Archive for December, 2007

Raising the Bar

Planning the restaurant design is starting to feel like throwing a party. A half hour before the party starts, you get nervous and start to wonder if anyone will come. But, you have to plan for a crowd. I feel that way about the restaurant. I don’t want to be presumptuous – but the customers coming into Alison at Blue Bell are very excited about the second restaurant –especially the bar. That’s like stepping into new territory for me – since Alison at Blue Bell doesn’t have a bar. It sort of changes my view of the place.

I originally envisioned the bar by the food counter and open kitchen. But, of course, there isn’t going to be an open kitchen. Plus, if I put the bar near the kitchen and people congregate there – it might be difficult for servers to get in and out with food. I’m trying to be prepared. You really don’t know what is going to happen. Will the bar drive the restaurant or the will the food or private parties? I hope it is a good mix of all three.


It’s a real evolution. We blew up the blueprints and laid them out on the floor. I’ve used tracing paper to outline the bar and I’m moving it around to see where it seems to work best. Sometimes I walk around Alison at Blue Bell with a tape measure to understand how big things are in a space I’m familiar with. I never was very good at spatial relations.


It just doesn’t feel right yet. So I’ve been doing some reconnaissance missions.  I usually go to the same three or four restaurants over and over. But I’ve been going to lots of different restaurants to see how their rooms work. I want our restaurant to feel like one cohesive unit. The struggle is that it has so many more facets than Alison at Blue Bell. I have to consider the private dining rooms, the wine lockers, the bar, etc. I’d like a restaurant design that the staff enjoys working in and the customers want to come back again and again. It should be consistent and comfortable yet there should be something new for guests to discover on each visit.


At least the kitchen design is coming together. Two weeks ago, I had to pick two of three things for the kitchen: a tilting braiser, a kettle or a tandoor oven. I choose the tilting braiser and the tandoor oven. Of course, I’m not sure how things will shake out because I just had a discussion with Amelia and found out the proofing box for the bread may not be big enough. So, I have a call scheduled with Mark Stech-Novak later today to discuss our concerns about the bakery.   

We’re also wrestling with some HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) issues. Those vents and ducts have to go somewhere. And that “somewhere” was interfering with the design of the kitchen and dining room. One duct was exactly where we had planned to put a station for servers. In another spot, we had to consider lowering the ceiling to encase the ductwork. There were lots of issues. We’ve solved some of them and are still working on others.

As we struggle with various design issues, the blog has been a big help. It opens dialogues with customers – which helps me make decisions. Lots of customers are coming into the restaurant and asking questions and letting me know what they think. It’s great because it really helps with my planning. So leave a comment on the blog or stop by and let me know what you think. In the meantime, I’m moving a cut-out bar around the giant blueprint trying to figure out the best place for it. It is like rearranging the furniture.

Happy Holidays, everyone. We’ve finished our “20 days of cookies” at Alison at Blue Bell and are working on the little goodie bags that we’re giving out on New Year’s Eve. We just got a delivery for the goodie bags, but I can’t tell you what it is. I want it to be a surprise.  




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After I finished dinner service the other night I opened an email from my kitchen designer, Mark Stech-Novak. It was my kitchen and bar design. It was really exciting and I couldn’t wait to talk with him in the morning and walk through it together. He’s in California – so I had a pretty long wait.


My initial reaction was that the kitchen plan was so cute! It has little chefs working the stations, bartenders behind the bar, servers carrying trays. It’s like a little 2-dimensional doll house. Tom, my manager, was very concerned that all the little people in the picture were bald. I emailed Mark to ask him about it and now I’m sure he thinks we’re all lunatics.  

The Main Room

Actually, it’s a lot more than just cute. Mark Stech-Novak is incredibly thorough. Each little figure is in scale and shows exactly how the traffic patterns will work and how much working room we’ll have. It is very exciting!


Mark has created kitchens for Chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller, as well as Michael Mina’s SeaBlue at the Borgata in Atlantic City and David Kinch’s Manresa in California. But, what impresses me even more than that is that he really understands the chef’s point of view. He gets the operation of a restaurant. He is knowledgeable, thorough and pays incredible attention to detail.  He knows how to design an efficient kitchen and that is key to making the restaurant run smoothly.


The kitchen alone is bigger than my whole Blue Bell restaurant. There is a prep area, a bakery and two lines. Having two lines gives us a lot of flexibility. We can use one for entrees and the other for appetizers. Or, if we have a private party, we can use one for the party and the other for a la carte. Anyone who has ever worked the back of the house can appreciate that.


When the sun finally rose in California and I could call Mark, we walked through the plan together. It is a great design and it has almost everything I want, except an open kitchen. I’ve almost always worked in an open kitchen, starting with the omelet station at the Commissary. It is not only what I’m used to but it also allows me to keep an eye on the front and the back of the house at the same time. I was disappointed but the physical constraints of the building (the width of the entrance, the placement of the hood) make it impossible. So the journey continues and I just have to stay flexible when there are curves in the road. I hire experts and I trust their knowledge and experience.


One change I’m going to make is to enlarge the bakery so that in addition to our in-house desserts, we can make homemade bread and ice cream. Of course, the expanded bakery pushes the kitchen toward the bar, which pushes the bar toward the dining room, which necessitates changing the bathroom entrance. But that opens up some interesting new space.


Next, I have to choose two things from my wish list. I will have room for two of these three: a tilting braiser (great for making osso buco), a kettle (for stocks and soups) or a tandoor oven (for breads and meats).


It’s been a week of choices and we’re very close to a final design. I’m excited about the way the kitchen space is working out. Next week, my 2-dimensional design will go 3-dimensional. Can’t wait!


This week, things have been moving really fast. We’ve already picked our china and flatware and we’re moving on to the name, logo, colors and ordering chairs. Meanwhile, it’s a really busy time at Alison at Blue Bell. Just finished writing another newsletter.  Amelia is baking thousands of cookies and we’re putting them in pretty little packages for guests. I think I need a nap.

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Yesterday we had another meeting at the site for the new restaurant. There is a real air of excitement. Yet, I feel nervous too. There are so many possibilities. And dreams. And we’re balancing those against what is possible in terms of budget, timing, structural necessities, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.





We walked through the space with Kevin Blackney, AIA,principal, and Lee McGillin, interior designer, at Blackney Hayes Architects (BHA) Chris Stigler, our project architect, at BHA wasn’t able to make it yesterday.


The building is more than 150 years old and is full of elements that add both character and frustrations. I’d love to retain some of its beautiful bone structure, like the stonework, if we can. The space has undergone multiple renovations over the years and has been divided into lots of rooms leaving it with elements like interior window openings and uneven ceilings. And don’t even get me started on the electrical, plumbing, etc. It’s not going to be like a cake mix where you just add water and you have a cake (or restaurant, as the case may be).

We’re trying to be sensitive to the environment and see where it takes us. What does the building tell us about the space? What does the space bring to the environment of the restaurant it will become? It is the same way I approach food. I have to work with what is in season. If I’m looking for a 15 lb. wild striped bass but can only get an 8 lb. fish, I need to treat it differently – I cook it differently, prepare it differently, plate it differently.

We spent time envisioning what the restaurant experience would be like. We talked a lot about traffic flow. What will your view be from this seat? Will people be walking by? How can we give each table the most room? How can we make each seat a good seat? Should we change the traffic flow here? Can we turn the table there? Of course, everyone’s perception about what makes a “good” table is different so we didn’t always agree.

We looked at lighting too. How the sun shines into different rooms on different sides of the building at different times of the day will impact the window treatments and lighting plans. We’re all in agreement that lighting is key and we’re hiring a lighting designer.

That’s it for today. I’m off to prepare for dinner service at Alison at Blue Bell and then I’ll call the chair guy, check in with the logo designer, pick up some ice cream at Merrymead Farm, work on the menu for New Year’s….



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