Moving Parts

This past weekend I had to repair my lawnmower which was very disappointing because it’s not very old and it’s a very well-regarded brand.  I won’t tell you what kind it is, but I would not recommend a Troy Built machine.  The engine is great, a Briggs and Stratton, but the rest of the mower is falling apart after just four years.  I’ve already had to do repairs on the grass chute and the blade mount, both requiring some innovation and patchwork.  As I was replacing the broken front axle that has rotating offset mounts and adjustment clips with a simple straight rod and simple stationary mounts it became clear to me that this mower has too many moving parts.  The more features a machine has, the more moving parts, and the more chances for breakdown.

I started thinking about restaurant equipment and the simplicity of stoves vs. the complexity of line coolers.  A stove rarely breaks down, and when it does the repairs are generally quick and inexpensive.  A cooler on the other hand has more moving parts and the chances for mechanical failure are increased.  When a cooler lets you down it’s normal that you’ll be writing a more substantial check.

The rational leap from restaurant equipment to restaurants was made as I worked on the mower.  It occurred to me that a lot of restaurants have too many moving parts. The problems we face in is that the labor pool is shallow, and sourcing consistent product is difficult in this area, even from the best suppliers.

Labor, the people who work directly for us daily and procuring product are just two of the many moving parts to a restaurant.  Other suppliers of goods and services like linens, cleaning, equipment maintenance, trash collection, flowers, paper goods, cooking fuel for some places, banking, licenses and permits, menu and wine list printing, social media and publicity/advertising, and small wares like plates, silver, and glassware other things that must be dealt with on a daily basis.  There’s more, much more.

I’m just looking at the two most fickle parts tonight but could write volumes on all the things that could go wrong every day in the hospitality world.  The general public never sees most of it, and their experience is often not affected by the daily mishaps and missteps of all the individuals need to make a restaurant function, but the errors, breakdowns, and failures are there.

Labor is tough.  The people available right now are not the people that were available when I started out.  I just do not remember it being ok to miss work or be late for almost any reason.  Young people, and some older think concerts, family picnics, hangovers, nights out with friends, sunshine, no money for gas, the bus was early, my alarm didn’t go off, my dog is sick, I forgot to do laundry, my Mom took my car, I had to stop for coffee, the mechanic took longer than expected, I have to watch my brother, and a host of other things that seem to come up like never before.  It is too common for restaurants to be short-handed.  The next time service is spotty or slow keep in mind that the labor pool stinks and keeping fully staffed on a nightly basis is almost impossible.  Labor is the most difficult moving part to maintain.

Today’s waitstaff today is made up of people waiting tables until their fine arts degree pans out, or until they can save up to move to California.  I’m generalizing, but my generalization is based on experience.  Professional servers are a thing of the past.

Cooks are mainly dishwashers that moved up, and never had a real desire for the job, and culinary graduates that weren’t aware that they would have to work.  Again, a generalization based on experience.

Dishwashers? Good luck with that.  When they show up on time, sober/straight, and ready to work it’s a victory.

We live in an area that loves simple cooking and straight-forward dishes made from products that are easily recognizable and effortless to obtain.  For those of us that like to stray from the middle of the box out to the boarders and beyond it’s a crapshoot trying to keep interesting items on your menu.  Suppliers do not stock large amounts of specialty items, or too often less popular things are special order only.  Good luck being eclectic and interesting on a consistent basis.  A 40 lb. case of random boneless skinless chicken breasts?  Sure, there’s all you want.  A case of Romaine, a 4-gallon case of Ken’s Caesar dressing, and some Sysco pre-shredded Asiago and you can serve grilled chicken Caesar salads to your heart’s content. Wait, what about tainted lettuce?  Nope, even the supply of the mundane isn’t guaranteed. Just another moving part that can break down.

We spend too much time covering up the blemishes of an often-seamless appearing operation.  My question as I plan my own restaurant is how do I eliminate, or greatly reduce the chances for breakdown?  The answer hit me as I was changing the front axle on my mower from a complex machine with multiple moving parts to a simple machine with no moving parts.

Eliminate the moving parts!

Sure, that’s easy on a lawnmower, but in a restaurant that depends on many individuals to open each day?  Sure, I believe it can be done successfully.  No waitstaff, very limited seating, and a menu that’s written daily based on seasonal and available products. I’m eliminating those moving parts and others.  That’s all for now, a full disclosure of my plans is coming soon enough.

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