I’m happy to report that I have no wildly compelling tragedy to share with you today. The last few years have been filled with easy, great writing material: viruses, pandemics, adversity, government closures, charity, love, community. As hard as it made my job of navigating it all, it made my job (and enjoyment) of sharing Tavern’s story pretty easy. With those years (hopefully) behind us, here’s what’s really going on now…
There is something I love and hate about my job. It’s the thing that keeps you and I close, that keeps me writing and you reading: If you think about it, restaurants are the only business on the planet where (literally) every single customer thinks “I could do that.” Maybe you could, and my point isn’t to tell you that you’re wrong. My point is that because you can imagine doing this, we have something to talk about. And that’s fun.
So, let me catch you up:
Imagine that you just built and opened a restaurant. You’ve always wanted to. You’re three months in and you just spent the morning counting the receipts from three record-setting days in a row. You think, “We’ve done it! My investment is safe! Maybe I can get a new car someday.” Two hours later, lunch is a ghost town. Happy hour proves anemic. Dinner, too, fails to meet breakeven. Your heart plummets into your stomach when you pop out of your tiny office to count fewer customers than are people you’re paying cook, serve, and clean for them. It’s the same the next day and repeated the next. You sit in your money-counting chair realizing there’s no money to count. You think, “We’re going to lose our life’s savings.” You walk out onto the restaurant floor and pretend everything is OK in front of the staff and the few customers you have. Then, on the seventh day, you’re packed again. And again on the eighth. What most of you who could do my job can’t imagine are the emotional, elated highs followed by wake-up-and-wanna-puke lows that don’t last just days but often weeks or months at a time.
Next, imagine that you are in your 27th year of doing this. Between years 1 and 25 you got pretty good at predicting which customers would be coming in on sunny days, rainy days, Monday Nights for dinner, Friday days for lunch, Saturdays and Sundays for Brunch. That predictability did wonders for your confidence levels let alone your digestive track because predictability is the single greatest contributor to a restaurant’s success (for example, “overstaffed” costs a fortune today and “understaffed” costs a fortune tomorrow). You came to be really proud of yourself about predicting “normal.” Normal started to allow for days off. Normal allowed for vacations. Normal allowed for a good night’s sleep no matter how bad the day was.
Then comes Covid. And with it came the moniker to every career restaurateur’s nightmare: “The NEW Normal.”
So, before you think this whole thing is leading to a “poor me” piece, it isn’t. Like every restaurant still standing in Portland’s southern suburbs, Tavern is doing better in 2022 than it was doing pre-covid. Don’t worry about any restaurant south of Barbur Blvd, including Tavern. Period.
So let’s talk about poor me.
Unlike you, I can’t do your job and I can prove it: I grew up with ADHD, with no respect for authority, was told by my high school English teacher two days before graduation that the teachers sitting around the teacher’s lounge had unanimously elected me “Underachiever of the Year.” I got my first restaurant job at 18 as a busser at what turned out to be a mafia-owned steak-and-whore-house in San Diego (really) where I spilled a glass of water on (then) famous actor Robert Conrad my first night on the job. Six months later, I got fired (I swear this is true) from two jobs I truly loved on the same day – unbeknownst to the other owner- due to (exact words) “your attitude problem.” After losing my tennis scholarship at the University of Portland for what I’ll call “irreconcilable differences” with the coach, I paid for my accounting degree (don’t tell anyone) by tending bar at Portland’s legendary Key Largo nightclub. I graduated, tried my hand at a big-boy job, hated it, and promptly fled to the Caribbean island of Antigua and worked as a tennis pro and assistant manager at a world-famous resort where the manager (who coincidentally fled Lake Oswego a decade earlier) saved me by patiently turning “self-centered” into more of a “self-aware” sort of thing.
Long story short, I knew that I would be unemployable (aka, self-employed) since I was about 14 years old. I knew from about age 27 when I recognized that I wanted to be more like the poor Caribbean hotel staff than the rich hotel guests that I would be happiest in restaurants my whole life and, like you, thought “even I can do that.” I wasn’t clairvoyant about my self-imposed life sentence of dealing with the “we’re going to be rich”/ ”we’re going to be homeless” manic-depressive teeter totter described above, however. Which gets me off of “poor me” and back to “The New Normal.”
When you look around my restaurant one thing is very clear: my staff is everything. Literally everything. You’ve never seen a manager on the floor because I firmly believe that if you can find/teach people to love what they do, they want nothing and nobody standing between themselves and their potential success. And that is the job description of “General Manager:” the necessary evil between uncommitted servers and a restaurant’s success. Every one of my servers, when a guest says, “I’d like to speak to the manager,” has two Kent-sanctioned responses available to them: a) “You’re looking at her” and b) walking over to another server and saying, “Do you have time to go play manager at table 12?” Being around people who love what they do and love where they do it – in any field/cause/community is maybe the best time we can spend on Earth. But they really have to love it, they have to stay in love with it, and that’s hard.
“We’re out of excuses” was the last email I sent to you. I was (we were) so prepared for this summer that it laid some evidence that I am growing up. Unfortunately, being prepared meant having an army of well-trained and “true believer” staff ready to spread out over the patio by late May of 2022 (about the time the sun came out last year). But the sun didn’t come out… and my army of servers were standing around. June 1st came and went, rainy and in the high 50°s, and servers were standing around. June 20th came and went in the low 60°s, and servers were standing around. All that standing around was depleting the love required to run a place like mine the way I want to run it because top-notch servers can’t afford to stand around. July 4th passed and we were looking ahead to another week of cold and drizzle. I knew morale was as low as it could be despite my whole team doing their best to hide things from me. I started hearing second-hand talk of “So-and-so is going to start to look for a second job.”
This is the “wake-up-and-puke” part, where even after 25 years you start to second-guess EVERYTHING because we are in a new normal. A new wave, new season, new competition, new habits, new homes for a lot of guests, new savings, new debts, new inflation… and only God knows what your guests are going to do about all this stuff. Maybe they just aren’t coming this year???
On July 12th, I sent the following letter to the leaders who had been with me the longest, the ones I love the most, the ones who I know love me, the ones who every day trudged along with the yoke of their fellow server’s sinking morale around their necks:
Based upon my experience, this week will largely determine how the coming summer is going to shape up. The first weekend of weather change (first rains or first sun) is never indicative of coming seasonal traffic. So far this year we have had 3-4 “first weekends” of good weather, but mother nature has hit the “reset” button over and over. …(after last beautiful but slow weekend)… this week is our first solid week of good weather, and this weekend is the all-important seasonal barometer: The second weekend of weather change. This is the moment we have all been waiting for, the moment we thought we would be at on June 1. This is the moment when we need to remain cautious about over-staffing and the negative impact on staff morale, but we also need to be prepared for a dramatic increase in patio traffic as we get toward the end of the week.
Every day that week saw improvement and as for the “end of the week,” Friday was Tavern’s record-setting busiest day ever. Things have been good since (although last week’s heat didn’t help). We could still fill a few seats during happy hour and I still have a jazz-club-ish fantasy that people who chose to eat at home or somewhere else would come by for dessert and a whisky or glass of wine and listen to the second set of live music that starts around 8pm as our early-dinner crowd starts to thin out. But my “check in” with you is to say this: Tavern is fine because my staff is back in love with what they do and where they do it. I’m not sure how much longer into July we would have made it without a mutiny, but I have an A-player-only service team now having a ball. And it shows.
Thank you James, Emily, Annie and Kylie for your faith in me and keeping your teammates as “up” as possible during an impossibly long spring. Thank you to you, my guests, for continuing to root for Tavern as you do and reading these impossibly long emails.