Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Secrets of the Gourmet Grocer: The beginning

June 20, 1981, Kansas City, Missouri

I am at my parents' house and have just gotten a call from my former partner and manager at Henny's, a restaurant where I am head chef in Spokane, Washington. David has just called to tell me I have been fired from my job by the owner Bob Dewey while I am on vacation visiting my family in Kansas City. I turn to my wife Joyce with a sick feeling in my stomach. The restaurant had struggled the last two years with declining attendance and the after-effects from the eruption of Mount St. Helens. All of the work I had done for the last 6 years seems to have been for naught. I am unemployed. But as I start thinking, I realize that I have gained lots of confidence in running a restaurant. I have lots of confidence in planning menus. I have lots of confidence in starting a new restaurant since I have been involved in the creation of Henny's and two smaller lunchrooms that the owner had added to his original restaurant. And I have a stack of recipes that I know are winners after serving them night after night.

That evening she and I start planning. Maybe I would go to work for someone else. Maybe I would start a restaurant in some other city--Atlanta, where my cousin lived, Chicago, where my aunt lived, or even Kansas City. One thing we know for sure, we are moving from Spokane, which is in the midst of an ongoing depression.

We return to Spokane and started preparations for moving. I am teaching cooking classes at a local culinary shop. As I prepare for my next class, I talk to the owner, Gloria Fox, about my options. She mentions that there are some new shops in New York and San Francisco that she has read about that are "Gourmet to Go" shops specializing in carryout restaurant style food for people too busy to cook. She recommends that I think about the retail aspects of food service.

The more I think about it, the more the idea appeals to me. Restaurants are night time jobs. I now have three small children and if I work until 1 or 2 in the morning, I will miss their childhoods while I am sleeping waiting for the next evening shift.

In September, we return to Kansas City after putting our house up for sale. Joyce's sister Jamie and my father promise to put up some cash so I can find a storefront and outfit it with equipment. I start looking for a space, driving around the suburbs during the day, and checking census data to give me an idea on where to look.

October, 1981

I have just come upon a newer strip mall shopping center with a vacant German butcher shop. The center has a nice bookstore, a tennis shop, a health food store, a bagel shop, a yarn shop and several hairdressers. It seems perfect, and the butcher shop overlooks a simple courtyard with concrete tables and benches. The shop has deli cases and a walk-in already installed. I call my brother to help me negotiate the lease. The owners are Vic and Helen Regnier, some of the largest landowners in Johnson County. We meet with Helen. She takes to me and my idea immediately and offers us a lease. She brings in Vic, who stage whispers to her, "What makes you think this guy can make it?" I leave their office pumped up ready to look for equipment.

Early November, 1981

I have been to dozens of auctions looking for equipment. I have picked out a deli case for $300.00, a slicer, a coffee grinder and some tables and chairs. I have also found a small reel oven made in Kansas City by the Reed Oven company. My folks have decided they are going to help and have found a glass display cabinet, a French baker's rack, and an antique cupboard. I meet with Bob Mick, the owner of the equipment in the German butcher shop. He wants to sell me the state-of-the-art refrigerated German glass display case, but wants $10,000.00 for it. I think about my $300.00 deli case, aged, but $300.00. I pass. He drops the price to $8,000.00, but I still can't afford it, even with him financing it. I'll always regret not buying that case, but the price is too high and ties up too much of my capital. We do come to an agreement on the walk-in.

Late November, 1981

We are ready to open. I have spent weeks cleaning the equipment, painting the walls, tiling the bathrooms, and cleaning and polishing the floor. My idea is to make everything fresh daily. We will serve lunch to bring in a steady income and bake our own breads, cakes, pastries and desserts. I will also make fresh salads, soups, entrees, and appetizers to sell out of our display cases. I have some specialized groceries that I am buying as well as specialty coffees and cheeses and crackers. My sister Nancy will man the front counter with my father, and my Mom will help with the baking. I hire my first employee--Valerie.


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