“Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” – Pablo Picasso
Mornings are magical in an empty restaurant dining room. There is a different energy in a restaurant in the early morning. Everything is quiet and still. It’s a stark contrast from the hectic hustle of the pre-shift scramble and the frenzied activity of lunch and dinner service.
I like to walk around in my restaurants in the early morning around 5:30 or 6 when no one is there. It’s something that I’ve always done. There may be one or two people getting their day started back in the kitchen, but I prefer to walk around in the dining rooms at that time of day.
I make mental to-do lists of things that I see that need to be taken care of. Sometimes I’m trying to stay out of the way of members of the cleaning crew, but most mornings it’s me and the stillness of the dining room. It’s a rare moment of solitude.
The restaurant business turned me into a morning person. Over 30 years ago, I could sleep late into the morning. Back then, when I opened my first restaurant and had to start showing up early to open the doors and cook, my lifestyle changed. Now I can’t imagine not being a morning person.
Early mornings are the only time of my day that I feel are 100% mine. No one is calling on the phone, emails aren’t filling in the inbox by the minute, and no one is asking me to make a business decision. It’s just me, the tables and chairs, my own business decisions, and the stillness of the dining room.
I do my best thinking in the morning. I also write in the mornings. That’s when my brain is fresh and uncluttered and I’m not too far from that misty awakening stage where I’m caught midway between dreams and total consciousness. Of the 17 restaurant concepts I have developed and opened over the past three decades, most of them were conceived before 8 a.m.
There is something about an empty dining room in the early morning that offers promise in the coming day, and it’s the anticipation of future business that gives me hope. An empty dining room after a shift in the evening has an entirely different feel. The late-night emptiness is prostrate and fatigued. The day is over. The business is closed. It’s done.
Mornings are more positive. Everyone is there to get the business open. At night it’s all about the closing. Opening is more positive than closing, unless you’re the team member who has worked a long shift and are tired. Then closing means the work day is done and it’s time to head home.
Back in the early 1990s I was walking through the French Quarter with my wife and passed a restaurant with a single waiter sitting at a table in an empty dining room at 8 p.m. It was such a desolate scene. It was disturbing and, at the same time, sobering. It made me grateful for the business we had at the time. In my mind’s eye, I can still see that waiter sitting at that table hoping someone would walk in. Restaurants need people.
Restaurants are really all about people, whether it’s the people who work there or the people who dine there. Early in my restaurant career I learned how valuable people are to a business. We were the young, up-and-coming thing, and I had received a lot of early positive press that went to my head. I don’t remember exactly, but I am sure I went to bed every night patting myself on the back for all of the great accomplishments and recognition the restaurant and I were receiving.
Then one morning a freak thing happened. This was back in the days when I was pulling 90-hour weeks in the kitchen. I was opening up and getting ready to oversee the prep work that needed to be done to handle the lunch service and I got a call from a prep cook who wasn’t going to be able to make it in that morning. A few minutes later a line cook called with a death in the family. Then the dishwasher called with car trouble. Before the hour was out, another line cook called and wasn’t going to be able to come in. It was in that moment that it hit me like a direct shot to the head – you idiot, it’s not you, you don’t do this alone. No matter what the television news features, and newspaper articles say, it’s the entire team.
I had been taking the credit for everything the restaurant was accomplishing when, in reality, I was a very small component in our success. I am even a smaller piece of the puzzle these days. I am in an office in a different location while 300 men and women are doing the daily work that is involved in opening, operating and closing down a restaurant every day.
It’s not a one-man show. It never has been, and it never will be. I always try to give credit where credit is due, and 95% of the credit lies with the team, not the owner.
Maybe that’s why I like the stillness of an early morning restaurant dining room. It reminds me of that morning when I learned a valuable – yet sobering – lesson.
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find his recipe for Dr. Pepper Glazed Ham at robertstjohn.com.