Friday, December 5, 2008

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving was a good one for the restaurant--and me personally--this year, so alas, I have no horror stories to tell, but it's worth it to me to set down an account of the event if only to serve as a memoir; a reminder that not every year is a disaster on the order of the St. Valentine's day of 1999. That is a story worth telling, for sure, but not here.

I can set the context for this year by recounting the events of last year, which, though it did not qualify as a true disaster (see above) it was not the most pleasant of days, to say the very least.

For one thing, this was the day, in 2007, that Lynda died. This in and of itself would have made for a bad day last year, but that wasn't what made it so tough. Mostly, it was the weather. It was cold, grey and rainy; conditions that do set up the anticipation of a wonderful meal by the fire--leisurely and relaxed. Well, let me tell you right now that that fantasy belongs only in your head, for it isn't even close to reality of dining out at a very good, and therefore very popular restaurant on a day when hundreds of other like-minded 'gastronomes' are inclined to do the same. Even discounting for the fact that Thanksgiving is typically portrayed as an at-home affair, many more people that you might think will have this same idea. Last year, in our restaurant, it was 638.

A curmudgeonly chef known to me personally but who will here remain unnamed once remarked that there is "...only so much shit you can shove through a tube." Were truer words to exist I doubt, for I have, with my own eyes, seen how this phenomenon plays out in the real world, and I need only look back a year to find a suitably impressive example. No I won't relate the 99 Valentines Day massacre here, I swear, but just so you know that no tale of restaurant horror will approach that day. Obviously, I am marked by that event, and often use it as a benchmark. Hopefully, by the time you are reading this, I will have related it and you'll understand.

As I said, it takes but a quick comparison with last year to put this one in context, so I must outline at least the elements that comprise the event and explain how they interact, variously. First, of course is the amount of, erm I mean the number of guests that you anticipate serving. This number will be arrived at by virtue of two factors, the number who reserve and the capacity of your restaurant to both seat and serve a given number of people in a given time.

You only have so many seats, and even if you seted them perfectly efficiently, which you can't, you can not make people eat at much more than a 'standard' pace, which I estimate to be faster than a 'leisurely' pace but slower than fast food pace. And, to eat a two or three course meal at our restaurant at a reasonable pace requires about an hour and a half to two hours. Our six course tasting menu takes about two hours to complete; with wine it costs two hundred dollars and I've seen more than a few folks who've simply fallen out halfway through. So, those two constraints, seats and time are the primary limitations on how much, erm, how many people we can and do serve on Thanksgiving. If either one of those numbers gets too big, we are in trouble.

Another factor in our formula that affects the other two is the weather. Of course, we should be able to control the number of reservations, and we should be able to pace them out so we have enough seats for everyone at any given time, but we can't control the weather. Note that I said 'should' to qualify my first two factors, because there is an art to the arrangement of the reservations in the book that we will have to address presently, but it is the weather and the fact that we have no say in the matter than can be the most limiting factor of all.

When, for example, the weather is cold, we cannot seat people outside, and when seated inside on a cold day, people are simply inclined to sit longer without spending more. So, in essence, the dollar-per-seat average drops off when it's cold, and any errors in judgement concerning the number and timing of the guests are quickly compounded and the whole situation becomes unbalanced and can easily spin out of control. As it did back in '99, on Valentines....no, won't go there.

Well, it was a quite cold and damp last year. Add to that a record number of reservations, and you have a formula for, at the very least, a long and discomforting day. What makes a day this way is not so much the effort required, for that remains relatively the same. It is the mental stress of waiting on people who are dismayed for having had to wait so long for a table, or who are disturbed by the sight of a lobby full of guests, hovering, just waiting for a table that makes a waiter's life stressful.

Now, imagine that people were not simply sitting around the three or four tables in the lobby, but they are standing in every available square foot and spilling out into the patio seating area, where they hover next to and often over tables but a few feet away. Even complimentary cocktails are not enough to convince folks that they should be paying all this money for the chance to stand and wait a half hour or more for a table they thought was reserved. People were remarkably understanding about this at the end of the day, however, and we managed to serve everyone in a reasonable amount of time.

The best evidence that I can offer as proof that folks were pleased with their experience last year in spite of the cold and the wait is the fact that many of them returned this year for what turned out to be one of the most pleasant Thanksgivings we've ever had. Given good weather, when we can seat outside on the patio and in the garden, and an experienced hard-working staff, we can shove, or rather, serve, many more people than the 600 or so that we did this year, but thankfully there was no need. While the waiters would have no doubt not objected had we done another 100 covers, it was enough to line everyone's pocket suitably.

For my part, I estimate that I opened about 40 bottles of wine. I broke a wine opener, which I've been known to do on busy days, but other than that, my day, while relentless, was relatively uneventful. I really do enjoy working on days like this because the experience is so all-consuming and challenging from a physical and mental standpoint. Really, even though we enjoy a busy night because we are all making good money, we waiters really enjoy a busy night most because it flows quickly and consumes most of the time without lapsing into the deadly boredom that comes with a slow night.

So, this Thanksgiving was the day from Heaven, not Hell. The weather was great, the pace leisurely and, at the risk of breaking an old rule of journalism, I can securely say here that "A good time was had by all." Alas, given the cyclical nature of the business, I expect this euphoria to last about one year. Anyone have a Farmer's Alamanac for 2009?

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