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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Opening Nightmares

July 25, 2018

On a recent list of the most stressful jobs of 2018, Aimee Picchi of CBS News listed (in order from least to most stressful): senior corporate executive, public relations executive, broadcaster, reporter, event coordinator, police officer, airline pilot, firefighter, and enlisted military personnel.

I have absolutely no qualms about Ms. Picchi’s top four entries of police officer, airline pilot, firefighter, and enlisted military personnel, and would love to take this opportunity to thank all of the men and women currently working and serving in those extremely stressful— and vital— fields of work. Though that is where my well wishes end. Actually, I have no problem with event coordinator being on the list either, as I have done a lot of event coordinating, and many times, caterers deal with people at their most pressured moments (mothers of the bride, hostesses who aren’t used to entertaining, nervous employees organizing events for their bosses, etc).

My problem with that list doesn’t even have anything to do with the inclusion of reporters, broadcasters, PR execs, and corporate execs. Though I wouldn’t even rank any of those careers in the top 25 most stressful occupations. My beef is that Ms. Picchi obviously knows nothing about the restaurant business. Every time someone makes one of these stressful-career lists they overlook restaurateurs. Opening a restaurant is an extremely stressful undertaking.

I have been in this business since 1982. I have been a part of 18 restaurant openings so far in my career (three as an employee, and 15 as an owner). Opening a restaurant, and the subsequent two or three-week period afterward is brutal.

Don’t get me wrong. I love, love, love the restaurant business. I feel blessed to be able to work in a field where my passion lies. I wouldn’t want to do anything else with my life. I also love the creative process of developing and bringing to fruition new restaurant concepts. It’s my favorite part of this business. Inherent in that process is the opening few weeks, or “honeymoon period” as we in the call it in the trade.

There are hundreds of moving parts and hundreds of ways that things can go wrong during the honeymoon period. No matter how talented the cooks are, and how many years they’ve been cooking professionally, it’s still their first time to cook in a specific kitchen with a specific group of cooks, while cooking new, specific menu items.

There are usually a few “dry runs” that are held prior to opening, which gives the staff valuable practice reps. Those dry runs are typically rough. We always allow employees and friends to invite a few people to serve as glorified Guinea pigs and help point out the kinks and inconsistencies in the process before the paying customers arrive a few days later. Of the 18 openings I have experienced, there have been two dry runs that were extremely brutal.

During one restaurant opening over a decade ago, one of the managers dropped the ball and didn’t limit the number of family members each employee could invite. We opened the doors for our practice run and were swamped with almost 200 people. Being young(er) and stupid, I didn’t walk out of the kitchen and take hold of the situation. We got hit harder than we would ever be hit on a busy Saturday night and it was a crap show.

The second worst pre-opening disaster also was also due to the over-inviting of friends and family. It was at our burger concept and we ran extremely long check times for the entire night. It was bad. Though it was exactly what we needed. We learned (fairly early on into that dry run) that the kitchen wasn’t going to be able to receive orders from two cash registers out front. It didn’t just double the amount of load on the cooks, it increased it exponentially.

We have just finished three dry runs for our new breakfast/lunch concept. The first two were extremely smooth with mostly 10-minute check times. Last night we rolled out the complete menu for a test run and kept 10-minute check times for the most part, except for a 40-minute period where we ran 20-minute check times. I don’t know if we’re getting better or this concept lends itself to a smoother opening.

I am typing furiously trying to complete this column before a 7:00 a.m. opening day shift. I am usually sitting at the desk in my office with classical music playing in the background. This morning I am pounding out a column on the counter bar of the café as employees are polishing silverware and cracking jokes. They’ve either already had their coffee or haven’t been to bed from the dinner shift before.

There is something about the opening team of a restaurant. The employees that are with each other at the first are oftentimes still friends decades later. There is a bond that forms when people are in the trenches of a restaurant opening. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of the business. We opened the Purple Parrot in 1987. That crew still stays in touch with each other, and with me. I love that.

All indications are that the opening crew of this latest venture are going to be solid. We are minutes away from opening our doors, and I obviously have time to write a last-minute column, so the signs are good. Though we haven’t served our first paying customer yet. Next week’s column might be Opening Nightmares Part II. Stay tuned.


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