Within moments of the restaurant opening at 6:30 am, the first of the earliest coffee group start arriving. Some are loggers and have been waiting in their pickup trucks, motors idling, keeping an eagle eye on that front door that will momentarily be unlocked. Travel cups and thermos bottles are brought in and filled, hi’s are exchanged and the bantering and laughter fill the early morning air. The second wave are those who are in for breakfast and they are greeted by the mouth watering smells of bacon and sausage, pancakes and rich western omelettes topped with cheese. Yes, another day in the life of a busy restaurant has begun!
It is a fascinating study in human behaviour to observe the dynamics that play out in a small town restaurant. People generally know or are acquainted with many sitting at the various tables in the room. Good mornings or hellos are freely exchanged. They come from all walks of life; nevertheless you see how important the restaurant experience is to each one and the sense of well being it gives. It becomes a meeting place for the community, an integral part of it. For some this may be the only social life they have. You could say this is their home for a brief moment; it embraces them and fills so wonderfully a basic human need to just be with people. The happy buzz of conversation swirls around the room adding to the ambience. An experienced waitress can pretty well predict where certain ones will sit and what they will order. Almost all people, if given a choice, prefer to sit on the outer rim of the room. It is very humorous to watch the expressions of a customer who walks in to find a stranger sitting at their table. They reluctantly make their way to another, but somehow the experience changes their demeanour. It’s as though a stranger is sitting at their kitchen table. The audacity! In fact one older couple was heard to say to a person sitting at their usual spot, “Would you mind moving, we always sit at this table.” One has to chuckle at human nature at times. We are so much alike in many ways. We like things to remain predictable, or as we expected to find them.
My interest in the restaurant business started when I was no more than five years old and having the wonderful experience of my dad taking us to the Nugget café in Quesnel in the early 1940’s. It didn’t happen very often because money was very tight, but when it did it was a memorable experience, a treasured memory. I sat there and stared in wonder at those swinging doors as waitresses exited from the kitchen, their arms loaded with plates of food. The fare then was Salisbury steak, pork chops with mashed potatoes, liver and onions and the famous Denver sandwich to mention a few. My daughter Annie eventually shared this passion for the business and went on to open a very successful restaurant here on the North Island. The food today has evolved into some very interesting items like wraps, jet teas and things like that.
As was the case with the Nugget Café, many of the restaurateurs back in the day were Chinese; they were experts in starting and keeping family run businesses going for generations. It was a given, the whole family worked together and children were expected to do their share. Many of these original family-owned restaurants can still be seen all across Canada and even the smallest of prairie towns have one that survived where others just disappeared.
Perhaps the most intriguing question of all in this part of the food industry has to do with the people who decide to open their own restaurant. What is it that compels them to just keep going in spite of working 16 hours a day, making very little money, having staffing problems at times and a huge pile of bills to be paid each month? Why do they persevere in the face of all odds? There has to be a corresponding payoff somewhere in all of this.
The payoff comes when things are going well, because your reputation goes out with every plate of food, its preparation and presentation must be top notch at all times. It happens when people come up to the counter to pay their friendly waitress who has served them well. They want to tell you “I sure enjoyed my meal,” and they thank you!It comes from having a hard working dedicated staff that continues to make it happen day after day or when the establishment has a good reputation and people know they won’t leave your place hungry. It happens when you see them enjoy a generous piece of homemade coconut cream or apple pie and a good cup of coffee on a winter evening. They just want to sit at your place and enjoy one of life’s simple pleasures. It comes from the heady, rich smell of coffee brewing that fills the restaurant even before the early morning lights have been turned on or the grill started.
It happens at the end of the shift when the kitchen has been cleaned, the exhaust fan turned off and everything polished in readiness for another day to start in a few hours. Yes, another busy day in the life of a restaurant.
This is dedicated to my daughter Annie, who was first introduced to the restaurant business when she worked for me at the tender age of 13.
She is a true entrepreneur, and recently shed tears when she said “so long” to her own restaurant after owning it for many years.
-submitted by Dorothy Robinson