May 2, 2011
Monday postscript: Pocket Bistro, couples running restaurants

What's it like to live together, raise kids together and, when you go off to work, there you are: together again?

In recent weeks, I have reviewed a spate of restaurants run by husbands and wives or some kind of domestic partnership equivalent. Magpie. Bistro La Petite France, Café Marika, Chando's Tacos. I can think of plenty more, including superb ones such as Taste in Plymouth and Boulevard Bistro in Elk Grove. I've also heard of more than a few restaurant divorces (including at least a few where they get divorced but continue working at the same eatery).

I imagine that most relationship experts would say it's best to have some healthy time apart, that working and living together can put a tremendous strain on a relationship. It takes a special kind of couple to make it work. And in the pressure cooker that is the restaurant business - where chaos is pretty much a daily part of the routine - those strains can be magnified significantly.

The latest husband-and-wife restaurant team is Edmund and Jade Abay of Pocket Bistro. She's out front and he's the chef in the back. Not only that, they're raising three kids. And I found out later via email from a reader that Jade also has another job.

That's more than plenty to deal with. But these two know their strengths and they don't seem to overlap in ways that could create unnecessary tension.

Can couples survive the restaurant business? Like the Abays, the ones that seem to handle it best have very specific - and very different - areas of expertise. That eliminates a lot of bickering right there. Do you really want to argue over what color to paint the guest bathroom at home, then come to work and argue over how the staff is trained or what fish special to put on the menu? It's also important to divide up the shifts, so that the two are not always at the restaurant at the same time.

Arguing at work? That can either be entertaining to the staff or, more likely, stressful and divisive. Worse: bringing the arguments about home life and continuing them during your work life. Relationships are tough enough.

But there are pluses, too. Anyone who has worked in the restaurant business understands the joy and the adrenaline rush of having a good night, of really nailing the service, feeling the energy in the room and encountering all kinds of satisfying customers who rave about the food they just devoured. When it happens, that kind of rush can build an even closer bond.

I say all this, of course, while sitting in a room without any interruptions, just me and my dogs. Maybe it's me, but sometimes that's the way I like it.

Changing the subject, I focused a good bit of my attention this week on chain restaurants, mostly because Edmund and Jade met while they both worked at P.F. Chang's. Even though I don't review chains that often, I spend a lot more time than you might imagine thinking about chains. I do so in part because I am carrying some baggage. Over the years, I have had very poor experiences at certain locally owned businesses - poor product, little effort, rude service, etc., so much so that I wondered why I should support them instead of the big, bad chain.

Don't you think chains know this? Don't you think they're waiting to scoop up all of those frustrated customers who give a local business a shot, only to feel shortchanged?

When chains are honing their concept, they know they have to hire the right people, train them thoroughly and supervise them carefully so that each and every employee is properly representing the business and its mission. If local joints sometimes fall short, this is one glaring area to look at. Why do you have a grouch greeting people? Why doesn't the server know the menu? Why are they sloppily dressed? (I'm not saying this about Pocket Bistro, by the way). The chains are constantly looking at this aspect of the business. At P.F. Chang's, for instance, I ordered takeout one night. When I went inside to wait, the host showed me to the back where the to-go orders are completed. Then another friendly employee came by and offered me a complimentary soft drink while I waited. Recently, when I went to a locally owned restaurant in midtown, I stood and waited, only to be greeted by a man who said, "Two?" That was it. No smile. No welcome. And it just wasn't up to what the successful chains do.

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