Thursday, January 29, 2009

slow and steady

with a day or two to catch our breaths, we've managed to recap our first couple of months trading in this new biz. as most of you will know, the site we're in has been a fooderie of some sort since at least 1951, and possibly even longer than that, according to some old-timers in the area.

but after a few years of other operators trying to run a quasi-fine dining restaurant followed by two years closed space, we've always known that taking on this gig was going to be a big ask.

at this nascent stage, a few things are already evident: we're on the right track, as far as our menu direction and coffee quality goes. ditto for our price structure. many city types have commented that we appear to be 'too cheap', but we're in the ballpark of what the locals have been demanding, and we need their regular support.

the overall balance of the place seems to be working, the look and vibe of the room, the extras we offer (such as live music, the kids room, the leather lounges etc) all appear to be appreciated. we won't put much more work or money into decor or ancillaries as we probably don't need to, and we don't have any money anyways. a local artist is due to drop in shortly with some of his work, we may let him have some of the empty wall space in the back and do a pseudo-gallery (even though I personally feel that cafe/galleries are so last century....)

so we've ramped hours back to fridays, saturdays and sundays, at least until easter. we'll be watching the tourist trade very carefully, as january was a disappointing month for local biz overall. for every one that tells us winter is the big trading season up here, I keep reminding myself that an economic recovery ain't gonna happen in a quarter. we've gone back to our 'other' jobs during the week, and we'll feed and nurture this fledgling cafe at its own pace.

but it's promising.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

back to business

another australia day / chinese new year day is behind us. again, the customer traffic was completely unpredictable. thursday and friday were ridiculously quiet, and saturday was steady from breakfast onwards. sunday began slow, the low clouds and mist failing to bring in the morning crowd as it usually does.

from 2pm, we saw two and four tops begin to arrive, then a twelve top, then for the next two hours, all I saw were yellow order tickets on the rail, the grill top, the salamander and not much else. again, we started to run out of core items, which prompted an early morning scurry to try to find stock, which wasn't easy as most places were closed for the public holiday.

then the much-hyped australia day rush, er, wasn't as we did less than half the amount of covers as the day before. as I'm typing, I'm eating some leftover chicken and mushroom pie.

the demand for burgers continues unabated. we're looking to expland that section of the menu accordingly. I'm still trying to find a decent veggie burger recipe that I'm happy with. I've been playing with a few chickpea and eggplant variations, but I'm not getting the result I'd like. and the pre-made frozen patties from the caterer suppliers are abysmal.

this week's big seller: the aforementioned aussie burger, premium lamb, cheese, tomato, lettuce, beetroot and pineapple:

personally, I hate the idea of pineapple on a burger (same goes for an egg). somehow, I'd not once, but twice sent out a burger without the pineapple. I must have a deep-seated loathing for the stuff.

other news: we're ramping back our opening hours to fridays - sundays, 9am to 4pm. that'll stay til the easter long weekend, where we'll expand hours again.

we're canvassing interest in putting on a valentine's day dinner, which falls on a saturday this year. anyone keen, let us know.

waitress extraordinaire karin (she doesn't like me calling her a 'waitbot') dropped in this morning, her masterchef audition is tomorrow and she still has yet to decide what she's going to present. she's been getting advice from everybody from her chef brother to her chef employer.

and I'm going to spend the day tomorrow cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom and rearranging / restructuring the service areas. I'd rather be anywhere else, but it's got to be done.

Friday, January 23, 2009

aussie daze

coming up fast on australia day weekend. the local bizfolk tell us it'll be a busy one, but you wouldn't know it from the current lack of activity in the village. mind you, we're again heading into another prolonged heatwave which seems to scare away all but the most fervent rock climbers (and are there any other kind, really?).

we're looking at the past seven weeks of trading and trying to get some kind of handle - any kind - on what the potential is for future trade here. we've got until september under our current lease to decide whether to stay on, whether to buy the building, or whether to enter into a formal commercial lease. but if the past two months are anything to go by, there's absolutely no readable trends or patterns.

ordinarily, it's not an issue as one would just plunge ahead and hope for the best. but if we're looking at primarily weekend and holiday trade, we need to weigh up whether it's viable to open, say, thursdays as opposed to working our 'other' jobs, where we'd at least have a guaranteed income for the day. and that income'll be neccessary to float this place during the slower months, one of which is only a week away.

our coffee roasting wholesale efforts are starting to take off. we've approached a couple of restaurants and cafes in the central west who seem genuinely interested. if we stick it out, our coffee biz may actually be more profitable than the cafe itself. that'd be a nice problem to have.

and we've been selling a fair amount of freshly roasted coffee from the counter. anyone interested, we have 250gm packs at $14.00, postpaid anywhere in australia. even tasmania.

speaking of, I read that hobart foodieblogger and regular commenter rita had her photo in the local paper. couldn't find it online, but congrats to you rita, and we look forward to your own show on the lifestyle channel very soon. they've gotta get some new programming in, tonight at 8pm is season one of hell's kitchen usa (for probably the eighth rerun).

specials this weekend: in celebration of australia day, the all-aussie burger - 150gm premium lamb patty, cheese, beetroot, pineapple, bbq sauce & chips. also the return of the popular spanakopita - spinach and feta cheese in filo pastry:

plus some nice veggie quiches and organic pies that we're trialing. whatever doesn't sell, well, that's breakfast again :)

Monday, January 19, 2009

odds n enz

one of our waitstaff, karin, has been selected as a contestant in the new season of masterchef australia.

we did almost exactly half as many covers this past week as the week prior.

aldi was selling truss tomatoes for $2.99 a kilo last week. my providore's were $6.99, and about the same quality. what's wrong with this picture?

I've never known anyone that actually owns a padma laksmi cookbook.

we have enough spanakopita left over for us to have for breakfast all this week.

bloomberg is reporting that the u.s. based black angus chain of steakhouses is seeking bankruptcy protection, along with several others. does this mean the slow death of 'upmarket' fast-food?

iron chef america is pretty lame compared to the japanese original, dont'cha think?

it's well into summer, but we're hardly selling any salads at all. damned if I know why.

brisbane's sunday mail reports about a sunshine coast eatery that invites diners to "decide how much they want to pay for their meal". apparently, most were happy to pay at or even above what the menu price would've been. a novelty, or a necessity in this changing market?

it'll sneak up on ya

'twas a quiet and slow week indeed. that is, until sunday. steady breakfast trade rolled into a steady lunch trade - then the floodgates opened. again, we found ourselves running out of tomatoes, milk, focaccia rolls, steak, olives, ham, cukes, butter, staff, patience... you name it.

jimmi carr performed to the packed house. we had people standing at the door waiting for seats to open up.

nice to see katie and family in again. it's ecouraging to see the regulars trade start to grow.

on the specials board this week - salt & pepper calamari, on a bed of rocket and topped with a chipotle-laced tomato salsa:

every decent cafe needs an s&p squid on the menu, no? amazingly, we only sold three serves all weekend. on the other hand, the steak sandwich special - scotch fillet with caramelised onion, cos lettuce and truss tomato, on a grilled baguette roll and topped with a dijon mayo - sold fourteen serves in one day.

but the upside is - we'll be enjoying the leftover calamari for tonight's dinner :)

Friday, January 16, 2009

if you can't stand the heat...

... don't go near any kitchens. or that seems to be the general consensus with the heat wave engulfing us all. upper 30's may not sound hot, but for the mountain-acclimatised, it's oven-like.

so our total covers for yesterday were.... 0. nil. nada. just takeaways, and not many at that. the pub across the road usually does 40-50 for lunch on a thursday. they did six. the heat kept everyone off the streets, out of the parks and even off the roads.

it's marginally cooler today, but again we're seeing very little activity out the windows, so I'm not expecting much until after midday. at least I can grab a few minutes break to sit in my comparatively cool office and get important admin work done, like... uh... this blog.

so now it's time to get back to biz stuff. no, really.....

edit: took this pic in the kitchen yesterday, this is over at the pass. was even hotter near the stoves:

for you notre hemispherian types, that equates to about 114f.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

six weeks in

six weeks of trading under our belts. we've seen a little of both the tourist trade and the local regulars. we've changed and refined our menu as we've gone along to try and reflect what we get asked for.

simplicity seems to be the key around here. anytime I'd put something even remotely adventurous on the board, it'd be ignored as the breakfast and burger orders would flood in.

but I don't mind if we become a glorified gourmet burger bar. whatever our customers want is what we should be giving them. the past two people to have had this place went upmarket quasi-fine dining, which worked for the tourist weeks but drove away the locals. they all reminisced about the couple that had this place a decade ago who did... breakfasts and burgers.

and we're considering night trade... maybe. and then, only after easter in the cooler months. and again, cheap eats seem to be what people are asking for, with the exception of my former accountant, who wants five-star food at two-star prices. so pastas and stews may well be what's on offer, once the fireplace is roaring.

four years ago yesterday, we closed our first cafe. driven out by the new owners' redevelopment group, it set off a chain of events that saw the children move interstate, us back to sydney with the keys to a run-down restaurant and several years of sorting out debts. we're hoping that we're off to a better start in this place.

and so far, so good.

Monday, January 12, 2009

weak - ends

so we managed to get through the weekend with the gas mains dying, the deep fryer pilot going out during service, and this morning, the salamander's thermostat has gone to the great appliance store in the sky. just a typical week in the food biz, no?

chris turner performing:

from the special board: grilled cajun chicken breast, with a spicy chipotle and vine tomato salsa - viva mexico!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

all's fair in fruit & veg

we've noticed a couple of comments from our vegan friends, so in the interest of fairness, we'd like to present a photo of diners enjoying our vegan-friendly menu:

we kid, we kid.......

lentil, herb and tomato soup is on the specials board thru the weekend.


Friday, January 9, 2009

happy meals

had a family in this morning, wanting a couple of side plates of bacon for their two young boys. I was feeling a little creative:

let's see the golden arches top that.

Monday, January 5, 2009

a day in the life

5.30am. the crackling static of abc morning radio snaps through the early morning quiet like a twig. I rise, look out the window. the cloud cover is low again, and a thick white fog engulfs the village. the park is barely visible across the highway.

I throw myself into the shower. the bathroom's in need of serious repair, and the broken shower plumbing gives the effect of being in a submarine that's been torpedoed. water shoots everywhere, and I somehow manage to catch some of it. I make a mental note to ring and find out what's taking that plumber so long to get up here.

into my chef whites and trod down to the kitchen. we live just behind the cafe in the same building, it's a convenience that I'll certainly appreciate come winter. I step over the puddle of water from the leaky fridge and kick on the kitchen lights. a pile of dirty pans, tools and chopping boards on the wash sink remind me of the hurry I was in last night to mop out and get over to the pub.

I check the temp in the oven that I switched on while on my way to the shower and pull a bowl full of roma tomatoes from the fridge. a quick rinse, then slice the ends off and bisect them, placing into a roasting pan and drizzling olive oil, sea salt, pepper and herbs over them, then into the oven at 180c for an hour, slow-roasting. a customer asked me for my 'recipe' for roast tomato the other week - heh.

the stove gets lit, I pray that the pilot light holds and the cylinders don't run out again. we'd love to have direct natural gas, but we'd have to pay for the installation. at this point in the cafe's life, we can't afford to just yet. I switch off the radio in the kitchen after catching the 7am news and turn on the dining room sound system, starting with some nice acoustic guitar recordings.

I go about the morning's prep routine, slicing bread rolls, mushrooms, tomatoes. eggs and butters are brought out to room temp, sauce bottles refilled. I set up the mise en plais, which means literally "put in place". another of the classic french terms still used in commercial cooking. the idea is to have everything one may need at hand, seasonings, garnishes, etc. depending on how I've slept, I'll inevitably forget something until I'm plating up an order.

by now, my partner is down front and pouring her first coffee of the day. several will follow in the next hour or so. she ducks next door to get the morning papers as I do a quick inventory of the cool room's stored foods and make a decision about what specials to do. then, while I have the chalk out, I write something pithy on one of the outdoor a-frames for our ongoing 'chalkboard wars' with the boys at the pub across the road. it's now five to 8am, and the outside settings go out. the 'open' sign is flipped, and we await our first customers.

the mornings are all but typical, some days we'll have a big breakfast trade, others, just a few in for coffee & toast. today, we have a return couple who didn't get poached eggs yesterday as I'm still having problems with the burners on the stove. I quickly fill a pot with water and vinegar, shove the mushroom sautee pan aside and bring it to a simmer just as their order comes in. I don't want to say 'no' twice. several orders later, I'm standing at the hot plate wondering why the bacon's taking so long to cook. I bend down to look underneath the plate and sure enough, the gas jets have shut down again. I grab a grill pan, throw the bacon in and finish it off on a burner.

around midday, the last of the morning customers saunter out, and all three of us are left standing around, looking at each other. I top up my underbench stock, then wander up the back stairs to my office and sit down to read some email and news in the cool and quiet. I get about ten minutes or so before the intercom buzzes, and I return to the heat of the kitchen, nodding and greeting the arriving people.

from 1pm or so, lunch starts to pick up steadily. the kitchen's a blur of activity as orders come in, empty dishes come back from the dining room, cakes and breads go out, meals are plated. we have a run on smoked ham focaccias and a mild panic starts to settle in as I realise that I've already cleaned the last from the leg in the cool room, saving the bones for soup stock.

being over or under stocked is as tough a problem as the staffing issue in the previous post. too little stock, and you risk disappointing customers by running out of what they wanted. too much, and you end up throwing most of it out, which eats away at your profit margins. because we use organic breads, for example, they don't freeze and defrost as nicely as preservative-laded store brands do, so we need to keep fresh stocks on hand daily. the wholesale office closes at 3pm, so if we suddenly get a late afternoon rush of burgers and bacon egg rolls, we're in trouble. which is exactly what happened last monday.

quarter to 2pm, and as it's sunday, the first of my music artists has arrived. I'm knee-deep in orders, one hand on the pans, one on the salamander racks, so all I can muster is a quick wave and hope they can sort out the p.a. and mics on their own. by now, the grill plate's reminding me of that classic olympia cafe sketch from 70's saturday night live - "cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger".

as we get busier, the tension increases. I bark at a waitress for not clarifying a ticket, my partner's running in circles trying to please a fussy parent's kiddie drink (and who came up with the babychino anyway? more importantly, why?), the dishwasher's overflowing and plates aren't getting returned to the pass. we take it all in professional stride though, they're no gordon ramsay-style histronics here, although the rationale is the same. the singular aim is to get it right for our customers. it doesn't matter if it's the quiet lady from the next block who comes in everyday for her latte, or the german family of eight that we'll probably never see again. they're all important, and they all deserve the best we can give them.

by four-ish, the pace begins to settle down as the last orders slowly trickle in. I stick my head out of the kitchen to catch a breath of cooler air and to listen to my guests perform. I can't hear the music when I'm in the kitchen due to the extraction vents which roar like jet engines. shortly, the tables get cleared and we start to break down some of the kitchen, leaving the toaster and presses on in case we get any late customers. I hate to say 'sorry, kitchen's closed' when I can always throw together a wrap or a salad on the fly.

eventually, I shut down the rest of the equipment, cling-wrap containers and wipe down counters. I grab a cold water and go out to have a chat with my music guests, who by now are packing up. I promise them that the next time they play, our second chef will be on deck and I'll be able to get out of the kitchen to hopefully join them for a tune or two.

I do another inventory of what's on hand and what's been demolished and make a prep list for the morning. monday trade has been steady enough to warrant opening, and the whole menu needs to be available. then the doors get bolted, the place gets a mop out and the trash goes out. then we wander up back and change into cooler, cleaner clothes. anything's a relief after ten hours in a 43c/110f kitchen.

we grab some cash and start out the back door to head across the road to the pub, where we'll see some of our waitstaff who work there after they finish shifts at our place. but we stop dead in our tracks as we discover three trays of breads and pies on the back bench. the bakery's delivered someone else's order to us, and they've been sitting out in the sun since daybreak. we'll call the office in the morning and let them sort it out. but it does worry us, as it may well be our order that goes astray next time.

an hour or so sitting at the pub, chatting with the locals is my ideal wind-down. we've learned a lot from them, and were astute enough to canvass as many as we could when designing the menu and our price structure. we've also found a base of good tradesmen that have been kind enough to work for 'mate's rates" before we opened. it's a nice community up here, we're glad to be part of it.

home to chill for a bit, possibly dinner although I'm rarely hungry after cooking and tasting food all day. monday trade looms as night falls. tuesday morning, we'll go thru the takings and bills, deciding who to pay, and who to avoid/put off until the following week - hopefully. then we're heading down the mountain to take one of our visiting kids to the airport. along the way, we'll stop at a couple of wholesalers and pick up supplies, then to the hospitality store for more large coffee mugs, sauce trays and other miscellania that we've been taking notes on over the past couple of weeks. there's no such thing as a 'day off' in this biz.

drive home by (hopefully) early evening, then up again on wednesday to the butchers, fruit & veg and grocery for stock. the rest of the day will be spent prepping sauces, burgers, chicken, soup stocks and the like, roasting coffee and getting the front of house cleaned for thursday's service.

and it all starts all over again... and again...

Saturday, January 3, 2009


did I say breakfasts had slowed? this morning, I thought to myself, I'll prep more burger patties and slice some ham. a nice couple from alaska hit the door bang on 8am. I got so caught up in the conversation that by the time they'd ordered, another five tables flooded in, all with brekky orders. that I wasn't ready for.

you can never second-guess in this biz. our local pub across the road ran out of steaks in the heat of their friday $10 steak night. we'll put an extra staff on the floor and watch them polishing silverware in the empty dining room. then the gypsy gal will say, you and I can handle breakfast, and we'll get slammed.

in a small biz, it's a major problem. if you're short-staffed, you run the risk that a customer may have a bad experience, such as slower service, mixed-up orders or food that isn't 100%. real foodies understand this, when I'm in someone else's place, I always look around and try to make allowances. but the average diner expects more. then, if you're staffed up and hit a couple of quiet days, the slim profit margin that we exist on disappears. so it's always a guessing game.

I've been typing this during our usual mid-morning slump, when I can steal a few minutes to sit in my office and espace the noise and heat of the kitchen. our second chef is back from holiday in two weeks, and I really need the break. there's so much more to running a cafe than just opening the doors and serving food, and these past few weeks I've barely been able to keep the kitchen running on my own, let alone the biz side of it all.

I don't think I've commented on the new year's morning disaster when our gas mains went dead, will save that for another time. I'm needed back in the kitchen.

Friday, January 2, 2009

the burgers are better... here

can't believe how many burgers we've done this past week or so. had to get extra mince and roll deliveries. it must be summer.

breakfasts have fallen off big time, but our mid-afternoon thru early eve rush continues to build. nest year, we'll open seven days during this tourist season. it's swelteringly hot in the city, but gorgeous up here.

so come and visit, gentle readers. the mountains are stunning this time of year.