Whoever coined the phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” might well have owned a restaurant. Resourcefulness and a knack for turning bad situations around are pretty much career prerequisites. Take the September E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach. The industry’s collective response: “No spinach? Okay then, we’ve got kale, we’ve got beautiful chard, collard greens, beet greens, arugula, leaf lettuces, asparagus. We’ll make them special for you and you’ll love them!” Behind the scenes, suppliers scrambled, recipes were tweaked, servers got a crash course on alternative greens.
Whoever coined the phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” might well have owned a restaurant. Resourcefulness and a knack for turning bad situations around are pretty much career prerequisites.
Take the September E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach. The industry’s collective response: “No spinach? Okay then, we’ve got kale, we’ve got beautiful chard, collard greens, beet greens, arugula, leaf lettuces, asparagus. We’ll make them special for you and you’ll love them!” Behind the scenes, suppliers scrambled, recipes were tweaked, servers got a crash course on alternative greens, the proverbial lemonade flowed and the show went on.
While such industry-wide crises are rare, other types of unique, even more challenging situations arise in restaurants every day. Here are four operators who recently made some pretty fine lemonade (literally in one case).
A tree falls in Shreveport…
Last November, a raging storm brought down the stately 225-year-old pin oak tree behind Matthew Linn’s Columbia Café in Shreveport, Louisiana. The tree just missed his building.
With a $10,000 insurance deductible, Linn knew that the tree’s removal would be an out-of-pocket expense. “I could have paid to have the city take it all,” he recalls, “but it would have ended up as sawdust in a landfill. It was such a beautiful old tree, so I decided to make something of it.
“We’re turning it into tabletops and a natural sculpture for our outdoor dining area.”
Linn had the center section of the trunk, approximately 6 feet in diameter, cut into 13 “pepperoni slices,” to serve as tabletops in an expanded outdoor dining area he’s building. Enlisting the help of artistic friends, he spent months sanding, curing and finishing the tabletops to meet health department standards.
…and in Alexandria
In September of 2003, Meshelle and Cathal Armstrong were in mid-construction of Restaurant Eve, in Alexandria, Virginia, when hurricane Isabel hit the mid-Atlantic coast. “We hadn’t considered hurricanes,” says Meshelle, who handles marketing for Eve, as well as the couple’s new fish and chips concept, Eamonn’s. “A gorgeous old oak standing next to the restaurant fell and just missed the building. We felt blessed. It was our good karma tree and we decided to use it.”
Working with a contractor, they had the tree’s trunk cut into slabs to use for shelving in a glass-fronted wine room, a design attraction that guests see upon entering the restaurant. The largest is a shelf 15 feet long, 6 feet deep and 2 feet thick that runs the entire length of the wine room. “The staff is trained to tell the tree’s story,” Meshelle says. “And it’s become a signature attraction—so much so that when we opened in January of 2004 we officially christened the wine room Isabel.”
When Gianfranco Marrocco opened Mediterraneo, a southern Italian-style restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, 10 years ago, he introduced the Italian tradition of offering a complimentary shot of limoncello (right) at meal’s end. But what started as a charming courtesy began to turn sour from a financial standpoint. “We were losing money on it,” he says. “We do 2,500 to 3,000 covers a week. That’s a lot of shots of free limoncello.”
Needing to cut costs but unwilling to pull the program, Marrocco decided to make limoncello in-house using a recipe contributed by his manager’s mother in Italy. And that’s enabled him to cut limoncello costs in half. “The problem is that you use only the lemon rind, so you’re left with a lot of lemons,” Marrocco explains. “We had to do something with them.”
Enter chef Rob DeLuise, who concocted fresh lemonade merchandised as a signature beverage. Appearing on the menu as Rob’s Lemonade, it sells for $3 a glass. At the bar, Rob’s Spiked Lemonade goes for $9.95. “Customers love the limoncello,” Marrocco says, “and sales of the lemonade drinks help us recoup what we lose on the complimentary shots.”
The power of hospitality
For six very hot and humid days this August, New Yorkers were tested once again. This time in Queens, where a widespread power blackout created what Peggy Dougherty, manager of Just Arthur’s restaurant in the hardest hit neighborhood of Astoria, called war-zone conditions. Located at a major intersection, Just Arthur’s was smack in the center of the action. “Con Edison, the power company, set up a dry ice dispensing station directly across the street from us,” Dougherty says. “There were hundreds if not thousands of people waiting in line to get ice. And teams of Con Ed workers, police officers, Red Cross workers and media were there, as well.”
Facing the prospect of having to throw out its refrigerated and frozen inventory, the restaurant’s staff got busy. They gave away ice cream to people in line and set up grills in the parking lot to feed everyone. Because of its proximity to the ice station and its generosity, Just Arthur’s received extensive coverage on local and national newscasts, and Dougherty and other staffers were frequently interviewed. “Afterwards, a lot of our regulars talked about it and really appreciated it,” she says. “Other customers came in because they’d seen us on the news. It’s nothing I’d want to live through again, but we just tried to make the best of it.”
Entrepreneurship 101: Where they’re teaching the craft
Academia has discovered entrepreneurship. One estimate now puts the number of U.S. colleges and universities that offer courses in how to be a successful entrepreneur at nearly 2,000. Here are some of the standouts.
University of Colorado, Boulder
The Deming Center for Entrepreneurship couples entrepreneurial innovation and strategy with environmental issues. This year’s winners of the Sustainable Business Plan Competition received $25,000.
The Author Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, through a $25 million donation by the venture capitalist, boasts 17 endowed chairs.
Five different departments are solely dedicated to entrepreneurship: global, family-business, community, research and technology.
University of Texas
The McCombs School of Business lets you brush up on your entrepreneurial skills without having to interrupt your career.
University of Arizona
The McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship offers one-year associate programs focusing on new venture businesses.
The Coleman Entrepreneurship Center holds workshops and offers networking and free business consulting to entrepreneurs.
University of California, L.A.
Here you can earn a Business Certificate by doing coursework on-line.
University of Pennsylvania
The Wharton School of Business runs an Entrepreneurship Certificate Program designed for professionals who’ve not formally studied business.