Saturday, May 7, 2016

Is your sign straight?

     The sign didn't skew a lot, but it skewed enough—maybe half a brick dip to the left or, if you prefer, half a brick rise to the right. 
      It was crooked. 
      Plus, of course, the old brackets that held the "My Pi" sign from the restaurant before, the pizzeria that came and went, and quickly too. That's what happens. You get one chance.
      Nobody took those brackets down. A man on a ladder could have removed them with a screwdriver in 10 minutes. 
      But no one did.
      Last year, months before the restaurant opened, I was walking down Shermer in the old leafy suburban paradise and saw that sign announcing the new place, "Agave Anejo Mexican Grill," and immediately had this thought:
      They'll never make it.
      Because to survive, a business needs to pay attention to detail. Especially a restaurant. Because you can eat at home. You need to master the details, to not scrimp  and cut corners and do a slapdash job. To thrive, a restaurant has to sweat the small stuff. That's what customers expect, and are paying for.
      This vaguely Star Trek "A" was obviously designed on the cheap, the name itself hard to read, and skewed to boot. Amateur hour. The restaurant was doomed.
      I thought of writing that, a year ago, when I saw the sign. But why torment a small business owner, right out of the gate, some poor guy pursuing his dream? A Mexican restaurant of his own.
     Maybe the food would be great. A culinary genius, oblivious to such non-food matters as signs and skewing.
     Better to err on the side of kindness, if staying quiet was kindness.
     Maybe I should have written my thoughts. Maybe it would have helped him. Maybe not doing so wasn't doing him any favors.
     Nah, he wouldn't have taken the criticism and learned. People so seldom do.
     So the restaurant opened, last August. The grand opening banner stayed up for a month after the grand opening. That, too, was a bad sign, literally. It advertised the grand opening that had come and gone, and didn't come down until one corner fell down, and even then it flapped around in front of the door. For a day or two.
      Of course we ate there, my wife and younger son, we tried the food. And it wasn't bad. A little expensive. Basic Mexican food. I remember a serviceable ceviche. We almost went back for a second try—support the local business, a block from our house.
     But inside, there was no art on the wall. Who starts a Mexican restaurant and has no art on the walls? Not a colorful paper-mache lizard. Not a sombrero. Not a metal cactus. Nothing.
      So we didn't go back. The lack of art gave me almost a contempt. Really? And we were supposed to eat there why? The place never seemed that crowded. A few people in the bar. And then not even that. A week or so ago the restaurant went dark and the "FOR LEASE" sign went up. Too little capital, I would guess, and too little effort. A small dream poorly executed.
      Still, someone's dream, not deferred, but vanished, so nothing to laugh about. Instead, a grim nod, a recognition of the risk that all who strive face, and should be aware of. That tilted sign was the tip-off, before the the first basket of tortilla chips hit the table. Don't be half-assed. If you're going to do something, do it well. Make sure your sign is straight.



  1. Everything I've read has said that the restaurant business is the hardest to make a go of.
    80% fail in the first year.
    But I agree that you make sure that all old signage & mountings are removed & your sign is straight, unless it's deliberately designed to be on an angle.
    I also see the occasional business that goes out & has the name on the sign done in some fancy script, so fancy, you can't figure out the name or what the business is.

  2. A lovely bit of essayistic musing. Almost worthy of Lamb.

    The sign would drive my wife, who requires a fearful symmetry in all things hanging on walls, crazy. I might take notice, but would probably not go so far as to see it as a fingerpost pointing toward failure.

    Tom Evans

    1. Yes, my wife is also fussy about such things and gets angry when I fail to adjust my necktie quite right, considering such sloppiness a finger pointing towards failure. So far she's been right, thank God.


    2. You might, in self defense, allude to a nice little poem by Roert Herrick, celebrating a "Delight in Disorder," beginning:

      "A sweet disorder in the dress
      Kindles in clothes a wantonness."

      And concluding:

      "A careless shoe string, in whose tie
      I see a wild civility,
      Do more bewitch me than when art
      Is too precise in every part."


  3. Funny how this is posted the same day that the Tribune has an article about the Berghoff being "sold" and the employees have to interview for their jobs.

    I worked with a commercial kitchen consultant who told me that to have a successful restaurant you need to have enough savings to live off of for two years - because for the first two years, after you pay the employees, rent, equipment leases, and food, you'll have no money left for yourself - if you're lucky.

  4. Didn't the Berghoff get "sold" a couple of years ago? It was going to be a catering company or a consulting company or some damn thing that would allow it to operate without those incredibly rude waiters.

    Bitter Scribe

  5. I loved those waiters. Part of the Berghoff experience,mand the food was terrific.

    1. I just never got rude waiters or why they were supposed to be so appealing.

      My mother took me to eat there when I was a little boy. A waiter tried to give back a tip he deemed insufficient with that obnoxious old line: "Here. You must need this more than I do."

      The guy snapped back, "My father should have shot you in Germany when he had the chance!"

      The waiter came around the table at the guy. They got into a shoving match that the manager had to break up.

      I haven't been back since.

  6. Never think of your business as your dream. Dreams aren't real. A businessman doesn't dream -- he executes.

    1. I was briefly a retail businessman in the early Seventies. My mid-twenties dream was that I would make a lot of money from college students in a very short time, buy an antique collectible car to parade around town in, and then turn the reins over to somebody else for a year or so while my partner and I bummed around Europe on a Eurailpass. Also thought a business of my own would be lot easier than working for someone else and taking their crap.

      Self-employment and entrepreneurship turned out to be the hardest job I ever had. Six days a week, ten to twelve hours a day, and it still wasn't anywhere close to being enough. I was in way over my head and didn't have a clue about what the hell I was doing. My advertising campaign consisted of leaflets handed out on the street by hippies and townies, and a few tiny ads in the local print media. Never even thought about the value of radio spots. Consequently, most of the population didn't even know that my place existed, and the foot traffic was almost purely accidental.

      Construction began in April. My grand opening was in May. The town was dead all summer long. In the fall, few people even knew I was still around. I had a going-out-of business holiday sale, sold off my remaining stock and all the fixtures, and closed in January. Nine months, from start to finish.

      Lost a bundle, after which my CPA father examined the books and discovered that my partner was also a thief. She 'd been stealing me blind the whole time. Forty-five years, and I still cringe when I think too long about it. As for my sign, it was custom-made by a woodworker, and hand-painted by a local artist. She did a great job. It hung from a bracket and was ruler- straight and was even illuminated by a spotlight at night.

      Didn't mean a damn thing in the end. I sold off the sign, too.

    2. I was 35 when I started my auto repair business. By that point in my life I already knew all the ins and outs of running that type of business. The place I had been working for was closing, so I took the plunge and set out on my own. It was never a dream or even an aspiration. I just needed a place to work, so for 18 years, that's what I did. I was probably a better businessman than a mechanic.


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