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opening a cafe 101: part 1


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For the past five or six months, I’ve been painstakingly researching the absolute best products to sell in my one of these days to be open café. Grilled cheese sandwiches will be the mainstay. The whole concept is simple – that is, keep things simple by only selling a few things and only sell the best. I checked out two stores with a similar concept and it looked so easy. Time to move to the limelight from my back of the house job where I watched clueless restaurant owners destroy their businesses one after the other. I figure that with my background, I can be a lot more efficient, hopefully not in going out of business in record time. Who cares that I have no culinary experience? Well, I did take a course in gourmet Chinese cooking in 1980. That should be sufficient. Besides, I can throw a few slices of cheese in between a couple of slices of bread and throw it on a panini grill as well as anyone.

Anyone with a brain and with a life probably would have given up the dream immediately after the first (of many) MAJOR setbacks. Bread. Everyone told me this is THE most important ingredient of the sandwich. Okay, seems simple enough, just call up several of the many New York purveyors and get samples. WRONG! In order to make THE BEST, one needs a thick white bread. But the key is THICKLY SLICED. Who would’ve thunk that nobody, well, practically none of NY’s commercial bakeries offer nothing but the standard slice, or perhaps one other size? After about the fourth unsuccessful call, I asked the owner what gives? I started thinking I’d have to add Wusthof knives to my budget. But this can’t be. I remember in ancient times going to the bakery for mom and asking for a sliced rye, no seeds, THICKLY SLICED. The purveyor broke the news kindly to me. They don’t make those adjustable slicers any more. They’re a relic just like I am. A call to Eli’s Bread gave me some hope, but it was quickly dashed. They indeed did have one of those ancient slicers. But they had no customers for thick bread and it sat there gathering cobwebs. And no, they weren’t going to brush off the cobwebs for one lousy customer. Nor would they sell me the machine for less than my entire payroll budget.

I was ready to settle and use NY Bakery’s very thickly sliced bread, one inch. They modified a slicer and took out blades so it would slice to that size. But that was too thick. And I also heard what was to become a theme: we don’t deliver to NJ. They didn’t go for my story (true!) that Jersey City is closer to most of the places they deliver to in NY. People just don’t like New Jersey. I can’t imagine why.

For some insane reason, it took Rachel P to ask if I checked with Balthazar Bakery. Why should I? Their bakery is only a 20-minute ride up the turnpike in beloved NJ. It was too obvious. And lo and behold, not only did they have one of those relic slicers, but also they were more than happy to accommodate whatever thickness I wanted. I had to make 3 trips to my car to load all the samples. Nice folks.

So now I had to figure out what thickness – thickness is measured on a 1 to 10 scale. Normal thickness is 4. So I started with 9. And there began the start of the first of many great experiments.

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Somewhere in Hoboken, the legend has it, there's a slicer that goes to 11.

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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Somewhere in Hoboken, the legend has it, there's a slicer that goes to 11.

Ha, it must be buried in the old terminal. Even the Antique Bakery told me to start living in the 21st century :))

Edited by glenn (log)
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Part 2

I bought a fancy schmantzy home panini grill so I could start experimenting. I couldn’t wait. This was to be the fun part. Well, it was, if you like to eat cheese by the pound. I called various purveyors to check cheese prices. I was astounded. I knew I was gonna have to listen to my mentor and find a way to cut back on cheese expense. After all, you can’t differentiate good cheese from mediocre after you melt it. Or so I rationalized. To my palette, a cheddar from Murray’s Cheese Shop tastes the same as the A&P pre-wrapped slices once you stick it on the grill. The price list from Cheese Works, one of New York’s premier commercial cheese dealers, made my head spin. It was clear that I would have to cheap out on the basic sandwiches, i.e., Cheddar, American, Swiss, Munster, Provolone, etc., if I were to achieve my budgeted food cost. And I would go for broke with the fancy specials that I plan to regularly have. Sigh, compromises so early in the game.

So it was off to Restaurant Depot, supermarket of very ordinary food for very ordinary commercial places like diners. It reminded me of BJ’s or Sam’s Club. Everything comes in ridiculous sizes. However, the prices were right – they keep their prices low by not delivering and selling it in sizes that you need a palette to put it on instead of a shopping cart. I must have ended up with 150 pounds of cheddar and the like. Unfortunately, the thought didn’t occur to me at the time that I had to carry the cheese up to my 4 floor walkup, then throw out Anabelle’s poison in the fridge to make room. So now the freezer was filled to capacity with bread and the fridge was filled with cheese.

But wait! I still needed to buy toppings! Toppings are what’s going to really differentiate my sandwiches from the four other places in the world that specialize in grilled cheese sandwiches. I had some ideas thanks to a wonderful cookbook by Marlena Spieler and a whole bunch of tips from the maniacs on a food forum, eglutton. And, I had a whole list of stores in Manhattan that I wanted to visit. But then I sat down and worked the logistics. Testing fifteen plus cheeses and combinations thereof and testing different breads with different thicknesses could go on and on, ad nauseum. Throw in the toppings, and even a Cray’s computer wouldn’t be up to task for the complexity of the assignment. So, the toppings would have to wait.

Did I mention that I have no culinary experience? After all, I’m just a fucking accountant. Like, I couldn’t get past what oil I should be using to spread on the bread. Or should I use butter? Salted? Do I spread it on both sides of the bread? Okay, time to call for help. Fortunately Kim, a pastry chef I worked with long ago in another lifetime, was available to lead the blind. Thank you thank you Kim – she was a savior. First I got lots of advice over the phone [use butter you schmuck!…but what kind?…it doesn’t fucking matter!] and later on we would spend some time together, shopping and cooking.

Do you have any idea how much time is involved in making sandwiches using a one-sandwich home panini grill? And the prep work? Slicing cheese takes muscle! And keeping track of the cheeses and the breads and carefully (well, that was the intent) making notes of every combo? Hah! And that was the easy part! The ball buster was sampling a couple of dozen sandwiches. Do you have any idea how filling a grilled cheese sandwich is? Taking two bites from each sandwich added up to like eating six sandwiches! Needless to say, my diet was temporarily on hold. And this part of the “testing” went on for several days until I was satisfied with the type and thickness of the bread, how much cheese to use per sandwich and getting an inkling of what cheeses work well as combos. My God, I cannot for the life of me imagine being a chef. This is complicated stuff! Take me back to the safe world of abacuses and spreadsheets. The simplicity concept was beginning to look like an abstraction. And I still hadn’t begun part two of the tasting: throw in toppings as another variable. Yikes!

But I’ll come back to that. Let’s focus on the seemingly simple task of a soda vendor. For all you people from Mars, that’s soda POP. Part of the concept of Melt, yes, that’s the name, is retro comfort food. [though the decor will be decidedly 21st century industrial chic, whatever the fuck that means.] So the soda had to be nostalgic. Another underlying concept of Melt, one that is not presented to anyone except my deepest inner self in rare moments, is having snob appeal. This follows a lifelong pattern of some underlying psychosis, but I think I covered that (in too much detail) in another writing. So, not only does the soda POP have to be nostalgic, but I have to be the only one on the block to carry it. Boylan’s is among the best in the retro category, but for chrissakes, they bottle the stuff in NJ and every other store carries it. I’m not like everybody else [tm, Dave Davies.]

You have no idea what lengths I went to in order to find soda POP that fit these criteria. I spent hours on realsoda.com, bevnet.com as well as other internet sites. And go check the eglutton message board’s soft drinks section for all of my insane questions. I think I have the name and origin of most every soda POP memorized. I even went to a Mexican restaurant a zillion miles from home to check out their Mexican coke and other Mexican sodas. By the way, you really haven’t tasted coke until you’ve tried this stuff. Obsessiveness has its benefits. I called manufacturers all over the country as well as soda distributors. I was leaving no bottle cap unturned.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t coming up with much. I came to the conclusion that there basically is no distribution network for cool nostalgic soda on the east coast. The west coast has more than its share, bastids. So, I’m basically stuck with Boylan, Jones and Whooppee. The latter makes an incredible cocoa cream soda – they were nice enough to ship me some samples, and small enough to have that ever so elusive snob appeal. But too small to carry enough flavors.

Or if that fucktard distributor in Delaware comes through, I could end up with private label sodas, which supposedly surpass the best of them. I drool over the thought of having “Have a belt of strawberry cream Melt” on the label. But I’m waiting three weeks for my samples.

The final solution [tm, pere ubu], the one that will prove my insanity to any non-believers, is to have a palette shipped from realsoda.com in Arizona. I could get a mix of Henry Weinhard root beer, Hansen’s sarsaparilla, Hank's black cherry, Henry Weinhard orange cream, orange nehi, strawberry crush and a choice of dozens and dozens of others. So what if I’d have to charge $2. There’s plenty of other, um, enthusiasts like me, right?

Or if I can find an interpreter to talk to the Mexican coke smuggler, I can sell those under the counter. No deposit required.

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This is a joke rigth?

Seems to me that you should scrap the grilled cheese idea and become the east coast distributer for obscure beverages.

"I watched clueless restaurant owners..." hmmm

Heres an concept for you:

Say that grilled cheese doesn't fly like you think it will. Do you just keep operating untill you run out of money, or do you close the doors? Or are you capable of making a menu change? If grilled cheese is this hard, you might have to hire a chef.

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I'm a distrubutor representative. I've been one for 20+ years. I've watched folks open restaurants so many times, I can't count them all.

I'm telling you this as a friend. You're in deep doo doo. Please reconsider. At the very least, do not, I repeat, do not use any of your own money in this venture.

I'm really not trying to be a wet blanket, but I have a bad feeling about your concept. I hope you prove me very wrong.

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It is an interesting concept, but I can't see it going over unless grilled cheese branches out into 'grilled sandwiches' in general.

Make sure you offer a couple up with some bacon/ham/some sort of meat thrown on for a heartier lunch than just bread and cheese, and you are on the right track. You also might want to think of a 'create your own' type of deal, where the customer chooses the type of bread, cheese, and toppings, and then it ia grilled up custom for them.

The Retro Soda idea is interesting. Different, to be sure, but I personally wouldn't pay $2 for a soda anywhere. I have tried boutique sodas, and for me, they are just not worth the price, then again, I rarely drink soda anyway. IMO you would be better off diverting more of your food budget to quality cheese (which you can tell the difference about when melted, quality cheese makes a huge difference, bigger one than the bread I'd say) and just buying a basic soda fountain setup (or get a fancy furniture antique looking one that serves up basic sodas) so that you can rack up mucho profit from cheap seltzer and syrup.

He don't mix meat and dairy,

He don't eat humble pie,

So sing a miserere

And hang the bastard high!

- Richard Wilbur and John LaTouche from Candide

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I'm no expert, & you don't have to be in the business to have seen hundreds of restaurants come & go. But location may turn out to be a huge plus for this endeavor. Things are happening in JC.

Besides, if you don't follow some of your dreams, what's the point of living?

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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Thanks for the comments. While I honestly appreciate helpful advice, the point or intent of this thread was decidedly not to to solicit any such help. With all due respect, no one can draw any meaningful conclusions from the writings as presented. If you wanna criticize my writing, go for it. I welcome that. Much of the writing is tongue-in-cheek, and if I have to say that, I guess it sucks. Therefore, I'm putting an end to posting this krud here.

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Geeze, you get a lot of feed back and go away mad?

I wasn't trying to squash your dreams, all I was saying is that in the restaraunt business, you have to addapt quickly. You would have to be willing to develop your menu. Perhaps your day-one menu is exactly the optimal selection. Perhaps your the one out a million people to open a restaurant that knows it all.

You start the thread by saying how clueless most owners are. I'll tell you what. I've been there for opening night for restaurants a tad more complicated than a sandwich shop. If you posted thinking that everyone would tell how clever you are, then you are mistaken. If you get good advice and choose not to consider it, then you are truly clueless.

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What a shame I was having a blast watching this story unfold. It was much like AB's Bone in the Throat without the mob/snitch angle.

**************************************************

Ah, it's been way too long since I did a butt. - Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

--------------------

One summers evening drunk to hell, I sat there nearly lifeless…Warren

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Geeze, you get a lot of feed back and go away mad?

I wasn't trying to squash your dreams, all I was saying is that in the restaraunt business, you have to addapt quickly.  You would have to be willing to develop your menu. Perhaps your day-one menu is exactly the optimal selection.  Perhaps your the one out a million people to open a restaurant that knows it all.

You start the thread by saying how clueless most owners are.  I'll tell you what.  I've been there for opening night for restaurants a tad more complicated than a sandwich shop.  If you posted thinking that everyone would tell how clever you are, then you are mistaken.  If you get good advice and choose not to consider it, then you are truly clueless.

I'll second that opinion. What did you expect? :biggrin:

Bruce Frigard

Quality control Taster, Château D'Eau Winery

"Free time is the engine of ingenuity, creativity and innovation"

111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321

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Thanks for the comments.  While I honestly appreciate helpful advice, the point or intent of this thread was decidedly not to to solicit any such help.  With all due respect, no one can draw any meaningful conclusions from the writings as presented.  If you wanna criticize my writing, go for it.  I welcome that.  Much of the writing is tongue-in-cheek, and if I have to say that, I guess it sucks.  Therefore, I'm putting an end to posting this krud here.

wait glenn, don't go! i was enjoying your recount

but i'm confused. was the point of this thread to solicit comments about your WRITING ? were you testing its appeal as some sort of literary piece ?

where in j.c. ? i used to live there. and i like grilled cheese

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I hope glenn's watching because I think I have the answer to his soda problem.  Syrups.  The future is in syrups, son.

Yeah, what she said. :smile:

You can do retro with syrups, too. You would just have to make an intial investment in a cutesy old-tyme soda fountain.

I can't think of a good example, but I remember a working model at the Dr Pepper museum in TX, and I know I have seen them elsewhere.

Offering other options outside of bottled beverages can only work in your favor. As an accountant for a restaurant, you must see firsthand the huge profit margin in that area.

Anyhoo, for what it's worth, I'm interested in reading more about the process of opening your cafe!

Edited by cakewench (log)
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I lied.

Part 3

Did I mention I’m obsessive? This trait has characterized my life. My earliest obsessive-compulsive memory is of staring out of my fifth floor Queens window on Saturdays beginning at 8 AM to see if any of my friends were outside. I’d pace back and forth waiting for someone, anyone, to make an appearance. As soon as I saw someone, I was down the stairs like a shot, brand new Spalding rubber ball or Pensie Pinkie in hand. I was seven years old. Sort of harmless. Skipping ahead ten or so years, drugs became an obsession that brought me to my knees. Now it’s Melt. I research everything until I drive myself and everyone around me crazy. And this I consider my good obsession. Good vs. evil, my life is black or white.

Take coffee for instance. My initial thought was to serve espresso and coffee. Not just any ol’ stuff, but, of course, the best. Only the best. However, I had no fucking clue what was involved. I figured coffee was coffee and any ol’ Bunn would do. I’d buy gourmet beans from the bodega and I’d be in business. As for espresso, I had inkling it might be a little more complex, but I figured Illy Caffe would suffice. I could combine a quality shot with the ease of an automated machine and pods so I wouldn’t have to measure or get involved with any messy stuff.

I called my old contact at Illy’s, got the prices and the lowdown. Sold. Almost. Like an idiot, I had to pursue it further. I couldn’t let well enough alone. I posed a question on the coffee and teas forum on eglutton and I found there was a bit more to it than met my blind eye. Fucking Owen. Next thing I knew I was ready to travel to Seattle and become a barista --- I swear, I thought you had to become a lawyer to become an expert in espresso. And I was ready to plunk down $6,000 on the best machine money could buy, the rolls royce of espresso machines, La Marzocco. Not to mention untold thousands on grinders. What the fuck was I thinking? I’m selling grilled cheese sandwiches, not trying to lose money on, of all things, a fucking latte. But my brain doesn’t work like everyone else’s. I asked questions everywhere, eglutton, coffeegeeks.com and poor Owen. I think it took a visit to a REAL coffee shop in Princeton to make me realize I was getting in miles over my head. I took a look at the equipment and watched the adept barista handle 2 or 3 customers at a time seemingly with three hands and came to the conclusion that I was completely out of my mind. I’m sure you came to that conclusion two installments ago.

End of espresso idea. Time to obsess on coffee. And obsess I did – and still am. Fetco, Bunn, Fetco, Bunn – endless research on coffee machines. And choosing a coffee roaster - choosing a college was easier. I got samples from Gimme Coffee, Small World, Freedom of Expression, Terroir and Empire. I dutifully wrapped each bag in an airtight baggie as soon as they were delivered. And the bread was thrown out of the freezer and replaced by 25 bags of coffee. It’s a good thing my wife has no need for such worldly things as refrigerators or freezers.

Do you have any idea what’s involved with coffee tasting, er, CUPPING?? Did you ever go to a wine tasting? Then you’ll get an inkling. But at least with wine you just pour it in a glass, give it a swirl, then a swirl in your mouth, and voila, too acidic, or whatever. But with coffee, you gotta go buy a $2,989 digital scale to weigh the coffee and the water to make sure you’re comparing roasts properly. After all, you don’t wanna give one coffee an unfair advantage over another by using an extra half gram. And you have to have on hand umpteen coffee makers to make a bunch of cups at once so you can compare. In my case, I plunked down $25 and bought four one-cup melittas. This was more time consuming than making grilled cheese sandwiches! And then you gotta learn about single varietals and blends and all sorts of other terms that would send shivers up a wine connoisseur’s spine. And water purifiers and softeners and filters and grinders. My God, it’s only fucking coffee! At least that’s what my subconscious kept telling me as I kept delving in deeper and deeper with the end goal of serving the best café in Jersey City. And by God, I will, with the grace of God and the blessing of my insane obsessiveness. Even though I know only a step above nothing now.

Back to the grilled cheese condiments. Chutney absolutely and unequivocally rules. Forget bacon, ham or tomatoes. Kim and I must’ve spent over two hours at Kalustyan’s. God knows how many times I ran out to my car to feed the 15 minute meter. This place should be on all tourists’ sightseeing lists right up there with the Statue of Liberty. We were in pig’s heaven. If you never heard of this emporium of Indian spices, check them out at www.kalustyans.com. Without exaggeration, they must have close to 1000 chutneys. At one point, I had about 5% of them in our cart, but it’s a good thing I brought Kim. 4% were returned.

We reluctantly dragged ourselves out and went to Dowel, a similar type place in the east village, but thankfully smaller. Some more chutneys and pestos. Then Murray’s Cheese Shop where the nice salesperson tried to poison us by giving us a taste of far too many cheeses. Who can decide? Each one tasted better than the last. I showed restraint and only got about 10 cheeses. These cheeses were for the so-called “special of the week” sandwiches. And then on to Meyers of Keswick, the very proper and stately English store in the West Village. What great mustards! And pickles! All my life I thought there were only two kinds of pickles. The kosher ones from Jewish delis and the goyish pickles from everywhere else. A whole new world was opened. And then it was off to the Chocolate Bar where the goal was to come up with ideas for a hot chocolate shake. They should hang my sign in all chocolate shops with the heading: DO NOT FEED THIS PERSON, HE IS………. OBSESSIVE. Despite my munching on everything in sight, I found what I wanted, but it’s a secret. Shhhhh.

And the next day, it was time for yet another grilled cheese experiment. This time with toppings.

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