Ask the Critic: The downside of success
I recently raved about Chili Verde -- the new, kinda-upscale Pueblan restaurant at 3700 Tejon Street. Poblano crepes, perfect ceviche, all kinds of seafood -- I loved the grub, the service, the room, everything about the place. The only thing that had me slightly concerned? The fact that the Yanez-Mota family didn't seem to be doing a lot of business.
I included that concern in my review of the place. And then the public responded. They descended on Chili Verde and...well, let's just say I got this letter from a concerned reader over the weekend:
My husband and I really wanted to enjoy our meal at Chili Verde last night, honestly. We were prepared to have patience and we expected some glitches due to growing pains and inadequate planning for an onslaught of business generated by last week's favorable review. We arrived shortly after 6:00 Saturday when the restaurant was active but not yet truly in the weeds. We overlooked the nearly 10 minutes we waited to be told that without a reservation we could wait 20 minutes for a table or sit in the bar. We were patient regarding the time we spent waiting for water and getting our orders taken. We watched two tables walk out after waiting in vain for service and felt sorry for the restaurant and would-be patrons alike.
My husband was understanding when initially informed that they didn't have his first choice, and understanding again at least 20 minutes later when told they were also out of his second choice. However, at 7:30, well over an hour after we'd arrived, the sinking feeling grew and our patience ran out. Our child's food had been served and consumed, my husband's third choice of entree grew cold as he waited in vain for a fork and my dinner simply never arrived. Meanwhile, we observed other diners who arrived after us receiving and eating their meals. Appetites and patience dampened, we decided to leave without dining. We informed our waiter of the oversights and tried to pay for the items we did consume. The restaurant apologetically picked up our tab and we appreciate the gesture and sincerely wish them well in fine-tuning the operation. However, it just can't make up for the deep disappointment we felt.
Ouch, right? That's a pretty bad night. And while it sounds like the owners did what they could to compensate the above party (and, I'm guessing, lots of other parties), it still leaves a good question:
What would you suggest that restaurateurs do in order to prepare for sudden spikes in post-review business?
I'll tell you what I generally tell owners when I think there's a storm a'brewin' on the horizon, when I have that sinking sensation that they're going to be overwhelmed by a sudden hurricane of foodies banging on their front door:
I tell them to lay on some extra staff for a couple days, but not to go crazy. One or two extra servers running interference on a crowded floor is generally sufficient; any more than that tends to only add to the confusion of an unusually busy night. What's more, these servers ought to be ready to use every trick in the book for keeping tables happy if the kitchen starts to fall into the weeds. This generally translates to passing out free drinks like it's Paris in 1940 and the Nazi armored divisions are already rolling up the street.
With the floor handled, do the same at the bar. And with the bar covered, take a look at the kitchen and stock the fuck up. I've heard tales from maybe a dozen restaurants over the years -- places that did a couple of things really well, which got a lot of love from me for their gyros or ribs or iskender or poblanos crepes -- that then ran out within minutes of opening on the day after that review came out. Basically, if I say that the chicken is the best I've ever had, buy more chicken. If I say I would literally stab someone in the back with a cocktail fork if they were standing between me and the last order of your Cap'n Crunch-crusted filet of hobgoblin, then for the love of god, get on the phone with your hobgoblin guy and have him slaughter a few extra for you. That's just common sense.
Finally, have a talk with your cooks. Warn them in advance that it's probably going to be a rough few nights. And if you know you're going to be in a position where your galley is going from doing twenty or thirty covers a night to trying to handle two hundred, reinforce that line like you're planning to hold off a zombie onslaught. Have backups, then backups for your backups. Have a couple extra bodies on hand to help out when the rush comes in. And most important, understand that this is your moment to shine. Don't do anything stupid. Don't change the menu at the last second or suddenly decide to switch produce suppliers. And don't ever, ever give up. Just stay in there and keep swinging until the last table is cleared. And even if you blow it terribly and disappoint half the floor and send people away wondering what in the hell I could've been thinking by ever giving your kitchen a good review, don't let it get you down. There's always tomorrow. And then the day after, and the day after that. The big trick isn't about being good on just one night, it's about being good every night.
That's my spiel. Got any suggestions of your own? Add 'em below. And I'd especially like to hear from restaurant owners and chefs on this one. What do you guys do when you know you've got a big night coming? And on the flip side, what happens when that big night you're expecting never occurs (a la the movie Big Night)?
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