3.20.2015 | Issue #13
Live from the snowy tundra! Where a blend of economic strategy, good faith, and a positive attitude are the keys to survival.
February 2015 was no joke. As a business owner, waking up to a thick white blanket of winter's fuck-you no longer instills that fun-loving fervor it once did, when you were a child begging to get out of school. The first time is like a small slap of inconvenience; the next four bring the palpitations and anxiety of a dead man walking. The Boston Globe reported one billion dollars in lost revenue for the month—try digesting that.
The most important part of owning any business is business. The flow of guests through your doors is your payroll, your rent, your meal tax and your product. As Mario Batali once said, "We buy food, we fix it up and we sell it for profit." Since it was so treacherous and unappealing to be out, we restaurants had to entice the world to venture beyond their warm, insulated, front doors with new menus, discounts or themes. At over one hundred inches of snowfall in the month of February (for those that can't do the quick math, that's over 8 freakin' feet and believe me it was all here), there were plenty of struggles to circumvent in doing so. You think maintaining a métier in this fragile industry is difficult on an ordinary day, try pulling it off when the public transportation is shut down, there's a parking ban, the streets are narrowed to a width only passable by a greased Fiat and lo and behold, everyone is sick! Let's not forget about actual product: fish (HA!), vegetables (yeah right it's local) and the dependability of any deliveries.
We all know Boston is strong. This year has been just another test of its character, and the creative ways we locals survive. We personally rallied with State Park, a neighboring spot, in order to maximize our potential. While some people closed, we were lucky enough to have a couple employees dedicated to the adventure of it all. I myself took to the stoves and offered up impromptu, abridged and freestyled menus; heartier, winter fare (slightly more home cookin’ than our typical menu), was the way to go. And let's be honest—there was sensitive product sitting on the shelves that had two possible homes, bellies or the bin. So by limiting what we offered, we were sure to move the things that couldn't "age.”
If your employees cannot safely get to and from work, it is inexcusable to force them to come in. What does this do? My business is just a collective umbrella of each individual’s needs that comprise our staff. For those days that there was transportation and workers were able to come in, they need the money; the need to manage the hours in relation to the business levels is key. It takes four cooks to properly mise out the menu on a mild day, so less dishes on the menu meant less prep and less people. Everyday, another cook got the distinct opportunity to hold it down side by side with Chef...as the weeks dragged on though, so did the morale. I'm not sure what was becoming more frustrating, the city's inability to operate the subways, the lack of hours going into the paycheck, missing the days doing what they "love", running out of weed and Netflix options or just all the damn snow. But as all cooks do nightly, we persevered and managed to make it through without ripping each other to shreds. Once we found our flow, even while storm after storm slammed us with monotonous regularity, we were able to nail down our labor and our ordering. The menu needed constant attention.
As a coastal city, you'd think Boston would have an abundance of product, right? Turn the thermostat down to 2° and see how that works out. Yes, we have amazing seafood and shellfish here, and New England fishermen are notoriously tough bastahds (head to Gloucester during Fiesta), but not in this weather. Boats just weren't heading out. We work closely with a couple companies that buy straight from the boats or have their own, and these dudes spent most of their time chipping ice and shoveling rather than casting lines or pulling traps. The shellfish beds had frozen solid, as had the whole coastline, trapping every type of clam, mussel, and oyster in ice—not unlike Han Solo in a block of carbonite. It puts a bit of a damper on my braised pork with yuzu and clam vinaigrette, or the dehydrated and fried oyster chips that garnish a calamari salad. Goodbye shellfish platter—Mother Nature just kicked your ass.
The filler mostly flies in from California, and even those things were shit by the time they reached us since most things were freezing en route. Then prices got jacked, and again the availability disappeared. And sure as shit, the drivers for these purveyors were not interested in driving around the snowy streets and wheeling out their handcarts, piled shoulder high with boxes. Or worse, throwing that one lone item under their arm and climbing onto our icy loading dock, only to find a disinterested prep cook unable to sign for whatever it was. Deliveries were either late or never came at all.
And finally, there were the real deal issues: the house bank. You better have something in there before any new year begins, because as well all know from experience, those post-holiday doldrums are better to anticipate than to ignore. All those truffles, caviar and foie gras that you loaded up on for the year’s end? Now they’re just invoices with large-ass numbers coming due. Nothing is scarier than having to close multiple days in a short month (28 days), having crappy turnout for the other days of the week and then, on the holiest of holy restaurant days—Valentine’s Day—you land another fucking storm! Are you kidding me?
All the whiskey on the shelves of the bar will not cure the stress that something as ridiculous as a "snow day" can cause. There is only strategic bill paying, minimal purchasing, shrewd scheduling and leaning on those great relationships we have cultivated over the past two and a half years. A little tip: pay your bills on time and most people will help you when you need to stretch your terms to insure that everyone is getting paid. Rent is looming, as is the biggest hit—payroll—and don't forget those taxes! When it gets tight, shell game skills are necessary. We know it isn't the coming of another Ice Age. Eventually it will end, but in the midst of it all, it feels very dark. All you want to do is pay the people that work for you and keep the vendors at bay. Lucky for everyone, in true New Englander fashion, you eventually realize that it's just snow, and it happens every year. Cabin fever just makes us believe we’re Andy Dufresne, painstakingly breaking free, one spoonful of dirt at a time, of our own personal Shawshank.
Today was 52° and the sun was shining. There's still some snow, and navigating sidewalks can be tricky, but who cares? A bit of normalcy is creeping into our lives again. The anxiety has mellowed and the anticipation of a stellar springtime is pulsing through all of Boston. The cooks are back to being in the shits every fucking day, 12 hours a day just like they should be. The product arrives early and fresh, the seafood is killer. I make plans with the local farmers for what's coming up while I eat delicious locally-grown peppercress and claytonia. There's a trash bag full of seaweed from coastal Maine that the forager dude I work with has sent. The phone is ringing and large groups are booking dinners and cocktail parties again. It's all coming together.
Clearly, as we come out of the latest glacial epoch, the next issue will be flooding, but the people here can handle it. Let the thaw begin!