“We just ate at that new restaurant,” said the young threesome with frowns as they sat down at the bar.
They were the epitome of cool “hipsters” sporting thumb rings, tattoos and sipping Fernet Branca with ginger ale backs (a slightly bitter digestif that is the cool new trendy foodie drink).
“It wasn’t very good, the service was spotty and the food took too long,” they said by way of explanation.
They then ordered new meals, that they deemed both delicious and timely. By the size of their gratuity I believed that they were also happy with their service.
While I truly appreciate their patronage my gut told me that it really wasn’t a fair comparison. Far too often diners line up like lemmings to sample the newest hot restaurant, just by their sheer numbers they create the likely hood that their experience might not be satisfactory.
“How do you make a small fortune?” goes the joke. “Take a large one and buy a restaurant.” This is often times more true than it might appear. Opening a restaurant is a big commitment both financially and time wise. I have been involved in opening three different restaurants and four different bars. Some have been multi-million dollar ventures with plenty of financial backing. Others have been skins of the teeth ventures where every cent invested was torn from the owner’s children’s college fund. The one thing that all of them have in common is that none of them still exists in their original version.
By and large bars and restaurants have a limited lifespan and very few survive past five years with their original ownership intact. It’s not just the small-underfunded ones that have suffered. Many very experienced restaurant groups have suffered setbacks. Several famous ownership groups (the Lark Creek Inn amongst them) have closed restaurants in recent years.
In many cases the closures of the restaurants have less to do with quality and more to do with perception. Part of the problem is that far too often people decide that the chance they are going to take on a restaurant is in the first two or three weeks of operation.
Now I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t book passage on the maiden voyage of the newest Titanic, nor would I line up to be the first on the next experimental shuttle flight. You wouldn’t find me anywhere near my brother in laws first flight in his homemade hang glider, but drive by any new restaurant and you’ll find many who want to take the first plunge into the newest culinary sea.
New restaurants take several weeks to shake out all of the glitches that naturally accompany any new venture. Imagine moving into a new home, one that you have never lived in, then consider hosting a party for 200 people on your first night! We are not talking about forgiving friends and relatives, we are talking about people who will pick apart every detail like the worst condescending mother-in-law. Even the most controlled opening night is a funny thing to watch. Staff members line the walls like prepubescent junior high schoolers at their first dance, they don’t even know where to stand around when they are not busy, much less where all the new tea saucers are, whether there is any yellow mustard available and any number of the thousands of modifications needed on a day to day basis in the food business. Remember there is no grizzled (and sometimes grumpy) old veteran like myself there to guide the newbies. It is trial and error at every table and you my friends are the guinea pigs.
After three or four weeks the staff has shaken out, that slightly schizophrenic bartender who looked so good on his resume is now gone, the waitress who started crying in the middle of the dinner rush has now been replaced by someone a little more experienced. The purveyors are finally delivering the right “cut” of steak featured on the menu and the beer taps are actually working. Now is the time to try the restaurant and see what it’s really going to be like. If you did per chance sneak in during the first couple of weeks and had a less then satisfactory experience you might want to give them a second chance. The plus is that there is probably room at the bar; the downside is that they are probably out of Fernet Branca. But not to worry the only people drinking it are down the street at “the next new thing”.