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Five Square


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<img align="right" src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1123477915/gallery_29805_1195_3595.jpg">The Daily Gullet proudly presents the fourth of five exclusive excerpts from Steven Shaw's upcoming book, <i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060737808/egulletcom-20">Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out</a></i> (HarperCollins). Find part one here, part two here, and part three here. -The Editors.

Special to the Daily Gullet, by Steven Shaw

Few people outside the restaurant industry have ever heard of Richard Coraine. Yet he is one of the most important people in the business. Coraine directs the operations of the Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), which owns five (and counting) prestigious New York restaurants. In the Zagat Survey’s 50 most popular New York restaurants, the number 1 and number 2 positions belong to USHG’s Union Square Cafe, and Gramercy Tavern. Two other USHG properties are in the top 20: Tabla and Eleven Madison Park. It probably won’t be long before the group’s latest venture, Blue Smoke (a high-concept barbecue joint and jazz club) breaks into the elite group as well, at which point 10 percent of New York’s fifty most popular restaurants will be operated by a single company. <br>

Not that you could tell that the individual restaurants are part of an empire. Each is an independent operation, looking to the USHG entity for support and management. As a result, five very different restaurants have excellent service, enjoyable surroundings, and a much higher degree of culinary consistency than is the unfortunately low norm. <br>

If you are a reader of newspaper food sections, you may have heard of Coraine’s business partner, Danny Meyer -- a restaurant industry icon and the father of enlightened American hospitality. Meyer is the public figure, the spiritual leader, and the voice of the USHG. Coraine operates quietly, behind the scenes, to make everything work.<br>

In a business where most ventures don’t survive their first year, how can one company so consistently succeed? Moreover, what is the business behind the restaurant business? And what is the restaurant industry’s place in the larger context that makes up a community? In an attempt to answer these questions, I shadowed Richard Coraine (everybody calls him ‘RC’) through the labyrinth of behind-the-scenes USHG goings-on, and I had to set my alarm early to do it. <br>

At 6:30 A.M. on any given day, you’ll find RC in his office halfway through a pile of newspapers, surrounded by desk artifacts ranging from bottles of wine and sample takeout drink cups to a fax machine and an iPod. He’s not only reading the food, lifestyle, and entertainment sections from newspapers across the country, but is also zeroing in on the business sections. He’s learning about his customers, many of whom will be in the newspaper on a given day and most of whom work for companies that are frequent players in those pages. We begin with an inspection of Eleven Madison Park. RC believes that, standing just inside a restaurant’s front door, an experienced observer can tell everything about how the restaurant will perform. “My job is to read the restaurant, and make editorial changes before problems arise.” <br>

At 7 A.M., the restaurant is already active, even though there will be no customers until nearly noon. The USHG’s assistant florist, Z, is inspecting the floral arrangements and talking on his cell phone to the head florist, Roberta Bendavid, about which stems will need to be replaced. They speak with the seriousness of corporate lawyers planning a leveraged buyout. <br>

RC walks to the podium and activates the reservations computer, quickly scrolling through the names of every customer with reservations today. Any names he recognizes, he pulls up customer notes and often adds to them. At one point he asks me the name of the friend I had dined with at another USHG restaurant a few weeks ago. “Ken Matthews,” I tell him. He pulls up my friend Ken’s record and adds a notation: “Dines with Steven Shaw,” linking to my customer notes. <br>

Today, Eleven Madison Park seems ship-shape to me, but RC is uneasy. “I don’t like what I’m seeing today,” he says. When I try to get him to clarify, he points to seemingly picayune issues such as the bearing of the managers and the speed with which the employees are walking around the room. “We’re going to need to check in here again before lunch,” he warns. <br>

On the way out, RC notices a smudge on the wall peeking out from behind a chair stored in a hallway. He pulls every chair away from the wall to reveal a longer smudge where the chair-backs press against the wall. Summoning one of the maintenance staff, he asks that this part of the wall be repainted that morning. “The color codes are on file at the Janovic paint shop around the corner,” he adds. <br>

As we walk toward Union Square Cafe, RC goes over his to-do list. A valued employee is getting married that coming weekend and USHG is providing the facilities. In addition, the USHG is building a “Shake Shack” in Madison Square Park, where during the summer they’ll sell gourmet frankfurters, hamburgers, and frozen custard. The shack will be staffed mostly by interns from the Culinary Institute of America and various restaurant and hotel management schools. “A hot dog cart or a food kiosk is a very pure expression of the restaurant business,” RC explains, himself both an MBA and a culinary school graduate. “It’s a great place to learn the fundamentals that hold true no matter how high you go in the industry.” On top of that, USHG is in the process of constructing a fine-dining restaurant, a café, and a food kiosk in the Museum of Modern Art, to be timed with the museum’s reopening after a long renovation. And in two weeks USHG will be hosting the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, bringing together America’s top pitmasters with great jazz musicians and thousands of hungry, curious New Yorkers. <br>

At Union Square Cafe, Christopher Russell, the restaurant’s beverage and service director, is in the wine cellar with sales representative Yoav Sisley, tasting wines from the Admiral Wine Merchants portfolio. The amount of effort Russell puts into building the Union Square Cafe wine list, maintaining the inventory, and training the staff is staggering. Every day, for what most people would consider two shifts, he’s tasting, meeting, teaching, counting, and typing. As I watch him go through the process of creating purchase orders and tasting notes just to add one new wine to the restaurant’s list (getting onto the Union Square Cafe wine list is tantamount to getting into Harvard or Yale; of all the wines the sales rep showed Russell today, he purchased only one), I think about the often-heard objection to restaurant wine prices. <br>

I’ll be the first to agree that most restaurants charge too much for uninspired wine selections, serve them at improper temperatures in poor stemware, and do not have staff members who adequately understand wines and their relationship to food. At the same time, I fear there is a degree of reductionism in the argument “why should I pay double (or triple, or quadruple) for the same bottle of wine in a restaurant that I could buy in a wine store and drink at home?” I think that the bottle itself creates a conceptual fiction, that because the wine is sealed in that bottle the restaurant cannot add value to it the way the kitchen can add value to a piece of meat. Interestingly, this objection is rarely heard with respect to cocktails, which on a cost basis are more heavily marked up. <br>

But wine is transformed in other ways, some of them contextual and nearly intangible. For one thing, there is a cost involved in being able to choose the right wine for what you decide to order at any given moment. For another thing, there are all the costs of storage, glassware, insurance, and the like. But most importantly, at a great restaurant there is the cost of knowledge. <br>

At Union Square Cafe, for example, there is a staff wine tasting every single day. At family meal, Russell or one of his assistant managers pours tastes from a bottle from the restaurant’s wine list. And these are not just the $30 bottles. Every single wine on the list goes through the tasting rotation, so that eventually the servers have all tried, discussed, and compared every wine -- even the ones that cost $300 or more. <br>

<img align="right" src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1121034075/gallery_29805_1195_11679.jpg">Later, RC, Christopher Russell, and the restaurant’s general manager, Randy Garutti, hold their weekly steering-committee meeting. On tap for today: several upcoming announcements that are likely to anger the waitstaff. A new accounting system will delay receipt of tips and possibly divert more money to the IRS, but the restaurant feels it is the fiscally and legally responsible move. In addition, the restaurant plans to increase the size of its waitstaff, which can potentially mean less in tips for each individual waiter. Although, the hope is that the restaurant will be able to serve more customers and sell them more add-ons, like dessert wine, thus ultimately increasing tips. They settle on their pitch to the waitstaff, though nobody is really looking forward to that particular staff meeting. Throughout the meeting, RC polishes some of the restaurant’s glass shelves. <br>

RC spends all of five minutes at Gramercy Tavern, which I have found to be the most reliable of the group’s restaurants. It is here that I first begin to understand the phenomenon of being able to size up an entire restaurant from the front door. Gramercy Tavern, as soon as we enter, gives off a bright, confident feeling of everything being in its place. After chatting with the manager on duty for just a minute and scrolling through the reservations (which he does at every restaurant), he says, “Let’s get out of here. All I can do is distract them. They’re on the ball and don’t need my interference.” <br>

At Blue Smoke, the USHG’s barbecue restaurant, we enter through the service entrance and almost step on a pig. “This entrance is a mess; we need to get somebody focused on it.” A holiday weekend is coming up, and several managers are on vacation. But after meeting with the assistant managers who will be running the restaurant for the weekend, RC is satisfied that, with a little direction, they’ll run a tight ship. <br>

Before we enter Tabla, the USHG’s contemporary Indian fusion restaurant, RC notices an eight-foot piece of plywood leaning up against the entrance. “Not a good sign,” he says to me. Just inside the door, there are four cases of beer that have been delivered and seemingly just abandoned near the podium. RC goes upstairs to find the chef, Floyd Cardoz, who it turns out is busy giving an interview to a reporter from Gourmet magazine. “Okay, that explains it,” says RC. He grabs a manager and they quickly make a list of what needs to get fixed up around the restaurant. On the way out, RC grabs half an egg sandwich from the staff meal table and eats it as we walk the half block back to Eleven Madison Park. <br>

As RC had predicted, the scene at Eleven Madison Park fifteen minutes prior to opening is a bit chaotic. There is no music coming out over the sound system, and he goes to remedy that. He selectively raises his voice with a few of the managers in order to motivate them to crisp up their performance (each time he does so, he winks at me to indicate that it’s all really an act). As the first customers arrive, RC retreats into his office and begins an afternoon of transactions and meetings. <br>

By the time the dinner rush gets going, RC is home. “Once they start serving food, my job is done. It has to be done: smooth service is all about preparation and getting up that critical level of momentum. Once it starts, if they still need me, they’re doomed.” <br>

This is the fourth of five parts. Part one is here, part two here, and part three is here.

<i>

Steven Shaw (aka <a href="http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showuser=1">Fat Guy</a>) is executive director of the eGullet Society. He has been known to do other things on occasion.

Art by Dave Scantland, from a photograph by Ellen R. Shapiro.

Copyright 2005 Steven A. Shaw. Reprinted by kind permission of the author and HarperCollins Publishers.</i>

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I’ll be the first to agree that most restaurants charge too much for uninspired wine selections, serve them at improper temperatures in poor stemware, and do not have staff members who adequately understand wines and their relationship to food. At the same time, I fear there is a degree of reductionism in the argument “why should I pay double (or triple, or quadruple) for the same bottle of wine in a restaurant that I could buy in a wine store and drink at home?” I think that the bottle itself creates a conceptual fiction, that because the wine is sealed in that bottle the restaurant cannot add value to it the way the kitchen can add value to a piece of meat. Interestingly, this objection is rarely heard with respect to cocktails, which on a cost basis are more heavily marked up.

But wine is transformed in other ways, some of them contextual and nearly intangible. For one thing, there is a cost involved in being able to choose the right wine for what you decide to order at any given moment. For another thing, there are all the costs of storage, glassware, insurance, and the like. But most importantly, at a great restaurant there is the cost of knowledge.

Steven-

It's interesting to have it spelled out as to what is involved in the wine mark up at certain fine restaurants. I guess it's one of those things that not too many diners think about. So, going back to your first sentence above, is it worth it paying the markup at most restaurants? Do you?

Elie

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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“Once they start serving food, my job is done. It has to be done: smooth service is all about preparation and getting up that critical level of momentum. Once it starts, if they still need me, they’re doomed.”

Seems to me like truer words have ne'er been said -- but I wonder, Steven, if Richard Coraine is typical or unusual, in your experience, within the profession of restaurant management?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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So, going back to your first sentence above, is it worth it paying the markup at most restaurants? Do you?

Most restaurants are McDonald's. Okay, not exactly, but as soon as we start talking about "most restaurants" we get into dangerous waters. Most restaurants aren't worth eating at, period. So of course it's not worth paying their wine markups. Not that McDonald's serves wine (in the US, at least).

That being said, I've certainly spent a heck of a lot of money on wine in restaurants, especially those that have really good wine programs. And I try to get my money's worth: I often order wines I haven't seen in stores and that may not be available retail (either on account of allocations or age), I try to get a decent amount of education from the sommelier whenever I can, and I generally insist on excellent wine service. For example, if I think a red wine should be decanted, I don't care if it only cost $30 -- I'll make them decant it. I send back defective bottles. Etc.

That being said, I think one of the best ways to derive value from the restaurant wine experience -- especially if you're a fairly low-end wine consumer, as I am (I almost never order a wine that's more than about $75, which in New York fine dining restaurants barely even registers as a wine sale) -- is to take advantage of a wine-by-the-glass program (this is a piece of advice I give elsewhere in the book, in a part that isn't in this set of preview selections). This allows me to taste multiple wines in a sitting, and to pair appropriate wines with each dish. I just wouldn't be able to pull that off at home without extensive planning or a heck of a lot of waste.

I have even found that some sommeliers are amenable to "split tastings." In other words, let's say there's tasting menu available at $70 for the menu or $100 for the menu plus wines by the glass with each course. Not always, but sometimes the sommelier will let you split a tasting. So you order one $70 menu and one $100 menu-plus-wines and the sommelier brings two glasses with each course and does a half pour in each. I'm not saying, I'm just saying.

I also use by-the-glass selections as a way to taste unaffordable wines. Like if I see Yquem by the glass on a dessert wine menu, I'll often get it, because I never get a chance to buy a bottle of Yquem but I can afford a glass now and then.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I wonder, Steven, if Richard Coraine is typical or unusual, in your experience, within the profession of restaurant management?

Most of the people I feature in my book are both atypical and typical. They're atypical by the standards of the restaurant industry as a whole. As I was saying in response to Elie's post above, most restaurants are crap. They serve bad food, they're badly (and barely) managed, etc. Indeed, as a whole, I think the restaurant business is way behind a lot of other businesses (even other food businesses, such as supermarkets) in terms of the currency of its management methods. But bad restaurants weren't the subject of my book, except insofar as I give some advice for how to stay the heck away from them.

Rather, Coraine is the kind of guy you would expect to find within the small subset of enlightened, modern, sophisticated restaurant executives. Obviously, I chose an extreme example: Coraine may very well be the best at what he does, period. But there are plenty of men and women cut from the same cloth -- albeit smaller swatches of it -- working in restaurants across the country. And not just fancy restaurants. You find some brilliant, dedicated managers in barbecue places and frankfurter stands too.

The hope is that, while a minority, people like Coraine will act as tastemakers, trendsetters, teachers and leaders of the majority.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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