007: How we almost went out of business just after we opened.
Hey all you dreamers out there, if you’re hankering to open your own place, heed this advice: eyes W-I-D-E open, pockets V-E-R-Y deep.
On May 6, 2002, we opened Hell’s Kitchen after several months of banging around on our old knees, scraping paint and crap off the previous tenant’s floors and equipment. Apparently, the corporation who owned DuJours, the breakfast joint which preceded us, closed it down suddenly after 11 years. They never even had the decency to give their staff notice: doors were simply locked and that was that. We even found undistributed paychecks in the desk.
The space itself was a mess: grease laden walls, crap everywhere, broken equipment (The oven door literally fell off when Steve opened it.) But nothing prepared us for the abandoned food. When we ventured into the walk-in cooler, our jaws dropped. Slimy lettuce, rotten eggs, over-ripened fruit that exploded, and trays of bacon which had mold growing like an old lawn –about 4” deep of fuzzy gray stuff.
The work entailed months of deep cleaning, from having to bleach everything –including the walls—to tearing up the floorboards, which were so rotted that the radiators kept falling through. Our skin was wrinkled and water-logged and puffy from all the cleaning solutions that ate through our thick rubber work gloves. How DuJours managed to pull one over the Health Department, we’ll never know.
Our families were of course invited to join the fun. One day, Mitch’s sister Libby walked out of the kitchen holding a tray of what can only be described as tire treads. Huge thick black pieces of rubber curled up, like when a semi truck loses its retread on the highway. “Any guesses?” she asked, and we just stared in silence. No idea what that was. Turns out it was the black grease she had scraped off the griddle, so thick that it curled up as she labored away.
(Still with us? More of our “cautionary tale of woe” continued below…)
|While our blog tends to stick to some toe-curling stories about what it’s really like “behind the curtains” here at Hell’s Kitchen, some other Twin Cities blogs focus on more important issues such as world hunger. One favorite is ShefZilla, written by Stuart Woodman of Heidi’s. No idea how he manages to run an award-winning place AND tackle the world’s problems, but take a peek at his wisdom and insights. Good food for thought.|
(continued from above)
In the end, nothing could be salvaged. Everything had to go. The oven, the griddles, the salamander, and yes, even the kitchen sinks. We even had to replace the kitchen walls and ceiling tiles. Not being able to reuse anything set us back financially from the start. We of course scrounged for and found some good used equipment, but Hell’s Kitchen was flat out broke before even opening its doors. (And did you hear how our very first customer tried to stiff us on the bill???)
Starting to panic, we did what any normal bright-eyed, bushy-tailed optimistic restaurateurs-to-be would do. We sold everything we owned. Our cars, our belongings, almost anything of value except the Ralph Steadman original, which we donated to the new restaurant. Having already cleared out our savings, we borrowed from our parents and in-laws. Even our 9-year old son got in on the “opportunity” by giving us permission to wipe out the meager college savings. We did, however, keep Mitch’s Indian motorcycle, which was need to get back and forth from the restaurant. (Never mind that it couldn’t help during winter. Hadn’t thought that far ahead.)
The bills kept piling up, but we contacted each of our vendors and begged them to keep sending us inventory while we figured out our next move. (In turn, they’ll never be forgotten for their kindness.) As if things weren’t bad enough, on June 10th, just 34 days after opening, Mitch had a motorcycle accident one block from the restaurant. No, it wasn’t what you think….believe it or not, he was a very safe biker. Cruising down 10th Street at only 25mph, he heard a fire truck’s sirens behind him, so he pulled over and stopped to get out of the way. Once the fire truck –lights flashing and sirens blaring– passed him, Mitch was just starting to pull back into traffic when the fire truck unexpectedly turned onto Nicollet Mall just 20 yards in front of him. Startled, he immediately braked, slammed his foot down on the pavement, and in a freak accident, the bones in his knee crushed like a cookie. The bike didn’t get a scratch, the ambulance driver didn’t give a rat’s ass how slowly he meandered up to North Memorial (even though HCMC was 6 blocks away), and at this point, we felt the restaurant didn’t have a chance.
So that was the day a tortuous 3-months began not just for Mitch, but for all of us. It was the day Steve had to start running the kitchen without Mitch, who would be in traction for months. That was also the day Mitch learned to feel the joy of pain meds, which eventually threw him into Involuntary Rehab #1. (Advice: Do NOT mix Oxycontin and red wine.) And it was also the day we truly felt despair. Not only did we have no money, but we now had to pay another pro to come cook in the kitchen. Mitch and Steve were already working without pay, and the additional expense terrified us. Never mind the medical costs, which is why to this day we offer health insurance to employees.
The time finally came when I had to break more bad news to Mitch (as his leg dangled from medical equipment): I had sold his beloved Indian bike. Didn’t even get a decent price. Desperate for immediate cash to make Monday’s payroll, I practically gave it away. Thank god Mitch was high on pain meds or his reaction would have been much worse. Besides, I always think it’s a sign of character and strength when a grown man breaks down and cries.
$12,000 didn’t go very far even back in 2002, but it did help us write paychecks as well as pay off the Bix produce bill. Yet we still stared at our pile of payables as well as rent coming due. That’s when a fax rolled in at the perfect time.
“Need ca$h for your busine$$? Call now! No string$ attached! The an$wer to your problem$ is only a phone call away!”
I couldn’t dial fast enough. My heart was racing. But in my haste for money, I [unwittingly] made a deal with the devil: There are companies out there who offer cash up front in exchange for your credit card receivables. It’s above board and legal. So we happily took a check for $25,000 from this company, singing high praises for such a wonderful godsend. To pay them back, they would simply keep 80% of our future Visa or MasterCard receipts. Made sense to me….sort of like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, right?
Of course not. What we didn’t realize at the time was that being in central downtown with so many travelers and business lunches, most people use credit cards to pay for their meals, which in turn meant that almost ALL of our income was siphoned off before it even had a chance to hit our bank account . Which put us right back in the same damn boat: no money. And no way to get our paws on any more.
Unless…..unless we did the unthinkable. (No, we didn’t sell our bodies or kids.) We sold our last asset –our house– and moved near downtown, at the same time killing two birds (vultures?) with one stone. Now we live in a little 1-bedroom condo we love –downsizing was a complete blessing in disguise. Mitch hops a bus or walks to work (um, also for other reasons, which I may or may not get into later). We’re happy happy, happy. The restaurant got its desperately needed cash, the goofy (but legitimate) “credit card loan” was fully paid off, our parents were paid back with interest, our son just started at UMD, and Hell’s Kitchen survived an hairy cash flow experience we’d never wish on our worst enemy.
In another blog, we’ll tell you a hair-raising story about how we almost went out of business a second time. Hey! We never said we’re smart. Subscribe (up there! on that top right link!) and you’ll be instantly notified when there’s another true tale from Hell.