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Q and A with a Real Live Restaurant Owner  RSS feed

 
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Hi everybody, thought it would be useful to put myself on the operating table and let you poke.

I own Restaurant Gwendolyn in San Antonio, TX. It is the only restaurant in this city that refuses white trucks of any kind. We throw rocks at the Sisco truck as it rolls by. Every perishable ingredient we use is from within 150 miles of here. Fine dining, multiple course. Small but very fancy place. Always in the top three restaurants in all its eight years, (often number 1 of those three). James Beard Finalist, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel (Bizarre Foods), lots of honors and medals, all that stuff.

(Actually I own five restaurants, but the other four do use some quantity of cross-country produce and other shit I don't agree with--and I'd be happy to talk about that too.)

I will tell you how much I can pay for what I buy, what I care about in my business model, how much I make in a year (as a company and personally), what my customers care about and will pay for--whatever you want to know.

So who's gonna take first whack?
 
gardener
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Hey Michael, very cool, thanks for offering to answer questions. I'm curious as to how you buy your locally sourced ingredients. I'm sure regulations may vary from state to state, but do you buy directly from the farmer, or do you have to go through some sort of broker who buys from the farmer? If you do buy directly from farmers, do you have any sort of formal contract that you get first dibs on what they have to offer or do you operate on handshake agreements, or is there no agreement and a farmer may show up any day of the week with whatever he/she has to offer?
 
pollinator
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Wow, Michael this is fantastic!

I am a firm believer in following the financials. I have been trying to set up a way for restaurants in Richmond to benefit from the local production (I'm ~ 45 min from there), but struggling with the "why" on their end. My only exposure to the high-end scene here was one trip under duress to a "fancy" French place that was serving clearly frozen cornish X at preposterous prices, claiming "sustainably sourced". This place is very successful, takes weeks to months to get prime reservations. It was all I could do not to post about the experience and trash their reputation. They copped to it when I pressed, but the decision maker wasn't there to find out why they were sourcing that way, and my wife wouldn't really put up with it on our anniversary (to her credit). How do you separate from the greenwashing on your business end, and how do local producers find allies in the industry? I think they want to. The servers were very knowledgeable about the recipe's origin in the chef's travels to Bhutan or whatever, but they couldn't tell me even what country of origin for the chicken. They were proud of the New Zealand lamb while there are millions of sheep in the state. There is a higher cost of production here, and it will be reflected on lower margins or higher pricing, so it needs to fit their business model.

Anyhow, I guess my question comes back to the money:
1) How many establishments can likely be supported in a city per 100k population that pay premium prices for premium local products (ballpark)? Population here is probably median to high foody hipster%/median disposable income.
2) How do I identify those? The greenwashing is intense! Lots of virtue signalling, low actual virtue situation.
3) To what degree does the chef have a play in the business decision to use premium products?  I guess the core is who is the decision maker?
4) Are there good turnkey tools that allow for supply chain integration from restaurants to multiple producers to decrease the administrative time and reliably predict supply?

I am not actually producing beyond my own needs, I'm trying to use my business background to help the local guys get plugged in. I am considering setting up a tiny VC or something to help the cause, because this will require capital/qualifying alternative business plans. If someone is doing that where you are that you know, maybe you can comment.

    
 
pollinator
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What ingrediant do you wish you had that is not available within 150 miles?

Do you butcher your own meats?
 
Michael Sohocki
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James Freyr wrote:Hey Michael, very cool, thanks for offering to answer questions. I'm curious as to how you buy your locally sourced ingredients. I'm sure regulations may vary from state to state, but do you buy directly from the farmer, or do you have to go through some sort of broker who buys from the farmer? If you do buy directly from farmers, do you have any sort of formal contract that you get first dibs on what they have to offer or do you operate on handshake agreements, or is there no agreement and a farmer may show up any day of the week with whatever he/she has to offer?



We have a couple of channels.

The most obvious one is the farmers market at Pearl Brewery, which is our best accumulation of local production in SA. We buy direcy from the farmer wherever possible because this is the lowest price for me and the greatest benefit to them. The more middlemen you put in the mix, the higher the price and the more bullshit. My farmers and ranchers are rife with stories of resellers who buy one case of lamb chops, once, to slather their website with the ranch logo and patois, then switch right to a product from Sisco. Bait and switch is rampant in our industry, and there is no protection or enforcement for "local" or "sustainable" labeling, so middlemen (and the vast majority of restaurant) greenwash themselves at the expense of farmers and ranchers out there sweating their asses off actually doing the thing. Farmers are not known for their deep pockets--so civil suits of libel, misrepresentation, defamation of character, and perhaps forgery are unheard of.

(Short answer, the shorter the food chain, the better.)

As for formal contracts, that's hard to do when you are a small fish in a big pond. While it's true that I spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with local farmers every year, that may only amount to two grocery bags of heirloom tomatoes from this guy, and two bags of asparagus from that guy, ten pounds of red bliss potatoes, six heads of cabbage and one head of raddichio for garnish, and that's it--I'm square for all of Saturday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and maybe even Thursday depending on sales.

So, like any other manifestation of capitalism, to the victor go the spoils. Large companies who buy thousands and thousands of cases of product get their voices heard, and businesses like me get sloppy seconds a lot of the time, and you have to catch as you can.

Big likes to deal with big, so those farming operations who are looking to fill several semi trucks don't give a shit about people like me. Money talks.

I tend to build the best relationships with medium-sized farmers, around the 10 to 20 acre range. They are typically family farms, with zero employees, intend to grow food for independent sale, through farmers markets and other direct sale vehicles. They cannot compete at the incredibly low price bracket of the truck farmers, and since this is a fool's errand they are guaranteed to lose, they don't play.

For this group of farmers, I do receive preferential treatment. Farmers cannot survive on the five dollar impulse purchase of some 25 year old guy in flip-flops trying to impress his girlfriend on a Saturday morning. They need a dependable source of income, month in and month out. I find this keeps people alive better then one large purchase. I buy from a handful of families. It is rarely more than $200 purchase, but they can count on me to spend at least $30 to $60 every single time they come out, winter or summer, rain or shine.

Animals we have always had a policy of buying whole, and butchering them from head to tail and using every last piece. This benefits me because it is the lowest possible price that I can pay for ethically raised product, and I will add the value myself as I see fit. It benefits the farmer because I don't buy a leg of a goat, and they cannot raise the leg of a goat. They can either raise a goat or not raise a goat. Every other restaurant that I've ever seen has no notion of this and couldn't care less. They will buy a whole box of chops, and screw you for the rest: "not my problem".

When we take in a steer (a cow, actually my preference is retired birthing cows, which are just more interesting to eat), it's a scary investment for a small restaurant. I will write a check for close to $2,000, and watch my food budget take a dive for the rest of the month. It's like a B-52 mid-flight, and kill the engine. It can be a real white knuckle ride climbing out of it-- and almost no operators in the world are willing to stomach that kind of risk (which puts the control in the hands of meat packing plants and stockyard producers).

The second way, which I like less but makes me look better, is it a small, local product distributor that comes out of Austin, called farm-to-table. They carry a much broader variety of stuff: I can get six different kinds of mushrooms, avocados you would never see otherwise, you would never see otherwise, animals you would never see otherwise, things that could not be sold at a farmers market at a high enough price or grade enough volume to make it worth the while of a producer to make. San Antonio is largely intellectual backcountry, and the majority of our population wouldn't know what to do with a lion's mane mushroom at gunpoint: they might try to wash their car with it.

Here, except for a precious few clients or farmers and restaurants, tomatoes don't have "kinds"--so marketing on the basis of Cherokee this and Trail of Tears that is mostly a losing proposition.

Austin, however, has intellectual tastes and are willing to pay to satisfy them. Since of farmer is at the mercy of their clientele, giving farmers a greater reach that includes refined palates such as those of Austin allows them to produce more interesting, more risky food products. Although I dislike putting another link in the food chain (and you bet there ARE cases of bullshit: Iowa pork or Colorado corn that's snuck onto the list to fill up the corners when local production is low), the greater variety I can reach this way makes me more competitive with restaurants that think nothing of picking up the phone and ordering a case of lobster and three packs of uni from Tsukiji.

Solid?
 
Michael Sohocki
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Tj Jefferson wrote:Wow, Michael this is fantastic!

I am a firm believer in following the financials. I have been trying to set up a way for restaurants in Richmond to benefit from the local production (I'm ~ 45 min from there), but struggling with the "why" on their end. My only exposure to the high-end scene here was one trip under duress to a "fancy" French place that was serving clearly frozen cornish X at preposterous prices, claiming "sustainably sourced". This place is very successful, takes weeks to months to get prime reservations. It was all I could do not to post about the experience and trash their reputation. They copped to it when I pressed, but the decision maker wasn't there to find out why they were sourcing that way, and my wife wouldn't really put up with it on our anniversary (to her credit). How do you separate from the greenwashing on your business end, and how do local producers find allies in the industry? I think they want to. The servers were very knowledgeable about the recipe's origin in the chef's travels to Bhutan or whatever, but they couldn't tell me even what country of origin for the chicken. They were proud of the New Zealand lamb while there are millions of sheep in the state. There is a higher cost of production here, and it will be reflected on lower margins or higher pricing, so it needs to fit their business model.

Anyhow, I guess my question comes back to the money:
1) How many establishments can likely be supported in a city per 100k population that pay premium prices for premium local products (ballpark)? Population here is probably median to high foody hipster%/median disposable income.
2) How do I identify those? The greenwashing is intense! Lots of virtue signalling, low actual virtue situation.
3) To what degree does the chef have a play in the business decision to use premium products?  I guess the core is who is the decision maker?
4) Are there good turnkey tools that allow for supply chain integration from restaurants to multiple producers to decrease the administrative time and reliably predict supply?

I am not actually producing beyond my own needs, I'm trying to use my business background to help the local guys get plugged in. I am considering setting up a tiny VC or something to help the cause, because this will require capital/qualifying alternative business plans. If someone is doing that where you are that you know, maybe you can comment.

    



Hi, TJ.

I addressed the subject of greenwashing to some extent in the previous blurb, that there really is no legal protection that you can tack on their ass and light on fire (though, obviously, I wish there was). There are no "local police". Labeling laws set forth and guarded (well...somewhat) by the USDA pertain to the things we've all heard by now, the "Organic" and "Kosher" and...I even cringe to utter it,  "Natural". Words that have been twisted an co-opted into the weirdest sorry consequence of anceatoe to their original intent possible. (Like in Lord of the Rings "orcs" were derived from "elves" in some awful way.)

As for the fancy French Corny Cross, the master is out and they're gonna make goddamn sure the master is out because their business model depends on maintaining an inability to answer these questions. (It would not surprise me if it was actually the chef you were talking to.)

The sad reality is that restaurants and purveyors greenwash because IT WORKS! Doing real good requires study that normal people have no desite to invest in. We live in a downhill society: the less work the better. If you thunk producers don't know this, you'ze welcome to another thunk.

Producers, manufacturers, dealers, servers, farmers, bartenders, and car salesmen absolutely bank on your level of intillectual investment lasting less than their spiel. This is, I might theorize, the OBJECT of a "spiel". To satisfy your little head, get you to shut up and get the pipein your mouth. It assumes--obviates, obscures, wears out--a consumer from prying any deeper. 

the answer (which the powersthat be are going to kick and scream and fight you every step of the way) is consumer awareness and giveashitness. Since the aircraft carriers of government protection have their bread buttered elsewhere, the only real tools that we have to exact this change are the same ones that address humanitarian crises: independent journalism, social media, and public embarassment.

Take photos of the dumpster behind this angelic restaurant, with its mainline distributor boxes, and IBPbeef and whatnot, and blast it on social media with an explanation to the rubes of why this is lying and counterfeit.

Press often loves these stories--ratings for embarassing, breaking stories are fabulous.
 
Michael Sohocki
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I will answer the numbered questions after each number:

1) How many establishments can likely be supported in a city per 100k population that pay premium prices for premium local products (ballpark)? Population here is probably median to high foody hipster%/median disposable income.

>>>All of them. Only drop your entire mentailty of "premium". We can only win the battle of centralized and commodified production if we can produce competitively in a sustainable, decentralized model. If the object is sticking hipsters then we have lost already.

2) How do I identify those? The greenwashing is intense! Lots of virtue signalling, low actual virtue situation.
>>>Shed light.They are in it to make money, that's the cold hard truth. The first rule of profit is slicing off anything that doesn't yield dollars.  If their clients give a shit, their back is against the bricks to follow suit.

3) To what degree does the chef have a play in the business decision to use premium products?  I guess the core is who is the decision maker?
>>>The customer is the decision maker. As a busines ownerand a chef, I may swear up and down that I want to serve vegan Ethiopian curry...until the bank comes to take my stove away.

4) Are there good turnkey tools that allow for supply chain integration from restaurants to multiple producers to decrease the administrative time and reliably predict supply?
>>>Yes, sort of, but...be careful with the word "good." Like I said they're in business to make money. If I'm a middleman my job is to serve my investors by squeezing both ends to leverage the middle. I can entice farmers into doing this by taking their crop off their hands (but for 50% of your sticker price, and thanks for playing), and to entice restaurants by filling their marketing with pronouns (for 200% of the sticker price, and thanks for playing). And these organizations are the polar opposite of "loyal": someone offers them squash for a buck less a case, they'll drop you like a bad habit--and may even leave your name on their roster, if they like it better.

The best chain is short and visible. The more blind corners you put between you and your end consumer, the more things can go astray.

I am not actually producing beyond my own needs, I'm trying to use my business background to help the local guys get plugged in. I am considering setting up a tiny VC or something to help the cause, because this will require capital/qualifying alternative business plans. If someone is doing that where you are that you know, maybe you can comment.

The BEST person you can serve is yourself--this is most direct, highest return, least moving pieces, highest idealogical impact, lowest carbon footprint, and most sustainable. Then concentrate on the next CLOSEST, with a clear expectation of diminishing return, the further from the center you go.
 
Michael Sohocki
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Price structure:

An intelligent chef/manager/owner/bean counter is not as concerned with the number of dollars wemake as qe are in the number of dollars we keep.

To make a dollar with food, I have to buy stuff, then I have to do stuff to it. The buy stuff category is called food cost. The do stuff category is called labor cost.

In restaurants, as in any other profit-making Enterprise, the number that concerns us from day to day is called our Prime cost. This is your material cost ( in my case meat, vegetables, oil, flour and so on), plus the cost of the humans to do the thing.

Prime cost in a higher ticket item tends to be higher ( in my fine dining restaurant I aim for 60%), and Prime cost on Lower ticket items tends to be lower (a chain burger restaurant this shooting for 50% or less).

(These are also called your "controllable expenses", since we had some measure of control over them. This is what managers are paid to maximize. The money left over after Prime cost pays for your uncontrollable or fixed expenses--rent, insurance, licenses and so on, and hopefully, there is profit left at the end.

A respectable profit margin at the end of the day is $0.10 on the dollar. If I sell $100 of stuff and I purchase intelligently, manage my staff efficiently, do everything I'm supposed to and there are no accidents or surprise repairs, I can theoretically go home with $10.

You can reach this magic number by either food or labor choices. Say I sell a sandwich plate for ten bucks, and I want to hold my Prime cost at 60%. I can spend $2 on the food and $4 doing stuff to it, and make it. I can spend $4 on the food and $2 doing stuff to it, and make it.

One happens at the expense of the other. This is why prefab products are so popular with operators: if you can lower my labor cost, I can spend more making myself look good, and outperform my competitors. If I have the train an adult to butcher an entire animal, creating a human with this skill set is going to cost me two years, and hire labor over the course of those two years.

If my steaks come already pucked in 10 oz portion control plastic bags, I can grab any teeny bopper off the street and pay them 8 bucks an hour to cut bags and slap them on the grill.

This is how math plays into the hands of industrial models. Play the game, make the money, buy the Jaguar.

I shoot for about 18% labor cost, with the understanding that I'm going to flub some of the time, and I hope that gives me enough of a cushion to catch myself before I hit 22.

My lunch check average hovers around $12-$15. My dinner check average hovers around $80-100.

For any animal, which is the main component on most middle course and entree courses, I try to stay under $8 a pound, considering there will be loss on the outside of aged red meats, and loss of around 50% in butchering of anything with bones, skin, Etc. For plants, I try not to pay more than 3.50 a pound in general, although there are a few exceptions that I can make the subject of their own plate that people will pay real money for--like asparagus ($10/#), or oyster mushrooms ($14/#).

(The rest of the math you can pretty much slice-and-dice yourself.)
 
Michael Sohocki
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wayne fajkus wrote:What ingrediant do you wish you had that is not available within 150 miles?

Do you butcher your own meats?



Agh, more interesting seafood. I've served black drum and Gulf oysters until I want to blow my brains out.

My competitors have an incredible advantage in that they can buy salmon from anywhere anytime, and tuna, and calamari, and other hood ornament ingredients. Diners are, sadly, really REALLY ignorant and set in their eating habits. It hurts to say this out loud, but I have people walk into my restaurant, find out that I don't serve salmon (I can't) or chicken (I won't), and walk the fuck out. Every day.

I may purchase out of ideals and moral beliefs, but I am competing in an environment that firmly DOES NOT endorse them, the clients and therefore the businesses. I have to accept that I buy local and sutainable for myself, and only a small fraction of my clientele deign to acknowledge that.

Meats--yes, every single animal comes in here whole. This, too, is an economic disadvantage. Not only did I pay more for my product (say another fricking drum), but then I swallow the cost of the bones, for the privelege of taking twenty extra minutes a fish to scale, filet, debone and portion to pan-ready chunks--while a competing seafood restaurant is wheeling and dealing with cryo-vacced plastic lobes they can rain down on that flat top like a machine gun. They can POUR food out of that kitchen--and it's no surprise that they have over two hundred seats, and thirty servers, and a multimillion dollar state of the art facility, and financial backers.
 
wayne fajkus
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What are the rules for gamefish? Can an angler catch a gamefish and sell it to you? Flounder, black drum, red snapper,  etc.

I was surprised to hear black drum. I dont think ive ever seen it served before. When i was a kid and restrictions on oversized drum werent there, we would bring home a dozen 40"+ on a weekend spawning run. Many people look down on the big ones (worms). They have a bad reputation.  Smaller ones, no problem. My dad had a large family to feed. The drum run was huge.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Michael,

Thanks for your input. Based on it, this takes a very organic approach. I might have to get off my butt and talk to local-leaning restaurant folks. That may be the furthest thing from my normal social circle! Both my wife and I love to cook and we are thrifty country folk, which means we don't typically find ourselves in any place where the word sous vide would be uttered.

I love your advice about greenwashing. This is the snake in the grass. While it is despicable, it is entirely predictable. I fantasize about digital menus that would allow links from the ingredients to a source and shipment date. Maybe with pictures of the product on the farm. Something proof of life.
 
Michael Sohocki
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wayne fajkus wrote:What are the rules for gamefish? Can an angler catch a gamefish and sell it to you? Flounder, black drum, red snapper,  etc.

I was surprised to hear black drum. I dont think ive ever seen it served before. When i was a kid and restrictions on oversized drum werent there, we would bring home a dozen 40"+ on a weekend spawning run. Many people look down on the big ones (worms). They have a bad reputation.  Smaller ones, no problem. My dad had a large family to feed. The drum run was huge.



Yes, they have worms. But that's not a very fair shake for the drum, because all large fish in the Gulf have worms  near the base of their tail.  They are harmless,  just give us the creeps. They (drum) also have the strangest growths on their bones in the spinal column and in the vertical bones along the spine that they are always a? To cut. The growth is never in the same place.

There is a list of fish that are approved for commercial fishing that the government looks after. This list includes drum, Snapper, flounder, probably a dozen other species. This is the majority of what you will find for sale by any commercial operation. They have to have commercial a fishing license. There actually are strict regulations from the government concerning the method of phishing, months and seasons of the Year, water quality concerning oysters and other buy valves, Etc.

If you have a commercial fishing license, you can catch a fish on a hook and line and sell it to a restaurant, but it's probably not worth your while since the license is expensive as I understand. Those licenses are for large operations with a boat, intended for pulling in hundreds or thousands of pounds of animals at a time.

The two limiting factors for the fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico are the restrictions on a federal listed species, and then the expectation of the client. There are many species that are approved to pull out of the water according to government, but the fishing industry does not have a buyer ready to take them in. This means a streamlining of the fishing and the products that come out of the ocean and go into the store. It's just like your grocery store discontinuing Radicchio, or Romanesco, and doubling up on Broccoli that they know they'll sell.

Terrestrial animals is a similar story. It is possible to raise wildlife provided that they are exotic, not indigenous to a land. It is illegal to sell a wild animal in restaurants, that might begin a run so to speak on a particular wild animal that is a necessary component of a sensitive  biome.

Broken Arrow Ranch is an excellent case study for the growth and sale of exotic or non-protected wild animals in and around the state of Texas. It is not a farm, but a Consortium of private ranches that banded together and made a brand. I'm sure there is price slashing going on behind closed doors in the same way that happens with middle men. But they are a very successful entity.

All chickens, pigs, cows, dear, Etc are required to be killed, skin, eviscerated, chilled and inspected in a state or federally approved facility. This is another barrier to entry to small farmers and Ranchers who either cannot get their product to an abattoir with a state or federal inspector, or cannot afford the processing to do so.

To run an abattoir with its own inspector costs millions of dollars to build and operate. There are a very few exceptions to these legal regulations, but we are talking a handful of mobile processing units in operation in all the world. They don't even scratch the surface of being a statistic.
 
Michael Sohocki
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Oh, I forgot to address "why drum".
Ocean creatures are organized along apyramid structure just as forest or swamp creatures are. Drum represent the gazelles: they eat the grass from the ocean floor, breed easily, grow quicky, and are plentiful for that reason. I am eating low on the food chain, is not flashy, it's the cheapeat fish you can buy, about $3.00/#.

It can taste muddy.

compare to snapper, $13-17/#, flashy, predatory upon fish that are already predators themselves--so like harvesting and eating the tigers, rather than the gazelles. They reproduce slowly, can live for decades, and represent a compression of biomass that is just not conscionable in our current environmental predicament.

I don't care for drum, but that's the story I want to tellso that'swhatI biy the most of. Also we buy farm raised Gulf Coast shrimp, which SUCK, because I do not want to endorse the market for benthic trawling. Do the best you can.
 
wayne fajkus
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Blue crab is plentiful but i bet the labor on the backside is horrendous to get the meat out.

Last time i was getting bait, they were selling fresh fish also. Whiting $3 pound. Red drum at I think $6 a pound. I was surprised at red drum being sold.  Same game fish thought i mentioned earlier.  Like crappie or black bass. Its just not done. At least i didn't think it could be.
 
Michael Sohocki
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Texas produces blue crab. Ironically, I cannot buy Texan blue crab from my fish purveyor (called Groomer's, if you want to know). Since it's not worth the extra expense to carry Texas product that was picked by Texan employees, groomers carries Mexican crab: their argument is that it is still the same gulf, the price is simply cheaper for all parties concerned-- and nobody raises a stink but me.

It's okay with literally EVERYBODY else.

I have been able to get my hands on crab about three or four times in the history of the restaurant, which is 8 years. Blue, and stone crab claws once. All of them shady, under-the-radar procurement tactics.

Frustrating that my commercial environment makes a smooth, polished tunnel to get Mexico to me (and China, and Taiwan, and Chile) but I have to break the law to get something from my own people.
 
Michael Sohocki
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Staff of Life:

Ultimately, our agricultural systems are seated on a foundation of corn, soy, wheat, and rice.

If you buy the pig from the grocery store, it is built with corn and soybeans from the military industrial complex. The egg was laid by the chicken who is built of corn and soybeans raised for the military industrial complex. The milk came from the cow who is built in the same way.

It seems that anything raised on an industrial scale relies on Industrial logic, and is hardwired into this system, and goes back to whoever is holding the keys of these staff of Life ingredients.

I bake bread every day for my restaurant. Everyone who comes to the restaurant is serve fresh bread for free. If I charge for this bread, I would be accused of nickel-and-diming, and my customers will leave me for the next restaurant down the street.

I paid between 16 and $23 for 50 lb bag of flour. These flours very in starch content, protein content, finity of grind, but the one thing they don't vary in is their industrial background. They are all hinged to General Mills or Cargill ADM or Du Pont, or some such. In all the choices at my disposal it is absolutely inescapable.

I have gone looking for independent grain farmers and millers, upon whom to base my restaurant service. I found exactly one mill near Austin called Barton Springs Mill, who gathers wheat that is grown ( purportedly) by local area farmers. This is definitely a boutique product, a little 4 lb bag costs 10 to $13 just for the flour.
You cannot possibly run a restaurant on stuff like this. You will need to sell a loaf of bread  for something on the order of $12  to be able to pay your rent on numbers like these. I mean, maybe somewhere in Sweden or Norway where all your customers have zillions of dollars and are willing to give them to you, could your food be based on these costs. It is food for decorating the pantries of movie stars and film sets--not for actual eating.

My standard markup for dinner is four times--occasionally five, if I got a really good deal on something and the mathematical price would be embarrassingly LOW. I am NOT a greedy restaurant--we cleared half a million in sales last year--and profit at year end was a little under 40,000, which gets divided over me and my five partners.    I live in a trailer, and am trying to learn how to farm sustainably here in the hopes of gaining income--because I am scraping bottom all the time.

So, basically, if food cost and labor cost together (say the baking slicing and grilling that goes into a slice of toast, then washing that plate and grill) cost me a dollar to bring into the world, if I don't charge four dollars, I am paying YOU to eat here.

Vegetables, we are strong (although if I wanted to be very picky, even these come from external, industrial, commodity inputs) I definitely have enough room to play in the varieties of squash and brassicas and onion family available to me here and now. Where I think there is the greatest lapse in sustainable choices is the products dependent on the staff of life. 

Local farmers of animals (even the "grass fed", I can explain if you want) are in the grip of industrial inputs--a chicken farmer can't pour local, sustainable inputs into her flock even if she wanted to. There aren't any. (Except Barton Springs Mill, but to whom will you sell a fifty dollar chicken?)

We need a decentralized, non-commodity, non-subsidized source of the raw calories, fat and protein that are the building blocks on which everything else is based.
 
wayne fajkus
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I am fascinated with this thread. Maybe because of the regionality of you to me. I'm close. You seem very committed and your anger of the system is showing.

I suppose alternates aren't readily available to flour. Like pecan flour.  Either in qty or price. Thats the solution imo.  A perrenial based flour. Texas has pecans.  It would take someone creative like you to take pecan flour and turn it into a bread that is palatable to the masses. Which leads to:

After i slaughtered my first batch of chickens it was so different than store bought chicken. As i thought about it, my conclusion was they spent billions in marketing. and with their takeover they changed how we thought chicken should taste and look, cause its the same bred chicken over and over again. And then i called bullshit on this. MY CHICKEN is how a chicken should taste. Theirs is fraud. But it is a factor that has to be overcome whether it is chicken or feedlot vs grass fed beef. Or stories i hear about carbon monoxide injection in beef packages to deepen the red. Beef used to be 100% beef, now it is beef with natural flavorings. When did THAT happen? . It has an effect once this stuff is the norm. Suddenly the real stuff is abnormal. Different. Icky to the uneducated.
 
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Great topic, I am curious how you handle maintaining compliance with health code in your restaurant. I have worked in restaurants for 13 years and all of the "food safety" requirements seem to revolve around plastic wrap, plastic gloves, and chemicals. Are there ways around this? I have not worked in any establishments that even consider their effect on the environment as far as waste or chemical usage so I would love to learn about any alternatives there are to the use of bleach, or any part of the dishwashing process (corrosive detergents etc.) The ready-to-eat-food thing bugs me the most. Gloves gloves gloves. The amount of plastic trash that results from the creation of one denver omelette is disturbing.
 
Michael Sohocki
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wayne fajkus wrote:I am fascinated with this thread. Maybe because of the regionality of you to me. I'm close. You seem very committed and your anger of the system is showing.

I suppose alternates aren't readily available to flour. Like pecan flour.  Either in qty or price. Thats the solution imo.  A perrenial based flour. Texas has pecans.  It would take someone creative like you to take pecan flour and turn it into a bread that is palatable to the masses. Which leads to:

After i slaughtered my first batch of chickens it was so different than store bought chicken. As i thought about it, my conclusion was they spent billions in marketing. and with their takeover they changed how we thought chicken should taste and look, cause its the same bred chicken over and over again. And then i called bullshit on this. MY CHICKEN is how a chicken should taste. Theirs is fraud. But it is a factor that has to be overcome whether it is chicken or feedlot vs grass fed beef. Or stories i hear about carbon monoxide injection in beef packages to deepen the red. Beef used to be 100% beef, now it is beef with natural flavorings. When did THAT happen? . It has an effect once this stuff is the norm. Suddenly the real stuff is abnormal. Different. Icky to the uneducated.



I have had the same experience. I raise chickens, ducks, goats and sheep, and once raised a wild pig experimentally--and eating my own chickens gives me pause. It not only tastes different. It thinks different.

And...since we're being honest here...

It is difficult for me to eat. And difficult for me to think.

It is a requirement of mine for my cooks at Gwendolyn to kill at least one chicken personally, without help, without being touched by anyone else. This is owning it. It changes you irreversably.

Everyone in modern American society has lived this artifice, not owned the whole cosmic, karmic weight of their choice--in the very same way babies suck on bottles.

My consumption of meat went way down, and my use of mushrooms, meatlike vegetables in meatlike preparations, cheeses, fish sauce (hypocritical, yes, I know) and soy sauce increased. Meat became more like a seasoning, and showed up on my plate at home maybe twice a week--maybe less.

My freezer is full of meat that I personally murdered.

As professional cooks we are taught precisely the opposite: you should see us slam around that tenderloin we are about to cook, hold it between our legs and show it off to our buddies for a few yucks, it's all a joke. We find whole tubs of rotten chicken or fish or whatever crammed in the back of the walk in, and think nothing of chunking the whole tub (including the tub, because "fuck the chef, I'm not washing this shit").

We'll make drinking plans while we do it. We'll sing Soundgarden while we do it. It's really nothing.

This is the mentality that our social gas tank is full of. It's what we run on. Slash and burn. Take no prisoners. It requires an act of suspended disbelief to maintain it--possible, for the most part, because of our distance and obscurity from the cutting room floor.

After the chicken killing, my cooks are usually broken from this swaggering machismo in one shot. It's actually pretty moving to watch.

And when THEY find a rotten animal in the back of the fridge, it's hard to explain, but you can tell what's going on in their head. They take it out gingerly. They wince, and kind of cradle it. They go find out who did it.

Everyone sees it, we look away. It hurts.

We know what it took.
 
Michael Sohocki
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Aaron Tusmith wrote:Great topic, I am curious how you handle maintaining compliance with health code in your restaurant. I have worked in restaurants for 13 years and all of the "food safety" requirements seem to revolve around plastic wrap, plastic gloves, and chemicals. Are there ways around this? I have not worked in any establishments that even consider their effect on the environment as far as waste or chemical usage so I would love to learn about any alternatives there are to the use of bleach, or any part of the dishwashing process (corrosive detergents etc.) The ready-to-eat-food thing bugs me the most. Gloves gloves gloves. The amount of plastic trash that results from the creation of one denver omelette is disturbing.



Hi, Aaron.

My compliance with sanitation inspectors is fringy at best. Inspectors are taught to only see the world exactly one way: cool, clean, covered, and the thousands and one regulations that are admittedly formed around the notion of keeping people safe. "Approved" chemical in x-number of PPM (bleach, say) is just a number. Got it, you pass. Miss it, you fail.

Like other enforcers, interpretation of what they enforce is strongly discouraged by their bosses, and they are sure as hell not hired for any affinity to cooking or food culture.  They are trying to walk a straight line and get their bills paid, just like cops. If the police stopped to contemplate and interpret for themselves why (or whether) parking in a loading zone is illegal, the whole top-down system would fall apart. Food inspectors are no different. They will stick you for sausages hanging at room temperature in the basement--and they sure as hell don't want to hear a lecture about Italy during the Rennaisance, or deliberate bacterial innoculation with beneficial organisms that occupy the substrate and drive off pathogenic organisms. You will only piss them off.

(And they CAN actually shut your ass down if you really, really want to pick a fight with an inspector. Unless you are independently wealthy, this is probably not a bright thing to do.)

I argue against the plastic glove thing at Gwendolyn, because I believe it screws up handwashing practices. I can't tell you how many times I have seen cooks standing around outside the dumpster door taking drags off cigarettes in the plastic gloves they're slicing your brunch prime rib with. I don't "win" this argument, I just take the hit and lose the points. (Well, okay, sometimes I give in.)

When I kill my own animals, like a sheep for instance, it is illegal to serve it in any restaurant because it has not been killed, processed and inspected in a licensed abbatoir--even though I know that I have paid greater attention, and done a cleaner job throughout the procedure, than a commercial processor with poorly trained, overworked staff busting through hundreds of animals a day could possibly do. It is illegal. That doesn't mean I don't.

There is a caveat for procedures that can be proven healthful by other means than the standard sanitation checklist, a permissable variance. This formal appeal is called a HACCP plan. It must be approved and registered with the city, and you demonstrate on paper how this procedure is safe, and identify the "critical control points" at which, if something goes astray, the process is halted and the dangerous foos won't make it to the consumer. Hanging salumi is an example of this. You will be expected the show written records for every day and step this kind of legal deviation is in place.

Inspectors tend to hate this because you don't fit in the checkbox.... it forces them to think. And when you're done dragging them across a lecture on T-SPX and thermophylic bacteria and pseudomonads, they'll knock five points off your score because they don't like your sink handles just to make sure you know who's holding the stick.
 
Michael Sohocki
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Just for fun...when the inspector scolds you for leaving raw meat uncovered point out that covering raw meat with plastic creates precisely the anaerobic environment that pathogenic bacteria favor...and watch his eyes light up.

:p
 
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Hulloooo.

     I grow stuff in fish-poo. My heirloom Genovese Basil has a very delicious smell - that is quite powerful. It produces like crazy. 3 questions:

1. Genovese Basil tastes a little like soap - folk like this?

2. How much should I ask the Italian Restaurant across the street for a given quantity (sprig, pound, ounce)

3. How would you recommend I approach the guy?
 
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Thank you for taking the time to be here, and shed light on your restaurant, and philosophy of olde world real food.  Your website is a blessing; food, from close by, in season, fresh, humanely raised and killed, an old fashioned kitchen, be still my heart : )  I only wish for more publicity and then, replication of what you are doing,  I just finished Joel Salatin's book, Folks, This Ain't Normal, talking about the very issues you seem to be overcoming, and quite well.  Well, except for your profit, it does seem quite low. 

Congratulations on making it work : )  Thank you for being available for questions. My only question would be to implore you to open here in my small Florida town : ) 
Mama used to say, "If wishes were horses, all beggars would ride"

May God continue to bless your effort, your honesty.


 
 
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Do you, or anyone in this thread, think that there is a role for the backyard food forest to contribute to our local food system?  

I have been developing my 1/2 acre backyard food forest/forest garden over the last 8 years or so. We have lived here 28 years, so I also have a few mature fruit and nut trees.

I have around 200 varieties of edible plants, including 40 apple varieties grafted onto about 6 trees. Lots of berries, nuts, grapes, plums, figs, hardy kiwis, a few mushrooms, and many other things. Lots of native plants, which i see as the foundation of the whole system.  No animals though, besides a cat, dog, and thousands of mason and bumble bees (I don’t have time to care for more animals). I do encourage wild birds, wasps, and snakes, for insect and slug control.

I am finally putting in a raised bed no-till vegetable/herb garden.

Overall the food forest is doing great, I don’t do any fertilizing or spraying, just a little pruning, weeding, pest harassment, and lots of harvesting.

My main goal is to be able to walk into my yard any day of the year and pick something to eat.  I am very close to achieving that goal.

However it is just a hobby, I still have a regular job 25 minutes away.

Of course I cannot possibly eat everything I grow.  I have been trying to harvest and give away my surplus, but I can no longer keep up. I didn't think about how much time it takes just for harvesting.  So the birds and other creatures in my neighborhood are well fed

I have invited friends over to u-pick, however there is something new ripening every few days, which doesn't work with most people's schedules.

What I think would be ideal is if some knowledgeable foodie person came by every couple of days and took whatever they want, leaving me enough for my needs and reporting any problems they spot, making suggestions on changing the plant mix, etc. In return maybe I could get a good deal at their restaurant every once in a while. This person wouldn't need to be a chef at the restaurant, maybe they are just a food gatherer?

Any thoughts?
 
Michael Sohocki
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Spencer Miles wrote:Hulloooo.

     I grow stuff in fish-poo. My heirloom Genovese Basil has a very delicious smell - that is quite powerful. It produces like crazy. 3 questions:

1. Genovese Basil tastes a little like soap - folk like this?

2. How much should I ask the Italian Restaurant across the street for a given quantity (sprig, pound, ounce)

3. How would you recommend I approach the guy?



Hi, Spencer.
1. yes, the classic, my permanent favorite. The most important thing in Basel is the strength of the volatile oil that gives it its taste. Genovese is the best all-around hitter. The trouble I have run into, and this is not specific to Genovese, is that large amounts of Basil from commercial outfits just tastes like lettuce in disguise. Then as a chef I'm angry, cuz I paid all this money for what amounts to lettuce. I found the plants that live in the Sun, particularly in the hot sun, have more volatile oil in general.

2. In restaurants, we speak pounds. Especially if you're selling basil to an Italian restaurant. If you don't get at least $10 a pound for herbs you're crazy, for the amount of effort that goes into it. Like I have said earlier, the chef or the owner or whatever are really at the mercy of their clientele. If they have a special for $6.99, they are on lockdown with Cisco and you'll really be prying open a clam to get them to do anything else.

3. Nonchalantly walk in during prep time (NOT DURING SERVICE, WE WILL WANT TO KILL YOU) and ask to see the chef. It helps to have their name already, and to have read up on them and be familiar with who you're talking to. Have a pound of cleaned, bagged basil in your left hand. Shake his(her) hand and hand him (her) the basil.

"Take it. Tell me what it's worth. Can I come back around the same time next week?"

Send a followup email with "that basil guy from Tuesday" written in the headline so he won't lose it. Leave your contact information below.

Come back at exactly the time you agreed on. ( if people are one minute late for an interview in my restaurant, you don't have a job.)

Keep in mind this guy might go through 6 lb of Basil in a week. Restaurants can go through an incredible amount of product . Can you fill this order? It's not an easy thing. It's much better to be upfront about your maximum output, than wait for me to find out on a Friday night that you don't have any, and I've cut off my other source.
 
Michael Sohocki
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Dave Miller wrote:Do you, or anyone in this thread, think that there is a role for the backyard food forest to contribute to our local food system?  

I have been developing my 1/2 acre backyard food forest/forest garden over the last 8 years or so. We have lived here 28 years, so I also have a few mature fruit and nut trees.

I have around 200 varieties of edible plants, including 40 apple varieties grafted onto about 6 trees. Lots of berries, nuts, grapes, plums, figs, hardy kiwis, a few mushrooms, and many other things. Lots of native plants, which i see as the foundation of the whole system.  No animals though, besides a cat, dog, and thousands of mason and bumble bees (I don’t have time to care for more animals). I do encourage wild birds, wasps, and snakes, for insect and slug control.

I am finally putting in a raised bed no-till vegetable/herb garden.

Overall the food forest is doing great, I don’t do any fertilizing or spraying, just a little pruning, weeding, pest harassment, and lots of harvesting.

My main goal is to be able to walk into my yard any day of the year and pick something to eat.  I am very close to achieving that goal.

However it is just a hobby, I still have a regular job 25 minutes away.

Of course I cannot possibly eat everything I grow.  I have been trying to harvest and give away my surplus, but I can no longer keep up. I didn't think about how much time it takes just for harvesting.  So the birds and other creatures in my neighborhood are well fed

I have invited friends over to u-pick, however there is something new ripening every few days, which doesn't work with most people's schedules.

What I think would be ideal is if some knowledgeable foodie person came by every couple of days and took whatever they want, leaving me enough for my needs and reporting any problems they spot, making suggestions on changing the plant mix, etc. In return maybe I could get a good deal at their restaurant every once in a while. This person wouldn't need to be a chef at the restaurant, maybe they are just a food gatherer?

Any thoughts?


More power to you, Dave.
All of humanity should be more concerned with the here and now of their own surroundings and sustenance. Eating in restaurants should be--hell, for every point in history up until now, it has been--something extra. A cause de'celebre.

But it's a delusion to think that restaurant goers and consumers at large put emphasis on this behavior that you do, and everyone really should. They absolutely don't. You're getting between them and the TV, man.

So, in a world that runs on money, I would take advantage if I can, while I can.

Sell your extra at a farmers market. This is the largest retail premium that you will get for your product. I hate to say it, and it is common piracy, but I've seen a bell pepper go for $3 in a farmer's market. A restaurant owner cannot possibly compete with that kind of markup. Many farmers markets will allow seasonal participants, where you sell only for a couple of months when the getting is good in your stone fruit crop, or Citrus, or peaches or whatever. You won't see them any other time of year.

To you, it's excess. To them, it's a chance to impress their girlfriends with their worldliness. Take the money, and go buy things you can't grow, like aluminum frame, two by fours, hoses and pipes.
 
Spencer Miles
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Hey, I'm that Basil guy...

Thanks! I was suspicious that this restaurant would be into the Basil - hopping place in the night time. If he has a contract with Cisco, he should be ashamed of himself - Non Buono!!

Due to the cyclical harvest, and my south-facing, house attached greenhouse, I might be able to do a pound or two a week year-round of some very smelly greens. Thanks - especially for the timing part and price :)
 
Michael Sohocki
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Don't give them your price first--just ask what they think it's worth. For all I know, the guy might pay you ten bucks to the HALF pound--praise the Lord, take it--let them do their own talking...just know for yourself in the back of your head, so they don't get you to do anything unreasonable (because we are pirates, and we will certainly try).

You might even tell them what you know about the strength and volatile oils and such (proving to them that you're a better bet than those other guys)...I can guarantee you they've had flim-flam basil like I have. Everybody has.

Sorry I keep reverting to gender-specific language (guys, etc.). Everyone in this scenario could all be female...
 
Spencer Miles
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I try never to name a price when I am the seller, and always try to finagle one before I offer - when I am the buyer.

And, I'm a male. I am a human member of Mankind, dude, fella, guy, schvingin'-dingin', and I am not so fragile as to be bothered by pronouns from someone offering free advice.

Thanks!!
 
Michael Sohocki
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Thank you for all your questions--anything else I can answer before i get up off the table?

Restaurants can be a long-term support for local, sustainable agriculture. But you have to understand their point of view first. Like farmers, restaurants only grow what sells.
 
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Michael Sohocki wrote:Thank you for all your questions--anything else I can answer before i get up off the table?

Restaurants can be a long-term support for local, sustainable agriculture. But you have to understand their point of view first. Like farmers, restaurants only grow what sells.



No question from me, just a huge thank- you, Michael, for taking the time to share your insights.
 
wayne fajkus
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Michael, have you played around with mesquite pods? In the settlement days it was candy for the kids (30% sugar), they'd pop them in their mouth. Also its ground into flour and mixed 5050 with regular flour. 

I want to collect some and experiment, but i'll have to find a forest(should not be hard). I have 3 on my property but they are small. 2 to 6 ft tall.
 
Michael Sohocki
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I have. As a kid, I chewed on them. Little old ladies made mesquite bean jelly--which is really just clear jelly (pectin, sugar, water, etc.) with the beans boiled in them.

Some trees make super sweet ones, others have no sweet at all. You'll just have to walk around the woods chomping on random beans until you make a friend, then remember that tree.

Spurred on by Euel Gibbins, I followed the native Americans in trying to make a cornmeal of sorts from the beans. I used a hand-crank grain mill. It was an exhausting mess, the beans gum up the teeth on the mill, with half-crunched cellulose and some sugars--kind of like tree bark witha dash of maple syrup. Wore myself out before I got any really useful quantity. The resulting mess I steeped like tea in a pot on the stove. While technically edible.....I guess...it was bitter and minerally, in addition to the sweet from which its fame derives. Reminds me a great deal of "sweet feed" that we buy to fatten up thoroughbreds. While I might now attempt to ferment it into wine--and from there to a vinegar--then, I poured it down the drain.

The aforementioned Barton Springs Mill offers a mesquite flour for sale for a kazillion dollars an ounce--it is gorgeous, fine, freeflowing stuff. I must imagine it is toasted/tumble-dried to an extremely low moisture content, then ground (probably at freezing temperature to reduce gumming and extraction), then sieved to be unimaginably smooth. It is wonderful stuff--at Gwendolyn we have added (a free sample) to biscuits and blinis, injera and crepes. Easy peasy, and makes us look real worldly. Toasty, delicious. Anybody would eat it.

But for the energy expenditure that must have passed into that bag, this is definitely not a "savings", about as "sustainable" as the Haber-Bosch process.
 
Michael Sohocki
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<<hugs>>
 
Tj Jefferson
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Michael,

great food for thought. This is such a visceral, practical and real-world experience.

I am hoping that soon there will be an exemption for small-scale slaughter of other animals, not just chickens. I think this would be a jump forward. Since you don't serve chicken that probably doesn't help you, but it was a hard fought battle.

Your story about having the cooks kill the chicken made me clap. If people knew the hot miserable labor it took for a Salvadoreno to get that clamshell of berries to them, if they did the work themselves, there would be little to no wastage. If people had to look an animal in the eyes before taking its life, they would eat meat with reverence.

I don't expect a reply, I just want to thank you for your time spent on this. I get despondent when people want to design "unicorn saddles" and forget that these changes are necessary at the personal level. You have given these people that work for you a gift that will gnaw at them.

I have a project that I started based on this. Win or lose I will post it on here.
 
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How much do you pay your servers?
 
Michael Sohocki
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[quote=Shalom Eigenheimer]How much do you pay your servers?[/quote]

$3.15 is standard hourly wage here. Trainees get 7.50-8/hr for about one week of training (provided it goes well), plus what the full servers choose to tip out trainees (which does actually happen). Servers make the majority of their money from tips, which can be as low as 0 (we have a goose egg of a night...it still happens occasionally), or as high as $300 on a heavy Saturday. Servers hourly wage averages out to around $21 an hour at my restaurant. 
Valet (who also does various serving duties) is paid 5/hr plus 5% of our total sales tipped out by servers (because this position is serving the servers, plus $5 per car they park, plus individual tips from drivers.
Backwaiter (who is a server who has not yet passed servers tests and cannot host their own tables) make between 3.15 and $5, depending on qualifications, plus 3% of total sales tipped out by servers, whom their position serves.

There have been a few NO TIP restaurants where front staff were paid only by the restaurant--notably Danny Meyer and David Chang, both of New York. But this model (while interesting, and I tried it for a year at my pizza shop, which has no servers anyway) resulted in a class action lawsuit that made the New York Times.

There is a law protecting servers from bad employers that requires the employer to reimburse up to minimum wage any server who does not clear min. wage in a forty hour workweek. (But this has never happened in my company to my recollection. )
 
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Thank you Michael
 
He puts the "turd" in "saturday". Speaking of which, have you smelled this tiny ad?
Rocket Oven plan download
https://permies.com/t/rocket-oven-plans
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