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Industry: Disaster Area 

Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
One takes certain things for granted when visiting the city's finer eateries -- that a table will be waiting, drinks and appetizers will arrive promptly, and entrees will come within a half-hour or so of ordering. Of course, things aren't always so simple; inevitable, often invisible, delays can add 10, 20, even 30 minutes or more to a meal.

And then there is the industry's darker side, one of toilet overflows, grease fires, blown fuses, and customers gone amok. Nights when the most elegant operations fall to shambles, when even good restaurants go bad.

"The thing about working in this business is, you've never seen it all," says Keith McDaniel, a 26-year veteran of the industry who manages Union Street's Prego. "There's always something else that can go wrong. I've seen plumbing problems, pipes burst, sprinklers going off in the kitchen during service. Anything you imagine that can happen can happen in a restaurant."

With a profound respect for the difficulty of running such an enterprise and a morbid curiosity as to just how horrendous things can get, SF Weekly surveyed a handful of local managers on their very worst nights in the business. And, if we learned anything, it is this: When delays stretch toward infinity and service seems a nightmare, it probably is. Only it's not the customer's nightmare; it's the manager's.

At Hawthorne Lane, says owner/GM David Gingrass, nothing too dreadful has ever happened: kitchen delays, problems with overbooking -- really, nothing too terrible at all. However, during his tenure at Postrio, he suffered a beauty.

Because of space constraints, staff used to hang customers' coats from a high-pressure sprinkler pipe. One night, someone hung a few too many. Gravity took over. The pipe broke.

"I don't know if you've ever seen how much water comes out of those things," says Gingrass. "We had 40 coats -- furs and cashmeres and everything -- 40 coats laying on the floor with water gushing." The solution: sandbag the area and call the Fire Department, which pounded a wooden stake into the pipe ("It took three men"), then turned off the main sprinkler line.

The damaged garments, of course, had to be replaced. And, for the sake of accuracy, we should point out that Postrio does not hang patrons' coats from a sprinkler pipe any longer.

Something almost as bad happened to Prego's McDaniel: One afternoon, three-quarters of the facility's power went out, creating a sort of domino effect. Computers froze. The dishwasher, with its automatic drainage system, flooded the kitchen. The vents above the open grill stopped working. Smoke began filling the dining area.

"We operated the whole time and had people in the restaurant," says McDaniel, who led a multipronged attack -- manual order-taking, a sandbag-style wall of napkins, turning off the grill, assuring customers Prego was not on fire -- before descending into the basement to locate the problem. Within 20 minutes, he found the tripped breaker and returned power to the restaurant. "It was a pretty simple resolution," McDaniel admits. "We basically just flipped a switch."

Though MoMo's, open since September, has yet to see any serious catastrophes, General Manager Mark Elzie recalls one night at his previous job -- at Moose's -- that could easily have earned the place a peculiar sort of infamy. On Feb. 7, 1997, thousands crammed the city's restaurants to honor deceased columnist Herb Caen; Moose's, like everywhere else, was packed to the rafters. According to newspaper reports, the crowd spilled 20 and 30 deep onto the sidewalk.

A call came in. Could Moose's accommodate a party of 20? Then another. Could they seat a party of 16? Though such requests would normally be met with little more than silent laughter, these parties included Caen's wife, son, and a few other Friends of Herb: Charlotte Swig, Stanlee Gatti, and Mayor Willie Brown.

"I pulled a few rabbits out of the hat," Elzie says. Thinking quickly (the motorcade arrived a minute later), he approached one table of 20 that was ready for dessert and offered to buy everyone dinner, if only they could, well, help out. As in, out.

The two parties were seated within 20 minutes, sparing Moose's the slew of news items a Caen-hungry media would likely have produced. Herb's Family Not Seated During Caen Celebration? Elzie shudders to think.

Nothing too terrible has happened to Dennis Wright during his six months as general manager of the Thirsty Bear Brewing Company -- a small flood was the best he could offer -- but when it does, he, for one, will be ready. During his 30 years in the business, Wright has seen his share of problems, including plumbing and electrical disasters and a bomb threat from a disgruntled customer -- and says preparation is the key to weathering any storm.

"When you first start out, each one is a major crisis," says Wright. "After a while, enough stuff has happened to you and you just kind of roll with it and have a contingency plan."

Perhaps the biggest disaster we learned of befell South of Market's Restaurant LuLu, where, prior to the last Seinfeld episode, the worst that could happen happened.

"Everybody wanted to have dinner before 8," says GM Joe Hargrave, "and at 6:45, the whole restaurant, the power just blanked."

As darkness fell outside, LuLu began to fill with smoke. "The vents went off, things were cooking, the rotisserie was full," Hargrave says. Despite the presence of some 500 paying customers, outstanding bills and all, operating in a smoke-filled facility was not an option, and by 10:30, when the power came back on, LuLu had long since closed. "PG&E called it an act of God," Hargrave says. "There's not a lot you can do.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin


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