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Tom's Top Ten (2011) - 10 of the Most Amazing and True Restaurant Stories
by Tom Schaudel

#10 Brunch

This was told to me by a friend and when I heard it, I lost it, so I’ll share it with you because it’s too good not to. The friend who gave me this little gift owns a very cool restaurant, serving great Southern cuisine. She is a talented chef with a vivacious personality and is a hoot to hang with. Her Mom, an elegant alibreplica.com and gracious woman, handles the front of the house. This is a powerful team and although it was their first experience in their own business, hard work, determination, personality and style have made it a resounding success.  And let me tell ya’, “It ain’t easy.”  After getting their “sea-legs” and were up and running for a bit they decided to do a Sunday brunch. I’m personally so adverse to the meal that I won’t let anyone even say the word in my restaurants. We refer to it as the B-word. Don’t get me wrong, I do a few brunches a year, mostly on holidays like Mother’s Day, but only then and I usually weasel out of the shift thereby rewarding a very faithful staff with the dirty work. Rank does have certain privileges.  So when my friend told me that she was going to be serving brunch at her restaurant I said, “Great, good luck.” What I was thinking was, “Great, gooood luuuck!” One Sunday morning my friend got a call from a woman inquiring about brunch. She asked my friend if they would be serving brunch that day.  My friend said, “Yes we are.” The woman asks, “And what time does your brunch end?’ My friend answers, “We serve until 4:00 and then we switch over to dinner.” The woman asks, “How much is your brunch? My friend tells her, “Its $20.95 including fountain drinks coffee and tea.” The woman then says, “Is there any possible way to extend your brunch today because I’m not sure I can make it by 4:00.” My friend says, “I don’t think we can do that. I have to get set for dinner.“ The woman politely tells my friend, “Well I was hoping you could make this one exception. I love your restaurant and have come many times and was telling some friends that I would like to bring them there but we’re a large party, twenty two people, and I don’t know if I can get everyone there by 4:00.” I must tell you that a customer telling you they love your place and promising to bring twenty potentially new customers is catnip for a restaurant owner and my friend was unable to resist. She says, “You know what, I’ll hold the buffet open for you. Get here as soon as you can.” 4:00 comes and goes as does 4:30 with no sign of the party. By 4:45 no one has arrived so my friend, tired of waiting, calls the woman’s cell phone.  She answers, “Hello.” My friend says, “Hi this is Leisa, from the restaurant, and I’m calling to see if you were still coming because if you’re not we’d like to close the buffet.” The woman panics and says, “No, no don’t close it! We’re coming, I swear. We’re only five minutes away.” My friend says, “Okay but if you’re not here by 5:00 I’m going to have to close it down.” The woman says, “No don’t close it! I have twenty people with me. We’ll be there in less than five minutes, I swear. Please don’t shut down the buffet.” My friend, “Okay then, we’ll see you in five minutes.” True to her word the woman arrived in less than five minutes, as expected, but my friend could have never expected what happened next. Two long black stretch limousines pulled up and twenty very well dressed people emerged followed by the bride and groom. The tuxedoed clad groom took his new bride  by the arm and with two attendants managing  her six foot bridal train they entered the restaurant and announced that the reception was about to begin, veil and all. My friend and her Mom looked at the party in stunned disbelief. Who turns a Sunday brunch into a wedding reception? But twenty people are twenty people and who can afford to turn away business regardless of how nutty the people are. And we’re talking about two very good natured women who just looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, laughed, and went with it. Without the slightest bit of shame one of the celebrants fires up a boom box and starts the party. They ate, drank, and danced for a couple of hours, threw the garter and the bouquet, had their cake which they had brought in and their coffee, paid the bill, tipped generously and left for the honeymoon. When Leisa was telling me the story we were hysterical.  She said, “Do you believe that people could do such a thing?” I said, “Honey, I have become a true believer. I’m very rarely shocked by anything people do but I’ve got to hand it to you, this is up there.”  Leisa said, “Tom, this woman had her wedding reception……her wedding reception, at a Sunday brunch, for $20.95 per person; $20.95 per person, Tom.  I can’t figure out to this day whether it’s madness or genius.  I said, “My dear Leisa, look on the bright side; at least they didn’t ask you for separate checks.”

#9 Half Baked

One relatively quiet lunch, I was on the line when a server came in and said, “Chef-o, I have two ladies out there who want to split a hamburger. Is that a problem?” I said, “No I’ll just cut it in half.” She says, “Well, I don’t think that’s going to work.” “Why not?” “One woman wants hers cooked medium rare and the other one wants hers cooked medium.” “Are you kidding?” “Sorry. What do you want me to tell them?” “Tell them the hamburger is $6.00 for God’s sake. How much am I supposed to endure for $6.00? Tell them it’s ridiculous and I’m not doing it.” She said, “Okay I’ll tell them but I’m leaving out the endure and the ridiculous part. I’ll just tell them we can’t do it.” “Fine.” Five minutes later the waitress comes back into the kitchen and orders 1 hamburger, medium rare. I ask, “Is that the burger for those two ladies?” “Yes.” “They’re alright with having it medium rare?” She said, “I told them we couldn’t do it and they just said, “Whatever. Make it medium rare.’” “Okay cool.” I cooked the burger, cut it in half, garnished it and sent it out.  Two minutes later the waitress came back in the kitchen with one half of the burger and said, “Okay there genius, this lady wants more fire on her half of the burger. I’d say medium ought to do it.” I started to cry.

#8 “Harry, Keep the Change”

President Obama has categorically stated that we don’t torture in the United States. Really? I would like to personally invite him and, if need be, a team of U.N. observers to take a hard look at my restaurant. First a little background. The East End of Long Island, in the winter, is the best possible place to be a restaurant patron. Being the off season, restaurant owners have devised all kinds of hare-brained schemes to boost business during the slow periods. I have witnessed deals from the well thought out and soberly executed. Cash flow or credit card flow as the case may be, is essential to winter survival. There is also the boredom that comes from one hundred and twenty slow days in a row, allowing a Jack Nicholson type madness to slowly filter into one’s psyche. So in order to stay both solvent and sane, we run “specials.” Specials, being the operative word, attract special people and parts of that special group are people who get sweaty over the fact that there is a discount.  I’m convinced that to this group of folks the terms of the discount are irrelevant; it’s the discount itself that matters, details be damned. These same people, coincidentally, seem to have a zealot’s respect for a buck and tend to guard it at all costs, no pun intended. Thrift, when taken to the extreme, becomes cheap and cheap, when taken to the extreme, becomes almost like a religion. The truly cheap are as nutty as any committed religious fanatic.  My partner is a great restaurant guy. Smart, savvy and experienced, he decided he wasn’t going to sit around all winter waiting for someone to show up so he decided to do some “Specials” to entice customers on the weekdays. It’s a good idea and all in all it worked out real well. We kept the rear ends in the seats during the off season and that’s a good thing. But I have to tell you there are occasionally some unintended consequences attached to almost anything you try in the promotion of your restaurant. The one lesson that I have learned, and learned well, is that you get the market that you target, sometimes in spades. We had been doing a promotion with a radio station and giving out some $25.00 gift certificates. It says, in fairly bold print on the front of the document, assuming one can read, “Not to be combined with any other offer.” On Thursday nights we offer half priced pizzas at the bar. Let me define what at the bar means: at the bar means…at the bar. It doesn’t mean in the dining room, it doesn’t mean on the patio, and it certainly doesn’t mean twenty to go for the local little league, all of which we’ve experienced. We serve them at the bar. A gentleman walks in and sees that the bar is full. He’s jonesing for a half price pizza, more likely the price than the pie.  He asks, “Can I get the half priced pizza in the dining room?”  Evan the bartender says, “Actually sir, we only serve the half price pizzas at the bar.” The man then starts the speech we’ve all heard a thousand times, “But I’m a good customer, why can’t I have it in the dining room? The bar is full.” Evan, “I’m sorry, it’s house policy. I’m sure a seat will open up soon.” He says, “But I’m a good customer, I can’t believe this.” Evan again, “I’m sorry sir; it shouldn’t be more than a few minutes.” The man proceeded to cruise the bar like a bluefish eyeing a school of mackerel. Looking…searching…waiting…yearning for that half priced pizza. And then BINGO! A couple gets up to settle their check. I swear he was in the seat before they were done paying. They were looking at him as though he was possessed but as focused as he was I’m sure he didn’t notice. He proceeds with ordering his pizza and confirms his cheap credentials by ordering his coke with ice on the side. The reason for this, I’m assuming, is so you get an extra ounce of soda in the glass that’s not displaced by the ice. The only other explanation would be an exposed nerve in one of your teeth in which case you would be in a dentist’s chair instead of on a barstool looking to tear into a 50% discount. I truly believe that if you ordered every soda in your life with ice on the side you could cumulatively save enough money to buy a couple of full priced pizzas, and although that may have a certain level of appeal for some among us, it’s hardly a sum worth sacrificing your dignity for. Anyway, he gets his half priced pizza with his soda filled to the top with ice on the side, and orders a second pie. He says, “The second one is half priced also isn’t it?” Evan said, “Sure is.” The man has his second pie and asks for the check. Evan tallies up the two pizzas, the soda with ice on the side, and after the 50% discount for the pizzas he comes up with the grand total of $17.32. The man picks up the check folder, adds, re-adds and re-re-adds just to make sure we didn’t overcharge him, and places not one but two $25.00 gift certificates in the folder. Evan takes the folder and on his way to the register to process the bill notices the two gift certificates and says, “Sir, I think you gave me two of the gift certificates.” The man, “That’s right.” Evan, “One will cover the bill sir.” The man, “I know, I’ll just take the change.”    This “Good Customer” as he put it, spent $17.32 for $34.64 worth of food, wants to pay for it with two $25.00 gift certificates and get $32.68 change, thereby receiving roughly twice the amount of money from us that we got from him. I guess sometimes a customer can be so good that you would pay him to show up. I just haven’t found that customer yet.

#7 Happy Hour

I’ve often wondered about the origin of language and how things got to be called what they are. I’m not sure if it’s a Puritanical hangover, political correctness, denial, an unwillingness to face the truth or, a combination of all of the above, but we have made some awfully flawed decisions in naming certain things over the years. I’ll give you some examples of what I mean. Cafeteria Food: I don’t think so. Unalienable Rights: this would seem to mean that you can pretty much do whatever you want. Government Worker: have you ever seen one? Adult Male: you can’t be serious. Catfish: alright, which is it? Democratic Leadership: don’t get me started.  But my all time favorite has to be Facial Tissue. Facial Tissue? Has anyone ever handed you a wad of toilet paper and said, “Here, wipe that smile off your face?” It seems that regardless of what these things are, or are not, we just can’t seem to tell ourselves the truth. This brings me to maybe the greatest lie of all, Happy Hour. Let’s for a minute examine this Godzilla of all misnomers. First of all is it ever an hour? It’s an hour and a half or two hours and even if you try to hold it to an hour there’s always one or two professional Happy Hour patrons that are slick enough or are shameless enough to order three or four cocktails at 00:59 extending the happiness indefinitely. And, by the way, no one is ever happy.  I realize that some people get off work at a certain time that just happens to coincide with reduced priced drinks. Good for them, but there is a segment of the population that just goes out for Happy Hour, and they’re never happy. Do you know why? It’s because eventually Happy Hour has to end.  “Can’t we get one more?”

“It’s not 7:00 yet” “My watch says it’s five – to.” There are three other groups involved in this fiasco and each one is unhappy for a different reason. First let’s deal with the bartender. You can probably imagine why he’s not happy. Tips are usually calculated based on the total of the check. There-in the problem lies. He’s working twice as hard for half the money. Are any of you willing to take that cut? And on top of that he has to deal with the effects of certain customers slamming as many drinks as possible in the allotted time limit. The second group is the regular restaurant goers. They’re unhappy for two reasons. The first of which is that most times they’ve missed it and have to pay full price, a concept that aggravates some people to no end, and secondly they have to suffer the effects of a somewhat elevated noise level that is the direct result of the collective caterwauling in the aftermath of what seemed to be a good idea at the time. The third group is the restaurant owners. We’re definitely not happy. It’s painful to see things given away. You work your whole career trying to prevent bartenders from putting customers on scholarship and then you voluntarily sanction the behavior you’ve pledged your entire career to stop. It’s a soul twister. I’ve never seen a Happy Hour at a Ford dealership, or Macy’s, or London Jewelers. Could you imagine the scene with half priced diamonds? Sorry, I digress, but I would like to suggest renaming the darn thing and giving it an element of honesty. Let’s face it head on, grow some courage and call a spade a spade whatever. How about the “Let’s Drink as Much as We Can Because We Only Have an Hour, Hour,” or better yet, since it’s essentially become an entitlement program, maybe we could give it one of those flowery government program names that tries to describe the program itself like: “The Community Tension and Dignity Relief While Repeatedly Explaining Yourself Ad Nauseum Hour.” I’ll be taking suggestions if anyone has a thought on it. So what am I getting at you ask? Well, it seems we have ourselves a couple of Happy Hour regulars’ hell bent on draining the happy out of the hour, and I use the word draining literally.  This couple comes in for Happy Hour which, I should let you know, is served at the bar. Let me again explain what at the bar means in case anyone may have missed it before: at the bar means…..at the bar. It does not mean in the dining room, it does not mean on the patio, and it does not mean for a catered house party, all of which we have experienced. So like Half Priced Pizza Night, Happy Hour is one of those fun little promotions that is served at the bar. This couple, who I’ll refer to as Fred and Ethel, come in for dinner and are seated in the dining room by the window. A casual glance outside rewards Ethel, by way of a hand painted, Lauren Fuller masterpiece announcing to all who drive by, “Happy Hour, Half Priced Drinks at the Bar.”  Ethel to Fred, “They have half priced drinks at the bar.” Fred to Ethel, “Really?” Ethel to Fred, “Yes.” Patty walks up to the table and asks, “Can I get you anything from the bar?” Ethel to Patty, “Are the drinks really half price?” Patty to Ethel, “Yes, but only at the bar.” Ethel to patty, “We can’t have them in the dining room?” Patty, “I’m afraid not, you have to buy them at the bar to get the happy hour price.” Ethel, “Okay, we’ll just take some menus.” Patty, “Nothing to drink?” Ethel, “No, we’re fine.” Patty goes and fetches two menus, returns to the table, places them down, and heads to the kitchen.  After a quiet conference, Fred gets up and proceeds to the bar. Upon his arrival he flags down Evan and orders one Sam Adams and one Amstel Light. Not being an experienced server, he bobs and weaves slowly back to his table with the two beers and the two glasses. Patty returns to the table to take the dinner order and notices the two beers. Patty to Fred and Ethel, “I see you changed your mind on the drinks.” Fred to Patty, “We thought we’d take advantage of the Happy Hour price and get them ourselves.”  Patty to Fred, “Alrighty then, are you ready to order?” They gave Patty their order and after guzzling their beers Fred went back to the bar for another round. He managed a second successful trip back to the table and as he was settling in Patty delivered their meals. As she set them down she saw the second round and said, “I’ll take these empties for you.” Ethel to Patty, “NO, NO DON’T TAKE THEM! Oh sorry for yelling, just leave them there.” Patty, “Okay…” The couple finishes their meal and as Patty goes to clear the table she sees a curious thing. All four beer bottles are lying sideways on the table between pieces of silverware to keep them from rolling. Patty naturally assumes that there are four “dead soldiers,” as they say, and goes to remove the bottles from the table.  Ethel grabs Patty’s wrist and shouts, “NO, DON’T TAKE THOSE BOTTLES! Sorry I didn’t mean to yell, but you have to leave the bottles here.” Patty to Ethel, “Then why did you put them down? I figured you wanted me to clear them from the table.” Ethel, “No we lay them down so all the beer that’s on the sides of the bottle will drain down to the bottom and when we pour them out we’ll get more out than if we stand it upside down.” Patty, “This is a proven theory? You’ve done this before?” Ethel says, while pouring the beer bottles into the glass and showing Patty all two milliliters of salvaged beer, “All the time.”  There’s absolutely nothing happy about Happy Hour. 

#6 What Goes Around Comes Around

I’m not prepared to write a sweeping indictment of lawyers but they are an interesting breed. If you need some convincing just look at Washington. There are more lawyers per square inch in our nation’s capitol than anywhere else on the planet and it speaks volumes as to why, as a nation, we stumble around bumping into walls. Lawyers, by the very nature of their profession, find it impossible to agree with one another. That’s because they’re paid to argue.  It’s all about manufacturing billable hours. A lawyer makes his or her living by talking and as long as he’s talking, he’s billing. Now that’s totally cool until it reaches a point where they’re just talking for talking’s sake as the bill keeps rising. Not a lot of money changes hands in an uncontested divorce but one of those “War of the Roses” deals can be very lucrative. The profession thrives on talking and disagreement, the more disagreement, the more money comes rolling in, and so I think it becomes an ingrained instinct. Assuming you can’t get two lawyers to agree on anything, can you imagine the folly of assigning five hundred of them the task of fixing the nation’s problems  that were, in more cases than not, a direct result of their talents in the first place. And to compound the problem, I’ve met very few lawyers who didn’t believe they were the smartest person in the room. Knowing a lot about your chosen profession doesn’t make you smart, it makes you trained. I know a lot about preparing fish that have met an untimely end, but that certainly doesn’t constitute genius. I love when I hear a politician, who’s primary talent is the ability to disagree, pontificating on the application of nuclear power, or how to build better automobiles, or the economics of baggage charges by certain airline companies, or the salt content of our diets, or the Middle East, or oil spills and the subsequent clean-up, or the price of gas, or mortgage schemes, or how to jump-start the mating habits of the spotted owl. If these people are so well versed in all of these myriad subjects why are we so short on answers? In a nutshell, it’s the arguing. As soon as someone comes up with a solution, there are four hundred and ninety nine other people telling them why it’s a bad idea. Then they argue over who’s right and wrong for eight or ten years and solve nothing while attending fundraisers aimed re-electing themselves to keep the argument going…indefinitely. It’s quite a gig. How funny is it when they trot out answers for the troubled economy? If they knew what to do how did we get into the mess?  I’m waiting for just one reporter with a mischievous sense of humor to stand up at a press conference and ask one of these guys, “Sir, before you take over the entire private sector of our economy, could we just try running the Senate cafeteria at a break even for, say, six or seven weeks, just as a good faith demonstration to the American people that you have any clue of what you’re doing?”  Can you imagine the response? (Well let’s define the meaning of cafeteria, blah, blah, blah……..) Sorry about the rant and I do know there are an awful lot of good, honest, well meaning individuals who happen to share the profession with those who aren’t and I’m not sure which side of that the following gentleman falls on so I’ll just tell you what happened so you can decide for yourselves. Oh, and feel free to disagree.  We had a regular bar customer some years back who worked in a law office near the restaurant. He was a highly educated, affable fellow who was recently graduated from law school, a loyal customer and an all around good guy. I wouldn’t have called us friends because we never socialized outside of the restaurant, but we had grown “friendly” due to his good nature and constant patronage.   A friend of mine had gotten himself into some legal trouble at the time and was at a loss to know how to handle it. He was explaining his problem to me one night and it occurred to me that maybe my lawyer/customer buddy, who I’ll refer to as John, would be able to give me some insight that could help my friend. We’re not talking felonies here and he was trying to figure out if he should fight the thing or pay the fines. I told him that I had a buddy who was a lawyer and that I would call him to see what he thought about my friend’s predicament. The next day when I got to work, I called my friend. “Hey John, how are you doing?” I asked. He said, “Hey there cheffy. What’s up?”  I said, “I need your legal advice on something for a friend of mine.” He said, “Sure, no problem.” I went on to explain my friend’s dilemma and he told me what he thought the best course of action was and we were probably on the phone for fifteen or twenty minutes. I thanked him, hung up, and said, “I’ll see you at the restaurant.” “See you there,” he said. All was normal for about a week and then I got a letter from him sent from his office. I opened it to find a bill for $85.00 for legal services rendered and applied to what I thought was our casual conversation. Let me say something here. I don’t expect anyone to work for free but this wasn’t like that. This, I thought, was two buddies talking. Apparently I was mistaken. I called him that day. I asked, “Hey John, how are you?” “Good Tom and you?”  I said, “Good, I think. I just got your bill in the mail and I’m not sure what to make of it.” He asked, “What do you mean?” “I mean, what’s with the bill? I thought we were just yapping about my friend, I didn’t hire you to defend him.” He then said, “Listen Tom, this is how I earn my living. Its billable hours, man. I just can’t give out free advice to anyone who calls. And I don’t really know your friend.”  I said, “Wow, I just wasn’t expecting that. $85.00 huh, that’s pretty good for fifteen minutes.” John said, “It’s a living.” We hung up okay but I must tell you, I was annoyed. It wasn’t the money, I’ve spent more on M and M’s, it was the principle. I paid the bill and in a rare display of self control I didn’t say anything further about it to John in order to not rock the good customer boat. We need all of those we can get, but it felt like a low grade fever whenever he was in the restaurant. Well….. it turns out that in spite of what any atheist may believe, there is a God, and he has one lulu of a sense of humor.  One day about eight months after I received the bill for legal services rendered, I got a call from John.  I picked up the phone and he said, “Hey cheffy, what’s going on?” Me, “Nothing dude, just working. My life is like the movie Groundhog Day, same thing over and over.” John says, “I wonder if you could do me a favor?” I said, “Of course.” John, “My wife and I are having a family party at the house and I think she’s a little insecure about her cooking. She’s better than she thinks she is but she asked me to ask you if you could suggest some appetizer items that aren’t that hard or time consuming to make. She also wanted me to ask you how to improve the flavor of her meatballs and if you know of an easy dessert that would impress the guests. Do you have any ideas?” My day had just brightened considerably and I had at least fifteen minutes of ideas heading his way. I spent that time patiently attending to his wife’s culinary shortcomings as he was writing down recipes and suggestions and as we were about to hang up he said, “Thank you, I really appreciate it, she was flipping out.” I said, and I really, really meant it, “John, it was my pleasure.” You can probably guess what happened next but in case there’s a literate politician out there let me explain it. Before the phone hit the receiver I was typing the bill. Giggling, I ran it to the post office and mailed it approximately four minutes after the phone call and then returned to the restaurant to wait with breathless anticipation for the follow up call I knew I’d be receiving shortly. A few days went by and then it happened. The hostess rang me in the kitchen and said, “There’s a call for you on line one.”  I picked up line one and said, “Hello.” John said, “Hi Tom, its John.” Me, “Hey John, how are you?” John, “Well, that’s why I’m calling you. I’m sitting here with a bill in my hand for $85.00 for culinary services rendered. You’re joking right?” Me, “What would make you think I was joking?” John, “Let me get this straight, you sent me a bill for talking about food?” Me, “You sent me a bill for talking about law right? What’s so hard to understand?” John, “I was in my law office where I make my living when we talked about your friend’s legal problems. Get it Tom? Law office……legal problem?” Me, admittedly being a wise guy, “I do get it. That’s why I sent you the bill. I was in my kitchen discussing a culinary problem. Kitchen…..culinary problem.  It’s as clear as a bell to me.”  John said, “This is ridiculous. I can’t even believe I’m arguing about this.” Me, “I can but I’ll spare you the reasons why. John, I’m going to tell you something. I was shocked when I got your bill. I thought we were kind of off the clock. But you pointed out something valuable to me and that’s, time.” Time is valuable and I’m a little late to that party which is probably why I’ll die broke, but I thank you for the lesson. Surely someone of your intelligence can see the value of other people’s time through the same lens that you use on your own. With that said, I would hope that you pay your bill in the same timely manner that I paid mine.” I’m not sure if he learned the phrase in law school or not but he told me to, “Go take a hike.” (Editor’s note: he said something else, but we can’t print that) To his credit he did mail the check, but he never came back to the restaurant and he hasn’t spoken to me since. So after a little self reflection it dawns on me that I cost myself a customer who probably spent $1, 000.00 a month in my restaurant, for the kingly sum of $85.00; not one of my more well thought out economic decisions. But you know what; I’d probably do it all over again. Maybe I should think about running for office.

For more stories, pick up a copy of the 2011 Great Kosher Restaurants Magazine

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