The First Summer - If you build it they will come...sobbing in the field of dreams
Updated: Dec 4, 2021
Much like the week after our grand opening, the whole month of June was much slower than hoped, in fact as perhaps the only restaurant open on Midsummer Afton (the day before the summer solstice), we had only four guests the whole day (all cooks from the neighboring restaurant, which of course was closed). This speaks a lot to how ignorant we were of both Swedish traditions and the tourist season. So on the next day, Midsummer Day, we were utterly unprepared for the onslaught of customers. The foreshadowing of the days to come were there, but at such long intervals and strange timings that it was hard to adjust staffing and food inventory. One such day in late June was the arrival of a Danish tour bus; I am still not convinced that Erik didn't know about this in advance and forgot about it, but we had 50 elderly Danes show up around 1230 in the afternoon expecting a pre-set lunch. We had only one other employee besides me in the kitchen so serving that many, while not planned ahead for it was completely stressful. We had counted and had just enough flour tortillas to do quesadillas for everyone, and on the very last plate I was in such a rush that I dropped the quesadilla and we had to offer an alternative dish to just one guest. 😭 I have never felt so embarrassed and frustrated.
The only good thing though to come out of these slow times is that it gave me more opportunity to streamline our recipes in order to handle future days with lots of people, and to stock pile as much as we could the tortilla production. Finally, the first week of July arrived and with it our first consistent guests, both at the restaurant and at the cabins. It also coincided with the annual political week in Visby (Almedalsveckan). This event in the past brought around 30,000 people and although not so many come out to the country side it is the official week for the start of summer and those with summer houses begin coming to the island. We were fortunate to hire an additional two people during this period as well, which brought our little team to six, including Erik and I.
What we were later to find out was that the tourist season on Gotland is a bell curve. It starts slow in the beginning of July and peaks during the last week of July and first week of August then nosediving until completely disappearing as soon as school starts in the third week of August. As each week progressed and there was more and more people I was getting more and more stressed. Most of our team had little to no experience in restaurants and required a lot of guidance, in addition to me doing the majority of the food prep, ordering and planning for the weekly brunch, our cabin guests and catering events and managing our website and social media. While in larger organizations you can handle when one of your team isn't there, but in a super small outfit every person plays a vital roll to the success of the day. Every day we were already behind since I had not expected the tourist season bell curve and thus consistently ran out of things like guacamole or were right at the limit of our tortillas, having to start at 6AM towards the end of the month just to keep up.
Working with your husband brings it's own set of stress. Erik was used to this environment and having a team of people to hand these various tasks to, but here it was just me. As a serious type A overachiever, and as most of my past bosses can attest, I am terrible at criticism, constructive or otherwise. Hence anytime Erik and I would have to talk about the issues it inevitably turned in to a fight and a feeling like I was failing, and yet to the world we were hitting it out of the park with our food and concept. We were also very fortunate to have both contemporary media coverage and several social influences promote or write about us, which had the two fold effect of both garnering us more guests, but also more stress. At the peak we were serving 250 people a day with an average staffing of five and producing around a meal every minute. On one particularly horrendous day, Erik was pushing hard on the kitchen production and I was stretched incredibly think and my emotions were running high; I just kept thinking "what am I doing here?" I got so frustrated with Erik that I just walked out of the restaurant and out into the cow filled field and cried, great heaving sobs! This was not what my vision of our business and working together was like. Erik came out into the field and he was able to talk me down off the ledge, but our relationship and the feelings of resentment were building up. Would our relationship survive even as our business was becoming a success?
Six weeks (one and half months), this is the length of our summer. Comparably a super short time and yet it feels like an eternity when you're under such incredible stress. So many things happened that summer that they each deserve their own blog so I will just highlight them here and go into greater detail in later blogs. One of our early catering events had us follow a very busy lunch with our stove shorting and taking the whole restaurants power down; we had to prepare the food for the event on a camping stove while still trying to serve guests. At the peak of the summer we also had a cabin guests baby wipe cause our sceptic system to back up and overflow, causing us to have to get an expensive last minute pump out and cancel the dinner reservations since we were unable to use the dishwasher or water (which drained into the sceptic system). We also had to close the restaurant several times because we ran out of tortillas or had a special event, like being guest chefs at Fabriken Furillen. We got surprise inspections from every government agency (food, alcohol and tax), which we were later to understand are routine in the summer. The running of the cabins is its own drama and we had two employees quit, falling victim to the pressures of this business, along with other employee drama. Our point of sale (POS) failed several times when the company did weekend updates and we had to take IOUs just to keep going (we fortunately had about 75% that came back the next day to pay). Every week our trash kept overflowing since we didn't have enough bins so had to buy pre-paid garbage bags and the recycling was done weekly and took several hours to do.
I thought going on six month naval deployments and program management was stressful, but this was a whole other level of stress, especially when it is your business and there is no one else to pass the blame onto when things go wrong. I also didn't have the right type of shoes and suffered from severe foot and back pain and had to take daily ibuprofen. Erik and I also lost about 20 pounds, since there was never time to eat until late in the evening and then it was just beans and rice leftover. We had nothing else to eat either because there wasn't time to go to the grocery store. By the middle of August we hadn't left Gothem in over four weeks and had served over 20,000 meals. We had survived the summer but with serious scars (literally and figuratively), and arose from the ashes stronger in both our business acumen and our relationship. However, now the summer was over and the tourists were arriving less and less. We had made over our budget in sales from the summer, but would it be enough to be a viable living year round? We were now headed for our next great test in which we evaluate whether this business could ever be more than just a popular summer restaurant. To be continued...