Apr 052013

Craig Giesecke

One of the things we’re still working out in the new shop is staffing – how many people to bring in at what times of the day and how long they’ll be there. It’s a difficult balance, since you want professional, experienced folks – and those kinds of employees want and deserve a reasonable wage. But when some parts of the day are stronger than others, some have to be sent home and that makes no one happy. If good staffers don’t get enough hours, they go elsewhere in a hurry.

At the same time, customers want and (usually) deserve good service – so you have to balance customer demand with realistic payroll costs. This is what usually leads to days or evenings when a place seems woefully understaffed. The Murphy’s Law of this is a big crowd walks in about 15 minutes after you’ve told two servers and two kitchen staffers to go home early. When you expect a crowd, sometimes the dining room turns into a culinary Gobi Desert with chairs, tables and a well-stocked bar.

Even the most established places have to deal with this issue from week to week. You try to keep an eye on the calendar and neighborhood goings-on, the weather, spending habits and other variables (or predictables) to get a good sense of when customers might and might not walk in the door. But sometimes they show up for no apparent reason and then don’t show up when you’d think there would be plenty.

The NCAA Womens Final Four this weekend is a good example. Four different schools will be bringing in fans from around the country. These fans will, of course, spend at least some time in the French Quarter. Many will stroll Magazine, ride streetcars, walk the CBD and the Warehouse District on the way to and from hotels and games. Staff up and run the risk of sending someone home? Or save the payroll dollars and just make do with existing staff? Will the locals also come out to eat/drink this weekend? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

In a lot of places, it’s kitchen staff that gets cut first because they make more money per hour. But, particularly if a place has lots of floor space, guests are simply not seated in certain sections and it’s the servers or bartenders or barbacks told to go home. Experienced owners and managers can sometimes have a more solid sense about such things, but even a lot of their projections are simply guesswork. Everyone gets caught from time to time.

The one who pays or benefits most from this is, of course, the staffer him/herself.  Many work two (or more) jobs in hopes one place is up while another is down. Either way, there are still bills to be paid. Being sent home early ahead of what turned out to be a $100 night can make the difference between paying the power bill or not. It’s sometimes a tough call for a manager to make.

One of the advantages of the food-service industry is people will always need to eat and be willing to pay for it. One of the disadvantages, particularly in New Orleans, is they can choose where and why they do so. Sometimes it’s quality, sometimes it’s price, sometimes it’s speed and sometimes it’s simply convenience.  The best a place can hope to do is create the best possible compromise between the variables.

We’re heading fast into festival season in a week or so. This means many of us will be eating out more often as we attend the various events around our region. Please remember to be generous with your tips for service and commentary about what you’re eating. A pro never turns down constructive criticism, when it’s presented as such. Enjoy!

Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes, and is now banquet and special event chef at the Warehouse Grille. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.