Class Reunion: Cream Puff War
I really hadn’t wanted to go to my high school’s Twenty Year Reunion. The few old friends I’d known from high school hadn’t cared about the nostalgia of it all either, and for the most part they had skipped both reunions that had been held so far.
I’d gone to the Tenth and found that really nothing much had changed. People are (and remain) fundamentally exactly who they are ... then and now. At both events, it was the same people hanging around in the same cliques. Another opportunity for the guys and gals that then, and now, needed to be with the ‘popular’ groups. An entire room full of people wanting to keep living in the past, that couldn’t be straight with each other for more than a minute at a time ... and though it’s all in the past, they just won’t leave it behind.
Honestly, out of the two hundred people there from my class, I couldn’t have pointed out five of them that I actually sort of ‘knew’, let alone would have been able to put a correct name on any of their mostly strange faces. No ... I’d never even put a toe into any of the fringes of the so-called popular groups back in the day. I hadn’t made even a token amount of emotional effort to try and fit in, let alone attempt to be popular, back in school. Probably because I was just too tired to do more than stay awake in class on most days. I’m sure everyone, teachers included, thought I was a stoner, zonked out every day, hardly ever saying a word, with my eyes just barely drooping open. Really it was just a chronic lack of sleep.
Drugs and razor sharp chef’s knives in a restaurant are a really bad combination.
By the time I turned sixteen, I was already working a 40-hour week, if not more, in my uncle’s restaurant, and every weekday school night I wasn’t getting to bed until midnight, or even later. So, no extracurricular activities for me: no sports; no drama club; nothing that would interfere with my after-school job, helping my uncle.
All work and damned little play did make Jerry, that is me, a rather dull boy! Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed working for my uncle, and I learned more in the back of his restaurant than I did at either college or later in culinary school! On the other hand, for me, high school was not the most wonderful time of my life and I hadn’t made many life-long friends or associations there.
Anyway, I hadn’t wanted to go to this reunion, but here I was. One of my few old school friends called me up that afternoon and said that he was going and wanted me along as his wingman. My friend John had been none too successful in life since school, but he had been fairly popular back in the day. He was one of the fringe sort who had mingled between the boundaries of at least a dozen social groups and could be counted upon to be a neutral intermediary between rival cliques. He had also been one of the few talented players on our abysmally bad school football team and had enjoyed mild success in college as well. Ever broke, but eternally optimistic, he was in the commercial window washing business nowadays and was hoping to use the reunion as a chance to network. Good luck to him, so I agreed to come along for the ride.
I spent an hour there nursing an insufficiently cold bottled beer and watched my friend work the room, pressing the flesh with new friends and old ones. John could have been a superb salesman, selling virtually anything to anyone, but he unfortunately had moral qualms about using his schmoozing powers for evil. I think he passed out over a hundred business cards and even managed to sign on three new clients for regular business, including Trevor Hamilton. He was from one of the ‘old-rich’ families in our city and I couldn’t stand the smug bastard back in our school days. Hell, what sixteen year old kid has the right to drive a Mercedes convertible?
Anyway, Trevor was the lead dog now running his family’s business, which was residential construction, and it was big time. Today, after just five minutes of friendly chatter, he’d thrown my friend John a rather nice and profitable bone, handling the final post construction cleanup for a new subdivision of 566 units about to come on the market. At a contract price of $200 per house, my friend was going strike it rich, or at least very comfortable for the next six months, so I was feeling charitable enough to join in and share a few drinks with them as they toasted and finalized the deal.
“This is my friend Jerry,” John said, introducing me to Trevor and his wife (not from our school). We shook and not surprisingly, my old semi-nemesis had no memory of me at all ... and I didn’t try to remind him. I never believed in holding grudges anyway.
“He’s the Executive Chef at Nicolo’s,” my friend added, and that accomplishment was enough to garner Trevor’s immediate interest and genuine appreciation.
“Great place!” His wife gasped, “Probably the best Italian restaurant in the city! It’s crazy getting weekend reservations there ... even for us!”
I just smiled and nodded and let them shake my hand all over again. Trevor’s trophy wife certainly was decorative enough that I could just smile and admire her cleavage happily for another half hour or two.
“Acting Exec, actually.” I added, “I’m really officially just their head Pâtissier... their Sous Chef of Pastry. They’ll be hiring a new Executive soon and after the new boss is settled in, then I’ll probably move on myself, to something or somewhere else. Some other new challenge.”
“Oh, so you’re kind of like their head baker then?” Trevor inquired, with interest. “Are you thinking about buying or opening up a place of your own now?”
“More or less ... and yes, I’m considering going independent,” I admitted, “to open something kind of like a classical Viennese bakery, with lots of pastries and chocolate work. Not so much wedding and birthday cake stuff, that doesn’t really interest me much.”
“Well, then you may be in luck!” He smiled, pulling out a folded up piece of paper from his jacket pocket. “I was going to post this up on the big advertisement bulletin board next to everyone’s business cards, right over by the door, but I’ll just give this to you now.”
It was a commercial advertisement for a business for sale up in the Hill Country. A bakery café, called ‘Sweetie Cakes’. I wasn’t much impressed, at least initially, as I read over the notice. For starters, the current owner only wanted to sell 50% of their interest in the business. I wasn’t about to take anyone’s orders ... and if I wanted to run a private bakery, I wanted to be the one to make 100% of the decisions.
The location was optimal though, in a small Hill Country town of about ten thousand people, right in the heart of a region known for antiquing and travel tourism, within comfortable driving distance from several large metropolitan cities. I’d even driven through this area myself a few months ago, while contemplating such a location. Perhaps in conjunction with a bed and breakfast inn, or something such.
But not this one, I’d decided, and I started to shake my head and hand it back to Trevor.
“Keep it, give it to a baking friend or a colleague.” He said, with a twitch of disappoint evident upon his face. “I’m doing this as a favor to a friend ... well, it’s my ex-wife’s place actually, Adriana’s. She doesn’t really want to sell the place at all, but it’s all she’s got and she needs the money pretty badly.”
Now I was starting to remember why I really didn’t like Trevor, back in our school days. He was Adriana Marshall’s boyfriend throughout most of school, and I had lusted after her, mostly in absolute silence. For three years she sat right next to me in our home room, and I had quietly adored her, everything about her ... despite the fact that her family had even more money and political power than Trevor’s! She was really just another rich girl with a snobby attitude who sneered at boys like me, who had dirt or pasta sauce under our fingernails.
Damn, but she was the prettiest girl in the entire school ... and she knew it.
I (mostly) had the good sense to know that it would never work between us. She drove a classic Porsche 911 Targa convertible to school (when she wasn’t in Trevor’s Mercedes) and I rode a ten-speed bike and couldn’t afford a used car until college.
“So...” I muttered in some slight confusion, “you married Adriana sometime after high school then? You two were one of the big power couples, all throughout school, as I remember.” Lucky bastard.
“Yep, we married, two weeks after our high school graduation, but it didn’t work out real great afterwards,” He admitted, “and her family problems didn’t help us much either. You heard the stories on that? We were just out of college by then and maybe already drifting apart, but what happened to her family, especially her dad, made things pretty impossible. We then split up after about five years married together ... we just couldn’t work it out together anymore. We’re still sort of friendly though.” I’d forgotten all about her big family scandal, and it was big newspaper and TV headlines in our city for months!
Wow ... now I was starting to remember about her family problems ... and I nodded in genuine sympathy.
Irene, his new wife, clutched his hand tighter and they briefly hugged. This second marriage seemed to be more successful. It also looked like Trevor wasn’t quite the smug ass he had been back in his school days either.
Adriana’s family, had come from old, old Texas money, but that hadn’t stopped them from raking in new fresh cash by the bucketful. Mostly, according to the media and the FBI investigations, in pretty dodgy ways. Her father ran a very successful car dealership, another uncle was the County Judge, another uncle ran the county’s largest commercial construction company that held nearly every city contract, and yet another uncle was the County Sheriff during our high school and college years. Adriana never let anyone forget these facts ... and in a school full of young social snobs, her nose was pointed up in the air higher than anyone else’s.
Damn ... she was pretty then, though ... but she knew it, I mentally reminded myself yet again. I’d spent three years just wanting to build up the nerve to talk to her, but mostly I just gazed upon her, secretly, in bemused silence.
The crash came a few years after high school, right about when I was finishing up my Restaurant Management degree in college. All three of her uncles went to federal prison for long sentences for fraud, graft and embezzlement as the result of a lengthy FBI sting investigation into municipal contract kickbacks and dozens of other corruption charges. They were very, very guilty and the scandal was a media circus for most of that year.
This scandal must have completely ruined her socially and come as a very hard shock to her. Her father’s dealership emerged mostly unscathed from the legal scandals, but the old Marshall name was now just a popular joke in the city, and sales crashed. He filed for bankruptcy about a year or so later, I think. I was by then out-of-state and insanely busy handling my second year of Culinary School.
“So...” I pondered, as much to myself as to Trevor, “that bakery’s all she has left? That’s the end of her family fortune?”
“That’s it.” He confirmed, “The last of it all, and now even that’s going bust. The bankruptcy of the dealership cleaned her dad out almost entirely. Fortunately, a few of the smaller personal properties were safely in her mother’s name. Her mom gave the bakery in Hillside Lakes to Adriana and runs the local B&B. Nice place, actually ... and she wasn’t a bad sort of mother-in-law, either. Adriana’s father was innocent of all the price fixing and crooked contracts that his brothers were very guilty of, and he just kind of got caught at the very end holding a big bag of shit when the music stopped and all the chairs were pulled away. They really deserved better, all of them. I try and run a little business her way, when I can, but I just don’t have many business interests anywhere up in the hill country. I always was a city boy, but let me know if you find a place where I can build a world-class golf resort at!” He laughed.
“Ok...” I said, “I’ll give the property a hard look, but I can’t make any promises. Are you handling the sale?”
“Nope, just helping the local selling agent along. I did agree to help cover her seller’s commission though, just for old times’ sake. Even just those few thousand dollars that will be owed to her agent are going to make a real difference to her. Hell, her mom’s B&B’s might be up for sale too, if you can find someone to swing buying the pair.”
“I’ll consider it,” I admitted, “just because Adriana was in my old home room and I’d hate to think that someone I sat down next to for three years was on the verge of living out on the street. And if she’s willing to be at all reasonable about making a deal. She did tend to be a bit prideful, back in the day.”
“More than a little.” Trevor admitted. We shared another drink and made small talk before my friend John made another circuit of the room, to frost his now ample cake with yet another new client or two. Damn, I wish I had his ability to schmooze and press the flesh!
I was crazy busy at work for the next two weeks until the owners finally stopped dithering and they at last hired a new Executive Chef. As promised, I received a special bonus for my dual-duty of running the restaurant over the last six months, and it adequately matched my expectations. In another month, right at Christmas, I’d also get my regular annual bonus as the head Pâtissier. Each was about a quarter of my annual salary, which was alone a bit above industry standard for an experienced head Pastry Chef. Together with my existing savings, I would have ample amount of ready funds to consider buying Adriana’s bakery café ... and maybe even the Bed and Breakfast inn too.
I’d been at this well-known restaurant for a full five years and while the owners had done right by me, it was time to move on, I’d decided. Either to a really big city top level head Pâtissier position under a famous Executive Chef, or else to open up a place entirely of my own. Or, I could do both perhaps, buying some existing place, fixing its problems and improving its menu and quality, and then leaving someone else to then manage and operate it for me so I could build on my career resume somewhere else. Perhaps having a half-owner already wasn’t quite the liability I first thought it might be?
The holiday season, between Christmas and New Year’s, was also our restaurant’s busiest time of the year. No walk-ins were available and all reservations were already booked solid for the entire month for dinner. I needed to be there every single day and I worked at least my usual sixty-plus hour work week. That’s par for the course in this business ... you get used to it or find another way to make a living! I could rest and recover in the slow dog month of January, and I did.
For starters, I called the local agent in Hillside Lakes just to see if the property was still on the market, and it was. Then, I inquired to see if the owner was still firm about only selling a half interest in the business, and that was still the case also. Firmly, the agent informed me. I asked her to email me the business financials for the last three years and also send over a comprehensive set of photos of the property, front of the house and back. Both collections were sent promptly, and neither was especially encouraging.
The photos of the front of the business from the street looked alright enough. Sweetie Cakes had been founded in the town way back in 1938 and appeared to be something of a local institution, right on the local main street downtown. Across the front door was another cheerful painted sign, ‘Stop and Smell the Flours’. Cute!
Inside, the front of the house looked old, perhaps even retro with much of the original layout from 1938. I could live with that, assuming that the seat leather could be replaced, the old chrome polished up, and some of the dim lighting modernized a little. I did like the original service counter bar. The service hardware behind it all looked dated, badly so. Probably sixties or seventies, and long overdue for replacement. I bet none of the coolers kept to a properly safe temperature either. I’d replace the entire lot of them, almost certainly.
The pictures from the back of the house, the kitchen and bakery production areas and the service line, were even less satisfactory. Damn, those Hobart floor mixers both looked old! The commercial baking ovens were a mishmash of brands and looked even older! Even from casual photos, I could tell that the general cleanliness was not up to my professional standards. Replacing everything back here was going to get expensive ... especially those Hobarts!
Checking the financials, I could see at a glance at least one reason why the place was losing money every single month – equipment maintenance fees! She was paying out more each month in repair bills than my restaurant was, and we were nearly ten times her size! Biting the bullet now and dumping nearly 100k into new equipment would cut this figure by 75% or more, and nearly bring the balance sheet back into the black by itself. The annual tax depreciation costs for the new capital hardware would help manage the rest!
It appeared that the financial situation was apparently not hopeless ... so, I phoned the selling agent back to arrange a time to view the property. I was taking all of the next week off for vacation anyway, so the timing was perfect for a short trip to the Hill Country. Out of amusement, I even booked an overnight reservation at Adriana’s mom’s B&B, the ‘Wake ‘n Bake’. Kind of a clever name too! Their specialty was breakfast pastries, apparently. The online website photos all looked nice enough and it seemed like a good place to visit in any case.
It took several hours to make the drive up into the hill country, and I arrived in Hillside Lakes in mid afternoon. I checked in at the B&B and let the friendly innkeeper, Janet, Adriana’s mother, slyly offer me her dinner recommendation, naturally at her daughter’s bakery café, Sweetie Cakes. It was quiet there and I had the place all to myself for most of the afternoon. The seller’s agent was scheduled to meet me there at six o’clock, but the dinner rush was mostly non-existent.
Inside, the service area wasn’t spacious, but there were four booths along the wall and six small square tables with chairs between them and the old fashioned service counter with stools. Next to the front window side of the service counter there were two refrigerated small glass display cabinets, the first with an assortment of about eight local baked items and the other displaying cakes. That seemed to be their main bakery focus really, birthday and wedding cakes. Items that I frankly had little or no interest in, but were probably a necessary evil for local sales. The rest of the bakery items were all behind the counter area. It’s hard to sell what customers can’t readily see.
“Breakfast is our busiest time, by far,” my somewhat past middle-aged waitress, Louise told me, after handing me an impossibly large menu, “but lunch is fairly busy here, too ... not so much at dinner, though,” she admitted.
She was polite enough, and I accepted the menu and began to painstakingly examine the minutia. For starters, it was just too way big and too complicated for any smaller sized café to conveniently handle. Hell, there were more entrées listed here than we served at Nicolo’s!
Restaurant rule of thumb #1, as they taught me at culinary school, is ‘if you try and do everything – you’ll do nothing well.’ This seemed to be the case here.
“Just order me the three top selling items, the most popular ones, and I’ll just nibble off them each.” She raised up a confused eyebrow at me but she obliged and it took a while to get them warmed and served. None of them were worth the wait. Leftovers from lunch, I suspected and mostly precooked this morning and then had been sitting and waiting in a cooler or bain marie to finish off and serve.
The lasagna was the best of the lot, but it was dry from sitting all day in the steam heater on the serving line. The rest, the chicken-fried steak and the spaghetti, were just very unmemorable. Working at the best Italian restaurant in our major city had spoiled me ... and my recipes were far superior.
The deserts - I ordered the three most popular again, two pies and a cake. They were admittedly better, but not up to my professional standards. That was something that I could fix quickly, once I was running the back of the house.
The seller’s agent arrived as scheduled and she declined my offer to order either dinner or any of the desserts. “No cheesecake on the menu!” She laughed, and she claimed that she (and her svelte waistline) could resist anything else but that! She couldn’t quite cover up the slight twitch of disdain when our waitress offered her a menu. Clearly, the food here was not a local ‘can’t miss’.
I nibbled at my desserts and let the agent give me her best sales spiel as we waited for the business to close at 7 p.m. Then, as the evening staff of just two cleaned up for the night, I was allowed unlimited access to poke my nose in wherever I saw fit. It was quite a Romanesque nose, but not that unhandsome, and for the next two hours I put it quite to good use.
No surprises. The coolers (front and back) were barely all holding to a safe temperature and their compressors strained to keep up if the doors were held open. The less said about the old stoves and ovens, the better. Both the large and smaller Hobart commercial mixers were ancient ... and obviously re-re-re-rewired in an effort to keep them running just a while longer. Gone in a heartbeat, regardless of the cost, I decided. Electrocuting your bakers (especially me) is not a good way to produce quality products!
The walk-in cooler and freezer seemed more modern, perhaps ten to fifteen years old and both were operating safely ... but perhaps under cleaned. The general cleanliness of the entire place was not up to big city commercial restaurant standards. If you’re a famous successful establishment, like Nicolo’s, the local city health inspectors are looking over our shoulders constantly, hoping for a chance to stick you with a big city fine even for minor violations.
The old dishwasher needed to go too, I decided, after finding caked-on grime on nearly every ‘clean’ sheet tray and pot I handled. Much of the grunge had been baked on everything for too long for them to ever be properly clean again, and I mentally decided to replace nearly all the pots, pans and sheet trays with new ones. The cutlery was none too gleaming either, but the front of the house staff ‘rewashed’ everything up in front before service. Unnecessary, if the dishwasher at the back of the house is doing his or her job right.
All-in-all, no better and not much worse than I had anticipated. I had a comprehensive list now of all of the hardware that needed replacement and in a few days I’d have a dead accurate cost for what I’d need to shell out, right at the very start. That would help, greatly, during the financial negotiations for buying this place.
At 4 a.m., the morning baker would come in and at 6 the bakery café would open for breakfast, and I needed to take a good look at this busiest period. I bid the dinner crew and the agent good night and enjoyed a good night’s sleep, now that most of the real work was over. I arrived early the next morning at seven o’clock to find the place full, and I nibbled on a few assorted breakfast pastries, standing in a corner with my coffee. For the rest of the morning I watched the weekday breakfast run, which ended at about 8:30, but things never quite got dull until after lunch.
The locals were willing to support the place for breakfast, and most of the nearby businesses mostly came here for their lunches as well. This was good to know. The food wasn’t great here ... but everyone was willing (to a small degree anyway) to support a local establishment, assuming that the burgers and sandwiches were at least tolerable. Improving the food should definitely also improve the sales.
I went back home and crunched numbers. They weren’t pretty and I warned the seller’s agent that I could make an offer ... but at a distinct discount from the asking price. I then gave her a tentative verbal offer that was about a third less than Adriana had been asking. I wasn’t intending to lowball her ... but I also had to deal with some ugly financial facts.
“The entire business needs a complete overhaul from top to bottom, front and especially in the back”, I warned her agent, and I faxed over a two-page listing of the hardware and fixtures that I’d be replacing, along with a copy of my projected purchase and installation costs. This would show what sort of personal investment I would be willing to make in the property too ... and the owner can go along with this plan or find another buyer.
I wanted, out of sentiment, for the deal to work, but I’m a pragmatist ... and if the sunk upfront costs became unrealistically stupid, preventing my goal of being profitable again within six months, then I was prepared to walk from the deal. I was already fairly sure that Adriana’s pride wouldn’t let her accept my counter-offer ... but to my surprise she did, without a counter proposal.
We came to a verbal agreement, via her agent, and I agreed to formally sign the deal in three weeks, pending a final meeting in person to come to terms with a mutually workable Partner’s Agreement. I could now give my two-week notice at work that I was quitting.
I was hoping that my partial buyout would free Adriana from actively working at the bakery café at all, giving me a complete reign over the place, but that was definitely not part of her agreement, according to her agent! I thought we were going to be at an impasse, so our agent arranged for a quick personal meeting between us, and we all sat together in the front of the café for most of the next Saturday afternoon, trading and comparing sets of financial numbers.
Adriana didn’t recognize me from school, and I didn’t volunteer that we had a longstanding prior association. I looked different, much different, than I had in high school. I was short then, a bit husky and not in the least bit handsome, especially with cheap-looking glasses that would have embarrassed even Clark Kent to wear. I did virtually all of my growing during my college years. I’m just over six feet now, but back then I was shorter than even some of the girls! Also, several years ago, I had Lasik eye surgery which rid me of the stupid looking glasses for good.
On the other hand, Adriana looked almost unchanged; a tall and slender brunette with long and slightly curly hair. Her figure was good ... hell, better than good. She wasn’t dressed to show off, today just in jeans and a sweater ... but oh, how she stretched out that sweater in just the right places!
Her face held more frown lines than smile ones, but I did my best to be cheerful enough for the two of us. That was me - back in school, if I was awake and in the mood, I’d often play the class clown. It was hard work today, and she might have cracked a slight grin once or twice, but I soon gave up any attempt to be amusing, to show that her new partner did indeed have a sense of humor. I don’t think she was looking for that today, anyway. Today she wasn’t smiling very much, just perhaps a very little bit, and her perpetual smirk seemed absent.
So ... after a brief review of all of the financials, we tried to hammer out a final deal with our specific areas of management clearly delegated in the Partnership Agreement.
“Not open for any negotiation,” I repeated, toying with a slice of apple pie with a crust too soggy to be much of a treat. “I’m in complete charge of the back of the house. That includes the dinner menu and all of the bakery items, and the staff of bakers, cooks and the dishwasher. The menu will change, significantly, and so will the staff... if they can’t follow my standardized recipes.”
“Sweetie Cakes has been here since my grandmother started it in 1938!” She glared, her voice rising up in annoyance. “It has been a tradition here – and I mean to keep it!”
“Then uphold it by letting me modernize the kitchen, hyper-clean everything from floor to ceiling, and reduce this monstrosity of a service menu down from 87 entrée items, to just a dozen or two that the cooks can actually prepare with some minimum acceptable level of quality assurance?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the food here!” She exclaimed, perhaps a tad hastily.
“Well, breakfast is quite passable. You’ve got a good breakfast cook and I’m even going to give him a raise to make sure we keep him during the transition. The lunch and dinner crew ... well, they may just need a simpler cuisine-de-fair and some proper retraining, from someone who actually attended a culinary school. You see that we’re not exactly busy here right now, on a Saturday afternoon. The local teens should be coming in for burgers and fries, or milkshakes, or whatever. Clearly, they’re not – and that’s something that needs fixing. Besides, no one should ruin a perfectly good chicken-fried steak by pouring canned gravy over it! Or serve anything here that comes out of a #10 commercial can from Sam’s Club. Not in my restaurant, they won’t!”
“And I don’t want the place to go ‘upmarket’, upscale or whatever marketing folks are calling it this year!” She whined, almost cringing in her seat, not quite meeting my eyes. “It’s a small-town diner ... and needs to stick to those roots! You’re talking about serving croissants and Viennese pastries here ... rancher Bob is just going to want his usual, coffee and a donut!”
“Don’t get me started on the coffee. That’s front of the house ... your department, but I can recommend that acquire a new Bunn machine from this century that brews coffee that doesn’t resemble recycled motor oil. Donuts are fine, I know how to make pretty damn good ones ... but I won’t be cooking them in a fryer with old grease that hasn’t been strained or even replaced in several weeks or months.”
“I like strong coffee, and so do most of the locals.” She weakly insisted, but without much sincerity, as she looked down at her own half eaten dessert plate.
“Which explains why the new coffee bar four blocks down has a line outside it in the mornings ... and is full most evenings too. I’ve checked them out. Thank God the competition is not a Starbucks! All the more reason for us to get better organized now and improve our menu first, before they do! Serving cappuccinos, espressos and lattes would help the evening sales here, especially after the dessert menu improves. Right now, after three o’clock or so, your sales aren’t keeping up with your electricity costs. You have the town’s movie theater right across the street from you, but you’re not getting much of that sales traffic! Date nights on weekends should be crowded here ... but they’re not, are they?”
“Perhaps...” she vaguely muttered, as she crossed her arms defensively and looked down at her feet. The old familiar sneer almost came back for a moment. Even in her reduced circumstances, she was a woman used to getting her own way in things.
“Look over my sales projections for this next year again, and then call me. You’ll keep full control over the front of the house and you can even continue your cake side business. I can certainly teach you a couple of hundred new and different cake recipes that you’ve never heard of. We can have a new ‘cake special of the week’, if you want, it doesn’t matter to me... if it helps the bakery café generate sales. That’s my one and only goal – to make sure that we both make money together. Isn’t that better, or at least different from losing money every month?”
She scrunched her face hard for a moment. No, she didn’t at all like being reminded of that fact, but I needed to break through any residual stubbornness about her wanting to keep to ‘business as usual’.
We shook hands and I left shortly afterwards, without looking back. Adriana was still worth a second look ... and more, but I had to demonstrate that I was holding firm with my plan for our assigned responsibilities and that her retention of half of the business would not be in fact become a greater controlling share, out of habit or obstinate willfulness.
I didn’t press the selling agent, and for the next two weeks I didn’t hear anything back from Adriana about the deal. Privately, I was beginning to think that she’d changed her mind, and was going to decline my offer, to wait for a future deal more suited to her inclinations. When the call came in that Adriana would sign the partnership contract that I had presented, I was both delighted and surprised ... and soon half broke myself as I started to write large checks.
The minute the partnership deal was signed, I paid for my large order of replacement kitchen hardware plus its delivery and installation. Another used restaurant supply company purchased and removed all the old equipment, fixtures and hardware, and once the kitchen was virtually stripped to the bare walls, I arranged for an outside cleaning company to come in and give the entire place a proper New England style housecleaning. They went old-school on everything, first using scrubbers and soap, and then steam pressure washing all the walls and floors.
You could now eat right off that formerly grimy kitchen floor, and even Adriana was privately looking on with some amazement and silent approval! It had taken two full weeks of non-stop effort but the entire place sparkled now.
After the installation of the new equipment, the bakery café stayed closed for another week, which I devoted to back of the house training, teaching the cooks the revised (and much shorter) menu. It all fit on a standard fold-out four page menu now, one side for breakfast (eight entrees plus side dishes) and the other two sides for lunch and dinner (twelve entrees, plus appetizers and sides), plus a blue plate special of the day. The dessert menu was smaller, a choice of eight ‘standard’ cakes and pies, plus a special dessert of the day. This was a safe starting place to begin growing from. When we could do these menu items perfectly, or at least well enough, then we could slowly add more dishes, after we could tell what new specials sold well – and what didn’t.
In restaurant menus, you will always have four things, guaranteed; Plod Horses, Stars, Puzzles and Dogs. Your ‘Plod Horse’ menu items will sell consistently, but aren’t very profitable. Your Star items, will sell – and profitably. Puzzles are items that just don’t seem to sell as often as they should, but when they do you make money. Dogs are just that, poor selling, and not profitable enough to be worth the time or effort. The old bakery café menu was loaded with puzzles and dogs, and a couple of lingering plodders, like the Chicken-Fried Steak, lasagna and burgers. Now, I wanted to see if with better quality we could cultivate some Stars!
The senior afternoon head cook, who had sort been the acting executive for the restaurant, didn’t like my firm (but polite) management style, and I fired him on the second day of training, when he wouldn’t follow my new standardized recipe precisely as it was written. I replaced him in about fifteen minutes; poaching a young lead line-chef from my big city restaurant. I gave him the Sous job here, and before I quit my old job for good, I’d also recruited away their senior prep chef, who was an older gal looking for a change in life also, and a younger line cook I’d liked, who I thought had potential to become an Executive Chef on his own someday. For good measure, on my last day there, I offered a job to the senior dishwasher, who was admittedly an undocumented alien (albeit with authentic looking fake papers), but also had more than enough pride to never allow a pot, pan or sheet tray (let alone cutlery) to pass through his station still greasy or dirty!
That fixed every problem I could find in the back of the house and from what I could tell, the front of house staff was now much happier too. After my unceasing prodding, Adriana had finally bought a brand new complicated commercial coffee system I had recommended, and was teaching herself (and her waitresses) how to wrangle it. So far, it was winning ... but even the early efforts were already much more drinkable than the old coffee had been.
Now it was time to re-open our doors and see if all of the effort and investments had been worth it. Adriana and I clinked coffee mugs together that first Saturday morning at 6 a.m., and our doors opened to a full and very curious new crowd of townsfolk. In any rural Texas town, everybody knows what’s happening and we hardly needed to do any local advertising about our reopening. He just turned over the ‘Open’ sign when I thought we were ready and within hours half of the town had shown up. Right from the start, business began to boom and now when Adriana updated the weekly sales her face began to smile!
If only Adriana would give me that same sort of smile! Unfortunately, I just now realized that she had a local boyfriend, a rancher by the name of Thomas ... and right from the start I liked him even less than I had liked Trevor, back at school.
In fact, I could tell right away that he and I were not going to get along at all!