Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Keeping Faith

Well into our third month being open, it’s a good time to take stock and reflect on what we've all accomplished in Hardwick since the opening of Claire's, how we measure the success of a business, and what remains to be done. Sometimes, in the rush of dinner service and the brisk pace required to keep a restaurant running 6 days a week, a lot of small details seem all consuming. So in the full bloom of summer, it is good to focus on where we've been, what we've promised, and where we're headed.

Our numbers

As you might have noticed, if you've had the opportunity to stop at Claire's or thought you might drop in for a quick bite to eat, the energy and vitality of the restaurant has taken on a life of its own. Almost every night, we have served at least 80 guests, and many nights we serve over 100. At least one night per week, 150 people cross our threshold and enjoy the best food produced by our local farmers.

What has most impressed us is the enthusiasm and support from our friends and neighbors in the Hardwick vicinity. Of course, our business model depends on our nearly 100 CSR holders, and the many additional investors in Claire's and the Hardwick Restaurant Group. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their initial financial support and for coming back again and again, with their families, friends, and guests. As well, we truly appreciate the opportunity to craft a menu from the best local produce, especially when our farmers come in again and again to enjoy what we have created for our guests from the food they grow. And each day we welcome guests who are visiting for the first time as we also embrace our regulars.

Hardwick has become a destination, with folks coming up from Montpelier, travelling from Burlington, or making the journey from St. Johnsbury to see for themselves all of the exciting enterprises in our area. Since many restaurants close on Mondays or Tuesdays, Claire's has become a destination as well for chefs and restaurateurs around the region. Their support is very much appreciated, as it contributes significantly to our local economy.

People are talking. More than the numbers and volume of business, we have been overwhelmed by how much people enjoy Claire's.

Our Promise

As we've mentioned before, all this has not been without challenges. Looking back on our mission and what we hoped to provide, we can take stock of two things: with the overwhelming response, we've been able to deliver a unique experience, exceptional and affordable local food of consistent quality and flavor, while expanding our menu and bar service; at the same time, the space and equipment available to us today can't go much farther than our current volume of business. We promised our friends and neighbors day long service, including lunch 5 days per week and our much anticipated Sunday "blunch." At this point, we are trying to balance the limits of our resources against what we had hoped we could do.

But we want you to know the details of the challenge.

As we outlined in our community meeting last Summer, our plans were modest, based on a number of conversations with potential investors, farmers, guests, and experienced restaurateurs, as well as our own experience. Restaurants fail because they overestimate revenues and invest in too much equipment. So we expected slow growth in the business and a gradual increase in the number of guests. Carefully calculating how many people would come through our doors every day of the year, our most optimistic scenario anticipated 80 guests over the course of an entire day on the best day of business, but not until 3 years of operations. Typically, we expected 20 people for lunch and another 20-30 for dinner during the week. Our most hopeful forecast anticipated that all 52 seats would be taken only a few times a year. We based our investment model and business plan on this scenario, demonstrating that we could make a restaurant work on Main Street in a small town.

We also faced the physical limits of the space. Exactly how much space could we afford to rent? How much was available and how could it be configured? In other words, how much financial obligation would be too much to swallow and threaten our ability to thrive?

Allowing space for 52 seats and a full bar was just about right in terms of our projections. Getting to that number was always a trade-off with the kitchen and storage space. Extending the kitchen would cut out a table, or adding a table would take away equipment. Working with architects and experts on kitchen design, we crafted a space for cooking and for guests that met our most optimistic expectations.

And you know what they say about expectations – at least double our most optimistic projections in the first month!

Today, every surface in the kitchen is taken throughout the afternoon preparing for dinner service, leaving no place to actually cook during lunch. With orders coming from each purveyor only a few times a week, our walk in refrigerator and freezer units are filled to capacity with the meat, cheese, and produce that you'll enjoy every night. What we call the line – where ingredients for every item on the menu are kept during service – has no room for the ingredients we would need to prepare lunch. Even our phones are overtaxed!

Imagine a kitchen designed to serve 80 meals over the course of a day. And we've been able to produce consistent quality and unique flavors for 150 people on many days.

That's our challenge. We'll carefully consider the options and monitor the ebb and flow of the business to figure out how we might be able to extend our service to you. In the short term, that means daytime service will be postponed. In the long term, it means we will continue to take stock, consider the resources available, and develop a plan for expanding our service so we can keep faith with our mission.

And keep coming to dinner!

We love what we are doing, and after so many years putting this plan together, we take such joy (and even a little pride) in each and every one of our friends and neighbors leaving Claire's after a good meal and a good time. Think of it this way – the more meals we serve, the sooner we can invest in Claire's so that we can continue to keep faith with our promises to you. Your enthusiastic embrace and support of Claire's is the measure of success. Thank you!

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