(Blogger’s Note: Each Friday an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Faux Pas is French for Restaurant, appears on this blog.)
When the July 4 parade ended, the fun began.
Two stores. Both on shaky financial ground. Twenty-five miles apart without any professional management possessing culinary expertise in either. Beautiful. It was a course set for destruction.
Rob Dick lived in Wayzata only ten minutes away from Deephaven. Entering into a percentage rent agreement with someone you do not know is a very treacherous situation, especially for the landlord. It was in Rob´s best interest to keep an eye on the store, dropping in occasionally throughout the week to have lunch, coffee, or ice cream and spend time scoping out what was happening while I spent my mornings and early afternoons in St. Paul.
Rob was a second pair of eyes.
Crocus Hill needed constant supervision. Cottagewood was self sufficiently and the chef, Jesse Big Knee, was in charge. Rob had it set up that way and I wanted as little grief as possible so I kept Jess in that position, against Rob´s advice, until I experienced Big Knee´s inefficiencies .
In the beginning, we spent only nano-seconds at Cottagewood. Crocus Hill was becoming the perfect definition of the losing money grocery store with major delivery problems. By July, the year was becoming the time of the discount grocer. They were opening all around us in St> Paul. The big box warehouse-styled emporiums were popping up on corners that once only sprouted corn. The small retail space in Crocus Hill was performing poorly and the hours of The Simple Life were mounting, hitting 18 per day on many occasion.
I would arrive at Crocus Hill at six o´clock each morning beating Lindy to the obit page, which seemed to be filling up with more customers for our accounts receivable list. With the newly acquired Cottagewood kitchen, I was able to create more prepared food and offer it at both locations. Sales in the prepared food cases were constantly increasing. Cottagewood had become, overnight, a commissary kitchen. Production of soups, salads, roasts and desserts were all coming out of Cottagewood.
With the addition of prepared foods, we had to teach the employees the art of prepared food presentation. That was a tough one to accomplish. Clarence, my Crocus Hill butcher couldn´t understand why we were selling imported cheeses, stuffed pork loin and Chicken Chardrionne when the marshmallow fruit salad and bake beans that once graced the cases of Crocus Hill would "appeal to those hungry folk in Highland Park." Clarence informed me that if I would just let him keep his hand-written, butcher paper sign, signifying the baked bean special, taped to the front of the case in front of the three-hundred dollar wheel of imported English Stilton we wouldn´t need to drive all that way to pick up the food. It became quickly apparent that Lindy, Lori, Lindy and Clarence all went to the same grocery school.
Kranston and I persisted and after setting the case each morning and then explaining to the staff why I did it, I would drive to Cottagewood in time to have my daily meeting with Jesse and go over the cost of operations, food cost, inventory, payroll, and catering.
Big Knee was my first encounter with an experienced, Culinary School graduate of any type.
Jesse was a large boy, both in frame and mass. He enjoyed his cooking and it was apparent. His style of food was much better than his style of dress. Daily he donned a pair of stretch band shorts that frequently left much too much of his football scared legs uncovered and on occasion other extremities, exposed or hanging. His tee shirts were short-order cook stained and seldom, during our first two-week honeymoon period, did I ever see how he looked in a white cotton chef´s coat. Yet, the food and recipes he rambled on about where much more in style with the coat than the tee shirt would ever be. His ingredients and descriptions of fusioned oil and layered herbs would tingle the palate while simultaneously destroying all food costs.
Jesse had worked at The Store for seven months. He had helped Rob design the kitchen and order the equipment. Everything was new. The executive chef, as he enjoyed being called, had a free hand on the ordering, pricing, menu design, and the marketing of the catering. Jesse also lived upstairs in the two-bedroom apartment that came with the store. It was my option to allow Jesse to live there. Our first management meeting took place a week into my ownership of the store.
Prepared with charts, clipboards, invoices, ordering forms and future catering event dates Jesse was prepared to impress. In addition, since Kranston and I were at a slight disadvantage – Jesse was our contact to the community – Jesse hired the teen-age kids to work the store, Jesse knew about the monthly charge accounts, Jesse knew the vendors, Jesse had keys and Jesse lived upstairs, Kranston and I sat and listened to exactly what he was saying. He was in control and what a story he told. When he was done, I had to decide which road to take: White Truffle Lane, or Bake Bean Marshmallow Salad Highway. THe decision would shape the future.