I eat in at least

by francine Hardaway on July 11, 2005

I eat in at least a dozen restaurants a week, between breakfast meetings, lunches and dinners. The only mass market place I frequent is Starbucks. Every other place I go is unique (no, I don’t eat fast food), much like the ventures I deal with every day in my “work” — if you can call what I do work. But typically I walk in, order my favorite item from the menu, and pay no attention unless the food or service is unusually bad. It’s difficult to impress me, because I eat out so much that the thrill is largely gone.

Yet every once in a while, I’m brought up short by the incredible amount of attention and effort it takes to run a good restaurant, something I take for granted the way most people take their mothers’ meals for granted.

Last night I went to a pizza place in my Phoenix neighborhood carrying my copy of InfoWorld, thinking I would eat alone at the “chef’s table,” a group table for people dining alone that’s not unlike eating at the bar in an ordinary place. When I sat down, the place was jumping, and just across the way table from me was a couple with four different pizzas, a bottle of wine, and a hamburger in front of them.

It appeared that someone was destined for a food coma until I took a closer look.

The man, Bob Linn, was one of the owners of the place — La Grande Orange in Phoenix, a place universally acknowledged to be one of the year’s biggest success stories. Linn, a former employee of Houston’s, is also a partner in another very successful place called Chelsea’s Kitchen.

What was he doing with all that food for two people on a Sunday evening? He was working. He was simultaneously entertaining a woman who could help him import a very special red wine, tasting all the different pizzas, and checking the quality of the hamburger.

He was also finding ways to motivate his executive chef and his line cooks at the pizza place by reinforcing their creativity. They had just introduced a new pizza, with figs, goat cheese, and arugula. After I introduced myself to him as a big fan of all his places, I got invited into the taste fest. He wanted to know how everything tasted.

He told me they grind the meat for a hamburger at the time it is ordered, a little tweak to the way it’s usually done in restaurants — but a big difference in the taste. He said this with enormous pride, and so I tasted the first hamburger I’d had in about twenty-five years. Excellent.

As the meal went on and we continued to talk, I found out that the amount of attention he paid to every ingredient, every aspect of the service, every detail of his employees’ lives, was extraordinary. It would make most of our health care industry look like malpractice defendants. It would make the engineering industry look imprecise.

Restaurants are a hell of a lot of work. And most of it takes place in the evenings and on weekends. Or rather, the visible part of it does. The invisible part takes place in the mornings, when things are prepared, purchased, and planned. It�s almost a 24×7 business.

I also have a client in the restaurant business. He owns Tom’s Tavern in downtown Phoenix, and he’s owned it through thick and thin for twenty years. He arrives at the restaurant early in the morning, and he leaves late at night. Yes, he has managers. But he is nearly always there, still trying to make things better. He holds meetings between meal times, and during lunch he stands at the entrance and greets all his regulars.

After twenty years, the City of Phoenix is putting in a light rail system, and construction will tear up the street around his restaurant. The next five years will not be fun for him. He soldiers on.

Me, I�m just the customer. At the end of the meal, I pay my check, leave a tip and move on. I don�t worry about when to grind the hamburger or whether they�re tearing up my street.

Bob Linn, however, was just getting started. He carefully boxed up the remainder of the pizzas. �The guys at Chelsea�s really love this stuff,� he explained. �So I�m bringing it back to them.� Compassionate, thoughtful, concerned, humane, and attentive, he left for his next shift at the other restaurant. A true entrepreneur.

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