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Hats off to those in the restaurant business, who compete in an unforgiving market and deal with vague and sometimes burdensome regulations.
I’m creeping up on the decade mark of writing this column. It’s been a fun 10 years, give or take, and I’m certain a few of you may have grown tired of my ramblings, but I press on. The one experience you gain from being in the business of food writing is the behind-the-scenes struggles. Many of you are not privy to everything it takes to put out a product, even a mediocre one, no matter how great the idea or the vision of the restaurateur.
It’s easy being an armchair quarterback, calling the plays and vocally expressing, “Well, what they should do is …” while those in the biz put in the sweat equity and monetary equity, and deal with the health department, fire marshal, electricians, plumbers and any other figure whose opinion and authority (always) supersedes the direction of the one who came the day before and told you the opposite.
The restaurant world is one big contradiction after another. It isn’t just restaurants, though. I’ve seen food truck owners caught in the middle of the powers that be making up rules as they go along at a time when we really had no laws governing food trucks. Remember the free crawfish debacle a couple years ago? No one could make up his mind on what to do, as bar owners (and even some restaurants) were told they weren’t allowed to do what they had been doing for decades.
Amateurs and pros at these cook-offs are often sandwiched between health code and fire code. I’ve witnessed firsthand a cook being told to keep his burner and pot and everything he was cooking under his tent. A few minutes later he was told by the fire department he couldn’t be cooking under a tent. The contestant complied as best he could and kept the flame and pot halfway under the tent. No one bothered him again.
Yes, I’ve seen a lot of things. When I was younger I dreamed of owning a restaurant. Entertaining, feeding people, sharing things I loved, hiring bands to serenade my diners and creating the same kind of spot where I’d like to hang out. What a dream that was. After seeing all that my friends and acquaintances have to go through to get to that point, I say my hat’s off to you. You are brave to see it through. I hope the reward is immense. For me, opening a guitar store was as much of an undertaking as I wish to tackle.
One thing I’ve noticed from seeing the curtain pulled back on the restaurant business is how some seem able to get so much done in a short amount of time while seasoned professionals are held, well, hostage, sort of, by the city. Even with turnkey restaurants it may boil down to what connections you may have in your Rolodex (look that word up, kids). I’m not trying to be the voice of anyone, nor am I shaming those with deep connections, but I am saying the field doesn’t always seem level.
There was also an unclear ruling on Sunday alcohol sales. Some restaurants were told they couldn’t sell beer until the game started, while other brunch menus were offering bottomless mimosas and bloody mary pitchers before the pregame commenced. I’m an advocate for alcohol anytime an adult sees fit to drink it responsibly, and 9 a.m. is no different from 9 p.m. Like many of you, I take communion. It’s always been confusing in a town of this size to be standing in line at the grocery store with a sixer of Bud hoping to miss as little of the first quarter as possible.
Then we got to the point where you couldn’t offer “bottomless” anything. Pay one price, and keep them coming. That was something that worked for years that all of a sudden was illegal. Keep it in a cup. It’s OK to have it on this street but not that street. Don’t serve a drunk person a drink, don’t serve an overweight person a hamburger. There are so many rules that are either not enforced or are open to interpretation. It’s unfair to go after one place but not the other. Same goes for health code, fire code or OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) violations.
Another recent controversy is the act of a credit card company charging more if you use a card. A local, successful restaurant owner posed the question last week: “What would you say as a customer if you were told it costs a small percentage extra to use a credit card?” The overwhelming response on social media was the dumbest idea of all. Most said, “Just charge more and don’t penalize those using a card.”
As a consumer, that is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Essentially the customer is saying to charge him more even when he isn’t using a credit or debit card, rather than a small fee (usually 4 percent) when he is. More and more businesses are doing it already, so expect restaurants to follow soon. At Picker’s Paradise we were urged to do this by our credit card company months ago and it has worked great. There is an incentive to use cash and the company shoulders the fee that was once the responsibility of the small business.
This affects the bottom line and can help keep prices down. To suggest I should charge everyone more for a guitar is a dangerous path. I’d rather keep my prices competitive. More people use plastic than ever and businesses are feeling it. Expect this to be a new standard soon enough.
With all the headaches of small business ownership — the licensing, inspections, bum employees — and the food scene in general, there is a reason why we keep doing it. I’m not sure what that reason is, but this Valentine’s I want to send the love out to you restaurant owners. You deal with more than most will ever know.
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