawdust, undercooked and marinating on the table like a salmonella time bomb. I suggested that he “leave it to the professionals” and order the turkey from a local restaurant.
Little did I know, then, that I was creating the truck– well, turkey– that would run me over…
It began with ordering just the Turkey from Ingrid’s Kitchen (www.ingridskitchen.com) at Thanksgiving. By the time I arrived for Christmas break, we were outsourcing the turkey, the gravy (it’s only natural that bird and gravy should come from the same place), the mashed potatoes, and two pies (because where can you find a good mincemeat pie anymore?).
There is certainly an air of camaraderie, milling around Ingrid’s wooden tabled dining room, steaming up the windows with other celebrants in the early morning hours of November 25th.  By now, my father has been doing this for 10 years, so the woman behind the counter smiles and adds “I saved the best mincemeat pie for you!”, because she knows it is his favorite.
Tucking this bounty in the backseat of my father’s Chrysler, though, feels slightly… off. I should be relieved that the brunt of the cooking can be checked off the list, but I can’t shake the idea that something has been lost.
I want to pull out the silver serving ware from it’s buttery wooden chest, to select one of the Good China sets that have permanent residency in the china press in the dining room, shake out the tablecloths, polish the crystal stemware, set my sister to working out an elegant napkin fold… All this while the turkey roasts low and slow, and the cranberries burble and pop on the gas range.
In it’s truest form, that is hospitality. It allows us to be our best self; the self who foraged for the sweetest smelling Gala apples, who discovered This Perfectly Curved Glass to bring out the bouquet of the wine, measured the time and the flour, the self who passed over myriad other options to present to her guests the Best Things. Seeing someone else delight in those things—the plate simply arranged, the filigree of baby birds in the china pattern, the faint scent of cinnamon lingering in the air after the pie comes out of the oven—is intoxicating. Hospitality is knowing what is good and making a meal out of others’ enjoyment, whether it is a holiday dinner, or another night of service at the restaurant.
So, in this blog, I endeavor to unpack all those elements of hospitality from discovering the best food, wine, and venues to share with others, to being a great hostess, a good guest, and all around Enjoyer of Things.
Working in restaurants over the past five years, I have become one of the “professionals,” I advised my father to seek assistance from.  To my friends in Los Angeles I am a considerable cook and hostess, but as is the struggle of one’s 20’s, my credentials are revoked once I am back home.
The holidays are mere weeks away, and I will be going back home, where my father will order the turkey from Ingrid’s, and probably a pie or two. So I’ll just have to find some other inspirational item to go alongside… something like slow roasted ribs and the perfect bottle of wine…