Sunday, April 14, 2013

Restaurant Failure and Success

"Good food, like a good marriage, is in the mind of the participant.  Even the best critic’s opinion is subjective. The public is never wrong."
Valerie Hart

            The only pastime more enjoyable than eating is talking about it. When you have mistakenly invited people to your table who do not share common interests and the silence is deafening, it is time to open conversation about an experience you had at a restaurant or ask if anyone has tried the newest just reviewed and then sit back and enjoy the group come alive.
            During the years I was editor for the Zagat Restaurant Survey, all that was needed was one sentence in the newspaper: “Would you like to be a restaurant critic? Send a self-addressed stamped envelope to receive a questionnaire”. Ten thousand envelopes were delivered to my address the next week.
            The restaurant business is the best and worst enterprise one can enter into. Independently owned restaurants in Lake County have become akin to the game of Musical Chairs played at a child’s birthday party. New owners and chefs come and go like summer mosquitoes. The new owner generally changes the name, which is a good thing unless the restaurant is a landmark that has an image and following. Problems occur when new owner neglects to change the concept or menu and the cuisine that failed the old eatery doesn’t change. The kiss of death is a sign that reads, “Under new management”. Few people are fooled by this attempt to draw customers.
            Then there are the “landmarks” - restaurants that just keep rolling along, not by reputation alone, but with good food properly prepared and friendly service.
Former Hall of Fame NY Yankees baseball star, Yogi Berra, was known for his quips. One of the most notable was his response when asked about the popular restaurant, Ruggeri’s, in St. Louis: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded”.  
We automatically suppose that a crowded restaurant has good food and good service. The more crowded it is, the more popular it becomes. When the parking area of a breakfast place is consistently packed with trucks and pick-ups, we know the food is abundant as well as good. A hungry truck driver is not going to eat a frilly, flimsy breakfast. Bring on the grits and hash browns and sausage gravy! It’s included in the price.
 Everyone loves a “grand opening”. We like to “see and be seen” at the “new kid on the block”. Everything seems bound for success. One month later, you drive by the parking lot to see only a handful of cars. You go inside anyway and find that the lovely selection from your last visit is overcooked with a different sauce and flavor, and the house wine has changed from pleasant to unpalatable. You know immediately that the featured chef is gone and the beverage company has cut their credit. Oops! And, then, the Dominos begin to topple. The worse it gets, the worse it gets, until you see the windows darkened and the sign, “For Lease”. One of the worst mistakes of a novice restaurateur is falling into the hands of a savvy PR firm that convinces him to ‘blow the budget’ on first night ‘very important people’ and press. He gains nothing but a very expensive lesson.
 A good review of an older establishment also brings immediate response from the public, as does my TV show, Back of the House. We go with the flow of those in the know.
So, why do restaurants that seem so promising fail?
There are several reasons why independently owned (Mama-Papa) restaurants fail. Let’s begin with number one: Consistency. Recipes must be standardized. The housewife chef who gained applause for the cuisine she served her guests will generally fail when people receive a bill for an entrée listed under the same heading with a different preparation and proportion from the one served to the diner the previous visit.
Location, Location, Location! Restaurants seem to flourish best in clusters within walking distance to the main streets or in shopping centers. There are, of course, many destination places, but the restaurant has to be worthy of the drive.
  Tantamount to failure is the independent owner who cannot cook and must rely on his chef. When the chef, servers, and dishwashers fail to show, the owner must be able to do it all or close his doors. An astute restaurateur never features his chef, unless it happens to be Emeril or Bobby Flay because, when the chef leaves, the restaurant diminishes in stature.
Number three, in equal stature is the wait staff. A surly or non-attentive server ruins any dining experience, no matter how good the food. The only exception was the original Palm Restaurant, a pricey steak house in New York City where the waiters were ruder than the customers. Lofty New Yorkers embraced their nemesis with good humor, making it their favorite restaurant for the show that went along with their over-sized prime steaks.
The restaurant owner must be fully cognizant of food and beverage costs and profit margin to stay ahead of his creditors. The good restaurateur, like any other astute person with a business, understands the basics of stock market trading, “Bears and Bulls make money; Pigs do not”. A restaurant will make money with a food mark-up of around 35 percent.  This might seem initially high to the consumer until one remembers that food is only a part of the expense. Rent and taxes, preparation, servers, dishwashers, water and electric, sanitizing the kitchen and bathrooms, and a score of unforeseen expenses all must be covered with profit in mind. Wine is the one price point known to the consumer. When a recognizable chardonnay or merlot can be purchased for $9.00 a bottle at a retail store and the price in the restaurant is $45.00, there is an instant reaction of distrust for everything else on the menu. A good restaurateur may safely double or triple the cost, but must be aware that his customers are better informed than he might suppose.
Another fact I learned as editor for the Zagat Florida Surveys: For every good experience a diner has in a restaurant, the establishment gains three customers. However, for every bad experience, the restaurant loses ten customers. The experience is not only contingent upon the factors listed above but the mood of the customer himself. A young couple in love will rate any restaurant much higher than a married couple in the throes of a battle.
Brillat-Savarin, the 15th century French gourmet, wrote, “Success as a restaurateur comes to those who possess sincerity, order, and skill”. Perhaps Endurance and Endless Dedication should be added to a business that is only as good as its last meal.

Tune in Comcast channel 22 & BrightHouse 199 to watch host, Valerie Hart, interview chefs in their kitchens "The Back of the House", or watch it live on your computer at Follow her food page on Wednesdays in The Daily Commercial.

Corn and Beef Barbecue for Mothers' Day

            Okay, Mom! Get out of the kitchen! It’s time for that sports fanatic couch potato to get up from the dent he’s made in his chair and wait on you. Let him drink his beer while he’s cooking on the barbecue. You can do the shopping in advance. You may also prep the food. This is where it ends. Let him do the rest with help from the ‘kids’. This includes the married ones who regress to childhood when they return home, expecting Mom to do all the work. Let him bring dinner (and a glass of wine) to you while you wait to be served. And let the ‘kids’ toss the salad and do the dishes. As much as you might think otherwise, they are perfectly capable. If they spill, they spill. If the floor is dirty, leave it! And, if everything winds up in the wrong place, don’t say a word. This is your day. Enjoy!
 Beef Ribs go directly on the grill after they have been marinated. The recipe can be exchanged for Short Ribs. However, for fall-off the bone scrumptious texture associated with short ribs, cover them before marinating with water in a large pot. Add garlic or garlic powder, onions or onion powder, and a good amount of pepper. Bring to a boil. Cover. Reduce heat to medium. Boil gently for 30-40 minutes or until a knife can be easily inserted, telling you they are tender. Remove and cool.  Follow the instructions to marinate and grill. They can be marinated several hours or overnight. Note the absence of salt in the marinades. Salt toughens meat. Sprinkle lightly just before grilling.
            Florida corn is in season. The newest fad is to cook corn in the microwave, with or without husks and silk intact. They will cook in their own natural moisture.
Place on dampened paper towel. Turn ears over and rearrange after 1/2 cooking time.
Cooking Timetable:
1 ear - 1 ½ minutes, 2 ears - 3 to 4 minutes, 3 ears - 5 to 6 minutes, 4 ears - 7 to 8 minutes
6 ears - 8 to 9 minutes.
When ears are hot to the touch, remove and wrap in kitchen towel or foil.
Let stand at least 5 minutes. Remove husks and silk (which is easier than when cold) and serve with melted butter.
The downside of microwaving corn is that it is time-consuming and, when you need to cook more than three ears, the corn might not cook evenly. It works best for corn you freeze for a later date because it will remain firm with its juices and sugar at peak quality.
This Foodie cooks fresh corn in a basket in a large pot with enough water at the bottom to create steam. Do not overcook. Fresh corn is also fabulous grilled. Check below for the recipe to grill our native delicacy.
Mom can make marinade in advance
Yield: 3 cups

1 cup ketchup
½ cup water
¼ cup molasses
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon (Grey Poupon®) mustard
Optional: ½ teaspoon hot pepper sauce (Tabasco®)
2 cloves crushed fresh garlic or 1 teaspoon granulated or powdered
½ teaspoon black pepper

1.                  Combine ingredients in a blender and purée. Rub into ribs.  Let stand 1 hour at room temperature.
2.                  Remove from marinade and pat dry. Place over coals or gas barbecue – gas medium heat – or gray charcoals - and cook approximately 30 minutes, turning and basting often until meat is done to your liking. Serve with a baked sweet potato.

For Husbands Who Have Never Done This:
1.                  Wash Potatoes under running water. Remove any strings growing from potatoes. Cut out any dark spots. Perfect!
2.                  Preheat oven to 350˚F. This is done by turning one knob to Bake and the other to 350°F. You can do it!
3.                  Wait approximately 10 minutes for oven to reach its temperature. Place sweet potatoes on a piece of foil so you don’t have to clean the oven later. Bake 1 hour. Insert the sharp point of a knife. If very soft within, they are done.  If there is still some resistance, continue baking another 20 minutes.
4.                  Slice butter and put it on a plate with a knife. Bring butter, salt and pepper to the table. Perfect!

2 cups commercial marinara sauce
½ cup dry red wine
½ cup commercial jalapeño jelly
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 teaspoons chili powder

1.      Combine ingredients. Bring to a boil in a saucepan, stirring until the jelly dissolves. Remove from the heat to cool.

4-5 pounds beef ribs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper

1.      Bring the ribs to room temperature. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sear over direct heat on both sides until browned.
2.      Remove to a deep 10X13 inch baking dish (not aluminum or cast-iron). Set them meat side down.
3.      Pour the sauce over the ribs. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and grill over Indirect Medium heat 1 hour. Remove the foil and continue grilling until the meat pulls away from the bones. (45-60 minutes), turning them occasionally.
4.      Drizzle sauce over to serve.

6 ears fresh corn in their husks
Butter or herb butter
1.      Heat gas or charcoal grill to 550°F highest heat
2.      Peel back corn husks and remove silk. Brush with melted butter or melted herb butter. Close the husks.
3.      Wrap each ear tightly in aluminum foil. Place on the grill. Cook approximately 30 minutes, turning occasionally, until corn is tender.
½ cup melted butter (1 stick)
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
½ teaspoon garlic salt

6 ears husked corn

1.      Combine the butter, basil, parsley and garlic salt in a bowl. Brush each ear of corn with 1 tablespoon of the seasoned butter. Grill over direct medium heat, turning occasionally, until browned in spots and tender. (10-15 minutes)

Yield: 6 servings

12 ounce bottle good commercial Poppy Seed Salad Dressing
 ¼ cup orange juice
1 full teaspoon Dijon mustard (Grey Poupon®)

2 Romaine lettuces, chopped coarse
1 large Iceberg lettuce, chopped coarse
2 cucumbers, peeled and cut into thin slices
2 ripe tomatoes, cut into cubes or quartered
15 ounce can pitted black olives, sliced in halves
15 ounce can garbanzo beans
4 ounces feta cheese, cubed

1.      Combine the Poppy Seed Salad Dressing with orange juice and Dijon mustard.
2.      Combine all ingredients except the feta cheese in a bowl and toss with the dressing. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Sprinkle with feta cheese.

Tune in Comcast channel 22 & BrightHouse 199 to watch host, Valerie Hart, interview chefs in their kitchens "The Back of the House", or watch it live on your computer at Follow her food page on Wednesdays in The Daily Commercial.

Working Mom vs Stay at Home

When Democratic strategist, Hilary Rosen, told the world that Ann Romney had “actually never worked a day in her life” because she was a stay-at-home-mom to five sons, the emotions from both sides of a debate that began in the 1960s surfaced with a roar. Ann and Mitt Romney were married in 1969. Her decision to remain at home, even though she was intelligent and well-educated with a BA from Harvard, was not only what she was supposed to do, but what she opted to do.
            Looking back, it seems as though there was less stress during the 1960s, perhaps because we hadn’t entered the age of technology. There weren’t nearly as many opportunities for women to engage in a full-time career along with being a good wife and mother. Women attorneys and doctors were a rarity. A married woman who found it necessary to work just had a “job” as a teacher, nurse, receptionist, secretary, check-out girl, or, if lucky, an envied food or society writer for the local newspaper, usually achieved by writing her column from her home typewriter. And, if she became pregnant, it was perfectly acceptable for her employer to terminate her services.
A single woman could be a stewardess on an airplane, if she embodied the following requirements outlined in the 1966 New York Times classified ad for stewardesses at Eastern Airlines: “A high school graduate, single (widows and divorcees with no children considered), 20 years of age (girls nineteen and a half may apply for future consideration). 5’2”, but no more than 5’9”; weight 105 to 135 in proportion to height; must have at least 20/40 vision without glasses."  
During the 1970's, Maida Heatter, daughter of the famous radio commentator, Gabriel Heatter, began to give baking courses out of her home in Miami Beach. In 1974, after writing the award winning, “The Book of Great Desserts”, she said, “While all those women were out searching for their careers, I stayed in the kitchen and found mine.”
            Stay-at-home moms of the ‘80s and ‘90s criticized working mom peers for “choosing a career over their children”, while working moms criticized stay-at-home moms for “giving up their ambitions and income for an apron and a vacuum”, classifying them as dull and unintelligible in conversation. By the year, 2000, some 77 percent of women between 25 and 54 were in the workplace, many with executive jobs and professions. When a couple was introduced socially, the question had shifted from, “What does he do”, to “What does she do”? It became a stigma for a woman not to be employed.
            Then, a slow revolution began to evolve. It started in small towns like ours, where women decided to stay at home. Their careers were put on hold for the more significant career of raising children. There also emerged a large group who home-schooled their children, which, if done correctly, was a full-time job in itself.
            Many stay-at-home moms have found opportunities for creating part-time businesses from their homes. Large cities like Manhattan in New York offer part-time careers such as a dog walker for the elite Upper Eastside pampered pooches. This might be a come-down for what was once expected from those with corporate credentials, but the going rate to strut eight darlings attached together is $35.00 per dog. This adds up to $1,900 a week! Small town moms can be just as innovative. There are, of course, opportunities in computer land, but, for those proficient with a sewing machine or who have a talent for making cookies and jams, an at home business is at their fingertips. A word of advice is to refuse anyone who asks for money up front to get you started.
            For all you mothers who have chosen to work at home, and for all who have chosen to work outside the home either from necessity or to continue your careers, you are to be commended for your endeavors. Motherhood is not an easy task. The days are too long and the nights too short. And, just when the children have grown into adulthood and you think it’s finally your time of life, they march back in with grandchildren. These are the dividends that make it all worthwhile.  
           Tune in Comcast channel 22 & BrightHouse 199 to watch host, Valerie Hart, interview chefs in their kitchens "The Back of the House", or watch it live on your computer at Follow her food page on Wednesdays in The Daily Commercial.