Monday, December 17, 2012

Grateful Reflection

The holidays and new year always bring about much reflection, and in a time when so many have seen recent tragedy, this year's reflections are grateful ones, that fill both my house and business.

Celebrating our one year anniversary at Vera was quite exciting, and believe me there was a moment of ... 'Phew, we made it!'. As I look over my shoulder at the year gone by, I see the twists and turns of learning, teaching, inspiration, disappointment, frustration, long nights and even longer days, optimism, friendship, love and most of all hope. Dreams may come true, but they don't continue without dedication to your craft. That same long look over the shoulder also has me nostalgic for a few days gone by in the hospitality industry, yet conjures hopefulness for the future. 

Professions of all sorts reference the phrase 'separating the men from the boys', where the superstars stand out from mediocrity or what seems today to be the norm. In the hospitality profession (yes, it is a profession that people choose to follow as a career), there is a huge "class difference" in those that take the world of hospitality serious and work the craft from those that dump on and/or take the business of restaurants for granted. 

From the outside looking in, owning a restaurant probably seems glamorous ... it looks like we're hosting a well stocked party every night and I wish I could tell you that it is in fact a glamorous life, but it's not. Don't get me wrong, there are amazingly fun (and tasty) moments in the hospitality business, but at the end of the day, that is exactly what it is, a business and working in that business with grace is an art. So, if you've worked a successful corporate job your entire career and are thinking of retiring and opening a bar, because you think it would be fun ... and that running a restaurant or bar is a hobby, here's a newsflash ... you're not about to retire! If you want your "little hobby" to be successful, you're about to work harder and tax your body and mind more than you ever did at that desk job. Not to shit on your corporate career, but that is exactly what you're doing on mine when you think so little of hospitality work. That same attitude of retiring to own a bar, seems to take hold with so many Americans that are out of work. If I as a successful Sommelier and Wine Director get laid off, because my position has been eliminated due to budget cuts, I wouldn't think I could get a job working as physical therapist for the Notre Dame football team, just because I'm an ND football fan. Why? Because this craft takes years of education, training, certification, research of emerging trends, more education, care and dedication. Guess what? So does being a hospitality professional, whether that is as a Chef, line cook, back waiter, busser, bartender, manager etc., so why do you think when your day job doesn't work out, that you can "just get a job waiting tables". While dining in restaurants may be commonplace, successfully running them and working in them isn't. There are different levels of training, education, care, dedication, certification and hours of hands on experience that hospitality professionals must engage in throughout their careers. So, just because you threw a fabulous dinner party, do not think that you can work in a thriving, successful, well run restaurant ... it's truly not that easy. 

But the attitude towards the business of restaurants and bars unfortunately does not begin with the outsiders of hospitality, it begins with those of us who work in it. Again, if you're a physical therapist do you go to work drunk? Do you have a couple drinks with two hours left to go in your work day? When your clients come to see you for an appointment, after they've had their knee inspected do you have a shot together? If you're an exceptional, professional physical therapist and you've had a rough day in physical therapy and you get your pay check do you go out for seven hours, drinking and snorting all that money up your nose? I'm going to go with answering no to these questions. So, why because we serve alcohol in a sociable, lively environment, do so many in the hospitality business think so little of the profession that they come to work wasted, get wasted at work, get wasted every day after work, snort $100 worth of a night up their nose and then get shitty when they don't make $300 the next night, to compensate for their own bad decision  making? Enjoying oneself for an evening or two out on the town is one thing, to not respect yourself or the hospitality profession enough to work in it sober is one of the many reasons that other businesses don't take us (those who work the craft and enjoy taking care of people) seriously. Unfortunately, this isn't the biggest problem of the profession, though it is a cancer to any restaurant or bar. The biggest plague to restaurants and the attitude in and towards them, is mediocrity. The attitude of good enough, will destroy any business and restaurants are no exception. Before signing on 1023 W. Lake, we looked at hundreds of locations, and one of which is a restaurant that is still open. Mark and I had to look at the location early in the morning, after the restaurant had been open the night before. To say that the restaurant was disgusting would be an understatement. Chunks of food on the floor in the dining room from the previous night's service. The service station had dirty linen lining the shelves that held plates, glasses and silverware, linen that wasn't dirty from one service shift, dirty from weeks of shifts. A huge cigarette urn, for the employees, graced the walk from the back door to the patio which guests would have to walk by to enjoy outdoor dining. The owner even mentioned, as a selling point, that there was a dedicated area to smoke for employees. The decor looked like a cross between a bad 80's movie set and a bar in your favorite college town. Clearly, no one in the building really cared much to pick up food off the floor, to have a clean, inviting atmosphere for when purveyors walk in to do business, as well as when the doors open for guests. It's also no surprise why this restaurant is for sale. Of course, there are a zillion reasons why businesses don't succeed, including great restaurants, but if you control the controllable at a level of excellence, then it makes managing other aspects of your business easy, to a point of success. 

So, yes I'm grateful, as are those professionals that work with and around me for not letting mediocrity seep into my business as we take on our second year. Yes, you do have to sweep the floor entirely so there isn't chunks of food left for the mop to push around. Yes, you do have to come to work sober. Yes, you do have to study food, wine, service and hospitality, on a continual basis. Yes, you do have to come to work and have an appearance as if you're going on a first date. Yes, you must follow trends and new innovation in the hospitality world. Yes, you have to put out the best plate at 5:00 pm and 10:00 pm. Yes, you must smile and be inviting at all times to guests in my restaurant. Yes, you must provide more than good food, good wine and good service because that isn't enough anymore. Yes, you must create exceptional moments for guests, because hospitality is a form of entertainment. Yes, you must create menus without typos. Yes, you must answer the phone with a smile, because guests can hear it in your voice. Yes, you must provide an honest service to the guest and not over charge them for items to line your own pockets. Yes, you are expected not to steal from the house. In turn, I will treat you with respect, give you the tools you need to do your job, feed you (very, very well), pay you more than a fair wage, provide an education for free that individuals pay hundreds of dollars for, allow you to work with amazing food, wine and more, and hopefully provide you with the opportunity to make choices to lead a life of quality. If that makes me hard to work for ... then so be it, because I won't be bullied by mediocrity and my business mirror shows me a grand image of  grateful reflection.

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