How to throw the best parties, part 1

3
Mar/10
0

Or how to entertain at home and make it look effortless.

I’ve been throwing parties since I was a wet-behind-the-ears freshman at art school. Back then, it consisted of a couple 24s of the cheapest beer I could find, a bottle of vodka and some insanely-sweet liqueurs and potent mix of classmates and club-kids. Nudity was a foregone conclusion and the three bedrooms in the house were valuable territories with no-man’s land being the long, narrow hallway.

As always, things change, people grow up (somewhat), you have more money to throw around and your tastes become simultaneously more refined and debauched.

Some things, however, remain the same. Booze + music + crowd = good time. Where it gets interesting is the infinite amount of variables that you can play around with.

Before I wrote this, I Googled for how-to’s and guides and one thing was glaringly evident: the people who throw great parties sure as hell aren’t writing about it. Most of what I found was either incredibly straight or stupid and nearly all of it was useless.

Nobody needs to know how to throw your average get-together or function. A little food and drink and background music will keep squarely within the realm of mostly-forgettable events that serve as social grease for lots of folks.

If you’ve read this far, you probably don’t want that.

While you’re not a frat boy, you haven’t quite given up on life yet. You want your guests to enjoy themselves and you want to have fun.  You don’t want to trash your house (after all, you’ve spent some time and money to get it looking nice like that) and even though you had the foresight to get the next day off from work, you probably want to be in bed by the time the sun comes up. Maybe you even want to make some money.

585 GRRD is here to help.

We started with The Awkward Adolescent Party last year which was exactly what it sounds like. In January, we had Bramazon, which was a birthday for a close friend, Bram. The theme was “excess” so naturally we got dressed up, had a full bar and did all we could to make sure the night lived up to its tag.

Last weekend, we threw Smashed for Timbits, another birthday but for my fellow 585 GRRDer, Ash. The theme (very loosely applied) was “90’s hip hop” and we scaled back the bar to a couple of kegs and Purple Drink which is simply vodka and Kool-Aid. This one featured more of a BYOB element but the bar was empty by about ten in the morning.

By the end of this article, you’re going to be able to see how you can throw the best jam ever (hopefully without getting kicked out of your pad or getting arrested).

THE BAR

There are two types of bars; the open bar and the cash bar.

If you have money, you should be paying for the booze. It’s your night and you invited your friends; man up and be a proper host. If coin is tight, you can always insist everyone BYOB but be prepared for mooches (usually friends of friends) who will clean everyone out.

What kind of booze should you buy? The theme may dictate what you get but not necessarily. One rule I like to hold by is have a couple bottles of the nice stuff on hand (say Cazadores tequila and some Bulleit bourbon) for my room and a basic rail downstairs for the masses. Remember, if you’re giving it away, always pour the first drink for your guests; any subsequent drinks are up to them.

One great way to save on the costs of putting together a comprehensive rail is creating a custom cocktail for your party. This can either be planned or impromptu. The second day of Smashed to Timbits (yes, you read that correctly; its subsequent name may have had something to do with that), I was serving something I cobbled together from some leftovers in the kitchen.

THE BLOOD CLOT

1 oz sweet vermouth

1 oz Crème de cassis

2 dashes of Angostura bitters

3 tablespoons assorted berries

1 pinch ground black pepper

3 oz ginger beer

Using a mortar and pestle, lightly coat the bowl with a dusting of ground, black pepper and throw the berries (thaw them if they’re frozen) in there. Crush the berries into the pepper and then spoon a generous portion into a rocks glass filled with ice. Pour in the vermouth, the cassis and top up with ginger beer. Add the bitters and serve.

I would normally have a photograph of some sort to show you but none of us were in any condition to take one and the name does it justice. Not a pretty cocktail but a tasty, spicy one.

A good rule of thumb is to take two complimentary flavors and then toss in something to give it a little complexity. Bubbles will nearly always dilute sweetness and a little citrus will cut right through it. Experiment and have fun, especially if the night is wrapping up.

You can’t go wrong with beer and you will probably run out of it. If you have more than 30 people coming, get yourself at least four cases of beer. Get a lager and an ale and don’t settle for the cheap stuff. Alternatively, get at least two cases of good beer and two of the decent kind.

If you’re considering having a cash bar, beer (whether in a can or bottle) is expensive. A 24 of Mill St. Stock Ale will cost you about $42 at The Beer Store. That’s costing you nearly $1.75 a beer so if you’re selling it, you need to charge at least $3 to make it worthwhile. A discount brand like Brave will run you $30 for a 24 which isn’t bad and by the sixth bottle, no one will really care about quality anyway.

Kegs are an incredibly good deal if you can arrange the transportation and can set ‘em up right. A 50L keg from Mill St. goes for $180 (not including the deposit) and contains the equivalent of 149 bottles of beer. With each beer costing you $1.20, you have way more flexibility when it comes to deciding what kind of bar you want to set-up.

Perhaps the best part of a keg is that you can do away with the bartender altogether and sell party-goers an all-you-can-drink cup. The price can be scaled from “covering your costs” to “making some coin” depending on the circumstances and your financial need.

The most important thing to remember with a keg is that you should probably call ahead and make sure whichever brewery you’re dealing with has some to spare. This is even more important if you’re looking for a specific beer. You  should also give it at least a couple of hours to settle so it’s not too foamy when you tap it. If you’re grabbing anything heavier than a 30L keg, you’re probably going to need some help carrying it too.

(The following information will only be of use to you if you live in Toronto but check with your local brewery for information pertinent to your region.)

Steam Whistle charges $78.25 (+ $20 deposit) for a 20L,  $112.95 for 30L and $179.25 for 50L (both $50 deposits). They even deliver throughout the GTA but will tack on a $45 fee. To sweeten the deal they’ll throw in pick-up, a 12kg bag of ice, biodegradable cups, and draft equipment including a tap handle.

Mill Street offers 30L for about $105 and 50L for about $170 (with both having $50 deposits). Last time I went, they were out of hand-pumps which necessitated a ride out to the Bathurst/Dupont Beer Store. You can rent a hand-pump there for $65 ($50 deposit + cleaning fee) and they also have an interesting selection of domestic and foreign brand kegs. It’s pricier (30L of Maudite costs $209.75 and the same of Delirium Tremens costs a whopping $272.85!) but if you want something really tasty, you can’t go wrong. Amsterdam also offers both 30L and 50L kegs at $111 and $179 (+ $50 deposit), respectively.

If you are going to have a basic bar and you don’t want people just helping themselves, you’re going to be manning it all night long unless you get yourself a bartender. Be prepared to pay them and don’t hire your friends unless you both feel comfortable with you being in charge. Offer them at least $100 and free drinks to boot.

Best of all, this frees you up to sell tickets, be the consummate host and have a good time. A good benchmark price for drink tickets is $5 each or 5 for $20. Any more and you should really be throwing this party at a proper venue.

Even if you’re charging, BYOB is a great idea for friends. A terrific way to frame this is by offering to hold all of the booze your friends bring at the bar. That way, they don’t have to bother with mix (and they can switch it up if they like), they get a consistent drink and they know no one’s going to touch it except the bartender.

Within reason, it’s difficult to overestimate how much alcohol you will need. A good bar is vital and running out can stop your shindig dead in its tracks.

Next week, I’m going to talk about the crowd you want to attract, how to promote and all the other little things that will make or break your event.

25 things restaurant owners should never do

8
Feb/10
4

Awhile back, I wrote about Bruce Buschel’s New York Times article on the 100 things restaurant staff should never do and the sometimes vitriolic debate surrounding the piece. Quite rightly, a lot of folks felt the list was pretentious and Buschel’s lack of experience certainly didn’t help matters.

He was roundly mocked by many people in the industry (and quite a few patrons) but just as many clueless freaks chimed in with support proving to me that a large segment of the population clearly has no idea how challenging it can sometimes be to a good server.

While I’m no hater (hell, at least a third of Buschel’s advice was solid) everything else he said left me with flashbacks to the motley assortment of owners and managers that I’ve had the misfortune of working with. Like many things in life, the service industry has far more bad eggs than good ones and it gets stinkier the higher you look.

Leaving aside the bickering between staff and guests (some things never change) and a certain segment of the workforce that will never amount to anything (I like to call them “the doomed”) the blame for staff performing poorly can almost entirely be laid at the feet of the owners and those power-hungry assholes they hire to manage their venue for them.

Training is clearly lacking here and while I’d like nothing better than to put together a helpful, concise training manual nobody who matters is going to pay attention and it’s way more to fun to right a shit-list of no-nos anyway…

And so, I present the twenty-five things restaurant owners should never do (I initially considered adding seventy-five more but there’s something to be said for brevity). A lot of this applies to managers as well and quite frankly, I see no harm in lumping ‘em all in together. To my mind, if the manager sucks, the owner’s either not much better or wilfully ignorant.

1. Don’t charge your staff for food while eating whatever you want. Sure you might have paid for it but they’re hungry too and if they’re working a long shift, they should get something at some point. This doesn’t mean you have to give ‘em the steak but leftovers are fair game. Pasta’s cheap. If they want to order something off of the menu, give ‘em a discount.

2. Also, get your staff a drink when they’re done. This doesn’t mean the night-cleaners are going to find you guys sprawled out in a booth in the middle of a high-stakes poker game (but that can be fun every once in awhile). Offered food and drink will cut down on casual theft and they will feel appreciated.

At this point, a cheap owner will exclaim that they can’t afford to do this every night to which I call bullshit. Man up. Show your staff that you’re with ‘em in good times and bad.

3. Everyone has things that get on their nerves but there’s no need to rub it in. Regarding procedures it’s all important but obsessing about clean glassware, table-placement or elbows on the bar will annoy your staff and they’ll cut corners elsewhere. Think big picture but remain detail-oriented.

4. Leave the tables alone! Any decent server will be closely monitoring their section and when you come in and ask their guests how they’re doing for the third time, you’re interrupting the flow of their night and our steps-of-service!

5. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with getting involved if you know the table or if something’s gone horribly wrong but even if the server’s fucking up, go to them first. I can’t think of anything that will make it more apparent to your guests that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

6. For that matter, don’t take orders unless the server asks you for help and if you do, don’t forget to tell them. Even better, go pick up that drink if the server is busy with another table, they’ll love you for it and your guests will appreciate the hands-on touch.

7. No special, eight-course tasting menus at the last minute for that table of VIPs without covering it at the beginning of the shift! Nobody likes surprises and both sides of the house will hate you if you spring this kind of shit on ‘em.

8. Too much white puts you in the red. Coke and booze can be fun but when you take a break during the dinner rush for a line in your office, you’re sending the wrong message to your staff. Wait till after close and share.

9. Don’t give away too much free shit to your guests. They won’t appreciate it and when you run out of money, they’ll do nothing more than shake their head and reminisce about the good days.

10. On a related note, if you do invite your friends to dinner to show off your restaurant and you’re going to promo their meal, make sure they know that they’re supposed to tip. They’ll be gone by the end of the night but you’ll still look bad.

11. Don’t piss off your regulars! They’re your bread-and-butter and when you mess with what they like about your place, you’re saying you don’t care whether they come or not (and guess what, they won’t).

12. If you’re contracting with an outside performer or company, be sure to get back to them with all of the information they might need in a timely fashion, assumptions being related to fuck-ups and all. Contracting will always necessitate extra work but it can be worth it if you’re prepared.

13. Just because your potential staff may be unaware of labor laws doesn’t give you the right to screw with them. Minimum wage is there for a reason. Pace of business notwithstanding, your staff deserve breaks, should get a decent night’s sleep before their next shift and shouldn’t have to perform any tasks they’re not comfortable doing.

14. Trying to get a cut of their tips through devious means such as breakage, walkouts or “house tips” has no place in any establishment. These are called “the costs of doing business” and you’re responsible for ‘em.

15. Don’t pretend that the idea of the servers tipping out the kitchen and bussers has anything to do with your egalitarian notions of sharing the wealth. Those guys deserve a proper wage from you and if the servers want to give ‘em a little extra, that’s their prerogative. It’s no secret that proper wages and longer periods of employment will make everyone richer and happier.

16. Your staff aren’t responsible for promoting your business. There’s a big difference between having them let their guests know about upcoming events and the specials that day and being forced to join a Facebook group where they have to invite all of their friends or risk punishment.

17. Collecting e-mail addresses from guests should be voluntary. Forcing minimum quotas on your staff is demeaning to them and irritating for your regulars.

18. Don’t schedule three staff for a day-shift when you know you only need two and then force the other unlucky bugger to clean and organize inventory all day (unless you’re going to make it up to them by bumping them up to a laborer wage).

19. Daily meetings are not a cattle call for who will get a section that day. Schedule fairly and appropriately. If you treat your staff well, you might even get them coming in on their day off when you’re really in a bind.

20. As an owner/manager, you should never be handling your staff’s cashouts until they’re done with them. They might become suspicious if you lock yourself in the office with all of their money and stay holed up for two hours while they clean downstairs. (Come to think of it, that’s where the coke is too.)

21. While there’s nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with eye candy, that doesn’t give you the right to slap ‘em on the ass or make jokes about CPR training. We know you didn’t have all that much fun when you were younger but that doesn’t mean you can join in our reindeer games. We chose a job that allows us to indulge in as much sex and drugs as we can handle and you chose to run a business. The only thing that connects us is the industry (barely). Suck it up!

22. Verbally abusing your staff, whether it’s in front of guests or not, is always wrong. Why should they respect you when you don’t reciprocate?

23. Fuck double standards. Treat everyone well but reward staff that go the extra mile. And this doesn’t mean you get to reward yourself first.

24. If you’re coming into an established venue, change what clearly doesn’t work and get rid of the dead weight but leave the rest of it the hell alone; no tinkering!! This is not play-time.

25. Every owner/manager should have an understanding of each part of their business. Spend a week as a busser and you’ll be a better man for it.

If you don’t work in the service industry, you might be tempted to think I’m exaggerating. While humor obviously plays a part in this list, there are many restaurants operating right now that have no respect for their staff.  O’Grady’s on Church, owned by Jimmy Georgoulis, is, by my count, guilty of at least half of these. (Full disclosure, I worked there for nearly three months so I know of what I speak.) On the Toronto Restaurant Blacklist, a Facebook group dedicated to complaining about staff exploitation, O’Grady’s is the biggest offender. Where there’s smoke…

While some of my don’ts will probably never change, I can’t help but hold out hope for a future where serving is seen as an honorable profession and they become standard practice. Many of them have been reiterated by colleagues from all sorts of establishments and I’d like to thank Erin, the bartender at Hoops Sports Bar & Grill (my local at Yonge and Carlton, go have a drink on Sunday) for suggesting some particularly good ones.

Like in any business, those who fail to heed the bottom line will pay for it but treating the people who support you well, staff and guests alike, is just as important.

(Image: “The Brains” by Thomas Nast.)

How to decide which beer to order

25
Nov/09
0

I was at my current local, Hoops Sports Bar & Grill, conveniently located across the street from where I work, and about to order my first brew of the night when I was presented with an unexpected choice.

Sandra, instead of getting me my Rickard’s Red (they’d stopped carrying Mill St. Tankhouse Ale sometime in the fall), told me that the Creemore keg had just been tapped. Now the freshness of a keg doesn’t normally factor into my decision to partake or not but for some reason tonight, it really appealed to me and a set of criteria for ordering beer began to assemble itself in my mind.

1. Is it new or different?

Obviously, the most important question for anyone who truly loves beer. If you’ve never had it before, maybe it’ll be the best one you’ve ever had. Any truly decent bar will have one or two lines devoted to seasonal drafts and you’d have to be daft to pass up the opportunity to sample a pint of Grand River’s Jubilation Spiced Ale, for example. Even if you don’t like it, what’s the harm? You can always pussy out and order half-a-pint anyway…

2. Is it clearly the best beer available?

This is where Mill St. Tankhouse Ale often cleans up for me. Before they stupidly did away with it at Hoops, it was the only beer worth ordering in a line-up that included a full collection of Keith’s products. When it comes to that kind of decision, don’t settle for second-best. The flip-side to this neatly segues into point no. 3 which is:

3. Is it fresh?

It might be the best beer but if hardly anyone ever orders a pint because they’re too busy drinking Keith’s, it might not be up to its full potential. Just like in a restaurant, if you order the special that no one else is having, prepare to be disappointed. One person ordering their favorite beer from time-to-time can take an awfully long while to drain that keg and you don’t want to be the one sampling the lower third of that bastard.

So there you have it. Follow this quick-and-easy set of rules and you’ll probably be happy with whatever beer you end up drinking.

Or not. Maybe you just want a goddamned beer and you won’t even notice the taste because all your throat’s been craving all night is that magical equation of water, malt and hops.

Have at ‘er, I won’t stand in your way.

But for those of you who order a Keith’s, day in and day out, because nothing better comes to mind, try something else. And if I’m serving you, know this… I’m gonna fetch you your shitty beer but I hope it gives you gas and a nasty hangover tomorrow morning.

How to do you decide what you’re going to have?

How to redesign a bar

20
Apr/09
0

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, the Akia is one of my favorite bars.

Not only are Charlie and Vivian willing to take risks with new products when the majority of their current clientele drink only Budweiser (why do so many Asians drink Bud anyway?) but if you happen to come semi-frequently and have a favorite beer, they’ll probably hold some for you. My friend Gil and I drink Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, this other fellow usually goes for Tsingtao and John, the resident, affable know-it-all will have Molson Export and nothing else.

They have a bottle of Żubrówka on hand (my suggestion) and they said they’ll bring in some Centennial as well. Their prices are very fair and they treat everyone who walks into their bar as a potential friend.

And yet the Akia is not busy. Their weekends are dead and even happy hour (generally the point when bars like this do most of their business) is not as good as it should be. Charlie sat down at my table tonight and asked me why. After listening to his concerns, I brought up several points for him to consider.

1. The bar has a bad rep.

The Akia has a lot of history. For the past decade, it’s been a dive bar that bums, gangsters and cokeheads flocked to for its anything-goes, laissez-faire attitude. You could go there and know that the owners wouldn’t hassle you. The cops also generally stayed away although this changed as time went by.

Most passerbys might not be aware of everything that went on inside but you can bet they saw the motley assortment of people entering, leaving and smoking their cigarettes outside. One of the first assessments many potential guests will make of a venue is the crowd and I would imagine many of the folks in the tonier area north of the bar probably avoid the Akia for that reason.

The best way to overcome this is through word-of-mouth, some careful flyer distribution and a careful application of the convert-one-person-they’ll-bring-their-friends approach.

akia2. The sign sucks.

The second thing that a potential guest will look at is the sign. It can tell you a lot about the place. Akia’s sign is old, too foreign and rather cheap-looking. The bits about the “grill” and “cafe” are definitely misleading and the subheading on the sign on the left advertising the products available makes it seem a bit low-class. The whole sign seems designed to attempt to appeal to everyone by throwing out words without considering what the establishment can offer.

The colours, make me think of Ikea and are a bit too convenience store and not enough neighborhood bar. This sign has been here longer than I have and it should be trashed.

I’d do away with the garish colours and go for earth tone with a white or red type. It shouldn’t be too hip or too grungy either… Like Czehoski but with less of a look-at-me attitude.

3. They have a great location they’re not taking advantage of.

That, in a nutshell, is what the Akia should be. When I think neighborhood bar, I think of the Gem or the Only and while I have a definite bias towards individualistic establishments that have an eclectic jukebox, good beer and interesting people, I don’t think I’m way off base here in proposing that kind of template for the Akia. Hell, they already have the first two; all they need is the third.

The area between the Danforth and Gerrard is full of young couples and families who would probably be up for a casual weekday pint without having to go more than a couple blocks in either direction. Sure, East Chinatown is predominantly Asian but there are still quite a few young artist-types who might dig it too. And as much as I like Queen St. East, I don’t always want to go down there.

4. The interior is not inviting.

The ceiling is this dull, rusty colour and three of the walls are beige. The wall behind the bar is a nice, rich red and the lights are kind of sexy but two good bits can’t overcome the vomitous mess closing in on all three sides. The chairs and tables, while a bit bare-bone, are workable and the TVs are fine. The tiles on the floor suck but since replacing them would be very expensive, I think they’d be better off sticking with a new paint job.

I’d leave the one red wall and paint the rest of them dark brown or black. The wood panelling and trim should be sanded down and varnished; this would give it a much classier feel and make up for the cheap seating.

5. They don’t have a patio.

To the north of the bar is a rather large rectangular piece of asphalt that is not being used for anything. It would make a perfect patio and although it would look out onto the Don Jail, it would get a fair bit of sun and allow the smokers to sit and drink instead of congregating around the entrance.

According to Vivian, the third-last owner enquired with City Hall about building a patio and was told that there were issues of “hydro access”. I told her she should check this out herself and see if there was some kind of work-around; there’s no harm in asking.

Even without a patio, I think that making nice with the neighbors, changing the sign and repainting the interior would definitely give the Akia a chance to attract a different crowd. These things do take time but Charlie and Vivian would be improving the area and they’d probably make some money too.

They seem to be willing to overhaul their image and I’d be happy to help; we’ll see if anything comes of it.