New menu, new beginnings
[By breaking the rules] with confidence, serving people as a waiter transcends servitude and ritual, and becomes the empowering, creative and satisfying occupation that I have personally known it to be. —Dur-é Dara, ‘Waiting as a Profession’, The Waiter’s Handbook 2nd ed., Graham Brown & Karon Hepner
Sure, we have these pathetic laminated printouts that tell people what we can do for them—the ingredients in our bagel combos, mainly—but I've never felt obligated to flesh out every little thing we’re capable of.
Coffee and cabinet food, simple as that. We stock our bar well and say, 'just ask us if you want something special', even though one’s coffee preference tends to be pretty static—we didn’t start doing batch or single origins until recently, and engaging with the barista is always the best way to order those—and we designed our display fridge to be consumed eyes-first.
But I suppose there’s something reassuring when guests are able to pick up a slate or tablet of some kind that tells them in too many words on a poorly designed canvas what the cafe or restaurant does, well or not. I see it as a reflex of some kind, an impulse to create a barrier between the guest and the service team, robbing the latter of the opportunity to upsell the day’s special—as though one won’t end up defaulting to a flat white and scrambled eggs on toast, thanks.
I know the cafe format is completely different from the fine dining experience, but why can’t we crib some of their notes? Why can’t we push ourselves to impart value the moment you step through our doors and in every step of our journey together?
How adventurous do people really get for breakfast? I don’t have the privilege of going out much for coffee or brunch, but I think it’s such a missed opportunity to turn a new guest into a recurring one (a.k.a. consistent source of revenue). Of our team: everyone has different levels of confidence when it comes to theoretically prying said menu from a guest’s hands and making recommendations ad hoc. That requires building rapport and trust beforehand, which I’ve noticed make some guests a little uncomfortable.
In the early days I trained staff to proudly announce, ‘I am the menu. How are you feeling today?’ when asked the inevitable question after a cursory glance around and frown: ‘Do you have a menu?’
Quokka Coffee also exists in this nebulous grey area of food business regulations. ‘Technically we’re just a lunch bar’ is an excuse I’ve relied on to explain the fact that, while we’re designed to look like a cafe, we’re only allowed to reheat pre-made food onsite as per our local government's bylaws.
See also: milk bar, delis, etc.
Reinvention is hard, but menu planning is harder—both were things I knew needed to be done quickly.
Because we just got a new health inspector. One who, upon their inaugural visit to the shop, was so impressed with how tight of a ship we were running that they said we’d be used as a case study to teach other food businesses.
All I heard was ‘sure, you can bend the rules a bit.’
Ergo, a new menu.
scoping the project
As with any good design brief, there must be guardrails, and for us that meant just adding three new dishes:
- three savory items proven to be dependable brunch sellers elsewhere;
- that needed to be easy and convenient to source, prep, store and teach; and
- the ingredients of which needed to synergize with our existing bagel lineup to minimize food wastage
I’ve worked in hospitality for long enough that the romance of pouring a beautifully symmetrical rosetta using the silkiest of full fat milk, or plating a dish as deceptively simple as scrambled eggs on toast is well and truly dead. I get too caught up in whether the espresso was extracted according to spec—was the dose exactly 21 grams, its yield approximately 42 grams depending on the time of day?—or whether the milk was stretched and steamed to a precise 65 degrees celsius. Are the curds set correctly on the eggs, and was it also dosed out correctly, seasoned just enough to highlight their ‘free ranginess’, rather than mask its imperfections?
Most importantly, were these presented to the customer with a smile and the sense of pride that comes from bringing disparate objects together to create something greater than the sum of its parts?
Numbers, numbers, numbers. Any operator worth their salt (ha) understands the importance of watching them like a hawk. Seasons pass, produce and protein prices fluctuate, income is invariably dictated by what you offer and when, and how much thereof, and it’s been over a year since we opened but I still deal with this pesky existential helplessness whenever I review our weekly takings.
All of this menu planning—for efficiency’s sake, I also simultaneously mapped out a basic catering menu—has meant I’ve had to chain myself to my desk in order to tackle all of this deep work without interruption. Sometimes it’s hard to overcome the guilt I feel when I’m physically not at the shop but the sense of relief is palpable too. I’ve never felt so productive dealing with the work of costing, updating my inventory and par sheets and bookkeeping protocols, reaching out to suppliers and filling out credit application forms, and finally picturing how I would train the staff to execute the new menu.
Eggs on toast, avocado on toast, mushrooms on toast. Three admittedly basic dishes that spawned infinite questions both esoteric and workmanlike.
- What’s the minimum order requirement from that bread supplier I like, the one with the really well-seasoned and perfectly chewy ciabatta?
- Do I have adequate storage? I can’t fit excess stock into my freezer—do I have enough cashflow to buy a domestic unit to cover the shortage of space?
- How do I want the avocado to feel? The ensalata on top was missing something, a garnish, something green to finish, perhaps textural... ah, let's try a salsa verde. Pero crudo? Cocido?
Even as I get ready to launch and train the staff on the menu, I’m looking months into the future: which of the team is leaving? Where am I going to find a new hire with the labor shortages?
And: what are we cooking over fall and winter?
foraging for joy
I realized as I was printing out the last of the menus yesterday that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opened in cinemas. I scrambled to get the last of my admin work done for the day so I could catch an early afternoon screening. The proliferation of superhero blockbusters has been tackled elsewhere but I have a soft spot for this franchise.
I liked it and thought it honored Chadwick Boseman’s memory. Grief suffused the almost three hour run time and the reimagining of Namor—a compelling José Tenoch Huerta Mejía—with colonial origins was cathartic. (Spanish conquistadors paid our people a friendly visit once upon a time too.)
Of course, I swung past the shop after to drop off the new menus and do a bit of prep.
As alluded to above, I have indeed gone ahead and cribbed notes from fine dining. Perpetually at my desk is this tool: The Book of Yields 8th ed., Francis T. Lynch. Still into the void I yell, 'metric system, metric system, metric system!'
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