In Bureaucracy, Business on August 7, 2010 at 9:11 am

Restaurants do more than serve food. In fact, serving food is simply the final product of a complex management process. And students of bureaucracy can learn a great many lessons from a successful executive chef.

Such a chef is Spencer O’Meara, who has run San Francisco’s Paragon Restaurant since July, 2000. It’s located just across the street from AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.

According to its website, Paragon serves “American brasserie-style cuisine combining a sophisticated dining experience with a fun and lively bar atmosphere.”

Besides running Paragon, O’Meara administers three other Paragon restaurants–in Berkeley, California, Portland, Oregon, and Kauai, Hawai. All of these are owned by the Moana Hotel and Restaurant Group, which is headquartered in Mill Valley, California.

O’Meara’s responsibilities include overseeing menu and recipe development, food purchasing, hiring and training kitchen staff and chefs, and keeping “food and labor costs in line. I’m also responsible for profitability across the board.”

O’Meara got his chef’s degree at Arizona’s Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 1993. He worked at Le Bec Fin, the Striped Bass and Michel’s, all in Philadelphia. In 1996, he moved to San Francisco.

He couldn’t find a sous chef job so he worked as a line cook at Scala’s Bistro. In time, he rose to sous chef, executive sous chef and chef de cuisine. After running Scala’s for a year, “I came down to the lovely old Paragon, affectionately known as ‘The Big P.’”

He started working for Paragon as the executive chef in July, 2000–once the previous chef had been fired. “They were too pricey, they had inconsistent food. I hear he was a head case—a lot of chefs are,” says O’Meara.

“I worked it for 30 days. I’d never worked across the street from a ball stadium, and I was like ‘Holy crap!’ So after 30 days we gutted the entire menu, closed the restaurant on a Saturday night at normal business hours, and opened Monday with a completely different menu. That was a rough one.”

July 2, 2010 marked O’Meara’s ten-year anniversary as executive chef of Paragon.

Many people dream of owning a restaurant. And many of them take the plunge–with disastrous results. “Ninety percent of restaurants fail in the first year and a half, and if you can make it to three years you’re considered to know what you’re doing,” says O’Meara.

“It doesn’t mean you’re making money, it just means you’re able to keep it afloat. The general rule of thumb is if a restaurant turns 10% profit, it’s a very successful restaurant. If you can hit 10%, everybody’s really stoked.

“Everybody has a misconception that, ‘It’s a restaurant, of course it makes money.’ It’s truly not the case—with rents, costs of goods, labor—especially in San Francisco. They’ve got the highest minimum wage in the state—$10 an hour. Plus the Healthy SF tax. With all the legislation that’s gone down in this city over the last two years, it’s actually making it harder and harder to make a buck in the restaurant business.”

A restaurant is not an island unto itself. More than most businesses, it falls under the regulatory authority of at least three major agencies: The local health department, the fire department and the Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Of the first agency, O’Meara says: “I personally welcome the Health Department. If I’m doing something wrong, I want to know so I’m not hurting anybody. And if I go out to dinner, I want to make sure that nobody’s hurting me. I think we’ve all had food poisoning at some point in our lives.

“We try very hard to be sure we’re on top of our game. The last time a health Inspector came through we were awarded an an award for being an ‘A’ for a year straight and never dropping below that. I think our general rating is a 94 out of 100,” says O’Meara.

“When they do their write-ups for any infractions they see, it’s my responsibility to see that those infractions are cleared up. If it’s a major infraction, they’ll say they’ll be back in x-amount of days to make sure that infraction is cleared up. If it’s a minor infraction, they say, ‘Next time we come through on our visit, we’ll want to make sure it’s cleared up.’ A major infraction would be improper holding temperatures.”

As for the fire department: “They make sure that your safety routes are clear in case of a fire, make sure that all your tags on your fire extinguishers are up-to-date.

“We have hood-suppression systems, which fire off a powder in case there’s a fire in the kitchen, says O’Meara “Those have to be maintained every six months—it costs me $1,000 to have them maintained” each time. They also make sure your exit lights are working, that your gasses for your beers and sodas are chained properly to the wall so they don’t fall over and shoot across the room and kill somebody.”

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