THE TENDER YEARS
Notes from a Virgin Restaurateur with a Recipe for a not-so-virgin Martini
In those first few months of charting unknown territory in my tiny Tenderloin restaurant, every day felt like being high on a never-ending hit of LSD. Sometimes frightening, at times surreal, occasionally enlightening, paranoia-inducing or entertaining, the thrill ride always seemed to end with yet another lesson learned.
Take for instance our first busy day. There we were that opening week of business, me and my crew of three (with a brief appearance by one of many waiter-friends) when our first tidal wave of diners appeared. The excitement of having so many customers at once quickly turned into sheer horror as we all flailed helplessly to keep our heads above water.
Soon after the last customer left, we frantically locked the door and the four of us plopped down for some much-needed fuel and wound-licking. I can still recall, toward the end of that dazed and silent meal, calories crashing through my obliterated body, the absurd realization that we had been eating at a dirty un-bussed table.
Lesson #1. Hire good help. We needed help and fast, because our table that day wasn’t the only one in need of proper attention, the entire dining room was basically trashed. And the kitchen. And the dish pit. And the prep station. And the bathroom. I honestly don’t remember leaving that night.
You would think because I opened the restaurant during a recession it would have been a piece of cake to find good help, but the problem wasn’t the quality or quantity of applicants we received but the actual physical size. In a nutshell, we could not comfortably employ anyone who was over 5’8” tall or who had a waistline any larger than say 40 inches. No, I was not being a size queen by any means, it was just that any potential cook, dishwasher or wait staffer larger than those parameters simply didn’t fit into any of our miniscule workspaces. Unfortunately for us, and the numerous would-be cooks who left with freshly bruised foreheads from our too-low hood, body size requirements are not exactly something you can mention in a Craigslist ad.
Fortunately for us though the crowds did continue to appear and along with all of that wonderful positive attention came some unwanted negative as well.
Lesson #2. How to secure a restraining order in San Francisco. I knew opening in such a rough location was going to come with some tough situations, and I have to say this was the roughest and the toughest.
After a few months of patient crowds gathering outside the restaurant on a regular basis, one of our Tenderloin neighbors decided to capitalize on our captive audience by harassing them for $ while they waited. Now, before I go any further, allow me to make it clear that I do not have a problem with any of my down-on-their-luck neighbors until they start exhibiting such outlandish behaviors such as:
1. Spitting on me.
2. Harassing customers inside and outside of my restaurant.
3. Threatening my staff.
4. Violently kicking and beating our door during service.
5. Touching customers and their meals with fecal-flecked fingers.
Yes, all of these things happened and then some. After months of being harassed by Don* and countless fruitless calls and encounters with the police I was finally able to secure the proper paperwork to process a restraining order. The last two steps of the process were the most nerve-wracking because 1) I had to find the guy and then have someone other than myself serve him papers to appear in court and 2) appear in court to testify against him.
Now let me tell you, finding an extremely drunk and volatile, long-haired and bearded man wearing many layers of tattered and soiled clothing, who has been terrorizing you at your place of business for months, in the Tenderloin, is UN-FUN.
Thankfully I came across him soon after the process began, passed out in front of the KFC on our corner, and was able to get the lovely owner of the Auto Garage next door, to kindly issue the papers to him by slipping them beneath his unconscious body.
I was also unnecessarily stressed out about the court date, because Don didn’t show and the presiding judge that day was such a huge fan that upon recognizing me announced to the entire courtroom that I made the best biscuits in the world! ☺
I’ll never really know if Don ever understood that he was issued a restraining order or if he just moved on. I did see him about a year later on Market Street, clean-shaven, about 50 LBS heavier and sober-seeming. He still triggered feelings of terror and loathing when I recognized him, but then I just thought, “Move on, he has”.
Peace out Don.
Lesson #3. Burglars come in all sizes.
You see that tiny windowpane on the bottom left? Well our local burglar was emaciated enough to squeeze through that tiny 8″x10″ space in order to retrieve loose change left in our register overnight, which leads me to believe that at least in committing his crime, he probably left one of the tiniest “footprints” ever by a thief.
How do I know it was a dude? Because a fellow merchant up the block had caught him on videotape squeezing between burglar bars on his way into his café to help himself to a couple sandwiches and to vandalize the place. Not cool, but further evidence that the guy didn’t have anything against us personally but just really, really, really needed more spare change to supplement his I’m-so-skinny-that-I-can-fit-in-a-crackpipe regimen.
Lesson #4. Don’t take it personally. Imagine giving birth for the first time and then taking your precious new-born baby out into the world only to be met by such comments as “Meh” or “I really, really wanted to like the baby, but …”
There really was no way in the beginning as a virgin restaurateur that I wasn’t going to take every little less-than-glowing online comment about my new baby deeply personally. Yes, it is true that by far most reviews were lovely, lovely, lovely and I do not take any of it for granted at all. But it was the negative ones, especially if they weren’t based in fact, that stung like a Mother and plagued me for days on end.
I remember early on having an extremely heated venting session about “amateur online reviewers – oh my!” with my buddy Kris who at the time had just opened this place along with her business partner. It was about then that I saw myself at a fork in the road where I could either continue down my path of self-induced negative-voices-in-my-head mania or figure out a way to thicken my skin as quickly as possible and just let it go.
I obviously chose the latter and was able to accomplish this particular task by simply not visiting certain websites ever and constantly reminding myself that I cannot possibly please everyone all of the time.
In the end, the bottom line about all of the attention the restaurant was getting (good or bad) was that, I had a success on my hands.
A fact that still brings tears of disbelief to my eyes as I write these words today.
So, as the first year and a half at the restaurant came and went, and with it constant lessons learned, I still had one more major one to learn.
Probably by far the biggest issue regular and would-be customers would gripe about was the interminably long wait to get into our twenty-eight seat restaurant. It had even gotten to the point where we had advised all friends and family not to stop by on the weekends. For an innately service-oriented person (aka “people pleaser”) like myself, not being able to accommodate so many people led to exasperating feelings of hopelessness.
What was a girl to do?
Well, the answer arrived one afternoon in the form of this character.
“Hey Brenda guess what?” Our commercial realtor asked as he folded his very long frame into my kitchen and sidled up to me. I could tell by his maniacal grin that it was exciting news, but for whom?
“Hey Keith. Ummm, what’s up?”
“I just spoke with Jack next door and he’s ready to sell the Laundromat!”
“Lordy here we go again.” Clearly I was gonna need a cocktail.
Stay tuned for the last installment of the
HISTORY OF BRENDA’S – THE FINAL FRONTIER
Libby’s Martini Healers for Two
You will need:
2 Standard Martini Glasses
¼ TSP Extra Dry Vermouth
7 OZ Vodka (We used Grey Goose this round)
1 TSP Olive Juice
Olives (If you like)
Cocktail Onions (I like)
Fill glasses with ice to chill. Fill shaker with ice and add ¼ teaspoon extra dry vermouth, 7 ounces vodka, 1 teaspoon olive juice. Shake thoroughly for about 20 seconds. Pour out ice from glasses and pour martinis through strainer into glasses. Skewer olives and/or onions onto toothpicks and drop into glasses.
* Yes this is his real name