Think you're up for an operational challenge? Strap on one of these.
• Fly halfway across the nation to serve thousands in someone else's restaurant while using that shop's staff. Then do it again one week later.
• Set up a tent restaurant and cocktail lounge beside a bustling circus and feed scores amid unseasonably heavy rain falling outside and flowing inside.
• Get really crazy about farm-to-table initiatives and serve a fresh-harvest meal in the middle of rough-mown, plumbing-free farm pasture.
Who needs a Gordon Ramsay show when you can create your own Hell's Kitchen, right?
Truth is, the restaurateurs who operated in these venues this summer say the experience was far more heaven than hell. All called those challenges stiff, but a heck of a lot of fun. The events even were highly profitable for some.
Early this year, CNN asked the Hudson Yards Sports and Entertainment arm of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group to produce a CNN Grill both at the Democratic National Convention in Denver and the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. That required Meyer's minions to take over an existing restaurant in each city near the convention and where CNN posted its crews for live broadcasts.
Completely new menus were drawn up, and in just days, nine key people from HYSE had to train each restaurant's existing staff to perform to USHG's exacting service standards.
"We created a brand-new restaurant out of town—twice," said David Swinghamer, president of USHG's Growth Business Division. Swinghamer called the experience "great training for some of our key people who will open restaurants out of town for us in the future."
The Denver venue, known 51 weeks out of the year as Brooklyn’s, seated 750. Since delegates and media personnel followed similar schedules, crowds stampeded in for meals. Though smaller, The Eagle Street Grille in St. Paul met the same dizzying pace.
"The biggest challenge was adapting to a new setting quickly," Swinghamer said. If kitchens lacked the equipment needed, it was ordered, shipped to Denver first and then to St. Paul. Food was served from 6 a.m. to midnight for five days. "That meant the staff got out between 1 and 2 [a.m.] and then back up at 6 to serve breakfast."
Swinghamer acknowledged that the costs of overtime and kitchen equipment were fairly substantial. But he said HYSE knew it could build a large budget to accommodate those costs and maintain generous margins.
Compared to HYSE's staffs, which worked inside for a mere two weeks, Jon Bloostein's Heartland Breweries crews toiled for three months in a mobile kitchen serving thousands in a tent restaurant and bar at Manhattan's South Street Sea Port. The crowds were drawn to Spiegelworld at the Seaport, an annual combined concert-cabaret-circus running from late July to October.
"This is a serious investment in infrastructure for us," said Bloostein, CEO of Heartland. "We used a 40-foot mobile kitchen, a 20-foot refrigerated trailer, a 40-foot cargo container for food, and we put in a $50,000 point-of-sale system every year for this."
Despite the annual set-up and tear-down, Bloostein, who owns six restaurants, said the effort isn't harder than opening a permanent facility. But as usually is the case in New York, acquiring operating permits was a headache.
"We have to get new liquor licenses every year," he said. Meeting the legal requirements for cooking fuel was even more difficult. "Since the fire department doesn't allow propane tanks larger than those for home barbecue, we decided to retrofit all our equipment for natural gas and run a hard-pipe gas line from the [South Street Seaport] mall to our trailer."
Great idea, if you're Bloostein. Bad idea if you're the fire inspector. At the eleventh hour, the city regarded the gas line request as one for a new rather than temporary restaurant. Worse, until that was approved, inspectors wouldn't sign off on the fire suppression system.
"We still don't have that sign off, so, honestly, we were cooking in violation," Bloostein said.
In this, the third year Heartland has served the festival, Bloostein expects only a modest profit, which he blames mostly on inclement weather that dampened attendance. The first year he didn't make much because of the investment require, "though last year it was lucrative for us."
Jay Denham planned for a modest profit when he cooked a farm field dinner for 85 in late September. A huge proponent of farm-to-table initiatives, the executive chef at Park Place on Main in Louisville sees such efforts as a way to further that agenda rather than a means of realizing financial gains.
Yet that doesn't dampen his love of rustic cooking—in this case, catering a buffet in the middle of an historic working farm near the city's edge. The child of a farm family, Denham didn't need natural gas and refrigeration to produce his meal. He had a barbecue pit fire, a lot of coolers and a ridiculously long extension cord running from a nearby home powering a food warmer.
"This is actually pretty easy tonight; we did a wedding rehearsal out here last night," said Denham. "I like to take on any challenge like this."
Even without modern conveniences, Denham said working in the tent is a pleasant departure from the clamor of the kitchen.
"It'd be even better if you could take your shoes off," said Denham, referring to the grass "floor" in his work area. "Doing things like is one reason I'm in the restaurant business. It's always new, which keeps it exciting. I'm a junkie for stuff like this."