how easy it is to muck it all up

There was a saying my dad used to use all of the time – if you want something done, do it yourself.  This brings me to a discussion around a much-anticipated venue opening that can only be described as an unmitigated disaster.

A major regional centre in Victoria has been waiting for a particular venue to open for so long – it has had something akin to the gestation of an elephant. For what seems like years, people have been peering in the windows of the venue, waiting for something to happen.  The food  press have been all over it as well… waiting, waiting, waiting.

All of a sudden, with very little fanfare, the doors are flung open.  This is where the disaster starts. Promises had allegedly been made and broken by so many –  about chefs, front of house staff and an overseer arriving to take charge, that only a comedy of errors could follow. And like many venues across Australia, including some of our most noted eating houses, the drought of quality front and back of house staff continues.  The problem in regional Victoria is even more dire than the city.

We arrived to the venue, five days after it opened, assuming the teething problems had been dealt with and the place ready to go.  It was a school night, so we expected that they would be busy but not flat-out.  For two days we had tried to make contact on the listed telephone number, only to find it disconnected. We arrived at six to a man who looked completely frazzled writing bookings in an exercise book and trying to remember the staff he had hired as they made their way in the door for their first shift. Alarm bells should have rung, but we overlooked that hiccup. Alarm bells should also have rung (and possibly did) when glasses from five rounds of drinks piled up on our table in the bar as we waited.

I could go on and on, but this is more about the fact that this venue was simply not ready to open.  There are no systems in place, there are no staff that have been trained, they don’t know whats on the menu.  The menu itself is all over the place like a mad woman’s breakfast – there is no cohesion at all and it seems they are trying to be everything to everybody.  And on a Thursday night in regional Victoria, I kind of think that $29 for some fancy bangers and mash, a similar price for some fish and chips and equally overpriced Caesar Salad might not be doing you any favours.

So we sat and waited until 7.45, as instructed, when we moved in to a dining room that could have seated us an hour prior. A 15 minute wait for menus and a glass of water kicked the questions in to action, and so they remained.  We had with us a teenager and an 8 year old, both reasonably sophisticated in their taste and are very used to eating with big people. By 9.30, the shared entrees started to eke their way from a clearly over stretched kitchen.  The man in charge of the venue had given me a bit of a tour and I was surprised to see a balcony upstairs filled with patrons, many on tables of 6-8 or more, another dining space allocated upstairs, with a non functional kitchen, as well as the full dining room downstairs.  There were, it seemed 2 chefs and a kitchen hand to feed the hordes, who we assumed would have numbered some 150.

Staff were completely under pressure and when we made some polite inquiries about some of the dishes we had ordered, we had clearly untrained staff roll their eyes in full view of us, or in earshot, complain about us asking too much. When questioned, the staff member simply said she does not have an attitude. We beg to differ missy!

Whilst this circus is taking place, the venue manager is wandering about looking somewhat stunned by the influx of cashed up locals who have been waiting for this place to open, and the restaurant manager did not move from the confines of his desk where he seemed to have no greater task other than to oversee the pass, most of the time with his back to his dining public. All of this while, as we understood, the complaints were flowing in from upstairs where diners waited two hours for food. This also happening as staff simply walked off the job – clearly unable to deal with the pressure they were put under.

The litany of errors went on and on, including a serve of barramundi that had seen much better days and was grey, a rib eye (at a sneeze over $40) with a few bland prawns on top that must have been soaked in water, given the flood on the plate, and a parmagiana that was simply inedible.

The end of the night, when the bill was presented and after some harumphing from yours truly, the venue manager and restaurant manager both arrived to the table.  We gave them some advice and a large serving of disappointment, and to their credit, they comped the entire bill and invited us back in a month when they hope to have everything ready.

Sadly, the damage is done.  They will be lucky to have any patrons in 4 weeks and will not see us in there in a month. There were excuses made about ‘head office’ demanding they open, but to what end?  Open and ruin your reputation in your first week?  Open and piss enough people off that they wont want to come back?  Open and be damned I am afraid.  Clearly, a day or two of staff training, a little more time to perfect a menu that reflects local and seasonal produce and has some cohesion and direction to it, a few days to get some systems in place so that staff at least have a section or area to work in, and a few days of wine training.  A request for a glass of Riesling should not have someone looking at the red wines on the shelf.

We could all bemoan that there simply are no staff available, but instead of pushing those you have to the brink, shut the doors, take a deep breath and regroup.  The kitchen was not capable of serving 150+ meals on a week night.  The floor staff simply do not have enough product knowledge to be able to deal with questions and feel confident in their responses.  There has been no training about up selling or complaint resolution.

Our night was well ruined – and all could have been saved had someone in a position of authority come to us earlier and explained their situation.  We would have been more understanding. There is advice then for those who are opening new venues and I might steal the motto of the Boy Scouts! Be prepared! You simply can not make a venue like this, in a mid sized town, succeed if you manage to piss off the majority of its spending patrons in the first week of opening.

We wish them well and given we are in the region frequently, we may visit again if they are still open. But they need to get their house in order if they have any hope of success and the people in the ‘head office’ in Melbourne who have pushed them to open will need some patience if they are hoping to see numbers in black on their bottom line.

Lets hope the comedy of errors has taught them the lessons they need.

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