You’ve gotta fake it to make it
You’ve probably figured out by now that I like restaurants. I suspect that that stems from my lifelong appreciation for complex machines that run smoothly and reliably. In my former life on the other side of that big bay, my livelihood depended on the smooth and reliable operation of several million dollars’ worth of precision audio and video recording machinery. Some of it ran smoothly and reliably day in and day out, and some of it - well, not so much.
A restaurant is sort of like those machines. If it is well-designed, maintained, and all the parts fit perfectly, it will run for years. If even one part isn’t right for its purpose, the machine can become a liability, costing money rather than making money. I got to thinking about all this (and perhaps beating this machine metaphor to death in the process) last Saturday night at the Friends & Family event at the new Blackwall Hitch restaurant in downtown Rehoboth Beach.
So what is a Friends & Family, you might ask (which I genuinely hope you do, or there will be lots of blank space underneath this paragraph). An F&F isn’t all that different from the “beta” or testing phase where a machine is subjected to stress and constant use in order to expose, analyze and correct potential failures in operation. Shortly before opening, smart restaurateurs invite the media, local glitterati, friends and family (or some combination thereof) into the restaurant to simulate a busy service and put the kitchen and serving staff through their paces. And like any beta phase, sometimes it runs well, and sometimes it doesn’t. But since it’s not for real (i.e., the food’s free, so shut up and eat), the ownership gets a chance to fix any glitches before real customers replace us freeloaders.
My first experience with this phenomenon was at the long-gone Fleetwood’s supper club in old-town Alexandria. The kitchen was instructed to make every dish on the menu as quickly as possible - the only problem was that they didn’t invite any people. So the construction crew, my sound reinforcement crew and whoever else happened to be nearby enjoyed a foodie free-for-all, with dishes flying out of the kitchen like flying saucers. In recent years that process has been streamlined a bit, and the relatively recent openings of Starboard Raw, Chesapeake & Maine, the Forgotten Mile Ale House, Crooked Hammock Brewery, Crust & Craft, Fork & Flask at Nage and others turned out to be fun for the invited guests and enormously educational for the owners and staff.
Nowadays the typical F&F can take two forms. A few local eateries chose to make the event a stand-up affair, with passed hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar (you can’t give away booze in Delaware). Though we moochers had lots of fun, it’s not all that educational for the restaurant. Patrons are not ordering from the menu, so the staff doesn’t get to practice on the computer ordering system, and the kitchen isn’t getting to practice prep, cooking and plating the menu dishes.
The most effective strategy is similar to what we experienced at Blackwall Hitch: Faux patrons are seated by host/hostess staff. They order from the menu. The server arm-wrestles the computer system into actually sending the order to the kitchen. The kitchen gets to deal with a scary stack of tickets as quickly as possible. And the servers/runners get to figure out the best way to move around the room without spilling soup on anyone’s head. However, if you do in fact end up with soup on your head, you can’t complain. That soup was free.
Last Saturday, those experienced restaurateurs added a new wrinkle: Passersby who noticed the activity and ventured in were informed of the trial in progress and seated with a big smile. Why not! The more the merrier, and it enriches the beta testing process that will hopefully result in a machine that runs smoothly and actually makes money. What better way to keep a restaurant-full of staff gainfully employed? Such is The Business of Eating.
Bob Yesbek is a serial foodie and can be reached at byesbek@CapeGazette.com.