Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lessons and Mistakes

Many people have asked me "what happened to The Yellow Rose?" Actually it's a question that comes up constantly in conversation. I try and give a brief dispassionate response but it's difficult. Many issues are involved, some pertaining to the restaurant business in general and many relating to this city specifically. Now that we are officially done I'd like to express some observations.

When the opportunity to purchase The Yellow Rose was presented it seemed like a no brain-er. It was a beautiful fully equipped restaurant with event facilities in the heart of downtown. Other than the country clubs they were also our biggest competitor and if we didn't buy it who would? I was all gung ho but my wife who is cautious and much wiser than I hesitated. Never the less we proceeded forward. After months of negotiations the deal was done and we opened on September 19th 2004. Along the way we learned alot about this town and ourselves. Me in particular.

Observations and lessons learned:

We attempted to attract the conservative old school customers that were frequenting long established "supper club" type restaurants:
*It didn't happen. Folks in this town tend to patronize the same place over and over. They go to "their bar", or "their restaurant" or "their fish fry". These same people don't seem so concerned with quality or service. I chalk it up to not knowing any better or simply not caring.

*We priced the menu less than our other restaurant and kept the quality high. As a result our bottom line wasn't as strong and profits relied more on volume. In hind sight I should have cut quality and prices. Customers here tend to dine by price not menu. When customer counts started dropping trouble started.

As previously mentioned we went for the "classic American" menu relying heavily on center of the plate and classic preparations. The "new" customers didn't notice the difference in quality but did notice the small increase in the dollars they were spending. A classic example is the annoymous writer reponding to a story in the local paper about The Rose, "They charged for refills on soda!!!!" He was incredulous. Here you are in a beautiful linen draped restaurant that just screams class and he's bitching about free refills. Sheeesh.

A lack of qualified employees remains a problem. We just couldn't staff it with enough reliable, skilled and trustworthy employees.

The Downtown factor:
Getting the locals downtown is and will be a problem for years to come. Lack of acceptable parking and a crime stigma exists among the locals. The biggest fans of downtown are the out of towners. A few crazies walking around doesn't help either. There is alot of low income housing in or near downtown.

Increased competition:
Several new restaurants opened downtown and enjoyed their "honeymoon" period resulting in fewer sales at The Rose. Pricing was also an issue. We had a beautiful restaurant with large overhead, full linen, nice plates, heavy flatware, etc. People didn't seem to care. They'd rather save a dollar and eat with paper napkins and boring surroundings.

Four years ago we were all much better off than today. Enough said.

It's a ghost town downtown in the winter. This year was an especially harsh winter.

Tourists and Boaters:
Dwindling numbers

The biggest hitter in town seemed to forget about us after it changed hands. The former owners ARE the biggest hitters in town. Other companies are cutting back. (see economy)

Due to dwindling numbers we couldn't afford solid management. Realizing where our bread was buttered we had to tend to the restaurant that was making money.

Menu Change:
We changed the concept to a more casual "Southwest American" menu and decreased prices. It helped but all the other factors were just too much. Plus some people didn't understand what "Southwest" was.

The City
City government is clueless. They are only concerned about the short term buck. They also make it very difficult to do business.

In the end all of the factors above contributed to us splitting our customers between the two restaurants. It was what we feared from the beginning.

At the time we made the decision to purchase The Yellow Rose we weren't familiar enough with the dynamics involved. We are a little cloistered in Caledonia and a little spoiled with the apparent ease of doing business there.

What would I have done differently? Not done it at all.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sad Day

It's sad because it was a beautiful restaurant that on it's worst day was still the best restaurant in the "City" of Racine.

Mistakes made. Lessons learned.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Thought of the Moment.

I just stumbled across Bourdain's show. I used to get a kick out him. I think he's become a parody of himself. If he wasn't getting paid I think he'd be ashamed of himself. As far as the gig goes I'd take it but then I'd have to make snarky comments about myself.


I have many new readers so I thought I'd bump this old post. It is the only reflection of my firefighting days on this blog. I have a few that I've composed but I'm reluctant to post. Most are very dark memories that I write more as therapy than wnything else. I've been tempted to post them but I think this blog is no longer the proper venue.

Monday, November 19, 2007
Carbon Moment?
This may seem random but it tells something about me.

I had a strange dream last night. I was in a poetry class and the professor calls on me and asks me a very long winded question. It was so long and verbose that he lost my attention until the very end. All I heard was "describe the carbon moment in your life". Huh? Not knowing what the hell he was talking about I took a stab at it. I figured he was asking about a "defining moment" in my life. I asked if he wanted the short or long version of my answer and he replied, "the short if it's good enough". "If not I'll ask you to expound on the subject".

Ok. "death". He asked me to clarify.

That's when I woke up. It got me to thinking. Did I have a defining moment in my life? Something that has shaped me? Some specific event or time that had a profound affect on me and my life? Something that really "defines" or describes me and how I approach life in general? Yes. There is, or was, or still is. However you look at it. It's something I've been aware of for a long time but I never traced it to a specific moment until I thought about it while I lay there in bed trying to get back to sleep. It was the first time I made the conscious choice to lay my life on the line. It was 18 years ago. On the southeast side of Milwaukee. I had one year on the job as a Milwaukee firefighter. We responded to a house fire in the middle of the day. It was a relatively large two story structure located on a corner. At one time it was either a small grocery store or a tavern with a small hall attached. You see these types of structures all over in the old areas of town. Back in the day the neighborhoods were dotted with corner bars and grocery stores with living quarters above. Now-a-days they are converted to duplexes. One apartment up and one down. It was the lower unit that was on fire. We were the third engine in. Disappointing because the third engine was a "bridesmaid". You usually didn't get to put the wet stuff on the red stuff. You might help lay some lines help ventilate or protect an exposure. We got there shortly after the first two engines. The lower unit was heavily involved in fire. Thick black smoke belched out of most of the windows. The ones that didn't cough smoke were spewing flames. It was a "good" fire. We assisted the first and second engine companies lay lines. (hoses) Things move fast when you get on a fire scene. It's controlled chaos but the boys on the MFD are very good at what they do, they make it look almost like poetry.

I was working on a different shift that day. I was also working with an "acting" boss. Not a promoted person but a firefighter acting as boss. The senior member of the crew would fill in if the real boss (officer) needed to get away for training or personal time. The acting boss was Paul. The "cub" or rookie of the crew would be glued to the boss's hip. The cub was me. I had about a year on the job. I had been to fires before and had proved myself to be capable. Still very inexperienced as far as firefighters go. There is a saying on the job that until you got five years on, you're a liability. I really didn't know shit.

As we proceeded to lay the other engines lines a report came in about children trapped in the apartment on the second floor of the burning building. I have a hard time describing how a firefighter feels when he hears that. You can only imagine. This is why we fight fires. This is why we do all the mundane and dirty jobs while working our 24 hour shift. This is it. This is what it is all about my friends, this is life.

Being the third engine "in" we weren't engrossed in a specific task Paul immediately turned to me and said "let's go kid" (I was 30 years old) We got half-way up the back stairs and donned our "masks" (breathing apparatus) and proceeded to enter the upstairs apartment. There are schools of thought on many fire departments that you never do a search above the fire without a line. (hose charged with water) It not only can put out fire if need be it is also your life line to safety. More than one firefighter has lost his life getting lost in a two bedroom apartment. This one was a large three bedroom above a raging fire. It also had an odd floor plan. It wasn't your typical German duplex, Milwaukee bungalow or Polish flat. We knew how those were laid out. Generally speaking if you've seen one you've seen them all. Without hesitation Paul crawled into the apartment. You are also trained "two in, two out". I was glued to his hip and had to go. It was absolutely pitch black. I mean black! You could not see your hand two inches in front of your face. I might as well had my eyes closed. It was also extremely hot. We began our search in a clockwise pattern around the apartment. Keeping literally in touch with one another with our axes stretched out in our hands trying to cover as much space as possible. Under beds, on beds, in closets. (kids tend to hide in fires) I wasn't sure if I wanted to find them or not. I was also scared shitless. The further we got from those stairs the more nervous I became. Our breathing apparatus contained 30 minutes of air in optimal conditions. In a fire where you are exerting yourself and also scared shitless you're lucky to get 15. We had 15 minutes to find these kids and find our way out. I kept running into things, kitchen table, couch etc. You don't stand up in a fire, you crawl. You'll never find a real fireman standing or walking in a decent fire. Meanwhile we could hear the chatter on the radio. Listening for reports of the kids. Maybe they got out? Maybe they were really at school? We could also hear the other companies making progress on the fire. All the windows on our floor were being smashed around us. The ladder companies were doing a good job of ventilating and the heat and smoke were lessening. My warning bell starting going off. Your SCBA (breathing apparatus) would sound a warning bell when you had five minutes of air left. (more like two in real life)I was really shitting bricks at this point. Paul yelled to me not to worry and keep searching. (gulp!)By the time my air finally ran out completely you could actually see where you were and kind of breath the air. The boys downstairs had put the fire out. Paul knew the crews at that fire and had the confidence that they would have it under control enough for us to continue with or without air. We were joined by other crews and really tore up that apartment looking for those kids. None found. False report.

When we got outside Paul told me I had done a good job and went about the business of picking up hose and cleaning up. He acted as if we just went for a walk in the park. I just spent 20 minutes of the most exhilarating, horrific, unreal experience of my life and he shrugs it off like another day at the office! That's when it hit me. It was just another day at the office.

The point I'm trying to make is until you've put your toe over that line you don't know what's going to happen. Will you cut it or not? Betting your life on your co-workers skills, your training, your confidence that someone isn't going to fuck up and get you killed. Until you've gone there you're not a member of the club. I imagine soldiers and cops feel the same way. Which reminds me. Before Paul was a fireman he was a cop. He also had the rare label of killing a man in a gun battle while on the job. Before that he was a Marine who served in Vietnam. I guess for him that search and rescue was just another day at the office. As someone once said, "in life there are players and there are spectators." I knew from that day on I wanted to be dealt in.

It wasn't too many years later that I had a cub on my hip. We also would take walks in the park.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Top Earning "Chefs"

I found this interesting.

How much does your favorite celebrity chef earn in a year? According to the latest Forbes list of top-earning celebrity chefs, Rachael Ray leads the pack.

Is there anybody else you think should have made the list? Where is Emeril?

1. Rachel Ray- $18 million
2. Wolfgang Puck - $16 million
3. Gordon Ramsay- $7.5 million
4. Nobuyuki Matsuhisa - $5 million
5. Alain Ducasse - $5 million
6. Paula Deen - $4.5 million
7. Mario Batali - $3 million
8. Tom Colicchio - $2 million
9. Bobby Flay - $1.5 million
10. Anthony Bourdain - $1.5 million

I'm not surprised. The older I get the more I realize it's all about marketing the package. Yes there are some very talented Chefs on the list but there are a couple clinkers as well. (Paula Dean was especially surprising)

Even the real Chefs on the list know it's about marketing and oppurtunity.

Another Chef's Blog

As you know I've been searching for chef's blogs on the web. A good place to find them is on other chef's blogs. I found one on Michael Walsh's blog, View from the Kitchen. I just added the link to "Cuisinier's Kitchen" on my link list. I just started reading it so I'm short on info but the Chef appears to be a talented guy cooking in Seattle. Definitely an upscale restaurant serving the latest "haute" cuisine. It's looks like a big place, possibly a hotel. Seattle is a foodie town with plenty of fine diners with deep pockets. A great place for a chef to be working. Chef's often lament (myself included) about how far you can go with a menu in a food challenged city, Seattle is not one of them.

I also added a link to "Eat Wisconsin". A local guy who enjoys food and posts regularly. Mark Czerniec's blog is another local foodie whose link is on my list. In addition to Chef's blogs I also include local writers who aren't in the industry. I think it's important to network locally to promote the area's dining scene and each others blogs.

Speaking of blogs, one thing I've noticed while searching is that one thing many of these blogs have in common is a link to Michael Ruhlman's blog. If you've never heard of him he's an author who writes extensively about food and has appeared on Tony Bourdain's show as well as a judge on Top Chef. I never heard of him until an author acquaintance of mine mentioned he got a boost in sales when Ruhlman reviewed his book. I guess that's why so many foodies and Chef's include his link. The hopes of exposure. Everyone wants to be read right? When I came across his blog I added his link and shot him an e-mail about mine. He responded he'd "take a look" but he must not have found much to like. No further communication or link. I understand he probably has people falling all over themselves trying to get his attention. You can't list every one's blog. So unlike my fellow bloggers I removed his link. The least he can do is remove the ones from his blog that haven't posted in months. Besides he's not a foodservice pro and he aint local. Sour grapes? Maybe but I like people who get their hands dirty.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ah(I) Tuna!

Another product I scrutinize is tuna. Not only the tuna I serve but the tuna everyone else serves. I enjoy good tuna and my customers have grown accustomed to quality fresh tuna. Too often when visiting other restaurants I am served a frozen tuna product that has been altered to enhance the color of the flesh. To the best of my knowledge it's a cold smoke process that permanently turns the meat a bright pinkish red color. No matter how old that tuna gets it's still the same fluorescent pinkish color. You may have seen it at your grocery store in the frozen fish section. The tuna is usually triangle shaped and often packed two to a pack. Many restaurants serve it because tuna is a tricky animal. It spoils quickly and the flesh of fresh tuna begins to turn gray when exposed to air. So it's difficult to slip it by the customer. How do you know it's safe to order tuna in a restaurant? Two big factors, the restaurant's reputation and price. Good tuna is not cheap, bad tuna is.

There are different types of tuna varying in quality. The most precious is "Bluefin". Used extensively in sushi and sashimi. It's VERY expensive and is becoming scarce. Next down the tuna chain is "Big Eye". Very nice tuna and a good alternative to Bluefin. Then comes "Yellowfin", this tuna is probably the most abundant among restaurants that serve fresh tuna. It's not as expensive and is still a nice product. It's also broken down into grades of quality. Number one being the best, then two++, two+ and two. It's further broken down by size. The smaller the fish the less expensive. Bigger fish have a higher fat contact. In tuna and many other fish fat is a good thing. The bad thing is the fatter the fish the higher the mercury content. It is most prevalent in Bluefin. They are larger, dive deeper, and have the highest fat content. There was a recent study done in New York city studying Mercury levels in tuna and the amounts were alarming. The highest levels were found in Bluefin. I'm not suggesting you refrain from tuna, you would have to eat tuna often to worry about it.

Other types of tuna are Albacore and Skipjack. I'm seeing Albacore sold fresh and is also used in canning. Skipjack, also known as Bonito is canned and dried.

A couple of terms that are associated with tuna are "Ahi" the name for Yellowfin tuna, "Maguro", the Japanese term for Bluefin tuna and "toro", the fat under belly of Bluefin (Abolutely delicious).

Because of the severe shortage (and the price)of Bluefin I serve Big Eye and #1 Yellowfin. Still great products if you can move enough to keep it fresh. Hence the reason why so many restaurants serve the frozen variety.

I've included a link below about sushi tuna. I encourage you to try it. I like it seared rare with a little soy glaze, pickled ginger and wasabi. Rare seared tuna is also known as "tataki". I also feel it should be eaten with chopsticks. I hate it when I'm served thinly sliced rare tuna with a fork. When we go out I'm going to have to start bringing my own chopsticks with me.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Go Time

Just took a break at Death's Door before heading into the home stretch of the dreaded yet much anticipated month of August.

I'll be posting soon. A little about the restaurant scene in vacation spots and the untidy business of cleaning up the results of a bad decision.