How does a nice Italian boy from Queens turn his passion for food and wine into a nationwide empire? In his intrepid, irreverent, and terrifically entertaining memoir, Restaurant Man, Joe Bastianich charts his remarkable culinary journey from his parents’ neighborhood eatery to becoming one of the country’s most successful restaurateurs, along with his superstar chef partners — his mother, Lidia Bastianich, and Mario Batali. Joe first learned the ropes of the restaurant business from his father, Felice Bastianich, the original Restaurant Man, the ultrapragmatic and sharp-eyed owner of a popular red-sauce joint. But years of cleaning chickens and other kitchen drudgery convinced Joe that his destiny lay elsewhere. After a year on Wall Street, however, he realized that his love of food was by now too deeply ingrained, and after buying a one-way ticket to Italy, he spent over a year working in restaurants and vineyards there, developing his own taste and learning everything he could about Italian cuisine. Upon his return to New York, he partnered with his mother to open Becco and soon after joined forces with Mario Batali, an alliance that not only created a string of critically acclaimed and popular restaurants but redefined Italian food in America. Restaurant Man is not only a compelling ragù-to-riches chronicle but a look behind the scenes at what it really takes to run a restaurant in New York City, the most demanding, fickle, and passionate market in America, from dealing with shady vendors, avaricious landlords, and vitriolic food critics to day-to-day issues like the cost of linens (“the number-one evil”) and bread and butter. Writing vividly in an authentic New York style that is equal parts rock ’n’ roll and hard-ass, bottom-line business reality, Joe shares lessons learned from a lifetime spent in restaurants (“Anything you give away for free is bad”) while recounting the stories of his own establishments — including how Del Posto managed to overcome a menu that was initially so ambitious that it could not be executed, to ultimately become the only Italian restaurant in America to be awarded four-stars from The New York Times. Joe speaks frankly about friends and foes, but at the heart of the book is the mythical hero Restaurant Man, the old-school, blue-collar guy who stays true to the real secret of his success — watching costs but ferociously dedicating himself to exceeding his customers’ expectations and delivering the best dining experience in the world.
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Joe Bastianich opened his first restaurant, Becco, with his mother, Lidia, in 1993. He and partner Mario Batali have since established some of New York’s most celebrated restaurants, including Babbo, Del Posto, Lupa, Esca, and Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, as well as restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He also appears as a judge on Fox TV’s MasterChef.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Here’s everything you need to know to open a restaurant.
Your margins are three times your cost on everything. Some things you make more, some things you make less. You have loss leaders on the menu—veal chops and steak might cost you 50 percent of the ticket price on the menu. Pasta and salad you can run closer to 15, just as long as everything works out to 30 percent.
Bells and whistles like appetizers and desserts bring down the cost. Desserts are almost pure profit. Wine by the glass is usually marked up four times, although we don’t always do that. At Babbo we get about three times cost for a quartino, or sometimes even two times, so our wine cost is 30 to 50 percent.
Thirty percent of your monthly take is going to be your food and wine cost. Thirty percent is going to be labor, 20 percent is miscellaneous, including the rent, and 20 percent is your profit. Your rent per month should be your gross take on your slowest day.
And that’s it. Restaurant math is easy. If you need to gross ten grand in a day, then it’s about having two hundred people coming in and spending fifty bucks apiece. And within that $10,000, you should have $3,333 going to the cost of goods sold, $3,333 going to labor to execute that, and 20 percent miscellaneous, including the linens and insurance and bug spray and anything else. That leaves 20 percent profit. Like I said, it’s very simple. There are a lot of more complex models, but this is the basic way of doing it.
Anything you give away for free is bad. Linen is the number-one evil, because it is expensive and no one pays for it. Same with bread and butter. You don’t mind paying fifteen bucks for a veal chop you sell for thirty dollars, but paying a dollar and a quarter for a tablecloth and thirty-five cents for each napkin that someone gets dirty before they even have their first drink is a drag.
In a typical Manhattan fine-dining restaurant, between 10 and 20 percent profit is an acceptable margin. Twenty percent if you’re a stud, 10 percent if you’re just doing okay. But every little thing will eat into your margin. A spoon that goes into the garbage is coming out of your pocket. A pot of coffee no one drinks costs you money. How close the chef cuts the fish to the bone will make a big difference. In this business, to make money you have to save money.
My dad taught me that. He was a restaurant man. That’s what he called it: “Restaurant Man.”
He taught me at an early age the enigma of the business—you have to appear to be generous, but you have to be inherently a cheap fuck to make it work. He taught me how to make money—it’s a nickel-and-dime business, and you make dollars by accumulating nickels. If you try to make dollars by grabbing dollars, you’ll never survive. It comes down to a very simple concept that my partner, Mario Batali, and I live by in all of our restaurants: We buy things, we fix them up, and we sell them for a profit. That’s been our mantra since we started. We’re not full of ourselves. We can’t afford to be. This is a business that will always see more failure than success. We are very passionate about what we do. We live to pleasure our customers. We want to bring them to gastronomic orgasm, and we want to be there to bask in the afterglow. We’re the luckiest guys in the world to have this job. But really, what we do is very simple: We buy it, we fix it, we sell it for a profit. That’s the restaurant business.
At Babbo, our first truly celebrated restaurant, we had a low fixed cost—when we started, our rent was only about $12,000 a month, and we had 110 seats. We were lucky; a comparable location could easily have cost two or three times that. We figured we’d take in about forty or forty-five bucks a person and turn the place one and a half times a night—that’s 155 covers a night, which is $7,000 a night, about $50,000 a week. It’s a nice little $2.5- or $3-million-a-year operation. If we’re doing well, all told we make 20 percent, $600,000. But these days utilities cost more than rent. It’s crazy—you have to have extremely high revenues. You have to be busy all the time.
Most people who open restaurants will fail, because they lack the fundamental understanding of restaurant math. Either they think they’re superstar cooks or they think they’re superstar hosts. They do it for ego, and they don’t realize that without making money it’s nothing but bullshit. You are in the business of marketing, manufacturing, and customer service, all at once, every day. If you don’t break it down into these elements and take each one of them for what it’s worth, if you think you’re some sort of glorified dinner host or some artistic cook, you’re not going to last a week.
If you’re counting on your friends when opening a restaurant, you’re fucked. That is not how you build a business. This is another lesson my father taught me: He always preferred the unmuddied Customer–Restaurant Man relationship—you come here because I give you a product at a fair value and, hopefully, exceed your expectations. You’re happy to pay for it. I’m nice to you because I’m making money. You enjoy, you leave, you come back again. You say thank you, good night, and maybe I buy you a drink.
Friends feel entitled. They keep you away from what you should be doing with the customers who really matter, and you have to send them free shit. Friends fuck up your night—and your margin.
Walking into the restaurant every day, you’re basically looking for opportunities to make money. And how do you make money? By stopping money from going out the front door.
First thing is, your restaurant has to have a scale at the front door, because every meat purveyor and fishmonger knows whether you do or do not—they all have a checklist of their restaurants that don’t have scales. You weigh everything as it comes in, then check your invoices. Your chief porter is usually going to be doing that. In the case of most restaurants, he’s a dishwasher, but he’s evolved. He’s your boy. You watch out for him—if that guy is on the take, you’re totally screwed. He has got to be on your team, because he’s at the pulse. And you have to make sure he’s aggressive, not only weighing everything but making sure you’re not getting stabbed for ice weight, or water weight on fish, or box weight on meat. There are so many ways that you can get fucked. You’ve got fresh produce and dairy, and if it goes bad one second before you’re ready to sell it, that’s coming right out of your profits. You’re taking credits on the linen deliveries. You have to buy lightbulbs, toilet seats, stemware, flour, sponges, you name it, and if there’s a way to skim on it, someone is going to try. If the vendor thinks he’s going to be a wise guy, he gives your guy at the door an envelope, a couple hundred bucks in cash every week or every other week, and then your guy is going to sign for any kind of invoice. That’s classic. You have to make sure your man is as incorruptible as a parish priest.
The magical point of the restaurant, where you make money, is not at the table when the check comes. It’s at the door when you sign in that invoice, for whatever it is. Because when you get it and you’re signing it and it’s still on a double-ply receipt, if you mark a credit for dirty napkins or dirty tablecloths or weight on a fish, they’re going to take back your marked receipt and you’ve still got an angle. When you sign off and take your half of the ticket and now you only have your invoice left and later you find out you’ve been ripped off, the road to getting that money back is much longer. So that’s the real pressure point—when you still have the delivery guy there and your guy there and you can still mark that invoice and put up a stink if you have to—Fuck you, I’m not paying for this, fifty cents on the dollar for this—you still have leverage. Once you sign off on it, you’re done. People will try to cheat you all the time. It’s like Monty Python’s Life of Brian—if they didn’t try to cheat you and you didn’t try to haggle, everyone would be disappointed. It’s part of the game. Once you have a relationship with vendors, you hope you can trust them. But it’s definitely a crawl—they’ll nickel-and-dime you until nickels become dimes and dimes become quarters.
Then there are the people who actually want to steal from you. Sleazy waiters like to steal cash, but these days when everything is done on computers, it’s tough. It used to be that they could give a customer a fake check without running it through the register and then pocket the money off the books, but that’s very risky. If they’re in cahoots with the bartender or whoever is taking the cash, that’s a better way to steal. That requires two people cooperating, though, and a little honor among thieves. But at least that way they might have a chance.
I remember closing up one night, at Buonavia, my parents’ restaurant in Queens in the 1970s. I was about ten or eleven. My father would close the place himself every night, which was a real bitch. That’s a lot of long nights, hanging out, waiting for the drunks to finish, having a couple glasses of wine, flirting with the coat-check girl. It’s where good goes to bad. You’ve got to be supervigilant at a time when your instinct is to have a few and call it a night. Back then my job was to pull the gates down and put the padlocks on, usually around three in the morning, freezing my ass off. On this particular occasion, I looked over where the garbage was being picked up on the street, and the garbage bags were moving. It was like a horror movie, totally weird. We cut one open, and it was full of lobsters. It’s very simple to sneak food out with the garbage, then swing back later and pick it up to resell for easy money.
Then there are the people who aren’t actively stealing but are eating expensive product and wasting stuff. They’re wasteful because they don’t give a shit, and ultimately they’re fucking you. They don’t care if you lose money or make money.
There’s an old joke in the business: The restaurant owner has just hired a new bartender, and it’s his first night of service. The owner is up on the second floor looking down at the bartender, keeping an eye on the new guy. Some people come in and order two Budweisers and two shots of Jack Daniel’s. It comes to thirty bucks, and the bartender puts fifteen in the drawer and fifteen in his pocket. The next guy orders a round and it’s forty bucks. Twenty in the drawer and the bartender puts twenty in his pocket. The boss is upstairs watching the whole thing. The next big order comes in. Shots all around, beers, a few cocktails, sixty-dollar tab. The bartender puts twenty in the drawer and forty in his pocket, and the boss loses his shit. He says, “Goddamn it, I thought we were partners!”
That’s the way it is—you’re just happy to know what people are stealing from you. After that it’s how much you’re willing to tolerate.
Being Restaurant Man means being there in the morning. It’s a drag—you closed late the night before, you were probably drinking too much and trying to lay the coat-check girl—but you have to shake it off and start all over again. You sip your espresso at the bar, maybe have a little Fernet-Branca to kill the hangover, and take a look at what happened the previous night. You survey the land. You check out what’s been coming in the door and what’s been going out. You look in the coat-check room, because that’s where people leave the good stuff. You always go behind the bar, because that’s kind of like the cockpit of the restaurant—that’s where the cash register is, and usually that’s where you can see the door. You check the bartender’s tip jar, because that’s where they leave the evidence—blow, money, theft, phone numbers. Whatever happened the night before, the story is going to be right there in the tip jar.
I go to the kitchen and pull open a couple of lowboys to make sure the inventory is being circulated. Restaurant Man is always following the product and following the money through the cycle—receiving, storage, processing, bulk processing, fine processing, application of heat. Customer comes, pays for it, leaves. The money goes in the register, you buy more shit. You have to be part cop, part paramedic—at every point in the process there are people who want to waste stuff, steal from you, make it less profitable, and ultimately throw it all in the garbage can, and your job is to keep it tidy. You have to be brutal to keep the margins from bleeding out. Ultimately, Restaurant Man’s job is to stop the people who want to fuck him from fucking him.
The other thing I like to do in the morning is check the reservation book. See what’s on for lunch, see what’s on the book for dinner, see who’s coming in, and start thinking about who sits where. The seating chart is very important. Is anyone famous or infamous coming in? And I don’t necessarily mean celebrities. I mean customers who are either real heavies, meaning real spenders, or complete douchebags. You want to know. Famous film director is coming in with a four top. Likes to be on Table One. Fat opera diva is coming in at eight-thirty. She needs extra space. Ex-president and do-gooding rock star coming in together. Don’t keep them waiting.
Just as a reality check, sometimes I’ll mark a couple of random bottles before I leave the restaurant at night. When I come back in the morning, I’ll check on the fill levels, see what the staff was drinking the night before. You need to know what the staff drinks, if they’re drinking Patrón or Grand Marnier—that stuff is not free. If they’re going to be drinking, you hope at least they’re drinking from the rail.
You would like to have a no-drink policy, but the people who work in restaurants…well, they drink. It used to not matter quite as much. We made a lot more money on the bar—liquor was cheaper, and customers would drink more. Now everything is superpremium, and it costs superpremium. Back then it was gin, vodka, Canadian whiskey. A big shot trying to show off might say, “Gimme a Cutty on the rocks.” You used to pay $7.00 for a bottle of Cutty, but even in 1978 you were getting $3.25 for that drink, so 50 percent of your bottle cost was in the glass. Not anymore. You sell someone a Grey Goose martini, even at wholesale, it’s $32.00 a bottle, something like $2.00 per ounce. These days what’s a pour? Three, three and a half ounces? All of a sudden, you’ve got $7.00 of vodka in the glass, and what are you going to charge? Eleven, twelve bucks? I hate those margins. It’s not like it used to be, buying the bottle for seven and selling the glass for three and a half. Now you’ve got to sell three or four drinks to get your money back on the bottle as opposed to two.
I’ll check out the bathrooms and the locker room, usually the most disgusting part of a restaurant. For me, restaurants are always about maintenance and cleanliness, about cleaning and upgrading, then upgrading some more. My father drilled this into my head from the time I was six years old. He used to say, “We don’t run this place like a fucking Chinese restaurant.” You know, down in Chinatown sometimes they treat the restaurants as if they lived there. Have you ever seen three space heaters with the cords all duct-taped together, plugged into one cheap extension cord, along with the TV, which the whole family is watching at a table? And the boom box and the Christmas lights are also plugged in there, and the place looks like a half-finished basement that somebody’s trying to make festive? It’s like building a nuclear power plant on a fault line.
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Book Description Brilliance Audio, 2012. Compact Disc. Book Condition: Brand New. mp3 una edition. 7.25x5.25x0.25 inches. In Stock. Bookseller Inventory # 1469201232