Experiences The Chef

Boss Tweed

Let me apologize by stating that it has been difficult for me to continue blogging on a regular basis.  Last week I read Saignee’s powerful entry questioning his career choice to become a blogger and it gave me a lot of food for thought.

The transition to the food and wine industry was not so obvious to me at first. At the ripe old age of twenty three, armed with a dangerous english lit. degree from City College of NY, I took a teaching job in the NYC Public Schools and learned the craft of teaching.  Special Education in the South Bronx and East Harlem for teenagers (7th & 8th Graders) for thirteen long years.  About eight years into my tour, I wanted a change.  But what?  How could I give up on a pension, good vacation time and a noble profession?  Checking my own self-assessed talent barometer, I was good at food and wine, or at the very least had a passion for it.

So it took five years of positioning myself to leave, downsizing expenses, leaving the Board of Ed., saving money, cashing in my accrued pension, private catering, and lots of luck (with the right people mostly).  I started writing a cookbook, and got a job revamping a wine and food program at an old Spanish establishment, La Nacional. I managed, cooked some, and initiated a wine program.  After a year and a half, I partnered with same owner and two other partners to open Ostia in the West Village.  I built that business from the ground up.  But I was not savvy enough to remain when one of the partners got greedy, and left to open my own spot, Pata Negra.

I have blogged about the trials and tribulations of opening a small business in NYC, the joys and the frustrations.  I am coming up on three years now, way past survival point.  But it is now that I am at a crossroads again.

There are many elements that are discouraging me, and an analysis requires brutal honesty.  First, an informal identification of what I see as the problems of my business.

Despite what people may think, the restaurant business is not a cash cow, although I know many owners who do well for a variety of reasons.  With respect to my business, I am simply having trouble making money.  Blame the economy, people are just not spending as much money any more or going out as frequently.  Except that I go out to eat and drink quite often and always assert that some place, somewhere in NYC is full right now.

Why?  Part of it is press and public relations, part of it concept, location, and a bunch of other reasons.  I am located on a street with cheap Thai food, Motorino Pizza and Mac-N-Cheese.  I am not knocking my fellow establishments.  In fact they offer great quality product for their clientele.  But my petite wine bar is very specific, an idea based on the way I like to eat, a few slices of great ham, daily house made tortilla, some simple shrimp in pimenton and garlic, a few cheeses and a reasonable wine list.  No fried food? Patatas Bravas? Three different flavors of sangria? No TV? This is not how New Yorkers dine.  It is even less how NYUers dine.  Concept for location – mistake.

Some will point to other successful wine bars in the nabe, Terroir – press machine, Bar Carrera and Veloce – on the avenue (2nd) and been around for ages.  Who walks out of their way to 12th street to consume the world’s most luxurious and expensive ham?  They don’t even have a real kitchen! What?  Shut up! Please!

I should have opened a gastro pub with good well known bar food, a flat screen in every room, including the bathroom, and the interior design of the Breslin.  God knows what was I thinking.

But I persevere.  I have garnered a few regulars and very appreciative clients.  My friends and family have been a constant support in every way (emotionally and financially).  I would say that ninety percent of the customers who come through Pata Negra’s door get “it”, while the remainder is disappointed on some level.  Pata Negra customers know I serve the best ham in the city and use only the highest quality Spanish products I can get my hands on.  My goal is to execute those products 100% of the time, understanding that I fall short sometimes.

My staff has been with me since my days at Ostia.  Service first.  Pata Negra is an extension of my living room.  Spanish cuisine and wine education available when asked.  Chris has taken many wine courses and traveled through Europe extensively. She also provides the Williamsburg cool factor.  Gaspar is from Alicante and knows what Spanish food is supposed to taste like.  He also fills the gaps in terms of any questions on Spanish culture.  I live and breathe all things Spanish and love my job as owner and bon vivant at Pata Negra.

Where do I go next?  The cookbook has stalled.  Call it writer’s block or lack of enthusiasm over the fact that a comprehensive guide to Haitian cuisine is not gonna line the shelves at Wal-Mart.  TV shows?  I’ve auditioned for a few.  Hard racket to break into.  Open another restaurant.  Ah that would require capital, which brings me to my complaints/lack of understanding/status quo.

The Department of Health has been on a witch hunt.  I understand the need for transparency with its newly implemented grading system, and further agree with the best conditions for public safety.  But make no mistake about it, the DOH agenda is about making money for the city, period.  Every day at 66 John Street, hundreds of owners are crammed into a stuffy room with a 10:00 am appointment summons to testify against all of the violations heaped upon their respective businesses during the latest visit from a DOH inspector.  The owners are iced all morning; on my latest appointment I arrived before 10 am and was seen at 3:30 pm, all for an opportunity to be heard by a “judge”, whose qualifications are suspect. The owners are called like cattle into a room with the “judge”.  A tape recorder is turned on, the owner speaks, and then the “judge” sends the owner back into the lion’s den awaiting some 45 minutes for a verdict.  The verdict is an average of $2000. in fines.  There are hundreds of owners there per day.  Do the math. $$$$

That’s the cost of doing business.  This has become my favorite go to expression for unforeseeable, necessary expenses and costs that a business commands.  The DOH paid me a visit in February.  Fine, $2000.  I fixed the violations.  Then they paid me a visit in October and I received 17 points which amounts to a “B” rating (13 or less for an “A”).  The Inspector said he was sending me another inspector in a couple of weeks.  He stated that I had a potential for an “A” if I fixed certain violations. Four weeks later another inspector came in and fined me 21 points for completely different violations.  She awarded me a “B” with a grade pending, meaning that another inspector will be paying me a visit in the next month as well.

Will an inspector be coming once a month to be assessing fines until I receive an “A”?  Is my business an ATM for the city?  There is only one word for this assault – usury.  The city needs money and knows how and where to get it from.

A good question would be, “what were these violations,” and “why couldn’t some of them be dismissed?”  Even if you have a viable explanation for the violations or show that they have been corrected, you will still be fined.  Oh, I forgot the system.  If you hire a person who has experience (and by that I mean an expediter who has a relationship with certain judges) he can go to court and represent you and somehow ask for a certain judge, thereby guaranteeing some violations to be reduced or dismissed.  Get the picture.  If you know a knowledgeable attorney or expediter and pay them, they can reduce your fines.  Meaning all judges are not using the same standards for everyone.

My last court date, I decided against going through the entire humiliating process of waiting only to be heard and fined.  The DOH gives owners this option: Pay without a hearing in advance and the bill is discounted 10%, but relinquish your rights to argue the fines in the future.  I woke up on my own time, had an espresso, paid $1000. in advance and went home, distraught but not drained from a day of hell and usury.  Total tally so far – $3000.

I thought this was over.  Then another inspector walks in….

This is the pattern, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.  There isn’t a single establishment in the city of New York where a violation cannot be uncovered.  Heck I was in a Chinatown kitchen the other day that brandished a big fat “A” rating.  If that place received an “A”, I’d like that inspector to head over to my establishment.

Inspectors are instructed to fine, and judges are instructed to collect, kind of like the unspoken policy policemen have for doling out vehicular tickets.  Sure there is no quota.  I have cops for friends too.  That’s why towards the end of every month, tickets go up exponentially.

Here is my suggestion for fixing this corrupt system.

  1. Before an establishment opens, two inspectors come to the establishment and run through a checklist of possible violations that need to be addressed before opening.  Then just before business opens, they return to make sure the work was accomplished to a 80% – 100% satisfactory level.  Assign an “A “or “B” rating accordingly
  2. Six months later, two more inspectors come in with a checklist.  Violations are noted.  A timetable is given to the owner, at least one month, to fix the violations.  Inspectors return one month to six weeks later to assess the corrections.  If violations remain, the owner is assigned a summons to appear in court to show progress and be assessed fines.
  3. Rating may be up or down graded according to status.
  4. DOH food operation licence is currently $280.  The fee should increase to $750. to cover some of the lost revenue.
  5. At court, a team of three judges should be available for each case.  Appointments should be adhered to within a two hour window.  Appeals can be made without paying first, contrary to the way it works at present.

In terms of all the violations assigned to my establishment, some of them made perfect sense, while others were completely false.  Regardless, if you draw the wrong judge, you will have to pay the fines.

If it were just the DOH on my back, I would be okay.  The cost of doing business.  But late this summer I got a letter in the mail assessing a two year bill for an increase in real estate taxes.  As per my lease, I am liable for 20% of any real estate tax increase levied on the property from which I rent a space to do business.  Someone please explain to me how in this economy, the property value of the building has gone up that much.  That for 2009 and 2010, I am now liable for $15,000. in tax increases!  Really!  In this economy.  Oh, I understand, the city needs money, let’s raise property taxes.  Who does these real estate assessments?  What is the magic formula for one building versus the next?  The cost gets passed on to the landlord, and then passed on to the small business owner.  Pay or close.

I am weakening just a bit here, but the final coup de grace may come from the NYS Worker’s Compensation Board.  This state agency exists to ensure worker’s safety and rights in case of work related accident or injury, and is another governing body with endless red tape and agenda of extracting as much money as possible from business.  When you open a restaurant, according to the payroll, you pay money to the NYSWCB.  During my third year of business, this agency sent me a letter tripling my fees.  I made several attempts to ask why the increase, and the best answer I could get was that they were basing the fees on a payroll of a million dollar a year business.  I wish!  I’d gladly pay those fees!

After I explained several times with the agents that I have two full time employees worth of hours, they demanded an audit.  I welcomed them down for a visit to my enormous 24 seat wine bar manned by two people.  The agency dragged the audit for six months, and finally realized they were overcharging me all along, and attempted to overcharge me further. After they recognized their errror, I was refunded money, and they adjusted my percentage due.  However, in the meanwhile, the agency canceled my policy, and are now trying to charge me $2000. per every ten days without coverage for a total of $20,000!  They attempted to overcharge me, they dragged the audit, they canceled my policy, and now they are trying to collect 20 large.  I am sure at some point I will be up against a “judge” to plead my case.  What do you think the outcome of that will be?  The best part is that I could not renew my food operation licence (owner’s are required to list worker’s comp as additionally insured) so when an inspector came in, I was fined a violation of $1000 for an expired permit.  The “judge” was unsympathetic to my dilemma.  Great surprise.

Where does all this great misfortune leave me.  It leaves me wondering if I have the stamina for this “business”.  It gives me cause for testing my resolve and conviction in this profession.  I am very worried about my future.  It weakens any faith I had in government.  I left the Board of Ed because the government kept sticking their nose in trying to run our city’s school system like a corporation.  Now I’ve run into a larger juggernaut of a bureaucracy. Perhaps our esteemed mayor should change the rules and run for a fourth term.  He says he is for small business.  Count the amount of small business on your block versus bank ATMs, pharmacies, and Starbuck’s.  As long as they can pay the tax increases, right?

I know that many people fail at business, sometimes several times before they become successful. I could try to survive, wait it out, and live to fight another day.  The question remains.  Do I really want to?  Thanksgiving is a time for reflection, and I am thankful for so many things, especially these three years, but will providence shine down and restore my lack of faith?

Time will reveal what my next moves will be.  In the meanwhile, come down for a plate of ham, while supplies and my stamina last.

By Chef Mateo

Just a man in pursuit of all things delicious. Eat and Drink life!

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