Sorry We’re Still Not Open
Chaos and Calamity Top the Menu When Restaurants Launch
It was opening night for friends and family—a mere 300–400 people—at a new restaurant in an old building near South Station. Then a chef/owner’s worst nightmare came true: The entire septic system failed. “Every toilet backed up,” says Beth Cannon, who was a bartender at the establishment that prefers to stay nameless. “It was leaking up through the floor grates. We were sandbagging the bar. There was no draining in the sinks. And people wouldn’t leave.”
“The night is over,” she announced time and again, “but these people were all dressed up, and drunk, and would not leave. They were using the bathrooms at other bars and coming back. It took hours to clear the place.”
Cannon says management wasn’t to be seen. “Maybe they were working behind the scenes, calling City Hall.” But on the big night, “it was just us, the bartenders, up there alone. Whatever the regular usage of the system for the rest of the building, it wasn’t 300 people drinking.
“You work, you train, you polish, you’re ready—and you spend the whole night bleaching the floors,” says Cannon, who went on to tend bar at Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks.
Be it a cock-up, kerfuffle or outright calamity, opening night obeys Murphy’s Law like bloopers follow Biden. And since opening night now often comprises a series of “soft” openings to iron out the wrinkles before a grand opening, opportunities for mishaps are endless.
The goofs are not always a reflection on the effort or talent of the chef or owners. It happens to the best prepared. The trick is in how the restaurateur and staff overcome the indignities.
Proprietor of two places in the North End, Damien DiPaola saw not one but both restaurants delayed before their openings, first in 2008, then 2011, due to red tape. He estimates he lost about $25,000 gross per week for 14 weeks. The total bill: about $700,000.
With the opening of Ristorante Damiano (now Carmelina’s) on Hanover Street, “I was ready by April (2008),” he says. “I own the property, and my tenant’s lease had expired in December. He took his beer and wine license with him. I bought another. But the City of Boston wouldn’t let me open until the old license had a ‘proper home.’ How crazy is that? Cost me the whole summer.”
When he tried to open Vito’s Tavern on Salem Street, the delay stretched from April to August of last year. Says DiPaola, it was “because the previous tenant hadn’t paid his taxes. You can’t really blame the city, but between all the bureaucracies, they sure don’t make it easy to open a business, pay meals taxes and hire people.”
Nancy Mickiewicz of the Boston Licensing Board explains that, yes, a liquor license attaches to a place, not a person. So the new holder must transfer the license to a new address before the previous place can be recertified. The state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission won’t authorize an opening until all state taxes, liens and fees on the property—old and current—are paid in full. This can lead to hurt feelings, to say the least.
By sheer numbers, Todd English is the warhorse of the opening process. He’s been through “70 to 75, if you count my consulting, managing, owning and all.” This includes arguably the longest-delayed reopening in the city.
Olives, his flagship in Charlestown, launched 23 years ago, but closed after a grease fire in 2010. The restaurant didn’t reopen until last month. He wrestled with the city licensing board over the attenuated construction, appearing before them at least four times, during which he got scolded that he better hurry up or lose his license.
“It certainly took longer than we wanted,” says English. “We’d uncover one thing and fix it, and discover another, like remodeling a house. We wanted to do it right and that took extra time. And money.”
English adds that the travails of restaurant openings—here or in New York or Las Vegas—are rote. “The AC wouldn’t work, or we’d get pretty popular and be overcrowded. We’d have to pull people outside, which is not nice, but we’d give them hors d’oeuvres while they waited.”
It took eight months between conception and completion of Brian Poe’s new hotspot, the Tip Tap Room on Cambridge Street in Beacon Hill. He well remembers the horrors and is in no rush to do it all again.
“When I first came to Boston,” says Poe, also of Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake on Boylston Street, “I palled around with guys with big boats. They used to talk about white squalls. I saw their eyes, and I knew. There are things you just don’t joke about.”
Opening Tip Tap “was a wild run,” he says, pointing out that the first soft opening was in June, and there has yet to be a grand opening. “I was a little embarrassed at the first night,” he says, “because I didn’t expect the crowd.”
Then there were the oopsies. “Someone got upset about something, I guess, and filled the toilets with paper towels. ‘Hey, you got a plumber around?’ one of my guys asks. Yeah, sure, why wouldn’t I have a plumber on hand? Then there’s the cook doing Facebook on my touch screen, and the computers freeze. Entrees are served before apps. There are people here for two hours for a birthday dinner, and we forget the birthday candles.”
Then it rained. “And I have French drains that I just spent $30,000 on, and they flood.”
The very next morning, his crew was cooking up pots of stock boiled from scratch.
“The steam sets off the fire alarm, so I get to know the whole fire department that’s two blocks down.”
Opening night, says Poe, was “very emotional. I got Yelped in the first 20 minutes. And I thought, how can I come back to you on this? I’ve only been here 20 minutes!”
For Ron Abell, senior executive chef for Fenway Park, every year brings a brand new opening day, with resulting horrors. For the stadium’s premium areas, Abell fields a team of some 120, half of them rookies. They have to serve fans at about a dozen “restaurants,” from the luxury boxes and private suites to the catering operations for game-day and non–game-day festivities.
“It’s controlled chaos,” says Abell, who came to Fenway six years ago from the more rarefied perches of Icarus, Maison Robert and Biba. Under the auspices of the corporate food–service provider Aramark’s apprenticeship program, “Every first week in April, we have a new team of students and interns, all greenhorns,” he says. “There are 150 different ways to prep food. And each opening, I’ve got 50–60 newbies who all do it differently.” Fortunately, he’s got veterans on staff like executive chef Nookie Postal, who was featured on this season’s reality-TV show Around the World in 80 Plates. But Abell’s still dealing with a lot of crossed signals, not to mention oddly chopped lettuces.
“This is a ballpark, but our customers know good food. If some big executive thinks his fish is overcooked, I may be on the other side of the park, but I have to take care of it,” says Abell. “There are so many components. The owners are constantly doing big projects, and it can be the 12th hour, and there’s still construction going on. Every season is a new opener, on the field and in the kitchen.”
Opening night was a two-year goal for Alexis Gelburd-Kimler, who took her time moving from managing Aquitaine in the South End to launching West Bridge in Kendall Square this May. “For months, my partner [chef Matthew Gaudet] and I sat across from each other during construction making lists. I’m a crazy list-maker,” says Gelburd-Kimler. “And you won’t believe all the things we forgot.”
Toilet-paper holders (“I ran home and screwed one off my wall,”), steak knives (“We went with the generic,”), even coffee creamers. “Matthew and I have been in this business a long time, maybe 30 years combined. Here we spent millions of dollars, and still forgot the little things.”
But for Gelburd-Kimler, opening is “the best high and the most stressful high. Watching your staff work together for the first time, it’s like watching your child walk: painful scary.”
But, she adds, “You have to let go.”
Todd English’s Tips for a Restaurant Opening Party
• Make sure your invite list is the right mix of loyal customers, VIPs and fun people. They help create energy.
• Music should not drown out conversation, but should be heard enough to get people moving.
• It helps to have drinks both passed and available at the bar. Many people like to have a drink in hand when they walk into a party. I like to have a signature cocktail with an entertaining name available for guests, as well. This helps when you have a liquor sponsor that you’d like to promote.
• As the host, don’t stay in the kitchen. Be out there mingling.
• Some of the best parties we’ve had included an interactive element where guests were either watching and participating in a cooking demo, cocktails being made or a red carpet photo shoot.
• This is the chance to showcase the menu. One of the biggest missteps of restaurant openings is that there isn’t enough food being passed around.
• Don’t turn people away at the door who may not have known about the opening and were just coming for dinner. Either invite them in to enjoy the event or give them a business card with a note on the back inviting them in again with a complimentary appetizer.