More tales from the restaurant industry
You'd figure that getting my liquor license would call for celebration. After all, with the license in hand, I can finally open doors to customers. But my mood right now is anything but jovial.
When my license arrived, I set an opening date exactly two weeks into the future, which, at press time, is tomorrow. Two weeks have never felt so short.
What I've been working on for the past two weeks: Lining up staff. Finishing the menu. Getting all my vendors lined up. And figuring out a pop-up shop to handle late nights when my kitchen closes.
Preparing for Judgement Day
Here's an odd coincidence: I'm opening my first restaurant in the same year that restaurant veteran David Waltuck opens his latest, Elan. I was first introduced to the world of fine dining back in high school, when I worked at Waltuck's four star restaurant Chanterelle in downtown Manhattan. The glittering shop shuttered during the recession and Dave's been without a restaurant of his own for a while.
Early reviews of Elan have been tepid and hard for me to stomach. Who Dave is, and what he did at Chanterelle, loom large in my imagination, and to hear your hero's food declared mediocre is not only depressing, it's frightening. To me, Dave is the platonic ideal of a chef's chef. For decades he stood uncontested as one of the top in New York City. His crew was the A-team, the 1%. This is a man whose caliber I couldn't match if I had another lifetime to try. If he can't impress the masses, what hope do I have?
My single greatest fear is choking on the public stage. Will we be able to execute our vision? Are my critics correct? Am I an over-hyped hack? Can I consistently deliver the whole hog experience at a high level everyday? Will I be a disappointment to the many who've supported me from day one? Tomorrow is judgment day, and I'm scared shitless.
Crisis #1: Hiring the Homeless
Last-second staffing is more or less like recruiting for the Jolly Roger pirate ship: you grab every able-bodied hand who's willing to work, willing to tolerate you, and doesn't mind chaotic environments with talking parrots. To my knowledge, Blackbeard didn't post a Craigslist ad.
It is very difficult to staff a restaurant kitchen. The hours suck and the pay blows. At start-up restaurants this is even worse. In his memoir/cookbook Momofuku, superstar David Chang recalls how he couldn't even get his friends to work for him when he opened.
Then there's the pool of applicants, which all too often includes ex-cons and drug addicts. From what I've learned from my fellow pitmasters, barbecue crews tend to struggle with cocaine and alcohol. (Fancy pizzerias, I'm told, deal more with heroin.) Whatever the drug of choice, addiction is a pervasive problem in the restaurant industry that robs us of many valuable team members.
But I'm a big believer in second chances, and I want to create an environment where those who are hard on their luck can rise through the ranks to become highly paid leaders, both in my restaurant and the hospitality industry in general. Enter the Doe Fund.
My neighbor, the Doe Fund, is a non-profit organization that serves as a halfway house for people with histories of homelessness, substance abuse, and incarceration. My friends, colleagues, and partners all gave me the same look that's probably on your face right now. "You're looking to hire verified ex-cons and addicts? Didn't you just write an entire article on cokeheads?"
But I'm gonna put my money where my mouth is and try to hire these people that no one else will hire. And I plan to give them a career path and salary competitive with some of the largest restaurants in Brooklyn.
I'm not a charity, though. I'm an entrepreneur. And my logic is that I'd rather deal with the devil I know instead of the one that I don't. The Doe Fund provides housing, case management, and mental health support for these workers. We all know they're struggling with issues, but at least there's help for them. If I just hired a shiny resume, I wouldn't know if the cook has a problem with coke or alcohol, or if they'll disappear on benders for weeks at a time.
Curiously, the 3 a.m. shift, typically hard to staff at other New York barbecue joints, seems to be the most popular among Doe Fund applicants. We'll see how my gamble pays off.
Crisis #2: A Shock & Awe Opening Strategy
Unlike restaurants that take reservations, I can't easily anticipate crowds or control how they impact my crew. Figuring out a service strategy takes some work.
I follow restaurateur Joe Bastianich's disdain for the traditional "friends and family" night where, theoretically, you get your team tested by giving away free food. In my eyes, it's effectively throwing away money. The conventional thinking says "friends and family" will reveal any kinks in the system. I disagree. There is nothing that will prepare you for a real kitchen rush. Nothing.
My last culinary job before calling it quits and going to college was working the fish station at a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Midtown restaurants have an interesting phenomenon known as "pre-theatre dining," aka the most unsexy, wham, bam, thank you ma'am dining experience in New York. There is little elegance in herding crowds into their seats at 6:30, shoveling an expensive three course meal down their gullets, and churning them out in an hour so they can catch their Broadway shows.
During pre-theatre shifts, our kitchen crew got battered by the onslaught of orders. Everything needed to be fast and perfect as required by our three-star ranking. The heat and frenzied pace was so intense that the average chef there lost eight pounds of water weight each evening.
There's no way to replicate pre-theatre dining. Likewise, no amount of training will prepare you for the opening rush. The only real lessons come from the live show.
My strategy for handling the onslaught has two parts. First, I'm hiring twice the number of people I can actually fit in our tiny kitchen. The best strategy? Not necessarily, but throwing manpower at a problem sure helps. Second, during our first two weeks of service, I'm limiting the menu to simply barbecue and two sides. Once our team has gelled, we can start rolling out more dishes as well as the pork-centric charcuterie boards.
Crisis #3: A $20,000 Gamble
During my build-out, I've put off dealing with vendors. The last thing I needed was another voice asking when I'll be open. Now with fewer than two weeks to set up shop, it's been off to the races to get all our vendors locked down. Food and beverage suppliers need credit applications. We have no inventory in-house.
The first issue was getting my hogs. I have specific heritage breed pigs shipped up from North Carolina. Getting the logistics set up for them to arrive in time for me to cook is harrowing indeed. There's really no last minute supplement either—it's not like I can wander into any random supermarket and pick up a 200-pound pig if my delivery falls through.
Most distributors don't even know what to make of someone like me. People are used to kitchen orders of a single small heritage breed pig which they'll use up during the week. We are cooking several large hogs a day, every single day!
If you're a degenerate gambler, the barbecue industry is definitely for you. I have tens of thousands of dollars in booze, pork, and sides flowing in for the first week. At its core, barbecue is just a higher form of gambling. All of our products are cooked before people show up to the door, but the meat is only good for a day.
Cook too much and you waste money. Cook too little and you not only lose sales, you also sour relationships with customers who made the trip to see you. It's basically spinning a roulette wheel with over $20,000 all on red. If that's thrilling to you, you're in the right place. I, on the other hand, needed a midwife next to me reminding me to breathe while placing my orders.
What I've Accepted: This is Gonna Hurt
I've already talked about my 18-hour days which, as an unrepentant workaholic, I'll live through without complaint.
But none of it compares to what I'm about to face later this week.
The Swine is a 24/7 operation. At any given hour there will be someone at the restaurant doing some kind of work. Large hogs take a very long time to cook and we start anywhere from midnight to 3 a.m. to get them ready for the next day. Because we're a beer hall, our shop closes at 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Once we open, I don't have days off. I don't have any time off, either.
As of now we don't have another experienced pitmaster on staff, so I'll be up alongside the early morning meat guy manning the pits. And since it's my shop, I have to be on the floor in the evening making sure that everyone is having a good time.
I don't know how that schedule will work yet—when I'll squeeze in rest or even find a time to shower and change. All I know is it's gonna hurt.
As for opening day, it'll be a carnival of silliness. I want to showcase the best of Bushwick, so we'll have local music legend Reverend Vince Anderson playing keyboard above the bathrooms, a fire-breathing performance by the Bushwick Burlesque company, mural work by the Bushwick Collective, and pig-themed tattooing (your choice of tame, slightly racy, and Oh My Gawd) by my neighbors Gnostic Tattoos.
How will we pull it off? We'll just have to give it our best. Wish us luck.