If you love to cook, I humbly suggest that you do not open a restaurant. I tell you this not because it will rob you of the joy that transforming raw ingredients into a beautiful meal brings- I’ve been doing this for 41 years and I still love cooking- but rather, because the more you run your business, the less you’ll cook at all. Sure, I’ll hop on the the line when there’s a bottleneck, or knock out a hundred souffles when we’re short-handed, but for the past year? I’m the HR department.
I’m also the marketing department, the ad hoc accounts payable person, the sourcer of products, the repairman for simple jobs and the guy who calls the real repairman for complex ones. First and foremost, though, I’m lately the HR department. Since April Fool’s Day, I’ve set up eight interviews, interviewed the five who showed up for those interviews, set up four of them to work a stage in the kitchen, hired two of the four, one of whom trained for three days and then moved to Oregon, one of whom texted with family issues five minutes after her shift began to see if we could cover for her. One didn’t show up for the stage and one is still scheduled to. In the meantime, I’ve filled out paperwork for the DES for someone who worked here for less than three weeks, we’ve had a cook no-call/no-show and later call back to explain that he’ll be going to rehab, though it’s been over a week and he’s neither done that nor come in for anything but his last paycheck; and another cook who texted that she just picked up a second job and wouldn’t be able to work any more of her scheduled shifts, the first one beginning three hours from the text on Saturday, the second one on Easter. I suppose that means that’s now her first and only job. Tuesday I got a text from another cook who’ll be moving away at the end of the month: “Can’t make it in today. Taking a sick day.”
I write this not for your sympathy- whenever I write to explain what it’s like, I get a few dozen “poor you” emails and offers to wash dishes for a few days, all of which is appreciated but unnecessary- but to let you know that it’s still not over for restaurants, or, I imagine, any small business. Or for most large ones, either. I write instead to ask you this kindness: tell someone you know, someone who doesn’t understand it, what’s going on. I feel unfathomably grateful that the vast majority of our guests treat us as fellow human beings, with kindness and respect. But daily there’s an exception that proves the rule, and it wears on everyone, diminishing their own politeness in the process.
We’ve all been seeing signs and memes for over a year now telling people to please be polite to the people who HAVE shown up to work that day while their less reliable and empathic colleagues have elected to go to an understaffed movie theater, or to go to an interview for a job that they’ll leave in a day or two, but I think most of us have forgotten about it.
So the next time you’re out to eat and the service is slow, or the wrong dish arrives at your table, and your uncle is unleashing on the server for forgetting that the ketchup was supposed to be on the side, let him know that small businesses right now are operating differently than they ever have before, and it’s not by choice. We have days where we’re running with a crew that’s short 20% of its crew in the kitchen and another 20% on the floor, and we have days on the other end of the spectrum where we try to compensate by overscheduling since so many of the staff are now new people and we need to have more people working than before to produce the same amount of food.
I can’t say I’m fond of running a restaurant based on the Infinite Monkey Theorem, but of late, it’s what we do, when we can, anyway. A big part of our job is to maintain an illusion in the dining room- whatever hell is breaking loose in the back, that’s ours to keep hidden. You’re dining out and paying good money to do so, and it should feel like you’re out. But that illusion depends a bit on striking a deal with you. In theater and literature and cinema, it’s called suspended disbelief. In restaurants, let’s call it a willingness to accept that maybe things aren’t going as planned in the back and maybe, overall, our meal is still more enjoyable than it would have been at home.
So despite what calls and texts I’ll undoubtedly receive from Feast staffers this weekend, we’ll still offer our Saturday wine tasting,
and despite the fact that it will put people into overtime for the third week in a row, we’ll staff up for Dine Out for Safety next Wednesday.
And despite the universe telling me daily that it’s not a clever move, I’ll continue to operate Feast for a bit longer, even if we have to cancel Sundays for a bit longer.