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Practice makes perfect in this business of eating

June 21, 2019

I suspect that my interest in the restaurant business stems from a 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 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. But if even one part - no matter how small - 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 (while beating this machine metaphor to death) last Saturday night at the Friends & Family event at the new Brick Works restaurant and brewpub in Long Neck. 

A Friends & Family event is very much like the “beta” or testing phase where a machine is subjected to stress and constant use in order to expose, analyze and correct potential points of failure. Shortly before opening, smart restaurateurs (Brick Works co-owner Kevin Reading falls squarely into that category) invite the media, local glitterati, friends, family or some unsuspecting combination thereof into the restaurant to simulate a busy service. It’s an efficient way to 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 glitches “on the fly” 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/video crew, people from neighboring offices and whoever else happened to be nearby enjoyed a foodie free-for-all, with dishes shooting out of the kitchen like flying saucers. That’s all well and good, but too bad for the servers and bussers - they didn’t get any practice serving or working the point-of-sale (computer ordering) system. And, truth be told, that turned out to be a problem when Fleetwood’s opened to more-than-capacity crowds. In recent years that process has been streamlined a bit, and some recent openings 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 rehearse on the computer ordering system. And the kitchen isn’t getting to practice prep, cooking and plating at warp speed. Though it probably saves a bit of money in the short run, in the long run the bugs end up getting worked out on real, paying guests. Not a good thing. First impressions still count. 

The most effective strategy is similar to what we experienced at Brick Works: Faux patrons are properly seated by host/hostess staff. They order from the menu. The server or bartender 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 end up with soup on your head, you can’t complain. That soup was free. Grin, bear it and order a cocktail (this is Delaware; you’ll get a bill for that). 

Last Saturday, those experienced restaurateurs added a new wrinkle which I admired very much: Passersby who noticed the activity and ventured in were informed of the trial in progress and were 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 hardworking restaurant staff gainfully employed! Such is that Business of Eating.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.