Chop! Chop!

Chaos, craze and catharsis behind the scenes of an about-to-open new restaurant

I am sincerely hoping that my friend Jeff Katz has had a few good nights' sleep this week. His wife, Fran, tells me she has been sleeping pretty soundly, but then, she does the New York Marathon on a regular basis, and little fazes her. They both do a tremendous amount of volunteer work, have more than full-time jobs, and raise a couple of active kids. After a relatively short but intense gestation period--barely three months--and with the help of Paolo DeFilippis, Mark Faust and a cast of dozens, they've just given birth to a new member of the family.

Here's part of the story ...

"I was buying this building, and the restaurant came with it," Jeff recalled about 10 days before the "soft" of Chopped!, the new restaurant he, Fran and Paolo have developed on the site of the former Mongelli's on Speedway Boulevard, between Country Club Road and Tucson Boulevard. Jeff's an attorney, but he loves putting deals together. A restaurant had not been part of the plan.

"Anyway, all of a sudden, I started thinking about concepts. It's taken more energy than I thought it would, and I didn't think I'd become so engrossed in the details. But, it's been energizing for me." Even if that means his sleep ration has dropped from six or seven hours a night to two.

The concept they came up with was "fast, casual ... upscale but not crazy." Salads--and between basics, "proteins," "choppings" and dressings, there are thousands of potential combos--are made to order, with soups, sandwiches, panini, desserts and a variety of beverages from soda to beer available as well. Everything is done in the open, and everything is on display. You come in, place your order, pay and are given a table stand with your name on it. You pick your seat and, a few minutes later, your food is delivered. Fresh, fresh, fresh and simple, simple, simple.

And not so easy.

Twelve days before the "soft" opening--for family and friends--Jeff, Paolo and Mark sit in a pristinely open kitchen separated from the public area. Since all the food assembly will be done out front, the kitchen will be used primarily for prep and cleanup. The subject on their minds this particular afternoon is staff, and how to get the best people to do the best job. So far, they've got 18 people hired of the 25 they expect will be necessary--expediters (waitrons) and cashiers, food preparers and dishwashers. A laundry list of traits and talents is covered. The key word: friendly. Paolo, who is a partner in Chopped! with Jeff and Fran, worked at Mongelli's and has had a variety of restaurant experience. Mark, who will be managing the restaurant, is also a veteran of Mongelli's and a number of other venues.

With less than two weeks to go, the mood between the three is amazingly relaxed, amazingly democratic. Jeff is one of the best people I know at bringing people into consensus, using humor, insight and common sense to guide discussion and find balance. He gets people to talk with one another comfortably, and he's as adept at doing that in this kitchen as he is in the boardroom we often find ourselves sharing. Issues like establishing the dress code; providing shirts, caps and employee meals; subjects of tattoos, piercings and cell phones are negotiated and dispatched. A mantra of "What else? What else?" peppers the phases of the discussion. What door do the employees use? Where do they take breaks? Where do they park? Decisions made. Where are we on the final health inspection? Was a certain plumbing issue resolved?

What else? What else? The tables will be in place in a few days; food art for the walls has been purchased on eBay. Jeff's sister, Randy Davidson, has designed the place with fresh, crisp colors, and it all feels so clean. The menu boards may or may not be ready for the soft opening on March 10. What else? What else? Fran calls from San Diego--she just saw a lemon bar that's a little larger than what Chopped! will offer, but also at about twice the price! A good sign. The fact that Chopped! will have desserts at all is Fran's doing--what's a healthy salad without something sweet after?--and there was a dessert case available. What else? What else?

A week later, five days ahead of the soft opening, and about 20 people have shown up for orientation. Mark, Paolo and Jeff all take turns welcoming a fresh-faced crop of mostly kids, emphasizing the openness of the place and the fact that everythin --including moods and emotions--will be visible. Lots of notetaking. Jeff explains that the idea is "high-quality food served in a high-quality way." We're all on the same team, he says--and we need to act consistently.

"I'm not in the restaurant business," he tells the group. "Well, I guess I am now. But I'm looking at this from the customer's point of view. I'm thinking about a friend of mine, or a family member, walking in--how they are treated, what the quality is that they expect.

"And yeah," he adds, "we're all a little nervous."

Paolo talks about the training schedule, and Mark discusses policies and housekeeping issues. He shows off the signature salad plate and soup tureen, the T-shirts and polo shirts. Questions are asked: What about substitutions? Food allergies? Breaks? What do we do about takeout orders? What else? What else? A computerized cash register system is ready for practice, its software complex enough to make the thousands of ordering combinations seem relatively simple.

The next few hours are devoted to trading places, practicing ordering and cashiering. In the process, Jeff, Paolo and Mark decide a riser needs to be built for the folks behind the register--the counter is just a little too high.

Four days of training remain. What else? What else? On Monday, the building sign will go up and the soda machine installed. The parking lot will be resurfaced and restriped Tuesday and Wednesday. The "soft" opening happens Thursday. Some 200 cards have gone out inviting mostly family and some friends to this dress rehearsal, which is really a run-through for all operations, from greetings and seatings, to order processing, food preparation, putting the new registers to work, serving it all up and, in general, keeping things working. More food than they will need has been ordered--running short is NOT one of the things that will happen.

Thursday comes. It's creative, understandably chaotic--and it works. It's a big party, and everyone wants to stick around, schmooze, enjoy themselves, table-hop and celebrate the new adventure. In a normal evening, the tables would be flipped as people come, eat and leave. This Thursday, no one wants to leave, and people sit where there is room, sharing a table with old friends they've happily just run into. Service staff and the sandwich- and salad-makers are pressed hard to keep up with the crowd, but it's a friendly crowd, and so are they. Everyone gets fed, everyone seems happy.

This past Monday, Chopped! opened formally at 11 a.m. The three days after the soft debut were used to tweak things here and there, put some finishing touches on others and continue the practice, practice, practice of making a restaurant work. Maybe, even, to begin getting a little more sleep.

"There's still a lot of apprehension," said Jeff, "but we feel good." Earlier, he had told me that the uncertainty of it all was the worst part. But, that was two long weeks back. "We've had great feedback on the food, and we've worked on little kinks we found in the system. I am so excited about what we are doing, what we've done in such a short period of time, and we are so proud of this staff and the way everyone has come together!"

Take a look at what they've wrought.

From the in-basket:

To Lorraine L: I couldn't agree with you more--we never often enough take the opportunity to appreciate the importance of food and the people who make an art of it.

To Janos W: The friendship is the best ingredient! I'll look forward to a seat in the corner again.