20080616-servedbug.jpgLast Wednesday, I opened my email and had a tiny panic attack:

"Writing to confirm that you received my deposit for tomorrow! We will be 32 people, not 30. Hope that's OK."


First, no. I did not receive a deposit. Second, neither I nor anyone at my restaurant had planned for a party the next day.

I scrolled up and read the old emails. Erica worked for a nearby hospital. She and I had exchanged questions and answers about her department hosting a party in late fall. We had scheduled a meeting, but she failed to show up.

A few months later, there was another inquiry from her about a birthday party for a doctor in the end of March. She had thrown out an almost offensively lowball price; I had countered with one high enough for us to make a little money, and she had accepted.

That's it. The most recent email was two months ago, a sample invoice from me. I hadn't received a response from her, no "sounds great," or "we're in." I dropped the ball as well: I moved the e-conversation to some oft-visited folder in my email, and failed to follow up.

Two months later, we had a surprise party on our hands.

Party Time

I called Erica. She posited that her accounting department had slipped up, hence no check. "You should have let me know!" she said. If only I knew I was expecting a check! She gave me her credit card information, and paid for her party.

The lucky part was that we were already hosting a buffet that evening, another birthday party. The doctor's party was scheduled for the afternoon, and would have a very similar menu: a big green salad with crispy parmesan; pasta with a short rib ragu; duck-fat poached chicken breast with collard greens.

First, I called Micky.

"I'm so, so sorry, but..."

"Just tell me what's going on!"

"We have another party tomorrow. 32 people. A buffet. They're paying $40 a person for food."

"We don't have enough chicken," was his first response. But there were a few dozen people showing up at our restaurant the next day, chicken or not, so he had to make it work.

Make it work we did. Still sweaty-palmed and berating myself—How could you let this happen?—I called my staff and asked everyone to work early. We would need to pull the dusty bain maries out of the basement and clean them, fold a million napkins butler-style, and make the place look great.

I called the owner. Good thing she emailed you!" she said. Yes, what a good, good thing!

Despite the rocky beginning, the afternoon party was almost eerily smooth.
Too smooth. Usually people come late to parties, and stay late. The staff taps their fingers and wonders how they will have time to clean up and set up for the night's reservations. But the doctors and nurses showed up at precisely 3:30, the time we had agreed on, and left an hour and a half later on the dot.

Party Number Two + Dinner Service

There was more than enough chicken and pasta for all, and enough for the staff to scarf big plates of short rib bucatini and juicy chicken before the next wave rolled in.

We were expecting a slowish night at the restaurant part of the restaurant. We had only a handful of tables on the books. It was suddenly freezing, and Philadelphians are famously allergic to un-amazing weather. It rains, and everyone stays in.

But lo, the walk-ins start walking in. A two-top, a four-top, and a bunch more twos. In an hour, the whole dining room was full.

We had only two waiters on staff, plus a bartender, plus myself. The bar got busy, too. The owners brought their friends, and they wanted cheese plates, which I make, and they wanted to chat, which I couldn't do. We were running!

One waiter had nine tables, which is too much for one waiter. So the party waiter tried to help in the dining room, too. And I tried to help everywhere. And Debbie, the owner most involved in the running of the restaurant, became stressed. Very stressed.

I was stressed too, of course, but surrendering to stress does a manager no good.

Two hours after the second party arrived, there was still no food. Reservations were waiting for their tables. We were running, running, but not like headless chickens. The staff was focused. They were doing a good job.

Next up: How we survive the night, and I get in trouble with the owner.


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