In Bureaucracy, Business on August 23, 2010 at 11:13 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 snce July, 2000.

Among his duties is constantly juggling the demands of a series of bureaucracies: Regulatory agencies, restaurant staff, his corporate bosses, and his customers.

If a customer complains that his steak is dry or too well-done, “I’ll pull a dish off the table myself,” says O’Meara. “It’ll be ‘Let me take care of that,’ and people will be, ‘Oh, no, no, no, it’s fine.’ I’m like, ‘Fine’ is not what I’m looking for. Let me fire up a new one, I’ll get it out to you in the next five minutes. I’d like you to experience it the way it was meant to be experienced.’”

Besides running the Paragon restaurant in San Francisco, O’Meara oversees three others–in Berkeley, Portland and Kauai, Hawaii. Each one has an executive chef that reports to O’Meara. And each one must submit a monthly Profit-Loss-Net (PLN) statement that quickly lays out the financial condition of that restaurant.

“The PNLs break it down into different groups,” says O’Meara. “I take a scan through the first page—here’s your liquor, wine, beer costs, your front of the house servers, bus boys, bartenders, kitchen help. I either call you up and say, ‘Hey, great job, keep it up,’ or I say, ‘Hey, you’re shittin’ a bed of labor—what’s going on out there?’”

The most trouble-plagued Paragon restaurant has been the one in Kauai, Hawaii. Says O’Meara: “I probably spend the most time on Hawaii, which is the furthest away, but I have rolled through a few chefs out there. I’ve been out to Hawaii four times this year already and I’m getting ready to go back in [August].

“The guy I have out there right now is probably the greenest guy I have out there in the group. So I’m spending more of my attention on him to help him get to be to the level he needs to be.

“He’s green because I got sick and tired of hiring a mainlander and moving him over there and paying for the expense of moving him over there to have a mainlander implode to get hooked on crystal meth or booze.”

Kauai—the smallest of the islands of Hawaii—has a population of 64,-65,000. So it’s hard to find somebody among the locals who’s qualified. “We had a local there about ten years ago and she got hooked on crystal,” says O”Meara. “The problem is you don’t know anybody else on the other islands.”

O’Meara readily admits that drug- and alcohol-abuse are “huge” problems within the restaurant industry. He attributes much of this to the tremendous stress that comes from expertly preparing and serving good food in a timely manner to a seemingly endless series of customers.

“It’s constant—every day, every night. You’re racing to get it set up. Every customer, every dish is a judgment on you. And you’re producing 300-400 dishes in a day. That’s 300 or 400 judgments. Every ticket that comes in is a timeline—a ticket just came in, you’ve got ten minutes to get that out. And you’ve got 200 tickets a day coming in on you. You’re running on adrenaline all day.

“When it gets over, you’re still looking for that adrenaline high. And you’re also sitting here saying, ‘It’s been a long day, I need to go unwind.’ Your friends are all in the business—you don’t know anybody else because you get out at midnight. So your friends are other restaurant people. So you’re gonna visit your friend at his place, and he says, ‘You want a beer and a shot?’ and you say, ‘Sure, what the hell?’

When it comes to firing people, “it’s difficult to draw that line” between what’s acceptable as an accident and what’s a firing offense.

“Mike, who’s my nighttime guy right now,” says O’Meara, once accidentally overcooked 17 steaks to be served to a party of about 20-30 people. “I almost thought I was going to kill him. I screamed at him for a minute, but then I realized, ‘The customer doesn’t give a shit about what’s going on back here.’

“I had enough steaks and we re-fired all the steaks on the fly. We tossed all 17 overcooked steaks and fired 17 new ones. We managed to get the whole party on.

“Most chefs would have fired him right then and there. I thought I saw that there was a little more of something to this guy than the fact that he had just burned 17 steaks. That, no matter how pissed I was at that moment, that, in the future, he could be, with proper attention, somebody who would be better for me.

“And here it is, a year and a half later, he’s no longer just the grill guy, he’s my all-around guy who works every single station. And he’s my go-to guy when I need something done,” says O’Meara.

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