My Opening Farewell…

When one of my better clients opens a new restaurant I am often asked to visit the unit several times a week for the first month or two so they can gauge how they are doing.  A friend asked if this was overkill, and I assured him it was not…  how a restaurant opens can often make or break how it will do for the rest of its natural born business life.  A well opened store will not only profit, it will run on its own;  after a year you could put Sarah Palin in charge and it would continue to run well.  Open a store badly and you are forever trying to fix it before you close or sell it.  Which brings me to two shining examples of both a good, and a bad, restaurant opening.  I lived through both.

Back in 1983 a very successful one unit pub wanted to open a second unit in another town. With very little bartending experience I applied for a job and got hired for the last, lowest rung position: that of the short shift day bartender. My excitement at being newly employed was tempered somewhat after finding out that I was supposed to come in early, set up the bar myself, then work the lunch rush and split tips with the prima donna main bartender, only to be sent home by 2:00 so he could work alone and make all the money from the regulars from 2-5.   But the store had the right combination of things working for it. First was a young GM who worked to keep the old traditions that made the first place successful, while updating and standardizing the service. That as mated with a great hiring of staff who were smart, caring, and listened.  Some of them still work there to this day almost 30 years later. And… everyone made lots of money right from the first day.  Nothing could kill this store…  including an embezzling office manager and the hiring of some GMs who knew absolutely nothing about restaurant operations outside of how to hold a knife and fork.

The worst opening I was ever associated with came in 1986 with a big national chain restaurant with an Irish sounding name. After getting out of training I was sent to be the service manager of a new unit in coastal New Jersey that had just opened the week before doing $90,000 a week (that is in 1986 dollars boys and girls).  This made it the second busiest store in a chain of some 150.  Within six months the store had dropped to $35,000 a week, one GM had been fired, the district manager was on the run, and all of the assistant managers were updating resumes. How could that happen so quickly? It was a combination of bad judgment, bad management, and just bad hiring, the holy trinity of bad openings.

When this chain opened a new store they took one or two trainers from every existing store in the district manager’s area to work with the new hires. These trainers are typically the best employees in the store and they are on assignment for a month or more, putting their old stores in a bit of a hole until the new unit is up and running and the key employee trainers are then returned. The trainers were put up in a motel during the training period. They worked very long days but had a little free time at night.  They were incredibly dedicated, smart, and did this for the good of the company and for a little adventure.

About two weeks before the Grand Opening all the trainers got together in a motel room one night after work with some beer and some weed.  In walked the district manager to find his top 10-12 employees in his entire region smoking a joint in their (company paid) motel room, on their time off.

He fired them all.

The existing stores all lost their best employees, then had to send one or two MORE trainers to the new site to take over the training duties.  Now each of the other stores had lost 2-4 of their best employees and the yet to be opened unit was on their second set of trainers. Not surprisingly the new trainers did not have the same desire to work hard that they might have had before the mass dismissal of their pot smoking comrades. The entire district was in chaos.

The front of the house hires were competent;  they were good looking guys and gals who knew this store would be very busy and they could make lots of money.  The kitchen hires, on the other hand, were not of the same caliber. A lot were inner city kids from nearby Asbury Park without a lot of high volume (or perhaps any) kitchen experience.  The managers brought in were promoted from around the local region but all were upset with the company from day one because their bonus compensation was set at the lowest possible level.

None of the test nights went well. When I got there the unit had just opened to lines outside the door and the kitchen trainers (rather than the hired staff) were doing all of the cooking. There was massive burnout at the trainer level, followed by equal frustration from the front of the house staff, as the constant crashing of the kitchen was turning their dreams of buying a new Trans-Am into vague hopes of seeing themselves pulsing down the Garden State Parkway in a Yugo.

I would need a calculator to determine how many people came in to eat here, waited an hour for cold food, came back and gave it another try a few weeks later, waited even longer, then decided this place was not for them.  One guest wrote a complaint letter about his experience and I sent him a dozen roses and  gift certificates to come back at our expense.  He did return…  and later wrote to thank me while explaining the second experience was worse than the first.

Finally at one point the trainers were sent back home and the unit was left to live (or die) with the kitchen staff.  After another two weeks of one disaster after another,  there finally was one night the kitchen got through a weekend evening without so much as a returned item. The wait staff went back into the kitchen at 11:00 PM and gave the cooks a standing ovation. It was the high point of my time there.

As the sales volume zoomed south the regional manager accused the district manager, GM and all the assistants of “managing the store down to a level you could handle” (which I have always thought was a great line). The first GM, who was best friends with the district manager, quit rather than take the blame for the store’s downward spiral caused by his close buddy (the root cause of the problem).  Eventually the district manager left to open his own restaurant (which failed in less than two years), taking the second GM with him.  The trainer firing debacle was the catalyst of all of this, but there other reasons the store could not right itself.

What were the assistant managers doing while Rome burned?  Glad you asked.  If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem, and we were not part of the solution. The two kitchen managers were cooking most of the time as well as doing more mundane managerial things like, you know, ordering food and doing inventory. Kitchen Manager #1 confessed to collecting kickback checks from the produce company, but said he was not cashing any of them until he was fired because that would be “an integrity issue”.  I believe Washington DC works along these lines.

Kitchen Manager #2, who was married and had a child, eventually asked a single male prep cook in middle of chopping carrots, “would you like to come live with me?”.

The single Bar Manager, who was sleeping with the married head hostess, as well as one of the married female bartenders (who would take her tip money and rent a motel room for them after work) was also having a contest with the head bartender to see who could sleep with the most number of females on the staff.  The head bartender quickly made it a real contest until they revealed to me one night, after a few beers, they had slept with pretty much the entire female wait and host staff.  The bar manager “settled down” with one waitress, but then started letting her be the last closing server on the nights he was closing. They then deleted off most of her sales and split the money.

Within a year a new district manager was hired, and while there was almost nowhere to go but up at this point, the store never came close to it’s initial levels. It remained a store where general managers went to die.  All of the other managers, except me, were sacked. I was transferred to the highest volume store in the company where $100,000 weeks were the norm, and the kitchen never crashed… a unit that had opened correctly and just kept running well for years to come no matter who was in charge.


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