In Bureaucracy, Business on August 11, 2010 at 7:10 pm

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.

Among the bureaucracies an executive chef must deal with is the Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC).

A restaurant buys a liquor license, and then pays a yearly tax to the ABC to retain it. “They’re expensive—they can be up to $200- to $300,000,” says O’Meara. “I think the one for Paragon is $150,000. But you own that license, and when you sell the business you sell it, too.

“The thing you have to worry about with the ABC is they’ll do spot-checks on you. They send undercover people in to an establishment to order drinks, and then try to nab you for not checking ID. They send in people who deliberately look underage. But they’ll also send in people who are underage but look old enough.”

It is the responsibility of the restaurant to check the IDs of anybody who looks underage or is close to that age. In San Francisco, drinkers must be 21. It’s the legal responsibility of the restaurant to ensure that underage would-be drinkers are weeded out.

“If that person looks 30 but is 19 and I serve him a beer, it’s my ass,” says O’Meara. “And, with that, it puts your liquor license in jeopardy. And if you’re repeatedly—two times in a row—caught by the ABC, they can pull your liquor license.”

O’Meara estimates there are 5,000 restaurants in San Francisco, and about 20,000 in the Bay Area. So how does the ABC police so many restaurants?

“The ABC works on complaints,” says O’Meara. “So when somebody says, ‘This place is serving underage people,’ that’s when they send ‘em in. Then when they nab you they watch you, and they keep sending them in. And if they get you repeatedly, you’re done.”

There is also the danger of “deep pockets” lawsuits. These can be brought by customers who drink too much–and then slam their cars into other unfortunate drivers or pedestrians. Or they can be brought by the victims who survive–or by the estates of those who didn’t.

Says O’Meara: “We talk a lot to our bartenders about over-serving. And when somebody’s hammered, shut ‘em down. Don’t serve ‘em any more.”

Different customers have different limits on how much they can drink and remain unimpaired. “That’s why communication between management staff and bartending staff needs to be wide-open, so that the bartenders are empowered and knowledgeable, and not sit there and go, ‘I thought he was fine.’ “Well, you just fed him six double-Crowns, come on.’”

Yet another layer of bureaucracy an executive chef must deal with is that of the restaurant’s own employees.

“Most executive chefs do not have the interaction that I do in this restaurant,” says O’Meara. “Most executive chefs do not cross the line from the kitchen to the front of the house. That would be a job for your general manager (GM).”

By “front of the house” O’Meara means servers, bartenders, customers and sequence of service. The “back of the house” would be line cooks, dishwashers and all food-production.

The general manager (GM) usually manages everybody, including the executive chef. In some restaurants, the GM and the executive chef are on the same level. At Paragon, “I’m the executive chef but I’m also generally managing everybody,” says O’Meara.

Bevin Bunch is the GM. Her jobs include overseeing the servers and the costs for labor, liquor, beer and wine.” Her Assistant GM is Matt Dondenville.

O’Meara does not hesitate to assume tasks that most people would believe fall well below the level of an executive chef. When a line cook hasn’t shown up, O’Meara has taken over the job.

“I’m a hands-on executive chef,” says O’Meara. “I know every station inside and out, lunch and dinner. Any issues that arise, at the end of the day this restaurant is my responsibility. I’m not going to look at an owner and say, ‘That guy didn’t show up, that’s why the restaurant failed that evening.’ At all costs, the restaurant must succeed every day.”

Paragon’s customers form yet another layer of bureaucracy for O’Meara to address. “Some chefs like to hide in the kitchen, and aren’t that good with people,” says O’Meara. “We have a whole stigma of being egotistical bastards, and there’s a reason for it.

“Some chefs don’t work well with going out into a dining room and asking somebody how it is. They’re like, ‘Screw off, I think I made a great dish. I don’t care if you like it or not.’

“I like to get the customer feedback and the interaction, because everybody loves knowing the chef. The more people who know the chef, the more come back. In a way, chefs that don’t do that are missing a very easy marketing tool.”

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