From 1975 to 1979 I was a business administration major at California State University at Fullerton. One of the popular—then new—techniques in studying business management issues was the case study.
Case studies then were real-life horror studies about business where everything went wrong while no one noticed. I will start this two-part blog with a case study. In this case, the study is quite personal.
I had spent a number of years as a caterer in the San Francisco Bay Area. I rode the dot-com boom big time, but as it was ending and my catering business looked like it was petering out as well, I was asked to take over the position of chef at a local restaurant.
I was concerned because even I knew that being a catering chef was very different from being a restaurant chef. Two of my biggest concerns were ordering and inventory maintenance. As a caterer you order what you need for upcoming events, and inventory should just be a basic pantry of nonperishable items. Ideally the inventory should be kept to a minimum. Of course I knew as a restaurant chef I would have to have a basic inventory level and I would have to order to maintain that level. I was worried about aligning weekly ordering with daily cooking. I had never heard the word “par.”
I visited a friend, Mark, who used to be the g.m. of this restaurant. “Relax,” he said over a glass of wine. “Randy is the sous chef. He’s great. You let him handle all of that. You focus on creating new menu ideas. He’s a great sous chef but has no creative side.” I paid for the wine and went home feeling much better. I accepted the position and started the following week.
Now, before I continue, there is something else I need to tell you. The restaurant was losing thousands of dollars a month. Even though it was quite popular, it could never turn a profit. My job description plainly stated that I was going to be terminated in six months when the lease ran out. The owner had it, and was going to cut its loses as soon as practical.
I started toward the end of the month, and a couple of days later I walked up to Randy and asked when he was going to take inventory. “Tomorrow before we open.” I told him that I would love to watch to learn how to do this and he replied, “Well, it is done awfully early. Why don’t you just let me do it?” I told him I could handle it, and he told me to meet him the next day at four in the morning. We started our prepping at 8:30 for opening at 11:30, so to me this seemed awfully early. Of course, in retrospect he told me that extremely early hour so I wouldn’t show up. However, that wasn’t obvious until much later.
So, I showed up the next morning at four, bleary eyed, cursing my decision to leave the catering world. He didn’t show up until past nine. “Were in the heck were you?” I must admit I was screaming at him. “I stayed late last night to do it after work and forget to call you.”
A few days after that I switched my suppliers. I had worked with sales reps from a meat/seafood supplier, a general merchandise supplier, and a produce supplier for years. I knew from the trade publications that it was often a good idea for chefs to change suppliers to ones who were loyal to them when they took over a new assignment. Randy went ballistic. He told me that he couldn’t possibly work with these people since he was not used to the product. More importantly he couldn’t possibly be expected to work with sales reps other than the reps he had been working with for years. He threw things around the kitchen, slammed pans into the dish pit, and acted like a two-year-old having a tantrum. That was it; I now had my eyes focused on him.
Handling a bad situation
About a week later I was in my office and my meat supplier called me. “Adam, what in the hell are you doing with seven cases of ball tips?” I went downstairs to ask Randy this and found him supervising my two externs from the local culinary academy loading cases of, you guessed it, ball tips into the back of a passenger minivan. When I went up to Randy and asked him what was going on, the driver pulled out of the alleyway behind the restaurant like something straight out of a movie. The open doors were waving back and forth and one even struck the side of the restaurant. He didn’t even shut the driver’s door, which slammed against his left leg while he was trying to drive away. One of the interns was still holding a heavy case of ball tips as the van screeched around the corner.
As you know from my last blog, I am against cursing in the kitchen. I failed to follow my own mandate and screamed at Randy demanding to know what was going on. “The supplier sent the wrong things, when I called to tell them they said they would have the right restaurant pick it up. The guy sped off so fast because you scared him.” I asked Randy where the credit memo was for the return and he glared at me. “They told me they would mail it to you.” I asked Randy to follow me. I walked to the phone, called the supplier, and repeated Randy’s side of the story. “Adam, you know we don’t work like that,” was all I needed to hear.
I turned to Randy and told him he had two choices: quit right then, or I would call the police. He told me to call, since “the owner won’t want the publicity.” I dialed 911 on the phone and started to explain. Again, straight out of the movies, Randy grabbed the phone from my hand, slammed it on the receiver, and ran out the back door. No one I knew ever saw him again.
Of course, now I had a major problem on my hands. In less than two weeks on the job I was without a sous chef. Remember, I was told to completely rely on him. I had no idea how to order, how to do inventory, etc. I immediately started to spend a considerable amount of time reading the trade journals and talking with hotel chefs and restaurant chefs and I came up with some great policies and procedures. The result of these policies and procedures was that basically overnight the restaurant became profitable. So profitable that the lease was extended another five years, and I stayed there all of that time. (The owners never did update my job description, by the way.)
In my next blog I will tell you how I used this bad situation—my own personal case study—to learn how ordering should (and more importantly) should not be done in a commercial establishment. The tips I will give you will still lead to a better-managed kitchen. Better management means more profit.