(Note: Coquette will be open for dinner tonight at 5:00 PM. For previous chapters of the story of this restaurant, please see the sidebar to the right.)
Friday, October 24 – Three days to opening
Kevin Jennings is sitting at the hostess stand of Coquette, the newest addition to the Urban Food Group’s restaurants, having fun with the computer. He’s moving little squares, diamonds and rectangles around the computer screen. “This is the coolest program ever,” Jennings informs me. He’s talking about Open Table, the country’s leading restaurant reservation system, where customers can go online and book a table at restaurants across the nation. Jennings is configuring Coquette’s floor plan on the system, putting tables where they belong. “I can drag and drop a table wherever I want. It’s so easy.” Actually, it must not be that easy, as Jennings is on the phone with Open Table’s customer service shortly thereafter, trying to reconfigure the shape of the bar area.
Coquette just opened up their reservation system, and as of Friday, they only had a small handful of bookings. But that’s not a bad thing, as they know the walk-in crowd will be brisk and in some ways it’s better to be a bit slow during the first week or two of business, giving the front of the house and the kitchen staff a bit more time to get the entire routine down. And there are concerns about the readiness of the waitstaff. “We’re pretty green,” an assistant manager informs me. “And I think we might be understaffed.” A stack of resumes sits on the bar, and interviews continue to take place. One interviewee is a waiter that I first remember seeing over a decade ago at Caffe Luna. Waiters move around in this industry, and the secret to service success is often being able to retain the best ones the longest.
Today’s the final full training day before tomorrow’s soft opening for friends and family. Tonight, some of the waitstaff will act as customers, whereas others will take their orders, input them into the computer, and bring the food out to their coworkers. Then they trade places.
At 6:30, the waitstaff and bartenders start to stroll in. If there’s one thing that keeps the typical restaurant worker running, it’s caffeine. There are Starbucks cups in the hands of many, whereas others’ drink of choice may be a Diet Mountain Dew or Coke. The kitchen staff drinks soda out of those plastic containers that they use for soup at Chinese restaurants.
You can sense the nervousness of the staff. They’ve seen me around the place for several days, but they still have no clue who I am. One person walks up and introduces himself. “Hi, I’m Samuel. Nice to meet you. Are you one of the co-owners?” Samuel is young and eager, but he wants to make an impression. So does Jeremy Tornow, an experienced restaurant and bar worker, who is returning to the private sector after spending the past few years in the military. I meet folks who have worked at different places in town, hoping to make some more money at this new restaurant, a place with high expectations and a lot of buzz.
“You will be tasting a lot of wines tonight,” Luetgenau tells the staff, “and you will need to be spitting them out. If you don’t like to spit, get over it. You’ll be getting enough residual alcohol just from the tasting.” Chef Rob Bland comes in and gives the front of the house a quick overview. He explains that he’ll be doing this before every dinner service, explaining what might not be unavailable, what will be in short supply, and what to push. He’ll explain what will be on the evening’s cheese and charcuterie plates. Several individuals are then chosen to be the initial waitstaff, about 15 others act as customers, and the remainder sits and observes.
It’s immediately obvious that the first six waiters (they are all men), aren’t very experienced. They wait to be told what to do. They don’t have a lot of initiative. Some of them look as if they’ve never even been in a restaurant, let alone waiting tables. I tell Rasool Nejadi, one of the assistant managers, the obvious – that they have a long way to go before this group will be ready to take care of customers. He agrees and looks very nervous.
Kevin Jennings is not so concerned, however. He’s done this drill several times before and knows what needs to be taught. He tells them about “marking” tables, restaurant-speak for replacing silverware. He reminds them that they will NOT try to be the customers’ friend, that their job is to attend to their needs and nothing more. He demands that if a customer says anything that could be construed as a complaint, a manager must be notified. Customers’ concerns must be addressed when they are dining, not after the fact. “I don’t want to get a phone call from a customer telling me that the dining room was too cold. We want to take care of the customer while they are dining, not later.” One comment of Jennings really struck me. “If you’re behind, ask for help. Don’t put pride before the customer.” This is truly a team approach to restaurant service, an approach that I’ve learned to favor, as it helps to ensure the job gets done properly.
The food slowly starts to appear on the tables. It’s delivered clumsily. Did they serve the individuals on the right or the left – yup, they served on both sides. It’s going to be a long night.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the line is abuzz. These folks know their stuff. No one is green here, and I sense that they’re more concerned about the waitstaff. Rob Bland went over every single dish on the menu earlier in the day, and these folks are chomping at the bit to start firing up these dishes. They’re the polar opposite of the front of the house.
As I go back to watch the waitstaff training, one of the trainees informs me that the kitchen has sent me something to try, the Alsatian tarte flambé, which is a sort of French pizza, featuring a cracker-thin crust, and topped with a gruyere-based fromage blanc sauce, caramelized onions, and lardons. It’s fantastic, although it could use a bit more of the fromage blanc, which I conveyed to the kitchen.
Jeremy Sabo, the executive chef of all the Urban Food Group’s restaurants, sits and chats while I eat. It’s all too obvious to both of us that the waitstaff is far from ready, but he’s not concerned. He knows that it won’t take a miracle to get the service up to speed. He reminds me that I need to order something, so after discussing a few options, I settle on Bland’s version of Coq au Vin and a side of pommes frites with aioli. So few places make great French fries, and I want to see what Coquette can do with them. I’m not disappointed – they’re thicker than shoestrings, letting you experience the fluffy interior beneath the solid crunch from a twice-cooked fry. The aioli is a bit thick, but not too strong with garlic. These are first-rate frites, and I know I’ll be eating plenty in the future.
The coq au vin is not traditional, as this isn’t a slow-braised dish. The chicken is poulet rouge, and it’s very moist. The skin could be a bit crisper when served this way, but it’s full of great flavor. The chicken is served on a bed of winter vegetables: celery root, fingerling potatoes, brussel sprouts, pearl onions and lardons, pulled together by a red wine chicken jus. This is not really coq au vin, but it’s damn good. The jus is perfectly balanced, offering just enough tartness to balance the earthiness of the vegetables.
But I feel for the staff, knowing that tomorrow, they’re about to face as many as 100 guests – non-paying, of course, but guests expecting a solid dining experience. I head home, getting ready to write a story that will tell people to be patient with Coquette – the food will be fine, but it’ll take a while for the service to be anywhere close to solid.
Saturday, October 25 – Two Days from opening
I didn’t expect to visit Coquette for Saturday’s soft opening, as I already had dinner plans made long ago, plans that I couldn’t change. Frankly, after seeing what took place with the staff on Friday, I had no great desire to see this place in such disarray. However, my dinner ended early, and I had to take my daughter to a Halloween party, so I told my 14 year old son (the one who’s into design and food), to put on a nice shirt and join me on a quick visit to Coquette.
As I pulled into a parking spot, I noticed that that the sliding windows of Coquette were open – all of them. This automatically gave the place a vibe that exceeded the already high expectations I had for the restaurant. When I walked in, the place was buzzing with excitement. I saw a few friends and asked them how it was going. Everyone raved about the place, saying the service was very solid. How could that be? I looked around, and water glasses were filled, bread baskets were being delivered, plates were timely cleared. The food wasn’t always immediately brought out, but there weren’t any inordinately long wait times.
I see Galen Prisby, Coquette’s manager and one of the assistant managers, and they’re both beaming. They’re not just relieved, they’re ecstatic. “We did a 180 from yesterday,” Prisby informs me as he came by to chat and to offer my son a dessert (an awesome tarte tatin). “We were here until 3 in the morning, and returned at 8 this morning. We brow beat them, and several folks didn’t show up today. We then started from scratch, giving them lots of positive reinforcement, and the hard work shows.” Prisby looks like a brand new father, he’s so proud.
Kevin Jennings describes how the waitstaff started acting like a team. “They were here with flash cards, testing each other on the menu and wine list and beers.” This team approach is exactly what Jennings wants in his restaurants, and it’s coming true at Coquette.
Luetgenau dropped me an email Sunday morning, apologizing for not being able to talk to me much, when he was focusing on the customers’ needs. He told me that eight employees didn’t show up to work Saturday, after the prior night’s shakedown. An hour before service, they sat them down, letting them know that they were still there because they knew they could do the job or that they saw a ton of potential in them. Luetgenau wrote: “It was a noticeably more confident and comfortable staff, and I saw much great guest interaction complete with good discussions about the food, wine and beer. That being said we aren’t even 60% close, but relatively speaking, for a week of training, these guys were working like real pros last night.”
And so, Coquette opens up for dinner to paying customers tonight. Two days ago, I was going to advise you, my readers, to give Coquette a couple of weeks. But I plan to be there when they open, and who knows, I may be that first paying customer. The kitchen is ready. The staff is ready. The bartenders are definitely ready. And after spending so much time with these people, in this space, I almost feel as if I have a stake in this restaurant, as if I’m more than just a passive observer. Is it because I’ve been there so much, or is it because the folks at Urban Food Group have treated me like they treat all their customers, as someone who is very important? Frankly, who cares? I’m gonna get me some moules frites tonight!