It was 10:23 pm, just 2 days before we rang in the New Year, and I was going crazy, tearing apart the restaurant AND our apartment, trying to find my big, wood-handled rubber stamp with the vulture on it.
Why was I so desperate for it? Because stacked throughout our little condo, on counters, tables, and wherever there was an inch of space, Mitch, the kids and I had 1,500 gift bags, the kinds with handles, waiting to be transformed into mini “swag bags” with goodies for our New Year’s Eve crowd. Once I stamped the bags with our ragged but lovely trademark vulture, they’d finally all be fancy ‘n pretty and ready to give away as a kick off our year-long 10th Anniversary celebration.
TEN YEARS. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we survived against immeasurable odds, and by all accounts should have closed our doors long ago (see earlier blog #007 for the candid story). Somehow, probably because our CPA and bankers believed in us (or bought our explanations), we kept trudging through crisis after crisis, from accidents to floods, forced rehabs, and only pennies in our piggy bank with payroll staring us in the face. (No worries; we’ve never bounced a payroll check, or ANY check for that matter). We even survived a tough IRS audit and got a refund because we run our shop clean as a whistle. The biggest hurdle came from closing our dear Duluth location –but we did it right by paying all our vendors, giving our employees three months’ notice and helping them find new jobs.
After all that, the owners of Hell’s Kitchen magically came out stronger, smarter, and far less naive than we were 10 years ago. Mitch, Steve, Kim and I are thankful beyond comprehension to our vendors and partners, but utterly amazed at the loyalty of our employees and customers. Without our supportive customers, we wouldn’t still be here. And without our hard-working staffers who take “ownership” in Hell’s Kitchen, customers wouldn’t be coming back again and again.
But why am I whining to you about that missing vulture stamp? Because the fact that our living room was overrun with these swag bags 2 nights ago almost defines what Hell’s Kitchen is all about. We’re homegrown, we’re anti-establishment, we don’t have deep pockets and thus do everything ourselves. And we’ve never ever played by the rules. That red hallway you walk through? We splattered that artsy paint on the walls while you slept. The awesome new sound system bands are getting woodies over? Tony and crew teetered on 14-ft ladders installing it themselves. Our “novella length” menus were written at home on my laptop. A former cook designs our signs and doubles as our webmaster. Last month, the founders were on hands and knees cleaning grout from the tile kitchen floor. Katy, our Pastry Chef, is scrounging Craigslist for used bakery equipment. And Mitch, who climbed out of bi-polar depression and over mountains of personal obstacles, still prefers yakking in the hallway with customers far more than networking at foodie events. While other chefs are neat and tidy with toques and medals on their coats, Mitch looks as if he just rolled out of bed and lumbers around the restaurant like a giant white-haired polar bear in search of good food. Like I said, we color outside the lines.
In this “guerilla” spirit, rather than a slick marketing campaign dictating how we celebrate our 10th Anniversary, we pulled together employees for their ideas, and now invite you to join us for an entire year of quirky, out-of-the-box ways to celebrate our survival in Hell. Others may think we’re making a big deal of this (I practically ignored the 10-year mark at my first company, Creative Kidstuff), but with this awful economy (hopefully behind us) and our umm, unusual group of renegade founders with junkyard dog scars and burns, it’s just starting to hit me what a remarkable milestone a decade really is for our one-of-a-kind underground lair.
So 2012 will be full of surprises, more behind-the-scenes stories, perhaps a new bakery, hopefully a block party, a few brutally honest rants about the industry, treats for those too far to visit often, and even a free vulture tattoo for a customer we’ll randomly pick from our Facebook Fans. It’s all in honor of those of you who helped get Hell’s Kitchen through a brutal decade and onto being named “Restaurant of the Decade” by VitaMn readers in 2010.
In closing, please do one thing: Invite just one friend to fan us on Facebook so we can win Mitch’s bet to reach 10,000 fans. The nano-second we hit that mark, we’ll announce a huge Customer Appreciation Brunch where you’ll get first crack at reservations and be fetted with extras and attention deserving of your loyalty to Hell’s Kitchen. We’ll even be flying in 2 out-of-state customers to the festivities, so thanks for a wondrous decade, watch for fun news, and cheers to a New Year from all of us even though I’m still pissed I never did find that vulture stamp.
Cyn (aka Cynthia Gerdes)