Part 8 - The Cantina is open!
Updated: Dec 18, 2021
The day of our grand opening was finally here, Tuesday May 5th 2015. It had been a little less than one year from the first time Erik and I visited Gotland for the first time. I had spent the past few days working with Petter to finalize the recipes and bulk prep salsas, beans and meats for the day. Wie was busy making tortillas and Erik and Helena were doing the final touches on the Cantina. We had also hired a professional photographer, Jorgen, to take photos of the opening day. We were opening at 1700 and we had decided for the grand opening to have only one dish available, a tasting menu with two tacos, 1/2 quesadilla and a small burrito. This would help us two fold as it would give the kitchen a chance to work through production without the added stress of different dishes and we hoped that this would allow our guests the best sampling of our menu so that if they didn't LOVE one of the dishes that there would be another dish that they would enjoy. Here is where the benefit of our military and management experience was supremely helpful. In the execution of a major evolution or event both of these industries recognize it is not "if" something will happen but "when" something happens. Erik, Petter and I walked through all the possible issues that could happen and then developed strategies and back-ups in case they did happen. We walked through our production line and all the steps to produce a dish. Although it took additional time and work to do this, I've had to put out enough proverbial "fires" in my previous careers, and there is always stuff that you can't predict will happen that having a plan for the biggest items will go along way in managing other issues that may arise.
Since we had set-up an online booking system for our guests to be able to reserve a table easily we were beginning to get nervous as it was already getting quite full and Erik was taking additional bookings by phone and e-mail. The hour before we opened we had so many reservations that we had to bring in extra tables from our outside seating area. Learning from the issues we encountered from our soft opening, we had developed additional efficiencies with ordering and serving and just to be extra sure, Petter and I also prepared additional food. We assigned specific rolls for each of the staff to ensure everyone understood what had to be done and worked on our communication from the front to the kitchen. However, despite the efficiencies, we still had around a 30 minute at the height of service, a value which Erik and I believed we could improve on. By the end of the day though, the reception we received was quite good and though we were exhausted we were energized and excited that our concept seemed to be well received.
Although for the opening we were only open for dinner, our normal hours would be 0800-2200 Tuesday thru Saturday and a Sunday brunch buffet 0800-1700, we also decided to be closed on Mondays. Since with our cabin rentals we were offering breakfast (especially when we now took away the cooking cabin for ourselves) we had the brilliant idea that other Swedes would also love to have breakfast burritos or traditional American breakfast, so we were up bright and early to be ready for the throngs of people who wanted a breakfast burrito. WOW what a disappointment that would be, in fact during our entire first year only THREE people would come by to actually purchase breakfast. It turns out that the American tradition of going out to breakfast or brunch is NOT a Swedish one.
The rest of the first week would be pretty slow, as we would come very quickly to realize, is because Swedes do not go out to eat normally during the off season and certainly not in the middle of the week. The first weekend was ok, but fell significantly short of our expectations and budget. While I was keeping occupied with the kitchen prep and planning for the wedding (which was in two weeks) Erik was getting increasingly frustrated and questioning our concept entirely. Since we were still a month and a half away from the height of the season we expected the next week to be similar. What we didn't know was how the Swedish "red holidays" really worked. There are about twice as many government holidays than the US and several that happen in the middle of the week and have "bridge" days where they take several more days through the weekend. The next week was Kristi Himmelsfärdsdag (christ ascension), and is also the first time that people who own summer houses on Gotland come to the island for the long weekend to open up and prepare their houses for the summer holidays. This weekend brought hundreds of people per day to us and completely depleted all of our tortilla stock; we realized that we would need a lot more tortillas and would need to produce them faster, and that if the summer is anything like this weekend we would need to hire more employees. In this regard we were now very much behind the power curve. Trying to hire employees this close to summer was very difficult, near impossible and we were stuck with asking our current employees if they knew people that might be looking for a job, we also got lucky with some drop-ins looking for summer work.
So now we had been open for two weeks and we were going into the next week, which was the week of the wedding. As a business it is not usually good practice to be open for only a short time and then close for a week, but since the wedding had already been planned before opening the restaurant we, didn't want to cause undo travel issues for our guests so we stuck with the original date of the wedding. We had originally chosen May 22nd as it coincided with the Memorial day holiday in the US, which as a major holiday would allow a three day weekend for our guests to be able to take advantage of for the travel to and from Sweden. In the end only my father, his sambo and my best friend Heather would be able to come. They would be staying in our renovated cabins and since none of them had been to Sweden before we had planned a full week with different activities so they could experience the magic and beauty of the island. We also hired Helena to make a special Swedish smörgåsbord the day before the wedding for our guests to be able to experience.
May 22nd, 2015 the day of our wedding. The event that would kick off this wild and crazy adventure. We started the day off checking into our hotel in Visby. And while Erik was the hero of the day doing all the last minute preparations at the church, setting up the music, chairs and meeting with our friend Tina for the flowers, my father and his sambo were out finding dress shoes, which my dad forgot, and my friend Heather and I were off to the hair dressers. The hair dressers ran a little over plan so it was bit of a rush back to the hotel for make-up and dressing; we hired one of our first guests, Angelica, experienced in make-up and she did a beautiful job. Finally Erik and I got ready and began our walk over to the church, I even found a lucky 20SEK bill on the ground. It just so happened to be a beautiful sunny day and was the 2015 graduating class "cap" weekend so lots of young kids and families around town congratulating us. The ceremony was simple and the backdrop of the old Helga And church ruin really stunning and windy; so windy in fact the main flower centerpiece fell over. Erik and Tina had done an amazing job getting everything ready and it was magical when we arrived. My dad gave a beautiful speech and we took some amazing pictures. Then afterward we headed to Munkälleren for a tasty three course dinner and custom princess torta for dessert. It was such a lovely week spending time with family friends and sharing with them the passion we felt for this island.
But now it was time to get back to the restaurant. We opened again the next tuesday and offered Mexican Wedding cookies to our guests, which we discovered tastes a lot like Swedish mandelklubba. This would be an important lesson, because while to us it was a completely unique dish, because it had a similarity to something Swedish it lacked the same wow factor that much more unique dishes would offer. Another hard lesson we learned was that with unfamiliar dishes Swedes also are hesitant to commit there meal to. For example, we had decided to serve specialty Mexican dishes for lunch, that weren't on our normal menu. The first week it was enchiladas. But trying to describe an enchilada for someone not familiar with this dish it became very intimidating; corn tortillas filled with chicken, cheese black olives and onions covered in a red chili sauce and baked just sounded alarms for spiciness. Swedes have only one word, "stark" to describe strong flavors, which could mean strong tasting like teriyaki or garlic or spicy things like chili. So when they see the word chili their "stark" alarm goes off and no amount of reassurance can change their perception of spicy. So we had a lot of food waste that first week. What did work however was our Sunday brunch. When they had safe options to choose from they were more apt to try the enchiladas and we would run out of those the fastest and our honey chipotle bacon. The key take away from our first month was that to stand out on Gotland you've got to be unique and stand out, offer a quality product consistently and be willing to really sell yourself; a lot of time was devoted to explaining our food to people. Following this principle and not giving in to conforming has been the major component to our success. Now to begin preparing for our first summer and to face the hardest thing I've ever done in my life....to be continued.