Southfork Kitchen’s Bruce Buschel: On Blogging, Business Plans, and Being Honest

Bridgehampton restaurateur Bruce Buschel pens the popular "Start-Up Chronicles" blog for The New York Times.

Bruce Buschel, proprietor of new-ish restaurant Southfork Kitchen, on Long Island’s tony East End, has spent more than a year detailing the trials and tribulations of opening his establishment in the Start-Up Chronicle blog in The New York Times. He writes honestly and openly about problems big and small, in a voice that will sound uncannily familiar to fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Questioning conventional wisdom at every turn with refreshing candor, Buschel’s blog has a developed a rabid following of fans and foes, both of which he seems to relish.

I talked to him recently about whether he feels that the blogging has been a blessing — or perhaps something worse.

Bruce, you’ve received a lot of advice and praise as you’ve blogged about your restaurant’s conception and opening along the way. Any regrets?

I have no regrets about blogging about this. At certain times, I have regrets about certain details or specifics. I’m sorry if somebody is frustrated or doesn’t get what they’re looking for.  I just hope it’s not in vain — not vain as if vanity, but vain as in all for nothing. I believe that if somebody puts out something as honestly as they can, somebody else will benefit. That’s my personal mission. I have no lessons and nothing to teach other than to relay my own experience. And, because I’ve never opened a restaurant before, I may be more open to the oddities and the peculiarities of the process.

How has blogging about things after the fact been helpful to you as a restaurant owner, from an operations perspective?

It’s very helpful. I imagine it’s similar to people keeping a diary. I’ve always used sitting down and writing to figure out what I’m feeling. Like e-mail, though, sometimes you have to read it and say, “Hmm…this is not for the public. This was written in a moment of anger or frustration. Let me see what I think about this in a day or two.” And, that’s a lesson in most restaurants: You can’t stop the show in the middle of service. It’s been an exercise in long thinking and patience.

Has this been good PR for attracting diners? Or are many patrons oblivious?

It’s both. People are aware of it to a degree, but I would hope it’s good PR, even though that’s not the purpose of it. I’m sure some people read it and it becomes bad PR!

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve gotten via crowdsourcing?

I think I went to crowdsourcing because of the comments on the posts. I was stuck in old-fashioned, advertising PR cycles. When I wrote about that, people kind of pushed me into social media. Generally, the comments are really well-spaced across the spectrum and I’ll get counsel from east, west, north, and south. So, it’s a pretty good pluralistic response. I usually weigh a whole lot of factors before making a decision in the restaurant.

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What Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do: Waiter Rant Strikes Back!

Waiter-rantThe New York Times recently gave Bruce Buschel, a contributor who is opening his very first restaurant, carte blanche to create an exhaustive list of things restaurant staffers should never do (and by “restaurant staffers” he really means “waiters”). As someone who’s been on both sides of the dining equation, waiting tables for more than a few years and eating out in and around Manhattan very frequently, I was taken aback at Buschel’s unrealistic (and irrational) expectations. I suspected other industry professionals shared my reaction so I reached out to one of the most famous of all — Steve Dublanica, the man behind the popular Waiter Rant blog and author of the book Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip — Confessions of a Cynical Waiter (HarperCollins).

“First, I would be terrified to work for this guy! Mr. Buschel has never run a restaurant,” Dublanica says. “This list puts a muzzle on waiters, personality wise and salesmanship wise. It’s dehumanizing.” The list is also clearly born of ignorance as wait staff usually do not dictate policy. Says Dublanica, “They hand these things down from on high that you, as a waiter, have to do.” To wit, many of Buschel’s ideas are verboten at restaurants I’ve worked at as they would have violated rules set by the owners or management, including seating a table when all members of the party are not present; offering a complimentary drink or amuse bouche if there is a delay in seating; not asking if a table wants tap or bottled water; failing to announce one’s name; refusing to hustle lobsters (or any other special of the day); and not acknowledging regulars and repeat customers.

Some of the items that truly ticked off Dublanica include Buschel’s suggestion that a waiter steam the label off a bottle of wine if the patron likes it and present it to her with the bill. “Steaming the label off the bottle and handing it to somebody? That’s never going to happen – unless you’re the person who ran up a $47,221.09 check at Nello in New York.  For THAT guy, we’ll steam the label off.” For everyone else, he suggests snapping a photo of the wine label. “Take a picture. You’ve got it and you’re not going to lose it!”

He also takes issue with Buschel’s assertion that a waiter should not interject personal favorites when listing the specials. “When I dine out, I ask the waiter, ‘What do you like?’ Part of the whole dining experience is having a conversation with the staff. They know what sells, what’s going out the door, what people are enjoying.” He reminds Buschel, too, “Some folks want to be told what’s good and put their experience in a waiter’s  hands.”

Regarding not saying, “Good choice,” he counters, “Sometimes a diner really HAS made a good choice. If you’re asked for a recommendation and you say, ‘The osso bucco is spectactular,’ and she orders that, you should say ‘Good choice!'” He also has no problem with servers saying, “No problem.” “It’s an accepted colloquialism in our culture,” he points out.

Dublanica reveals that as a diner, he’s fine when waiters do some of these don’ts. “Don’t bang into chairs or tables when passing by? I was at Les Halles and they literally had to pull the entire table out for my date to sit down. I think the waiters bumped me three times, but there was no way around it. It’s just a by-product of how close together the tables are,” he notes.

“All his suggestions – in a sterile, perfect world, they may make some sense. But the reality of a restaurant is far different,” says Dublanica, who promises to pay a visit to Buschel’s restaurant when it opens. “I think I’ll sneak in.”