Opening Night Done Right

My review of the Wet Olive a couple of weeks ago prompted a flood of responses. Most of them defended the ePoetry event that I was unlucky enough to witness while attempting to dine, called me a bigot, and belittled the discrimination I experienced as merely a joke. Only one letter made me feel something other than amusement, though -- the e-mail from the owner of the Wet Olive.

"First, I want to apologize. Second, I want to thank you," she wrote. "I am a young, white, single mom just starting my first restaurant ... I wanted it to be a nice gathering place for professionals." She had no idea what type of event was being held at her restaurant, given that her manager had lied to her about the explicit nature of ePoetry when she asked what the phrase meant. Consequently, she canceled the ePoetry evenings and is looking for a new support staff -- actions that have earned her, from ePoetry supporters, the label of racist (but also, at least from this critic, a second chance).

Of course she isn't the only first-time restaurateur to have made, and subsequently learned from, mistakes. Even seasoned professionals find themselves in the weeds on occasion. Kevin Rusk, proprietor of Titanic Brewery & Restaurant, estimates, "There are probably in excess of a billion mistakes one can make as a new restaurateur. My recommendation for the first-time restaurant operator would be very simple -- make yourself part of the staff. As a hands-on operator you will catch most problems before they become major issues."

Harald Neuweg, who owned Satchmo and now runs Da Capo, which features Sicilian-born chef Salvatore Zapparata and his newly unveiled classical menu, says he is planning on writing a book on the subject, entitled How to Open a Restaurant or the 1000 Reasons Why You Should Not Do It.

Half-joking or no, he may be on to something. Plenty of primers offer positive advice. But even more valuable, at times, are the flip side of the commandments, the ones that start with "Thou shalt not...." First-timer Dianne Santos, owner of Brazilian restaurant Gil's Café, sums it up: "Never leave the restaurant unattended by an owner. Murphy's Laws were written for the restaurant business. For sure, whatever can go wrong will go wrong when I am away." Specifically, she counsels, "Do not open the week after 9/11. Do not hire servers that cannot speak at least some English. A simple order like 'rum and coke' can be misconstrued at least a dozen ways. And do not depend solely on the kitchen staff to order and receive inventory. It's amazing how many filet mignon and veal cutlets walk out the back door."

Indeed, in addition to being lied to, it's easy to be cheated by your staff. Rusk cautions never to believe that "there's no need to check up on your bartenders. All his friends come to see him because he's a nice guy, right?"

Most of the "don'ts" involve entertainment, however, such as the ePoetry performance. Restaurateurs who schedule live music or novelties like magicians during dinner hours will always run the risk of not appealing to all comers. "Bands have absolutely no respect for diners. They never understand why they are sometimes much too loud," Neuweg says. "I had many fights with band members when I told them to turn it down. I lost a lot of customers because of that."

Santos also schedules live acts. "The problem is that entertainment can attract a certain kind of customer who will sit at the bar all night and order one beer. Twenty customers like that can kill your business," she notes. "When possible, charge a cover. This will help keep out the riffraff."

Cover or no, when promotions are too specifically targeted, they can work against you. The explicit ePoetry is just one example. The mimes who used to perform at Baraboo gave me the creeps -- instead of talking to you they'd touch you -- and the magician at a Mexican restaurant overstayed his welcome at our table by at least two appetizers. And I was convinced that the ladies who leaped to the tops of the tables at Taverna Opa in Hollywood and started rubbing each other were off-duty exotic dancers; about a dozen of them, skimpily clad in various white outfits, had come in en masse from what appeared to be a hired yacht and were accompanied by a single, um, male escort.

I'm not the only one to believe that implied sex is not necessarily the right atmosphere for a restaurant. Michael B. Jacobs, executive chef for the law firm of Ferrell Schultz Carter Zumpano & Fertel, P.A., turned down a consulting job for an Aventura bistro whose owner wanted to bring in the "ladies" from nearby Solid Gold on Friday nights to attract more men. "I don't know of any bistro ever doing [this], nor do I think [it] will work. Sorry, I guess I am just old-fashioned when it comes to restaurants and openings."

Renovating and reopening an existing restaurant comes with its own set of rules -- some of which are set by the city in which the eatery is located. Rusk says the temptation to ignore bylaws might be there, but "thinking that you can buy a site, tape paper over the windows, and do renovations without permits, [not to mention] believing that your budget will be adequate," is a bit idealistic.

In such circumstances, publicist Dindy Yokel has a veritable checklist that she wishes she could read to her clients. "Keep those bathrooms clean (they need to be bused every hour at minimum). Train your staff well -- 'we just opened' doesn't fly with me. A good waiter knows the job before the restaurant opens. Make sure that the paint and shellac is dry -- the odor is not aromatic -- and open with a liquor license or wine and beer license. [Either that] or let me know before I sit down or when I call to make reservations -- I am not a water drinker, I want wine!" Finally, she says, "Check your menus carefully for typos -- this is inexcusable."

Misspellings and transliterations might be my number-one pet peeve, which is why I like Neuweg's idea of hiring a retired restaurateur to consult with a burgeoning one. They've got the war stories about everything from sour deals to sour grapes. They can also assist with operating procedures, another touchy issue for the virgin proprietor. Steve Kim, one of my high school boyfriends who opened Kimbo's Noodle Shop in Virginia after college, probably wishes he had one on hand during his first few days. Looking back, he warns, "Never host a practice run the night before the opening. Recovering in time for the opening was crazy. Never run out of food on opening day/night -- the crowds never let up. We were down to only two menu items at closing time. And never underestimate the value of caffeine. I only slept for 3 hours over a 72-hour period."

In other words, if nothing else, stock a lot of coffee.

Or simply do -- don't do -- as Neuweg suggests and "never never never open a restaurant [even if] your friends like your home cooking. You think that those people are going to support you, [but] you are wrong. Remember you never gave them a bill in your home after dinner."

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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