October 11, 2021 Journal Entry, from the owner, Lynna M.
“Asking for help isn’t giving up, its REFUSING to give up”. From The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
The last several weeks I have several times begun to write about something food related or something personal about my Hispanic / Latin heritage. Yet, every time I'd start, something more pressing seemed to require my attention. So today, I will share with you some of the more pressing matters that are occupying my attention, and an update of Cuban Kitchen. It has been said that it is brave to ask for help. Thus, I am learning to act more courageously and try to remember that my small acts of courage won't always produce the desired results instantly. For example, last month I sought help from one of my corporate catering clients who is in the business of consulting food businesses – I quickly discovered that their minimum engagement fee of $70,000 would not be within my reach (imagine the “look of shock” emoji here). So, I also asked other successful restauranteurs for help even offered to pay them as consultants, some generously offered their time freely, and others whom I cold-called at least took the time to reply and politely decline. You might be surprised at the doors that open simply by having the courage to knock. And while I certainly appreciate the words of experience and wisdom from my peers, veterans, and consultants what I have come to realize is what I really need is help operating my business. While I am grateful to be in business "for myself", to my detriment, I've also been in business "by myself"**– and this I can no longer continue to do. I also concede that I must work smarter not harder.
You might be surprised at the doors that open simply by having the courage to knock.
My current request for help is to find a business partner, or at the very least an experienced restaurant manager. Not everyone knows this about me and Cuban Kitchen’s beginnings, but despite my penchant for cooking and desire to own a restaurant since I was in high school, I have zero restaurant-operating-experience other than my experience operating the Cuban Kitchen. My education and professional training prior to this were mostly in finance. From trader, to broker, to investment banker to soccer mom – my restaurant experience was limited to that of a guest and for a short stint as a server during my college years, and an even briefer month-long-stint as a crew member at a Chipotle just before I was offered a chance to relaunch the Cuban Kitchen here in San Mateo.
I initially started qba a cuban kitchen from a Food Truck in NJ/NYC in 2010. This foray into the food business was well-received and encouraged me to open my first restaurant in Montclair NJ. For reasons you can hear about in our podcast soon to debut, both closed rather abruptly in 2011; fast forward to 2015 when I received a second chance to pursue my lifelong passion here in the Bay Area. So even though - at the time that I was offered this second chance in San Mateo - I had already turned the corner on half a century (yes, picture another emoji with "look of shock"), I still had what felt like endless energy, and I could do the work of three or more crew members – and quite often did!
With little street cred’ and zero restaurant management or operations experience, I was flying by the seat of my pants trying to get CK off the ground and doing a substantial amount of the heavy lifting myself. I was selling my BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) not just to the angel investor who helped give CK its rebirth in the Bay Area, but I also had to sell and convince restaurant-skilled people to join a new restaurant, with a relatively new cuisine (to the Bay Area), led by a new restauranteur... the result: 80 hires in the first 18 months. At one point I remember going from having 14 part-timers to schedule weekly, to only 2 part time employees - and me working literally day and night - just to stay open for lunch until I could hire more crew to re-open for dinner. Despite my rite of passage out of the wonder years and into the wisdom years, my creative and physical energy during the first 3 years of operating the CK seemed infinite! Also, they were further fueled by the growth and profitability we were beginning to experience. However, I abused my body during the first two years of CK’s existence with all the physical labor I took on. Including the procurement all our products myself– literally filling my 3-door Hyundai Veloster with Restaurant Depot runs.
The heavy-lifting continued into CK’s fourth and fifth years with the growth of corporate catering gigs. And even in the last year, I continued to fill in for crew and drivers who needed time off. The back injuries I’ve since acquired (lifting 80-pound cases of meats); thumb and wrist injuries from the daily handling of heavy pots and pan; and an exacerbated soccer ACL injury (earned as a soccer mom) now remind me daily of how I can no longer ignore that I need help managing the CK, and need to work smarter not harder. As the PPP funds run out and it becomes more challenging for me to run this business without a partner or an experienced general manager, I feel myself experiencing burnout. I ask myself if it is worth staying open this way - losing money and spreading myself too thinly. Losing money even in months in which our sales have reached pre-pandemic levels has been disheartening. What I fear most, is losing what felt to me like self-replenishing well of energy. It is becoming more difficult to rest my mind long enough so that I can exercise decision-making with clarity. I’m not one to give up easily, but a part of me wants to jump off this hamster wheel that I’ve been on for 18 months. One example of how operating from a place of mental exhaustion, can have serious consequences is the mistake I recently made performing an otherwise simple calculation: After the “in-depth” financial analysis I had done last month, I still miscalculated my new packaging costs (of the biodegradable packaging) …what I thought was 67% increase, turns out to be over 300% increase over our plastic packaging-or 8% of our one of our protein plates. This would explain why my food costs as a percent of sales are still averaging 10% more than in 2019 – or pre-pandemic levels.
If you’re familiar with the restaurant industry, you know that the net profit margins in this business are typically in the single digits – and quite often in the low single digits. Just that extra cost in packaging wipes out any profit.
On the other hand, I am still encouraged by the growth of online orders and dine-in traffic both which have almost replaced the loss of corporate-catering-revenue; That growth in new business, combined with the still super positive reviews and feedback from CK guests – both directly and on public platforms – give me hope to carry on despite the current losses and some other unexpected expenditures. (Did you know that Netflix didn't turn a profit until after its 6th year in business?) Thus, while I continue my search for a business partner or GM, I am working with food-service consultant. As I mentioned, having zero prior commercial cooking experience, some of our processes in the restaurant are more “home-style” than “commercial” – I hope the consultant will offer alternative equipment and commercial methods to help streamline our operations and help make the Cuban Kitchen more easily scalable (able to open more units in the Bay Area). Hopefully this professional objective assessment will also afford me the chance to make less emotionally charged decisions – something I fear I will do when feel I am in a heightened state of anxiety. Without a business partner or GM, it is difficult to take a break. So long as the restaurant is open, I am on call. I need time to recharge and to seek the help I need. So, if I don’t “fill-in” or hire last-minute replacements for crew who are unavailable, I kindly request that you stay tuned to changes in service or changes in hours of operation until I can find the help I need and can commit to more consistency in hours of operation & menu options & pricing. Thank you for your well-wishes and your continued support. It is encouraging that two out of nine months this year, we managed to reach pre-pandemic monthly sales. Also encouraging are the great reviews that we continue to receive about our service and food - thank you for posting on our behalf via your social media platforms!
What’s happening food-wise at the CK?
We have enhanced the beef filling of our already delicious empanadas – this version of our picadillo recipe is nod to a Nitza Villapol - who some of you Cuban connoisseurs may know was the Julia Childs of Cuban Cuisine :-) We have also added portabella mushroom empanadas as a veggie option.
And this week, I will personally supervise the “filling” of our delicious guava puff pastries - which I noticed had a little less filling than I like in our previous batch. So, prepare yourself for a little extra yummy guava gooeyness in your next bite of these amazing, sweet treats! Gracias y Buen Provecho Siempre! Lynna **when i wrote in business "By myself" I refer to the management of the business, as many of you know how lucky I feel to have the most wonderfully dedicated crew who cook and serve our delicious Cuban cuisine!