Thursday, April 16, 2009


When the Circus Came to Town

I love the restaurant business. I hate the restaurant business.

Why am I putting the emphasis on the business part of that statement? During these perilous economic times, everyone is trying to manage their business as efficiently as possible. Did you know that in fine-dining or “white tablecloth” restaurants--average profit is just around 4%? Some restaurants sales are down 10-20% from a year ago. The Sea Grill restaurant located just across the street from my restaurant, Pacific Grill, closed for good 2 weeks ago. Even Quiznos and Starbucks in our downtown neighborhood closed recently.

[photo: food orders unspooling onto the floor from the Printer]

4 % is a pretty slim margin. You are trying to hold onto just 4 cents for every dollar that comes through your front door! The single biggest cost in a restaurant is labor.
You might wonder what it takes to run a restaurant like Pacific Grill where we employ over 70 full and part time employees. I am happy to say we haven’t (yet) had to lay-off a single person.

How can you help us restaurateurs survive?

The other night we started with just 27 reservations on the book. It felt like it was going to be a slow Thursday night. Our manager made some decisions to run with a leaner crew that night. He didn’t call in a second Host for the front door. He scheduled two fewer waiters for the dining room, and we went with just one bartender. The extra dishwasher was sent home, the extra line cook wasn’t scheduled and so on. ….

Then all hell broke loose.

We were mobbed with early diners headed to the Britney Spears “Circus” concert at the Tacoma Dome. We ended up doing 240 dinners that night.

I have talked about this before in an effort to get the word out, but it would sure be nice if a bigger proportion of those 240 diners would call ahead and make reservations.

How does that help me as a restaurant-owner?

I have no desire to give bad service. I want there to be an appropriate amount of staff to take care of our clients. If you have too many waiters on the floor, and it is a slow night—the waiters don’t make enough money in tips. When a crush of people arrive, a server can be inundated with 4 tables seated all at once. It takes time to talk about the menu, get cocktails ordered, explain what wine might be best with the entrées ordered. Then all those orders have to be entered into the computer so the kitchen can get started cooking. The computer was spitting out so many orders so fast I could barely keep up.

Meanwhile the 3 other neglected tables are glaring at the Server. The Bartender is slammed with so many cocktails to make at once that she cannot get drinks made fast enough. The kitchen gets buried. The tables say “we are on our way to the concert, and please rush our meal”. But they ordered the chicken (which is raw and hasn’t been cooked yet) and will take at least a half-hour to prepare. After the meals the dishwasher is buried with too many plates and silverware to wash, that we don’t have china to plate a salad or there aren’t enough cocktail forks ready…and the dominoes continue to fall.

Now don’t get me wrong-- I love it when people drop in for Happy Hour and dine with us spur-of-the-moment.

But think about it this way—do you ever drop in on your friends for dinner without calling first? Or what if you invite 8 friends for dinner, you shop and prepare, set a beautiful table, and then 10 times the number you invited—80 people—show up! Would that put a little stress on you the Host or Hostess? Would you have enough food to feed 72 extra people? Would you have enough china on which to serve the food? Would it take the same amount of time to clean up after? I would venture a guess that your party would be a disaster.

What if you were throwing a wedding at a hotel and 27 people RSVP’d—but 270 showed up? The hotel would not have scheduled enough banquet servers, the room would not be big enough to hold the guests, and there would not be enough food to feed your group.

I have learned in my time here as a restaurant owner to usually quadruple the amount of reservations to guesstimate the number of diners that will actually show up for dinner.

We have to order fish the night before it is delivered. So after work Wednesday night, we call the fish purveyor and tell them how much fish to deliver for Thursday’s business.

It is a crap-shoot.

Hmmmm we only have 27 reservations so maybe we will do around 120 people”. If you over-order too much wild King salmon, expensive Maine Lobster, Alaskan scallops, live oysters, clams & mussels—and they spoil, it is going to negatively affect your Food Cost and eat into that narrow 4% margin, and you are not going to be in business very long.

So we tend to order conservatively.

We want to efficiently schedule waiters so they can make a decent living. I cannot afford to over-staff a dining room just hoping customers will show-up. I cannot afford to have 2 dishwashers with nothing to do, or extra line cooks waiting to sauté that expensive first-of-the-season fresh halibut.

We depend on our reservations to forecast how busy we will be. But it is like gazing into a crystal ball.

That 27 turned into 240 when the circus came to town.


intacoma said...

sounds like you learned a lesson though, keep an eye on big events like this going on at the dome and staff up. Since seagrill isnt around you should expect more of this during events like this. Best of luck I understand though, I'll make a reservation if I ever come in

Anonymous said...

Although I consider myself a fairly sophisticated diner, I always considered reservations were for my convenience so I wouldn't show up and there was no room. If I knew from experience it's usually not a problem getting in, I figured calling would just waste someone's time. I never considered it from the flip side. Thanks for pointing this out.

ChefGordonNaccarato said...

Thanks intacoma for your comment. I don't think we will see that much bounce from former Sea Grill customers--number one because they weren't that busy--or they would still be in business. And number two--we wouldn't get all of those customers by default anyway. Certainly we will get some--but some will go to Gaucho. Some to Merende & Maxwell's. Some to Primo & Asado etc...

As for big events yes we learned a lesson. When Celine Dion performed at the Dome we saw a crush of customers--but far more of them made reservations. When we only got 27 from Britney--we assumed they weren't our customer base.

And I want to reiterate--I appreciate "walk-in" business. I dine spur-of-the-moment sometimes too. I really just want to shine a light on what happens behind the scenes, and why making a reservation is not just about guaranteeing you a seat at a certain time.

Thanks for your input.

ChefGordonNaccarato said...

Thanks Anonymous --when I write this blog I enjoy lifting the curtain to give the dining public a peak behind the scenes. You took from my piece exactly what I was hoping for--

I appreciate you letting me know. Thanks.

Heidi from DenverDryGarden said...

It sounds similar to a hospital Emergency Room! (In addition to being a chef worshiper, I am also an ER nurse). When times are slow and the evening is late, they go down to one physician and start sending nurses home. Sometimes it works, often times it doesn't and swarms of people come in. Great post and I actually prefer to have a reservation to avoid long waiting times. The problem arises though, with restaurants that do not allow reservations, which I've never understood. It seems to be a lame attempt to be "hip" and "edgy".