Published Date Written by Natalie Ladd
Along with the holiday season comes the first noteworthy winter storm. The one where people say, "Oh My God! It's a skating rink out there. It is so nasty!" That, while they're sitting at the bar or a cozy table as if somehow Scotty beamed to me work and I didn't have to deal with the lunatics on the road as well. The first storm of the 2013/2014 season was underway, and what an eventful night at the restaurant it was.
Bigger groups consisting of work cohorts and couples make up the bulk of reservations this time of year for holiday gatherings. The recent stormy evening served as a makeup date for those who missed the ugly sweater party and arrived 20 minutes late "due to the weather" without calling us. Then, they complained they wouldn't make curtain for the "Nutcracker" because we gave their table away and our kitchen was so slow anyway. Calling it the "Ballbuster," one guy whispered, half-jokingly, he'd give me $50 if I stalled their food even longer once they were seated. His wife heard him and reached over to smack him on the arm and spilled her drink on the mega-sparkly woman standing next to her. The mega-sparkly woman was already upset as she and her husband had been the only ones to arrive on the dot. And that was just one party.
Also in the house was a group of teachers who had so many little Yankee swap gift bags and goodie boxes there wasn't enough room to put their glasses of "house white zinfandel," salads and entrees on the table. Even though the roads were becoming treacherous, we were fully committed with reservations and the teachers wanted to put their gift booty on a temporarily empty table next to them. (Maybe it's just me, but doesn't it seem like Yankee swaps take forever and ever?) As I was schlepping their schwag to the office for safe keeping, it was a given their table wouldn't be turned over quickly. Even though I was scheduled to be cut first, I knew I'd be what we call, "LTL — Last Table Lucy," with that group of merry makers.
Seated at the coveted window table were two couples who started arguing over who was going to pay the check well before their bottle of wine was cracked. While not uncommon in and of itself, tonight it was the women who were going at it. Come to find out, they both had Portland Dine Around cards, which expire at the end of the month and each wanted to be the one to utilize theirs. The Portland Dine Around people do a nice job smacking down the rules (one card per table, automatic gratuity, not valid with other offers and specials), but I thought it would be accommodating to offer to split their check (and the whole universe knows how I feel about that) allowing them to use both cards. Thinking I'd be splitting the bill evenly down the middle, I shouldn't have been surprised when the pens came out and it was scrutinized closer than Bernie Madoff's financials.
Another sign the holiday season is in full swing is the request for gift cards at the most inopportune times. That is part of the festive process in all retail-like businesses, peaking in the inconvenience factor (for the buyer and seller) as Santa's big day draws closer. Gift cards and certificates make up a huge chunk of business in January and February, giving the restaurant a nice end-of-the-year cash infusion and guaranteeing warm bodies in the aftermath.
As much of an in-the-moment pain gift cards can be to ring up, I long for the days when corporate purse strings weren't so tight. Many of us remember when pharmaceutical reps had to "use or lose" their educational/entertainment budgets. Those legal drug pushers were known to buy mass quantities of gift certificates and statistics show that 20 percent of them were never redeemed.
The first inclement weather of the season had the phone ringing off the hook asking if we would sell gift cards over the phone and mail them out. We took a few phone numbers promising to call back when we weren't in the middle of service (people were pleased with that), but one woman was nice, if not frantically insistent. "I only live a few miles away, but I need it soon and really don't want to go out in this mess if I don't have to," she said. "I know it's a lot to ask but do you think someone could drop it in the mail tonight?" She didn't want to drive but wanted one of us to somehow get to a mailbox ASAP? We all shook our heads, but business is business and who knows her situation. 'Tis the season.
The highlight of the evening was an unexpected visit from Bob and Sheila, a recently reunited couple who consider the restaurant "their place." Agreeing to take the relationship slowly, the couple is dating again (adorable!) and were touched by a letter Steve DiMillo sent the paper wishing them well after reading their tale ("A regular love story," Nov. 26, 2013). They had planned to spend the evening picking out a Christmas tree for Bob's new apartment but the weather persuaded them otherwise. "Take care out there," Bob said. "People are driving like jerks."
The Down Low: My friend Kozetta Zere, and her husband, Mike, have quietly purchased the old Jake's Place/Wake N' Bake Cafe on 302 in Westbrook. Changes will be coming slowly but Kozetta is already making lamb and chicken gyros served with hand-cut fries and plans to expand the menu to showcase some of her best Albanian-Greek family recipes. A custom brick oven is on the way for pizza as Mike has an extensive background in both the business and the craft. Breakfast is still as rocking as ever and a new sign (saying "Kozetta's" of course) will be up soon. Please show these small, local business owners your support.