This is my first grocery store opening, and I'm most awed by the scale. Even the larger restaurants where I've worked have been like families. Everyone knows each other and more than enough of each other's business. At my restaurant openings, the VIPs were friends of the owners, neighbors, perhaps a big deal chef around town. Here we're talking Mayor Bloomberg. It's a whole 'nother ballgame.
'Served' on Serious Eats
After three long years of writing about my restaurant endeavors in the Served column, that chapter is officially ended. For now, at least. Now there's something new. Grocery world. And I'm crowning myself Grocery Girl.
I am still without a job title, but I have a mission, a first project. I will be composing signs for our cool products and making sure the signs and the products get to live together for all the world to see. This seemed at first like a small task—until I saw the spreadsheets. We're talking thousands of products.
Starting, growing and owning a small supermarket chain is certainly infinitely more high stakes than working behind the cheese counter. But compared to waiting tables or cooking on the line, my cheese countering has been a sunny walk through the park. Here's why.
People are afraid of cheese. It's usually older customers who ask about low calorie, low fat, or low sodium cheese. My coworker is from Italy, and no amount of fat free cheddar-buying ladies can help him wrap his head around this "light" cheese phenomenon. "It doesn't make any sense. Cheese is fat," he ponders. "Fat free cheese is like meat-free beef!"
The routine is as follows: pack and process cheese, help customers decipher between Sbrinz and Tomme du Jura, find out for a distressed mom where we have sauerkraut ("but not in bags!!"), weigh out precisely 1.2 pounds of pot cheese for an ancient lady with a big smile, field calls from cheese wholesalers, nibble on caramelly Piave, dole out samples of Etorki, joke with guys at the deli counter next door.
The first staff meal I concocted: tuna burgers, wasabi mayo, leftover buttery buns, and a salad with every veggie I got my hands on. The waiters and cooks loved it, and I felt the glow of validation. I had arrived in the world.
"Try everything!" my fellow cheesemongers told me. "That way when people ask, you'll know." The best way to learn about cheese is to eat it. In fact, it's the only way. So after two weeks behind the cheese counter at my new job at a great NYC grocery store, I have a severe case of cheese belly.
The cheese manager threw me a white chef's jacket and a baseball cap emblazoned with the store's logo, and I got to work. I wrapped up buttons of ash-coated chevre in slick bundles of plastic, labeled and dated them, stacked them symmetrically on the shelves. I scooped up feta and feta brine and weighed out the packages. I built beautiful sculptures of goat gouda, and comte, and sheep's milk yogurt.
After many interviews, phone calls, rescheduled interviews, rescheduled phone calls, and days nervously waiting, I accepted an offer with this great New York grocery store that I love. I'm excited now, thinking about it. Goosebump excited! My job title? I don't have one yet! I'm going to learn the business by spending time in all the departments. I've never worked in the grocery biz, and there are a dizzying amount of things to understand: buying, butchering, pricing, catering, staffing, stocking, receiving, and much, much more.
Being a great server is no walk in the park. Anyone who's spent time taking orders and whisking trays to the hungry masses knows waiting tables well is a challenging, sometimes formidable, feat. I've been dining out frequently recently, and as always, paying a lot of attention to the service, or lack thereof. Here are my conclusions as to what stellar service entails, and how to achieve it.
I've put in time as a server, and time working with servers, training servers, and managing servers. Whenever I get the chance, I love to dine out and get served a little myself. Being a great server is no walk in the park. Anyone who's spent time taking orders and whisking trays to the hungry masses knows waiting tables well is a challenging, sometimes formidable, feat. I've been dining out frequently recently, and as always, paying a lot of attention to the service, or lack thereof. Here are my conclusions as to what stellar service entails, and how to achieve it....
My dad's birthday coincided with my last day at work, and I felt like it was time for dinner at my restaurant. My parents had dined there a few times, with friends and family and with each other. I wanted to join them.
I'm sure there's some perfect formula for conscious indulgence that leaves ones pleasantly, not overly, full. To savor the cherry-brined duck breast because it's unfathomably good, and not feel guilty about it. To have a bite of the chocolate cake then put the fork down. I've read plenty about it. For those not inflicted with eating issues, fears, phobias, and hangups, this comes naturally. But for me, putting these things into practice is a daunting challenge.
The T-Dance was a great idea. Eric, our bar manager, laid it out very officially during our weekly meeting with the owner—there were bullet points and numbers galore. I never heard of a T Dance, nor had most with whom I discussed it.
It surprises me constantly how wonderful our guests can be. To serve people great food and create a memorable night: that is what my job is all about. When in turn people are warm, appreciative, and perhaps even fascinating, that makes my night a good one. But terrible customers have a terrible power to turn these great nights into difficult ones. I hope that someday soon, I'll develop a thicker skin.
Micky said he'd take Josh over any of his cooks. He was dependable and unwaveringly consistent. He took pride in his job. Micky could trust him. There was something special about Josh, anyone could see it. A few months ago, Micky could tell Josh was unhappy.
Mrs. P was one of our first regulars, back when we were a casual Argentinian/Italian spot. Her feedback was chronicled in impressively long emails to the owner, which were forwarded to me. Over time, our staff learned she expected bread on her table upon arrival (we usually wait until dinner is ordered), and she liked her guests' cosmos served before her own.
We are a tiny restaurant with a tiny staff, a postage stamp sized kitchen, and a huge garden. Which means people want to book weddings for 120 guests. Since our food is intricate and labor-intensive—no steak on this menu—this is uniquely, laughably challenging. But we do it, and we do it well.