All the talk the next 10 days or so will surround that big game in California between Carolina and Denver. It is the most watched sporting event in America every year between the two best teams in football. At least it is supposed to be, at any rate. We will hear stories of overcoming adversity. We will hear stories about demanding perfection. We will hear stories about attention to detail.
There are a lot of life lessons one can take from any one of those 50,000 feature stories we will see in the days before the big game. A good many of them translate to everyday life. They translate to success and they translate to running a business. Yes, including restaurants.
Last week, we spent some time talking about all of the things restaurants don't do before they ultimately fail. Lack of money, lack of planning, lack of realistic expectations. Lack of a firm grasp on all of those things will very likely lead to a restaurant shutting its doors. The most successful? They are obsessed with perfection. More times than not, they are obsessed with attention to detail and most importantly, they are obsessed with making every single customer happy. Even when we all know that is next to impossible. But guess what? They are going to try.
I was invited over for a chat at one of Savannah's newest great restaurants last week. Cotton & Rye opened its doors in July. I had visited a couple of times and very much enjoyed it, but by all accounts, it has been hitting it out of the park almost since day one.
"I've eaten everything on that menu multiple times already," one local restaurant owner told me a couple of weeks ago. Fair to say, it's really good.
My business partner Senea Crystal and I were joined for dinner by co-owner Kimberly Whitestone, whose husband Brandon is the executive chef in this beautifully re-done space on Habersham at 34th street. They own the spot along with Zach Schultz.
It was an enjoyable evening tasting some great food and talking shop, both from our side of the street as well as theirs. We talked about headaches associated with the labor pool in Savannah, we talked about hard-to-please guests. It's not like I haven't heard so many horror stories before. They are always good for a chuckle, or not, as the case may be.
At the heart of the matter was a genuine question from Kim about her restaurant and the perception of it in the community.
"Are we doing it right?" she asked. I had to laugh as I turned and pointed to yet another mid-week packed house and said, "I would say so."
Last month I was asked to contribute a list to this newspaper: a number of places where tourists could "eat like a local." My name and my brand were attached to that list, so I obviously take full responsibility for its contents. However, in submitting the list, Cotton & Rye wasn't on it. There is no doubt in my mind they should have been. I mean really, how much more "local" are you going to get than Habersham and 34th streets? A restaurateur could have been offended. Heck, maybe some were. But instead of wondering or cussing or worse, ownership made the decision to call me and find out why. If there was a particular reason why, they wanted to know. They are chasing perfection and are keenly interested in any information that will help them achieve it.
The restaurant was closed the first week of the year. As some around here like to do, you lock the doors and take a break. A week, never more (unless you're Mrs. Wilkes) and recharge. Valentine's Day is around the corner and it starts all over again.
Before the Whitestones left on that trip to see family in Las Vegas, Kimberly recorded a voicemail message saying they'd be closed for a few days and would reopen on Jan. 12.
"I made Brandon wait while I re-recorded and checked it to make sure it sounded OK ... four times," she said. "I finally heard one I was happy with and we left."
The day before they arrived back in Savannah, she checked their messages. The message she recorded for whatever reason didn't stick. What was there instead?
"I had 157 voicemails from unhappy guests," she says. "Some were fuming. There were plans for birthday parties spoiled; there were groups that had planned to dine with us."
I can imagine that with all the talk about restaurant closings in Savannah the last few weeks, some of those guests had to have feared the worst. But how exactly to you fix that?
"I set aside two days," she says, "And I called every last one of those guests and apologized.
"It was actually a bit serendipitous. I spent 15-20 minutes on the phone with some who are regulars but I hadn't really gotten to know yet."
I've met a lot of restaurant owners who would have maybe winced, then hit delete 157 times and hoped those guests would return. You've got to admire the desire to make people happy.
I spend so much time talking about the maturity of this city's restaurant scene. We aren't New Orleans, but we are quite a bit farther along than we were five short years ago. I hate hearing about culinary talent leaving town. I do understand why, but getting more talent to stay here is a huge first step in making it all better.
The other side of that coin is seeing more and more restaurants evolving into the kinds of places that really care about their guests' dining experiences. Even if those guests are here for the day and you will never see them again. Far more than one time in this city, I've seen restaurant owners roll up their sleeves and do whatever they need to do to keep everything running smoothly during service at their restaurant.
We left Cotton & Rye "wowed" and humbled, really. The meal was excellent. I'm still dreaming about those mushrooms. Every bite was great, every sip just the same.
I do have this city's only weekly column about food. I don't take that responsibility lightly. I have never owned a restaurant, nor do I aspire to one day. The ones that do it well are in a league of their own. I've heard so many stories about taking six months to find the right burger bun, or sampling 25 ice creams to find the one to make the perfect milkshake.
Cotton & Rye tweaked the rye bread recipe for six months to make it what they thought was perfect. The bread is served when you first sit down. It's probably forgotten 10 minutes later. But the effort shouldn't be. It's the attention to detail they feel their paying customers deserve. And we appreciate it.
See you on TV,