“In cooking, as in all arts, simplicity is the sign of perfection"
Pastiche at the Metro
411 East Mason Street
Pastiche Brown Deer
4313 West River Lane
Click on the links below to retrace our history.
"The customer is always right..."
November 30, 2016
“The customer is always right...” is as old as the hospitality industry. These days, it seems that phrase has taken on a new dimension. Anyone who has Internet access can voice their opinions, good or bad, about things they may have no clue about or business judging. Customer review sites continue on, despite inherent flaws. Businesses are able to pay services to stack fictional, favorable reviews about themselves. Competitors, disgruntled ex-employees, and activists use the sites to bash businesses, and things that used to be settled with a polite conversation have now become public beefs.
Is it an outcome of a culture that sees television, social media and video games as the equal of real face-to-face relationships and activities? I don’t know. I’ve had wonderful and terrible things written about me, and our restaurants. The criticism may be valid because we screwed up. Sometimes it’s just subjective, and one person’s opinion, but presented like indisputable fact. Other times it’s a person with an agenda, like having a gluten-free section of the menu, more vegan options, or protesting the cruelty of foie gras.
Often, I’ve spoken with the guest at their table, and apologized for the mistake, or politely explained why we do things the way we do. Their server has offered to have us make them something different. When we are allowed to, they usually leave happy. I can’t think of a time when, if someone tells us they don’t like something, we haven’t taken it off the bill. One might think that’s enough, but not always.
Internet review sites give people a sense of empowerment. Some folks have a hard time not letting that get the best of them. They really don’t seem to think about what it might be like if the shoe was on the other foot. For example, if someone invited me to come to where they live or work and I arrived twenty minutes late, and then proceeded to critique their job performance, the music they played, the room temperature, their window treatments, the art on their walls, their appearance, and a dozen other things that might catch my eye to complain about, and post it publicly, anonymously, and with impunity, without them having any chance to resolve or explain themselves, how would it make them feel?
In nearly 40 years in this business, I’ve come to believe that the customer is actually “right” somewhat less than half the time. So, my favorite reinterpretation to that old axiom is this; “The customer may not always be right, but they are always our guest, and as such, we want to do everything we can to make them happy.” I think that’s paraphrasing the great Fernand Point.
As for me, acknowledging my faults as a chef and restaurateur, I try to be a good example as a customer. I show up on time, enjoy what’s put in front of me, and rarely drink more than I should. I always enjoy the company of my dining companion; I’m polite and usually overtip unless the service is egregiously bad. In fact, I think the only thing that I really dislike in a restaurant is a TV, but then, maybe, we’re going right back where we started this thing...
It was the end of a very long week...
September 11, 2016
Last Thursday, we finally opened at the Hotel Metro downtown, and hit the ground running. The night before had been a mess in Brown Deer. I’d been prepping all day downtown and got to Brown Deer around 7:00PM to find the ship going down fast. Looking around, the cause was evident; we had inadequate staff in the kitchen, for the third Wednesday in a row. I helped get through the night, then went home to get a little sleep so I could be downtown by 5:00AM for opening breakfast. The day went well, and when I was no longer needed, I came back to Brown Deer and made a change in chefs.
That’s always a difficult thing, because you never really know what the fallout will be. You plan for the worst, and hope for the best. Two cooks quit later in the week, but the rest of the staff stayed on and we all just worked that much harder. During this same week, I was also watching electricians, a plumber, and a computer programmer working for days to get the building set up so we could use some of the stuff we’d brought up from Bay View; a few pieces of cooking equipment and a second point-of-sale system and kitchen printer to make the waiters’ lives easier and let them work more efficiently. I can’t wait to see those bills.
So after a week of doing all this, and being busy on top of that, I was exhausted by 9:30 Saturday night. Frank came in the kitchen to let me know that a customer wanted to speak with me about the price of a bottle of wine. I didn’t want to go out there because I was on my last nerve, but Frank seemed really agitated so I went out and talked to the guy. He proceeded to tell me in a very condescending way that we overcharged him egregiously for a bottle of single-vineyard Hermitage. I told him that the price had been calculated according to our standard markup (which was true, though I usually mark the most expensive wines we have a little less then our usual 2.5 times). He told me that he looked it up on his phone and his phone said he could get it for $102.00. I told him we’d paid more than that wholesale so it must be a different bottle, but he insisted. He also kept referring to it as a “Chateauneuf du Pape”, which made me suspect that he was indeed looking up the wrong bottle. Because I just didn’t feel like dealing with him at that moment, I offered him the bottle for what was just a bit more than half the correct list price, which he thought was acceptable. Excusing myself, I heard my name called by my favorite now-retired high school teacher, who I was so happy to see but still very distracted by my encounter with the wine guy (as I was walking away from her, I realized that this guy’s voice sounded exactly the same as that of a man who’d called me up a few days earlier and asked me about a “corkage” fee if he brought his own wine to the restaurant. When I told him that we don’t do it because it’s illegal in this state, he told me that I was wrong. I assured him I wasn’t, but he still persisted on telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about, but that he had a reservation Saturday and was still going to come in anyway).
Now, I was finally done for the day, standing at the hostess stand saying goodnight to someone, when the wine guy, leaving, walks up to me and says “Thanks for making it right.” I was shocked. There was nothing to “make right”, and the way he said it, with the smug smile on his face, let me know that, in his view, I’d lost and he’d won. I told him that I hadn’t really made anything right, but I’d just given him a hundred dollars, and that the next time he felt like coming here, he should go somewhere else. “I will”, he said, and left.
This life takes a toll on us all, and sometimes stuff piles up so high it’s hard to see past it. You work hard every day, and one guy with a smart phone and an attitude pushes that button. Yeah, I probably should’ve just shook his hand and apologized “for the misunderstanding”, and called it a night. Every once in a while, though, the nerves are just a little too close to the surface, and it’s then that I find it beyond my ability to be nice to someone like that. I’m human, just like everyone else here. We all have bad days once in a while. I’m working on it. I wonder if he is.
So, if you don’t see me in the dining room, talking to the guests near the end of the night, it might just be because it’s been a very long week...
I’ll catch up with you next time.
The Old Saying
August 5, 2016
”We learn better from our failures than our successes”...
...is something I’ve grown to believe in. Not just because the failures sting, but also because if we don’t try new ideas that may fail, we aren’t ever going to advance ourselves outside the realm of what we know will always work.
I’ve tried many things and failed, and tried a few that have succeeded, too. I’ve learned, and continue to learn, which keeps me happy and engaged in what I’m doing. If I think of something I want to try, I’ll bounce it off a few key people first, to see what they think. I’ll flesh it out as much as I can, try to consider any downsides, and then if it still seems ok, we’ll try it. Sometimes something that works well in one place will not in another. Other times one part of an idea needs to be tweaked a little in order for the other parts to work. Sometimes I just end up wondering what the hell I was thinking in the first place.
Taking over where the River Lane Inn left off, I gave a lot of thought to how to best bring what we’d been successful doing in Bay View to the North Shore. First of all, I wanted to keep the staff from the RLI, because they were experienced with the building and the clientele. Second, I wanted to see how much of the menu would translate to a larger room. Last, I wanted to retain some of the things that were close to my heart and that supported our local community.
The first couple of months we had way more business than we could handle. We were also trying to train the former RLI staff, now ours, to know and understand a new menu and wine list, and new owners. We’d held a meeting when we announced the purchase, and told everyone that if they approached the change like it was a new job, they’d probably be very happy and successful, but if they approached it like it was the same job they’d been at for the last 10-20 years, just with new owners, it was going to be very difficult for all of us. In the back of the house, we had to replace some equipment and shift to an entirely different cuisine. We adapted and changed the menu to accommodate what we had to work with. In the front of the house, we had some differences of opinion on how things should be done with a few of the staff. I noticed I was getting agreement to my face and resistance behind my back, and felt that some seemed to think that if they were willful enough, we’d eventually give up and let them do things their way and it’d be just like it was before. Not to say “before” was bad or wrong, or anything else, just two very different restaurants. A few of them took my advice and they’ve been very happy and successful. The rest have moved on.
The result of all this was that for the first two or three months, our food and service was hit or miss. Our guests had very high expectations that we weren’t always meeting. A few were looking for that thing or two that we screwed up so they could tell everyone on the Internet. We gave them things to write about. Sometimes it was hard to not feel like every night was a failure. As we tried to cope with the volume, we did a lot of brainstorming to come up with ways to modify our systems to handle it. Eventually, after trying several ideas, scrapping a few that didn’t work as well as we’d hoped, and tweaking and keeping others, we arrived at something that works well for us. We’ve backfilled the departed servers with new faces, and there’s been a noticeable increase in the sense of professionalism and teamwork. We’ve been learning a lot. We’re going to apply it to the Metro and it should go much smoother than it did here. We couldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t changed things a few times, and if we’d been unwilling to fail we never would’ve tried.
One of my own prominent failures here has no doubt been the $2.00 special order charge. It was conceived a couple years ago in Bay View, because the volume of special orders had begun to grind the service down to a halt. Since we needed to kick out three to four turns on a busy night, something needed to be done. As I observed people ordering their food, I noticed that many just rattled off things they wanted, like sauce on the side or substitute vegetables or gluten-free without really even thinking about it. I thought that a nominal charge might get them to at least consider how important it was to them, and a few might change their mind. The hard part was getting a positive out of it to help it not seem like a penalty or tax. I decided to let everyone know we were donating 100% of all the money raised via the charge to the Wisconsin Parkinson Association each month. We might get a little relief from the deluge of special orders, all of the customers could be served better and faster, and the WPA would benefit from monthly donations. It sounded like it would work, so I talked to several people about it, and they agreed. I then had some cards printed up that we placed on the tables, informing customers of the charge, why we were doing it, and who was benefitting from it. After a few weeks test run, we printed it on the menus.
It went over very well. In a year and a half in Bay View, I can’t recall anything but positive comments from our customers. We, and by extension, our customers, were given an award from the WPA for innovative fundraising. Special orders were down by about half, and food was moving out of the kitchen at a good pace again. Everyone won, and everyone seemed very happy.
We tried it in Brown Deer. Almost immediately, and to my genuine surprise, I started getting very nasty emails and calls, and began having customers tell me that they were hearing from other customers about this charge and how ridiculous it was. I carefully answered the emails and calls, and put it on the agenda for our management meetings. We decided to give it three months or so to see if things settled down. In June, I realized that the opposition to it was so vocal and emphatically out of proportion to what it actually was, that it was not only having a negative effect on how people perceived us, but also how they perceived the WPA. So, I decided to scratch the charge immediately. Now, it’s been over a month, and I honestly haven’t heard one comment about losing it, except from someone who has a Parkinson patient in the family and who was disappointed. We still donate, privately. I’ve moved on to more important things, and new ideas to try.
Failures can mean you’re trying a little harder or quicker to get better than perhaps you’re capable of, and as long as you’ve given it your best, you shouldn’t be ashamed. Own them just as you own your successes. They provide benchmarks to gauge your growth by. I feel that all this is about the big picture- the long run. Whatever we can do to learn, to teach each other. You see, we’re all in this together, and we all want very badly to make good food and give people a nice dinner that they’ll remember well. Of course, we need to pay the bills, too, but I believe that kind of takes care of itself if we have happy customers.
We’ll always be a work in progress, and we’ll never really be a hundred percent happy with the way things are. We’re the kind of people who always want to try something new to make it better, and when we fail, we know we’ve moved forward at least a little.
I’m not as good as I once was… but I’m as good once as I ever was…
May 15, 2016
I was trying to remember something else when that old Toby Keith line popped into my head. I couldn’t remember much else about the song, but I thought there was some truth to that line, at least in my case.
I used to be a long-distance swimmer, and later runner. Of course, looking at me today, you’d never think that, but I was good at endurance things. I worked long hours without it really bothering me much, and believe strongly that I got to where I am less on talent than on simply outworking and outlasting most of the people around me. I love my work, especially these days when I get to be with Angela and Rachael and the boys.
But I’m older now (maybe just a little smarter), and I’ve found out the hard way that I can only maintain that kind of energy level for so long before I have to pay the price. When we opened Pastiche, I worked 12 line shifts a week for the first few months, until a tiny piece of ice on the floor landed me in the E.R. and on crutches for a while. When we opened the new place in Brown Deer, I knew I was going right back to that kind of workload again, but I set myself a mental goal of 4-6 months until I would back off and start gearing up for the Metro startup. I need to focus on the business of the restaurants now, because that’s where my experience best serves everyone else.
The folks at The Metro have asked us to begin helping them with their restaurant and food operation, too, in preparation for the transition in September. This is a good opportunity for us to work with their staff and kitchen, and learn the ins and outs of what we’ll be dealing with in fall. For them, it’s an opportunity to get to know us, and to draw on our operational expertise to help them serve their guests.
Shifting gears can be difficult, but if you don’t have a plan, and don’t pace yourself, you might have a very tough time finishing the race. This year’s not even half over, but a week of limited cooking and increased office time has me caught up on my bookwork and finds me well on my way to feeling like a human being again.
The grind of running, let’s say, 2 ½ restaurants, can be consuming, but when you can share the work with a team of really good, enthusiastic pros who are more than willing to carry their share of the load, it makes all the difference in the world. More than anything, I think that’s the lesson here. Everyone has their talents and strengths, and no one person is more important than any of the others. That’s what we’re all about, and that’s why I still can’t wait to get to work every day.
Sitting at the bar a couple of nights ago…
January 7, 2016
... my friend Yesh gently reminded me that I haven’t written anything in quite a while. It’s true, of course. These days I put most of the stuff I used to write about on Twitter.
By now, it seems that most people know we’re going to be opening a new place in Brown Deer, where the River Lane Inn was for the last 30 years. My good friend Jim Marks and his wife Claire owned it. I’d always really enjoyed their food, and developed a ton of respect for Jim and the way he’d managed to succeed so well in this very difficult business. I’d also gotten in the habit, over time, to get his opinion on many of the things I struggled with my first few years, and he was always generous with his wisdom and advice. Lately, he and Claire have been trying to ease out of the business, retire, and live happily ever after. He spoke with me from time to time about buying the place, but it’s a beautiful old building and it was worth far more than I could afford to pay with the little bit of money I’d managed to save from our small but nice Pastiche in Bay View.
I’d given up the thought of buying it, and had gone down a different path, leading downtown. I had the idea that we’d be a particularly good fit in a place I knew, and had struck up a conversation with one of the property’s owners. Over the course of the last year, we talked back and forth, getting closer to a deal each time. I’d had my attorney draw up a lease, and was waiting for the other guys to approve it, when Jim called and said he had an idea about how we could make the River Lane deal work. That same day, the other gentleman texted me the go ahead for the downtown deal. Knowing that Rachael was also very keen on the idea of downtown, I asked her to build and lead the team that would be in place there, as well as take a stronger management role in Bay View, while I worked on getting the River Lane location in Brown Deer up and running. She agreed. Angela agreed. The boys agreed. We spent several weeks working with our attorney to tighten it all up, and got it signed and done a couple days before Christmas. That’s the true story of how we ended up with two places.
The plan is to open Pastiche Brown Deer in February, and then move toward opening downtown in September. They will evoke memories of Lyon and Paris, respectively, yet remain consistent with what we have now; it’s going to be very cool, I promise…We really and honestly hate the thought of leaving where we are. We wish we could stay. We’ve got so many memories and so many wonderful things have happened here. Flirtings, engagements, a wedding, birthdays and anniversaries too many to count. Having said that, though, we’re also really looking forward to the new opportunities and challenges ahead. We know our friends will come along, and we’ll meet a bunch of new ones as well. For now, we’ve all got our work cut out for us. As always, thanks from the bottom of my heart for all the support and enthusiasm you’ve shown us- it means more to me than you can ever know! –m