We get unusual phone calls and emails at the rate of about two a week. This one started with a phone call and a rambling and somewhat incoherent introduction from the gentleman on the other end of the phone. I automatically followed the procedure we use in this situation and took control of the conversation. ‘Mr ~ , What exactly is your business?’, I asked gently. ‘How is it going’?
‘It’s a French seafood restaurant. Near the beach. It’s OK,’ came the reply. ‘But my accountant has just told me I can’t pay my tax.’ Then he launched into monologue about how good his business was in the past. I listened for a while, then politely interrupted and offered to come and see him.
Seaside locations can be a real problem
Seaside suburban restaurants can be a real problem — if you plot their trading radius on a map, half their customers are fish. They have to be pretty good to survive. To compound this difficulty, he specialised in seafood — French seafood at that. Two more black marks on the profitability scorecard. Specialising in seafood yields very expensive food costs, and classical French cuisine is out of fashion here at the moment. I felt a sad kind of deja vu coming on.
My worst fears were confirmed when I saw the place. Imagine a small strip of fairly decrepit shops on a very busy coastal highway, on a bend, with cars passing at an average of 70 kilometres per hour. In the middle is a grey facade in poor condition, with two tattered canvas awnings over the windows and a small sign bearing the restaurant’s name over the door. Heavy drapes hid the interior from prying (or interested) eyes. There was no parking for hundreds of metres. ‘Yep’, I thought to myself, ‘here we go again’.
He greeted me at the door. He was old and tired. I followed him in and he offered me a cup of coffee. I always accept because it gives me a chance to observe the surroundings. He went into the kitchen while I slowly walked around and took careful note of everything I could.
Tired and out of date décor does not help
The place was dingy and felt unclean. The decor was pink over rough cement rendering with dark stained wood edges. Sea shells, stuffed fish and glass fishing floats abounded. There was a fixed price menu written semi-legibly on a chalk board — he was offering a three course meal for under $20. His wine lists were tattered and featured a limited range of old faithfuls at near liquor store prices. The dining area seated about 50 people.
He came with our cups of coffee and we sat at a table. He was obviously nervous and struggled to express himself. I listened carefully and asked him fairly simple questions to give him confidence and help him to relax. Gradually, he opened-up and told me his troubles.
‘My business used to be good’
He described how he bought the restaurant about eight years ago. For the first few years it made more money than he had been used to earning in his previous jobs as a Chef, and he was happy despite the long hours and the heavy workload. He ran the kitchen while a small band of long-serving staff ran the dining room. Gradually, one by one, they left and he replaced them with young locals who needed a job. Since then, his sales had gradually fallen to the point where he was in trouble. He had only realised when his accountant sat him down and gave him a heart-to-heart talk.
We’d love to help but we can’t afford to be a charity
As he spoke, I became more and more convinced that had neither the skills nor the money to resurrect his business — but I liked him, and my natural reaction is to want to help people. What would you do? If it was a matter of giving a little time and simply writing it off as community service, it wouldn’t be a problem. I’ve done it plenty of times in the past, but this business was in dire straights and needed a thorough overhaul.
I hate these situations. I had to tell him the truth, so I told him what would have to be done to reverse the downward trend, and watched sadly as the reality of his position slowly sank in. Not only was he insolvent; his chances of finding a job at his age are minimal, and he knew it. He had called me hoping for a magic wand and instead I ruined his whole week.
With great control and dignity he thanked me for my time and showed me to the door. His last words echoed in my ears as I got into my car, ‘My customers all tell me they love the place, ‘ he said, in hollow defence of the truth.
Get help before it is too late
On the way home I became quite angry. Not at him, but at the situation. He wasn’t a rare occurrence, I see people like him regularly — it’s one of the down sides of my occupation and I should be used to it, but it still tears me apart. Behind these encounters lie a great deal of misery. Why do they go into business when they don’t have the skills? Why don’t they seek help sooner, when there is a chance of success? The logical me understands, but the emotional me still seethes in outrage.
The irony of all this is what will probably follow after his business folds. Someone will drive by and see the place and think, ‘What a lovely spot for a restaurant. I’ve always fancied myself as a restaurateur. It’s near the beach — I’ve got a great idea . . . we’ll do seafood; French, I think. We can hire some local staff, tidy the place up and go for it. We’ll make a fortune . . .’