In which our famished protagonists search in vain for a table in Greenville, SC.

Don’t worry, this post isn’t just going to be a restaurant review. Far from it. But before we get into the practical advice, I have to give you a little background.

First, let me set things up for you. Last Saturday – the day before Mothers’ Day – the Blanchard clan and I decided to head down to downtown Greenville (SC) for a little lunch. For those of you who aren’t familiar with my adoptive home, Greenville has a gorgeous little downtown area lined with trees, beautiful parks, and a ton of pretty delicious restaurants. Gorgeous weather in Greenville on a perfect Saturday afternoon means that everyone in the county converges on downtown and pours cash into all of its restaurants’ tills. Needless to say, when we finally found a parking spot at 2pm (hoping to arrive well past the lunch peak), restaurants were still full. This is pretty important and you will see why in a minute.

The first restaurant we went to was the Overlook Grill. Outdoor seating right by the Reedy River and Greenville’s famous suspension bridge, great sandwiches for just $7 or $8, and very clutch little atmosphere, especially with the chihuahuas in tow. Verdict: At 2pm, the wait was still 45 minutes and the kitchen closed at 3pm. No-go.

Next stop: The Lazy Goat (another favorite) for lunch. Outdoor seating, killer food, right on the river. We get there and their entrance is swamped with what looks like two bus-loads of sorority girls. No-go again.

Third up: Smoke On The River. Again, overflowing with patrons and a 45 minute wait. Not good. I start considering the Subway down the street, but we try a few more places first. Unfortunately, they are all completely booked. Every restaurant in Downtown Greenville is filled with patrons. Overflowing, even, just like the sidewalks.

But then I see this new place called Ford’s Oyster House, occupying the space where an old cigar and wine bar used to be. (One of the GSATC and @swagclub’s former haunts, in fact.) It’s so new the sign isn’t even up yet, but the menu is in the window and it looks promising: fried oyster po’boys, etc. Good enough. We step in to inquire about a table.

In which a restaurant actually manages to get almost everything wrong.

I will spare you the long version of the narrative and simply list all of the things Ford’s Oyster House did wrong. Here are our observations:

By the front door stood a small lectern, like the ones usually manned by a host or hostess. This lectern, we noted, was stacked with menus and a floor plan of the restaurant. Strangely, there was no host or hostess manning this post, but cued by its… being there, we stood by it and waited for someone to perhaps return from a lavatory adventure and lead us, with adequate velocity, to a table.

Much to our dismay, no host or hostess ever materialized. For several minutes, we stood there, politely waiting for someone to notice us. Several waiters walked by. Not one of them made eye contact with us. In fact, I felt as if they purposely avoided indicating that they had noticed us at all. Too much work, perhaps, to take care of new customers in the middle of their having to serve lunch.

What was most strange about this, we noticed, was that on its opening day, with sidewalks teeming with hungry Greenvillians and every restaurant within a mile radius turning people away, this restaurant was almost entirely empty. I counted 9 tables in the front dining room and 21 tables in the back dining room. I found out later that 5 tables rounded out the seating map outside, on the patio, formerly the outdoor cigar smoking area. Of the 30 tables inside the restaurant, only 4 were occupied. The other 26 were glaringly vacant.

Even more puzzling were the 4 waiters walking about as if too busy to notice us, the additional 2 bar tenders mechanically wiping down glasses at the empty bar, and the restaurant manager (I assume), engaged in the back with a fifth waiter, visibly puzzled by a malfunctioning computer. Some quick arithmetic put the balance of restaurant staff to customer thus: 8 employees “serving” a total of 14 patrons, most of whom were rather elderly, and evidently casual chewers requiring very little attention.

We waited a little while longer, and upon being ignored some more, walked out.

Here comes the single positive thing done by Ford’s Oyster House that day: One of the waiters (I think his name was Chris) rushed after us and invited us back in. He apologized for the lack of attention we had suffered and gave us our choice of tables (oh, what to do with 26 options?). We investigated the patio, but… instead of tables and chairs, the restaurant’s management has seen fit to place there… picnic tables. The kinds with bolted-on benches, like the ones you see at rest stops on the side of the highway. Not exactly what one would expect from a $12-$15 sandwich gig on Main Street in Greenville. Maybe adequate for a greasy BBQ place off Wade Hampton Boulevard, but not here. At any rate, we turned around and found a table inside, which was somewhat of a disappointment as we had journeyed to Main Street to enjoy an outdoor lunch. By this time, the consumption of food had gained priority over our environment, and indoor seating was an improvement from no seating at all. We sat down and began considering the menu.

I will spare you the ensuing clusterfuck of drink orders, but I do have to mention the menu incident.

Where the oyster bar seems incapable of serving anything of value on its menu.

Now, I have watched enough episodes of Gordon Ramsay‘s Kitchen Disasters (the UK ones, not the US ones), to know a few do’s and don’ts of restaurant management. One of them is this: On your opening day, make sure your menu reflects what you can actually serve. In other words, go to market the day before and stock your kitchen with the necessary ingredients. If your shipment of frozen food hasn’t been delivered, find an alternate source locally.

This isn’t rocket science.

Yet, Chris, our courageous waiter, sheepishly informed us that many of the entrees of the menu were not available. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he could have saved us several minutes (and some degree of confusion) had he simply told us what was actually available instead of listing out what wasn’t. More perplexing than this is that for some bizarre reason, oysters were available as a dish, but not in po’boy sandwich form, although fried catfish and fried shrimp were available in po-boy form. The logic of this escaped me. Evidently, Ford’s had oysters and the capacity to fry them. Ford’s also had the bread and other makings of a po’boy sandwich. However, the kitchen seemed at a loss when it came to bringing the two together. In other words, I could have either the light bulb or the lamp, but not both. Evidently, no one there was qualified to connect the two in proper fashion.

Hungry, aggravated and finding myself lacking the patience required to pursue such a line of inquiry to its end, I settled for a fried catfish po’boy. The progeny went with its fried shrimp cousin.

While Gordon Ramsay would have probably sent the kitchen staff home and shut down the restaurant in a fit of rage, we simply endured.

Where forty minutes go by in an empty restaurant before what passes for food finally reaches our table.

Our food arrived forty minutes hence, and not a minute too soon, given our state of extreme hunger. We had to ask for drink refills, as the staff, all eight of them, seemed to be too busy with the remaining 3 tables in the front to pay us the slightest bit of attention. During this time, I observed how the GM continued to stress out and obsess over the malfunctioning computer, drawing his staff around him as if fueled by their sympathetic confusion.

This alleged buffoon (and I use the term ‘buffoon’ lightly) spent the entire forty minutes during which our food was being prepared entertaining us with wild gesticulations, endless complaints to unseen hosts, and a curious compulsive habit of rushing to the back of the restaurant as if to put out a fire, then rushing back to his machine only to yell at his employees for having broken it again while he was away. This was the extent of this personage’s role and function in the restaurant, as far as we could tell. We will revisit this peculiar gentleman again in a few moments, as he holds the key to this entire puzzle.

About our food, I will say only this: I suspect that the fries came from an Ore-Ida package. I recognized the taste and texture, which after hundreds of purchases is rather familiar to me. -1. The bread was… I have no idea what that bread was, but the individual who purchased it and made the po’boys with it has obviously no notion at all of what kind of bread to use to manufacture that particular type of sandwich. It was of brick-like density, somewhat baguette-like in appearance, and at least a day old, which does not fare well for these types of breads. Hurled at a small animal, a fist-sized roll made of this oven-baked dough could have easily crushed the unfortunate creature, or at least severely maimed it. This is what we were made to chew and ingest, and what evidently passed as… “bread.” -2. As for the fried shrimp and catfish, I tend to know the difference between pre-packaged, pre-battered frozen fodder, and the real thing. What we bit into was neither fresh nor prepared on the premises. It appeared to us merely thawed and deep fried there, if not simply thrown into a microwave oven. -10.

We had been duped. -30.

For the record:

1. An oyster bar should have, at the very least, fresh oysters in its kitchen, especially if the oyster bar across the street does. Greenville is known for its food, and if a restaurant is to have a chance at making it more than a few months, cutting corners is not a good place to start.

2. Any head chef who takes a position with an oyster bar should have at least eaten a po’boy sandwich in New Orleans once in his life. Generally speaking, having merely read up about po’boys on Wikipedia does not qualify one to be head chef at an establishment that aggressively pushes fried oyster fares. As an aside, a restaurant GM, in hiring a head chef, should probably ask him to make a po’boy sandwich for him as a test of his skill, if only once. I would consider this part of an adequate interview.

3. A restaurant GM whose restaurant happens to be an oyster bar should probably care about the quality of the food that comes out of his kitchen at least as much as his chef. This requires caring about the quality and reputation of his establishment, however, which is a quality sometimes lacking in this type of individual. We will address this again promptly.

But the real question we found ourselves confronted by was this: Aside from the clear lack of expertise, care or professionalism in the kitchen, how had it taken 40 minutes for pre-battered frozen shrimp and catfish to hit the fryer basket (or microwave oven) and make it to our table, when the restaurant was completely empty? This, we agreed, was a mystery never to be solved.

Where we finally exit the premises and are blown off by the gentleman we assume to be the general manager.

To add to the injury of having been duped into a meal composed of cheap frozen ingredients and the indignation of having to endure almost an hour of abysmal service (in spite of our poor waiter’s gallant efforts), we were met on our way out by the further insult of the aloof manager making eye contact with us as we departed, but saying nothing. (This was the same man, mind you, who had spent the entire time we were at our table acting as if a pre-seasoned cajun crawfish had thawed from its bucket, escaped the kitchens undetected, and eventually ended his journey of escape, adventure and revenge by crawling way up this man’s musical undercarriage.) This was the individual whom, upon seeing us leave, walked by without a smile, as much as a nod or an attempt at a perfunctory “thank you.”

Thus ends our unfortunate experience at the Haus of Oysterz. Now, for some practical advice.

Where I give restaurant managers practical advice in order not to emulate Ford’s Oyster House.

Scenario: You decide to open a restaurant on a Saturday in order to take advantage of a busy downtown crowd. You are in a prime location. If you have done your homework, you know that over 10,000 people will be within a half mile of your new restaurant around lunch time. Assuming you have advertised the launch, had articles written in the local publications weeks in advance, launched a website and a Facebook page, researched the local market and engaged with food bloggers, local tweeps and other influentials in the area, here is what you do:

– Assign someone to the front door. Their job will be to aptly corral passersby (it is lunch time and they are hungry) and invite them into the restaurant. Even if they don’t stay for lunch, they might stay for a drink. At the very least, they will know you exist and come back to check you out later. Run to the Staples (3 blocks away) and print flyers with your menu, phone number and hours of operation to hand out to people as they walk by if they decide not to go inside. Hell, print coupons for 1/2 off appetizers or drinks. Something. Anything. Figure it out. Get people’s attention. Get them in the door. It’s your grand opening and the streets are filled with people. You couldn’t dream of a better opportunity, so seize it.

– Assign someone to the front of the restaurant to make sure everything there is running smoothly. When people peer into your new place, they want to see a well run operation. When they walk in, they want to be greeted by someone who will show them to their table. Someone must always manage the front. Always. At all times. No exceptions.

– You have a sidewalk in front of your restaurant. Use it. Two blocks down the street, O’Cha Tea Bar used chalk to create a narrative/path to their front door on the sidewalk. People noticed it, read it, and ended up walking in. It might seem low-brow, but stuff like this works on a weekend family lunch crowd. Most people find it clever, even cute. More importantly, it works. Note: If you think picnic tables are acceptable substitutes for tables and chairs, you aren’t exactly La Tour D’Argent. Go buy a box of sidewalk chalk and stop acting like this is beneath you.

– If every restaurant around you is serving 100% of its capacity and is still turning people away at 2pm, you should be enjoying the same kind of swell, especially if today is your big launch. However, if you are only serving 4 tables out of 30, something should tell you that something is wrong. An empty restaurant with swollen crowds outside should be a hint that someone needs to get their asses out where the customers are and bring customers in. If you are the GM, hiding in the back and monopolizing your staff to stare at a computer screen is not exactly the correct course of action. The computer can wait. Credit cards can be run through manually. Fill those chairs first. Keep the kitchen busy. Worry about the computer system later.

Here’s a tip: If your ratio of employees to customers is 1:2 and your restaurant is more than 80% empty, you are the restaurant world’s equivalent of a bug splattered on someone’s windshield on your very first flight across the road. Your focus should be to get customers inside your restaurant. “The urgency of now” is a phrase you need to learn to appreciate. Grab your least busy employee (in this case, one of the two bar tenders with zero customers to take care of), and send them outside. It might seem a little weird, but it works. The alternative (an empty restaurant and a net loss for the day, not to mention the embarrassment and morale bomb of a failed launch) is no kind of alternative at all.

Make your business work. Make your launch work. There is nothing else.

General Recommendations:

– Picnic tables? Only if you are a burger joint or a BBQ house. An oyster bar surrounded by hip little boutique restaurants, not so much. (How did you get this job again?) Take those hideous things back to K-Mart and have some proper outside seating delivered. Today. Be the type of restaurant you wish to be. If you are a picnic table kind of place, then be that inside as well. Cutting corners doesn’t just spell “cheap.” It also spells “I have no idea what I am doing.”

– Make sure the most important items on your menu are available on your opening day. This is restaurant management 101. If your supplier didn’t deliver some of the ingredients in time, find local alternatives. By this, I mean send your staff to the store, or better yet, go yourself. In short: Get off your ass and fix the problem. Staring at the phone, then your watch, then your phone again won’t cut it. All you need to know is this: No food = no menu. No menu = no orders. No orders = no revenue. No revenue = the restaurant fails and everyone is out of a job. Make it work.

– If you somehow still cannot manage to have your main menu items available on opening day, run to Staples (3 blocks down the street, in the case of Ford’s Oyster House) and have revamped “opening day” menus printed. It isn’t like your menus are printed on rare vellum or anything. It’s all just crap paper. Spend the $5 and improvise, even if only for one day. This can be done in 20 minutes. All you need is a computer, 5 bucks, and a pair of legs. Get off your ass and do it. You’re the GM. This is your job.

– Things are going to go wrong every day. It’s the restaurant world. Every service is going to run into snags. If you lose your cool at the first snag, you won’t make it in this business. As a GM, your job is to solve problems, not make little ones bigger. If your computer system keeps crashing, shut the thing down and go to plan B: Hand-written tickets. Believe it or not, restaurants survived just fine before computers and touch screens. Credit cards can also be run manually. Stop obsessing over an impassible obstacle. Walk away from it, come up with a solution, and make that solution work. If you get stuck, everyone else gets stuck. You don’t want that. Your job is to keep things flowing. So… Do. Your. Job. Once the lunch or dinner crowd is gone, then get your computer problem fixed.

Here’s a tip: You know what the difference is between a manager and a leader? The leader doesn’t let himself get stuck. If something isn’t working, he takes initiative and keeps the ball rolling. Why? Because someone has to, and that someone is him. Leadership isn’t a paycheck or a title. It’s a responsibility. Get unstuck. Improvise. Solve problems.

– Empty restaurant? Train your wait staff to treat your few patrons extra nice. Have every one of them walk by to say “hi, welcome to our restaurant. Everything good so far? Can I get you anything?” It’s easy and it makes a world of difference. Make customers feel like they’ve discovered a great little place before everyone else has, instead of some doomed crap restaurant they will never want to set foot in again.

If you are the GM of a restaurant, walk your floor. Welcome every customer to your establishment. Chat with them for a minute. Not just the perfunctory driveby, mind you. Stop. Smile. Be warm. Listen to what they have to say. Give a shit. Find out something about them, like perhaps how they found out about your restaurant. Remember their faces. Do this, just in case they come back. You’ll be glad you did.

– When customers leave your restaurant, thank them for coming. See previous bullet. Don’t act like a stuck-up asshole.

Here’s a tip: Even if the service sucked, even if the food was at best average, a chunk of your customers will come back if you treat them super well as they walk out. First impressions may decide whether or not customers will actually eat at your restaurant today, but last impressions will decide whether or not they will come back. Screw up the last impression and your repeat customers will be few, even if the food and service were great. What you need to know is that there are 10 other restaurants in your area with equally good service and food already competing for your customers’ business. That makes you #11. How do you move up to #3 or #1? Not by blowing them off as they leave. This much, I know.

– Hire a competent chef.

– Hire a COMPETENT chef.

I can repeat it a third time, just in case you need me to.

– If you are a Taco Bell or a franchise, okay, your food is what it is. It comes in cans and frozen packets and bags and whatnot. Everything must be cooked and prepared according to strict, uniform instructions. But if you are a restaurant competing in a market dominated by chefs and GMs who really take pride in what they do, in a market populated by people accustomed to great food that is mostly local and fresh, think twice before serving cheap frozen crap. If your kitchen basically consists of a deep fryer and a few microwave ovens, and most of your food comes out of a frozen box, you aren’t a restaurant, you are a cafeteria. You can sell po’boys for $5 and make a killing. Just don’t go selling them for $10-$12. The restaurant business is already competitive enough without slitting your own throat by cutting corners from Day One and taking your customers for chumps. You will only fool them once.

Give a shit. Although this will likely be the subject of an upcoming post (Part 2 of last week’s post) it is important to bring it up here. Let me illustrate this concept with a few simple equations:

Fresh ingredients + clever preparation + tactful application of textures and flavors = someone in the kitchen gives a shit.

Frozen shrimp tossed into a stale bun slathered in generic tartar sauce = someone in the kitchen doesn’t give a shit.

Customers being warmly welcomed as soon as they walk in = someone gives a shit.

Customers standing by the door for 5 minutes + waiters and managers walking by without noticing them = nobody gives a shit.

Restaurants whose every employee gives a shit, where the chef, the GM, the waiters, the sauciers and the sommelier take great pride in what they do, where all derive professional, even personal satisfaction from the delight of their customers, these restaurants become successes. People respond to passion: They reward it with patronage.

Meanwhile, restaurants whose employees, kitchen staff and managers obviously aren’t exactly passionate about any of what they do save collecting a paycheck and splitting tips invariably begin to circle the drain and die. (Fast food and greasy spoons being the notable exception.)

Customers can smell the difference in about ten seconds. You can’t fool them, so don’t even try. As a GM, owner or chef, if you aren’t in the restaurant business because you love it, because you are passionate about it, stop wasting your time. More importantly, stop creating crap dining experiences for those of us who are lured into your cheap little stratagems. Impress us. Blow us away. Kick ass. That is the secret to everyone’s success in the restaurant world. Being average (or downright mediocre), then coming up with excuses as to why you couldn’t be better, none of it belongs here. Either commit or go home.

In which a restaurant is quickly reviewed and this post finally comes to an end.

If I were to review Ford’s Oyster House, I would say only this: Had it not been for our intrepid waiter (Chris) and his initiative and good humor, FOH would have been short another 4 plates on its opening day. Did he save the day? Hardly. In spite of his every effort, Chris is only human, after all. Ronald Reagan himself, cowboy hat and all, could not have righted this unfortunate lost calf’s crooked course, so far from the path had it wandered.

It would be easy to rationalize excuses for FOH, given that it was their very first day, but I can’t. None of what I saw and experienced there could be excused. Not on any day, but especially not on an opening day. I believe that some of the advice and observations I have shared above illustrate why this is. I have worked with retail clients for years, some of them restaurants, and none of this is rocket science. Not one thing. All of these issues could have been corrected in moments by a competent manager.

I must however acknowledge that I am not a restaurant expert and that this post at best reflects the opinions of an amateur diner, but in my 39 years and 364 days on Earth, having eaten at restaurants spanning the globe and ranging from the finest establishments ever rated by the Guide Michelin to the most suspect (and sometimes abject) eateries ever to have been endured by humankind, I can tell you with absolute conviction that I have never before seen a restaurant so poorly managed. Not ever, and not anywhere. (Disclaimer: I have not eaten at every restaurant in the world.)

It wasn’t so much that anything was particularly awful, mind you. The food was mediocre but no worse. The service was deplorable but not entirely without merit. The restaurant was clean and would have been convivial had it not been almost entirely deserted. The GM was not actually rude to us, but merely aloof and disinterested. In short, Ford’s Oyster House was little more than a case study in mediocrity and missed opportunities than one of absolute failure. It was also an example of poor leadership in action and a canvas upon which to paint an almost perfect “how not to manage a restaurant” post. No one became ill. No one was openly insulted or beaten. No teeth were chipped or cracked or stolen. It was not that kind of experience. All in all, Ford’s Oyster House was neither here nor there. It was… passable. On a scale of -5 to +5, I would give it a zero. Nothing more, nothing less.

In truth, it may surprise you that what amazed me the most was thus not so much how bad Ford’s Oyster House was (as it was merely mediocre), but rather how great it could have (and should have) been. More importantly, what fascinated especially was that I came to realize, as soon as I stepped through its front door, that the reason it failed at being great, even as early as its very first day, was perhaps not to be found in anything about the restaurant itself, but rather in the actions (or perhaps lack thereof) of just one man: its general manager. Time may prove my theory wrong. We shall see.

Let me just say that leadership is neither a gift to be taken for granted nor a responsibility arbitrarily bestowed upon those having demonstrated the least thread of talent for it. Let this, if nothing else, be today’s lesson. As the Navy SEALs say “there are no bad boat crews, only bad leaders,” so is it with restaurants: There are no bad establishments, only bad managers.

When it is all said and done, if a restaurant fails, it is never because of the waiters or the sous chef. It isn’t because of the economy or the competition or the weather. When a restaurant fails, the responsibility falls on the manager. The restaurant business is hard. It will break you if you don’t fight tooth and nail for your restaurant every day. The question you have to ask yourself is this: How will you find the strength to fight every day for something that you don’t love? And if not you, how will your employees, including the managers you must hire find that strength to fight for something they do not love?

This is the essence of leadership, and more importantly where most human beings fail to grasp it. Love, believe it or not, is what separates leaders from mere managers. Yet it is the soul of every kitchen, the heart of every dish, and the lifeblood of every restaurant in the world. If you cannot bake love into your restaurant’s DNA, into every experience you share with your patrons, into every brick and jar and sliver of wood from the curb outside the front door to the dumpsters lining the back alley, you will fail. If apathy is the greatest killers of restaurants, passion is always an establishment’s greatest asset.

And on that note, I wish you all a wonderful day. Hopefully, I have given you something to think about.