Teamwork is key ingredient in restaurants’ success

A look behind the scenes at three restaurants -- Gaffney's, Doc's Steakhouse and Esperanto.

Kim Smith hates summer rain.

It can wreck her plans, ruin her expectations.

“Outside plays such an integral part of our business,” said Smith, general manager at the popular Gaffney’s restaurant cluster on Caroline and Putnam Streets. “It really quiets things down.”

Smith and managers at two other nearby restaurants — Doc’s Steakhouse and Esperanto — prefer chaotic to quiet. And that means they must deal with matters and problems the public never sees. Drama and occasional comedy are part of behind-the-scenes scenarios.

Gaffney’s “top bar” on Caroline Street is a longtime gathering place that hasn’t changed in decades. Drinks at the bar or lunch or dinner at small tables on the other side of the bar are two options. The outdoor courtyard in back of the restaurants and the “Starting Gate” bar on the Caroline Street side are two more. That’s standing or sitting room for about 300 people.

Lunch begins at 11:30 a.m., dinner at 5 p.m.

“Bars can stay open until 4 a.m., and a lot of nights they do,” Smith said. “We have to kick them out.”

Smith added that adults may not think twice about entering. But Gaffney’s security folks are concerned about all those entrances to the bars; and all those underage kids trying to sneak in.

“They’re always trying to find a way in, it’s a constant battle to keep them out,” Smith said.

It’s also a battle for six or seven chefs to find a comfortable spot in the kitchen on a busy summer season night.

“It’s about the size of your kitchen at home, with a small prep area off at the side,” Smith said. “It’s very efficient for the size that it is, but it can be very, very hectic.”

Nobody likes dropped plates. But they happen, and Smith said waiters and chefs will move quickly to ensure a table of diners are all served at the same time. The guy whose rigatoni bolognese has been splattered all over the floor will not be penalized for a server’s error in the field.

“When you’re really cooking, you have another one going at the same time,” Smith said. “We will take that one, put it in the place of the one that fell. Then you start another one to replace the one you just took. It’s the domino theory.”

The rigatoni bolognese fan will never know there was a problem — most of the time.

“Sometimes, it happens right in front of them,” Smith said.

Gaffney’s employs 90 people during the summer. Chefs, bartenders, doormen, dishwashers and cooking prep workers are all on the payroll. So are bar backs, the guys who keep the party going with cases of beer and buckets of ice.

“It’s a hard job,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of carrying, lifting. You have to walk with all this stuff in your arms, and they’re not lifting one case at a time.”

If a bartender closes at 4 a.m., a day chef will be on the job at 5:30 a.m., beginning foods for lunch and dinner crowds of the immediate future. “There’s probably one hour in the day when nobody is here,” Smith said.

There’s no time for breakfast. At least, not at Gaffney’s.

“No breakfast,” Smith said. “We need time to clean up.”

Total teamwork

At Doc’s Steakhouse at 63 Putnam St., next door to Gaffney’s courtyard, people are glad to see baked stuffed shrimp and roasted prime rib arrive at their tables.

Waiters and waitresses on the floor can wink to chefs and chef assistants in the kitchen when customers are satisfied.

Dean Holtby, general manager of the elegant 160-seat restaurant that opened in 2003 and is currently for sale, said the two staffs have common interests. If service is prompt and the food is excellent, tips are generous. Chefs depend on the wait staff on the former point; waiters depend on the kitchen gang for the latter. Nice tips are good for everyone.

“People will send drinks back to the kitchen,” Holtby said. “It’s a nice gesture. A lot of times, it’s ‘I’ve just finished a good meal, I’m sending back some drinks.’ ”

The food prep crew waits until the end of the night to collect their rewards. Holtby said other expressions of goodwill come from the wait staff, who know great steak or excellent broiled salmon often means more dollars for them when the bill is paid. They’ll remember the people responsible for the beef and fish, and send back a round of drinks for the gang when closing time comes.

Holtby said people never see that teamwork in action. And they never see the cooks and chefs on the job at 3 p.m., prepping dinners that won’t be served for more than two hours. Doc’s opens at 5 p.m. daily.

When the late-night closing takes place, the staff just can’t go home.

“The kitchen is polished every night. Everything’s mopped, cleaned, wiped down,” Holtby said.

There can be challenges keeping the kitchen staff chilled out; even in Doc’s air-conditioned kitchen, humanity must deal with summer humidity. Holtby said chefs will throw wet towels in the freezer and later drape them around shoulders to keep cool heads.

He added that people do not realize there is a passion factor for many in the culinary arts.

“Most people in the kitchen are there because they like to cook,” he said. “They’re not just doing it for a paycheck.”

Controlled chaos

Gaffney’s and Doc’s Steakhouse are crowded during the afternoon and evening.

Esperanto at 61⁄2 Caroline — between Gaffney’s and the Tin & Lint Co. bar — opens at 11:30 every morning. But the daily rush generally doesn’t begin until 10 p.m. Sometimes midnight. Sometimes 3 a.m.

“It’s a little bit of chaos here, but it’s a controlled chaos,” said manager Chris Biddle of his restaurant, so small it looks more like a large dining room in a Saratoga mansion.

People on late carouse often want something quick and meaty after a night and morning on the town, and Esperanto offers quick, meaty and exotic. Quesadillas, rice and beans, Greek salads, chicken curry, jambalaya and the Esperanto big star — the dough-boy — are all on the menu.

“There’s generally two on the counter,” Biddle said. “The other three people are just non-stop busy making food. We have a little time to sit down and get a break in.”

When the bars and restaurants close at 4 a.m., Esperanto is one of the few businesses with lights still on, folks waiting near the tan and green walls. Some people will endure dawn patrol to wait for the traditional 4 a.m. opening of Compton’s, and order breakfast at the Broadway restaurant.

People who eschew eggs and home fries and prefer pizza and pita bread for late snacks don’t know that planning goes into every shift at Esperanto.

“We’ve got great preparation,” Biddle said. “We know what we’re expecting, know how much we need. It’s just really good preparation, and we’re really good at controlled chaos.”

The restaurant knows how to keep people moving in and out of the place, keep the line moving. There are more chairs in the place during the afternoon, but fewer as evening rolls in and early morning approaches. Biddle said his staff don’t want people hanging out too long — they don’t want to be rousting people nursing cups of cream of chicken soup at 5 a.m.

And if people like soup, they really like their dough-boys. Diced chicken breast is sauteed and spiced, blended with cheese and scallions and rolled into a pizza dough torpedo. It’s a bargain at $3.50.

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