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Over the 4th of July weekend I took a quick trip to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. While I was eating bonbons with my college roommate, Doug Waltman, the job supervisor, and Larry Brown, the general contractor, and their crews, were hard at work. They sheet rocked the entire restaurant.

 

 

 

 

When I got home, the restaurant didn’t look like a science experiment anymore. It felt good and looked great. But, once you couldn’t see through the walls from one end of the restaurant to the other, there was major shrinkage.

 
 

 

   

 

 

 

We picked Aura Paint because it has truer, richer hues. But, instead of picking one of their stock colors, we created a color we called “gem.” Aura paint is amazing, and even washable, but it is not easy to mix. The folks at our local paint store finally came up with the right recipe for our “gem” – here’s one of the ingredients being added. Then, when we went to pick it up – we found out the paint expert with the recipe was on vacation.

One of the ingredients in "gem"

 

That’s not the only frustration. We picked out over-sized tiles for the bathrooms. But, old buildings often come with challenges that we like to call “charm.” The floors are uneven so putting down the tile proved to be a bit dicey. We had to rip up the floors and wet-bed the bathroom floor to create a level foundation for the tiles.  

Creating a level foundation

Creating a level foundation

 

We’re also having problems with the height of the ceiling in the kitchen. We don’t have room for the hood. So, we had to rip up the floor of the office on the second floor. Although the back part of the building (where the  kitchen is) is new construction and I was the first lease signed the landlord decided to put up the ceilings before the hoods could be installed. That is not SOP in new kitchen  construction – making it excruciatingly difficult, incredibly frustrating and more expensive.

Measuring

The tile for the bathroom walls and front of the bar arrived. I thought I’d save the $80 delivery fee and pick it up myself – they’re right around the corner in Conshohocken. How much could a couple of boxes of tile weigh? 660 lbs – that’s a little too much for me! Anyway, it was the wrong tile and we had to order more. So now I have 660 lbs of extra tile. A friend suggested I sell it on ebay  but I want to be in the food business – not the construction business. If you’re in the market for some tile, let me know.

 

On a bright note, the staff is starting to dream of moving in. Tom took one look at the dry storage room in the basement and immediately claimed it as his own. Forget dry storage. Now it’s a wine cellar. Tom’s done such an incredible job with just one shelf for wine at Alison at Blue Bell.  I can only imagine what he’ll do with a whole room. Plus, I figured if we arm wrestled over it that he would win.

 

Alison Barshak & Amelia Dietrich

Alison Barshak & Amelia Dietrich

Amelia got her first look at the bakery since the walls went up. Here we are checking out the blueprints for the pastry kitchen and walking through one of the sunny dining rooms. Next time you see her, through the window into the pastry kitchen, she’s likely to be covered in flour.

 

Alison Barshak & Amelia Dietrich

Alison Barshak & Amelia Dietrich

The material that we special-ordered from Japan for the chairs was finished. Came to New York to be inspected, shipped to the chair company in Miami and then to China to be constructed. I was hoping to pick it up and drop it off myself but after the tile situation I decided to let someone else do the air travel — especially with the new one-bag rule.

 

The customers at Alison at Blue Bell  keep asking me when Alison two is going to open. I keep telling them that we’ll be able to wear white shoes to the opening. Then I realized that I don’t even own any white shoes. We’re getting close now. Time to buy some white shoes.

 

 

 

 

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Are you sick of soffits? I am. But, it is all part of the process. If opening a restaurant were all about food, it would be easy. But, this is hard stuff. It gets harder everyday – just when I think I have it figured out, I get a curveball. Like the ventilation system for the oven or the acoustic material for the ceiling. It’s non-stop.

                                                                                                                                                               

Speaking of ventilation systems, I am busy trying to choose an oven hood. I am concerned about the people who have offices above the restaurant site and I’m working to make sure that they don’t smell food all day. The people who work at the bank next to Alison at Blue Bell  sometimes complain that they can smell food coming through the wall. I reply that I can smell their money. But, I’m just joking. It’s nice to smell food cooking when you walk into a restaurant. But, any smell – even a good smell – isn’t so great all day long if you’re sitting at your desk. At the restaurant, I thought we were immune to it. But about halfway into our “30 days of cookies” holiday promotion at Alison at Blue Bell , even we got sick of the smell of baking cookies. Sorry,Amelia.                                                                                                                                                               

                                                                                                                                                             

 

One option is to have a regular ventilation system with ductwork running up to the top of the building releasing smells high into the air. But that means we’ll have ductwork running up the side of the historic building. Another option is running the ductwork through the building. But, that eats up potential office space. A third option is getting an ultraviolet hood. It uses ultraviolet light to pulverize the air particles that carry food smells. Since it minimizes smells even before they’re vented, there’s no need to run ductwork inside or up the building. Sounds good, but UV hoods run 30 to 40 thousand dollars more than a regular hood. None the less, it looks like that’s the way we’ll be going…unless something else comes up – which I’m sure it will.

 Checking out acoustic material Meeting with Steven Schultheis 

That leaves us with the acoustic situation. As the Los Angeles Times  so eloquently put it, I’m striving for “a comfortable sound level (somewhere between bedlam and the grave).” I spent two hours meeting with Steven Schultheis at S&S Resources. It was a great meeting and I learned a lot. Their acoustic material will absorb 80% of the noise in the main dining room. Now, here’s the tricky part…we want to put the acoustic panels in the recessed areas in-between the soffits. But, we can’t penetrate the ceiling in the main dining room because it is fire rated. So, we’ll have to clip the material to the soffits. And of course, all this impacts the lighting design that we’d already settled on. The panels are 1 to 2 inches thick so they’ll limit the bounce we get from the lights. You need something for the light to bounce off to get a nice glow. It’s always something!  

Enough of ventilation and acoustic material. I have some cooking to do. I just picked up some kosher gelatin. I’m using ideas from Eileen Talanian’s new cookbook Marshmallows: Homemade Gourmet Treats  to create a kosher marshmallow dessert for my upcoming class in NYC . Then, in a few weeks, I’m helping Eileen launch her new cookbook with a reception featuring sweet and savory marshmallow dishes . When things get bad there’s always my marshmallow blaster. It shoots mini-marshmallows at high power. A great, non-violent way of dealing with aggression. I’ve been using it non-stop for the past 2 weeks. Go ahead…make my day!

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Alison two

Lots of restaurants use ingredient names – like Salt or Branzino, in Philadelphia or Butter, Aquivit or Drink in NYC. I thought about that but I don’t feel connected to any one ingredient. Lots of restaurants use a location – like Ouest, on the Upper West Side, 333 Belrose or Alison at Blue Bell. I thought people would want to know where we are. I thought about that but “Ft. Washington” just doesn’t sing. Don’t get me wrong – Ft. Washington is a lovely neighborhood but I couldn’t see incorporating the name into the name of the restaurant.

We picked Alison two. And, like any good name, once we decided, it just felt right. The name reflects our ideal that the second restaurant be part of the same family as Alison at Blue Bell, yet have its own distinct personality too. Likewise, the logo is an extension of the original brand – Alison at Blue Bell.

I know there is no “ta da” but I think the name makes sense. The colors work, the graphics work. I think the names work well together as a family. It works for us. We weren’t looking for a cutesy and trendy name– because we’re not cutesy and trendy. It’s my food – which you’ve come to know – at my second place. We’re happy with the first restaurant. It is working. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re opening the second restaurant because we want to grow and do more. The name reflects that.

Some people like the name. Some don’t. Some bloggers think I’m egotistical. (Check out opinions at  foobooz, chowhound, shallowcenter and foodandrinq.) But, no matter how much you dislike the name, you can’t be as disappointed as Tom Pittakas, our manager. He felt strongly about it and launched a whole campaign to name the restaurant “Tom.” He had customers rallying for him and everything. I think he was disappointed – but not surprised.

One of the beauties of a name like Alison (unlike Tom) is that the name of the restaurant comes up near the top of every alphabetical listing. I don’t think my folks planned it that way – but it was a good move. Perhaps if Mr. and Mrs. Pittakas had named him Alvin we’d have considered it. I like being an “A” and I just love our “A” logo.

My friend, Ellen Diamant, designed the logo. She also designed the logo for Alison Café, the tiny restaurant I opened in Skippack when I returned to Philadelphia, and Alison at Blue Bell. Since developing those logos, Ellen’s business, Skip*Hop, has really taken off. She designs and sells hip accessories for new parents. Check it out. I was worried that she wouldn’t have time to design our new logo and was relieved that she agreed to do it. I’m so happy with the final logo. It feels classy and upscale to me.

Ellen also introduced me to our web designer extraordinaire, Elizabeth KilroyMy cool website design has attracted national attention, thanks to her. She designs my email newsletters too. If you’re not getting the email newsletter and want to sign up, click here and hit “sign up for newsletter.” Pretty soon she’ll start working on the site for Alison two. We’ve acquired  alisontwo.com, alison2.com and alisonII.com.

 

Don’t bother to go to the new website yet – there’s nothing to see. Designing that website is on the “to do” list, along with picking out furniture, creating our Beer Week menu and preparing for Valentine’s Day. I’ll keep you posted….

          

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I met with the architect again today. I’m really happy. I like the design and think we’re getting there. It is exciting! It looks like everything will flow well. Next, to ensure that traffic flow will be efficient, the architects will make the blueprint into a 3-d model. That will also help us determine if a few tables need curtains or other types of barriers for privacy.

Meeting with Kevin & Lee

Chris, Kevin and a potential restaurant manager were all at the meeting with me. We all left smiling. Then, I emailed the blueprint to a friend who has lots of restaurant experience, tons of common sense and strong opinions. Naturally, he had some questions about the layout. So there’s another discussion…

 

 

One thing I am really excited about is the flexibility of the space. We have one area that can be a large private dining room (PDR) for 40 or 50 people or divided into two smaller rooms. I envision hosting bridal and baby showers, birthday parties and family events. We’re even planning to have Wi-Fi so the rooms can be used for corporate presentations and meetings. On days the room isn’t being used, it can be opened up and used as part of the restaurant – increasing the seating capacity.  

Restaurant Layout

There was still one awkward space that was small and dark. I thought it was crying out to be a wine cellar. But, as the design evolved, the space opened up and it is now going to be a living room. Picture a relaxing, room with a fireplace, small bar and maybe a TV – almost like home only someone else brings your snacks so you don’t have to run into the kitchen during the commercials, refills your drink and even cleans up after you. What could be better? It will also be an unusual and inviting space for greeting guests before private parties. It’s just a warm and welcoming place to hang out in. I’m sure we’ll find a million ways to use it. I may just move in!

 

The other space we spent a lot of time talking about was the lobby. Sometimes people don’t want to be seated until their whole party arrives. That usually means waiting in a bar – but I know that I don’t always feel comfortable waiting in a bar. The lobby is designed to feel like an extension of the bar, where guests can relax, have a drink and visit with friends as they’re coming and going without actually being in the bar. And, if there is a short wait for a table, it would be a comfortable place to be.

 

 

Well, everyone loved the wine pairings we offered at Alison at Blue Bell on New Year’s Eve. We got to try new wines and unexpected food/wine pairings. It was fun! So, for Valentine’s Day we’re offering a flight of three glasses of wine matched to the menu. Having a liquor license adds a whole new dimension. So glad we’ll have a full bar at the new place! But, that’s a post for another day…

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I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how I want the food to be presented. Although we’ve picked the China pattern, we’re busy picking accent pieces.

 Rectangular plattersOne of the tough things about buying china for a restaurant is the sheer number of pieces you need – bread and butter plates, coffee cups and saucers, dinner plates, dinner plates for irregularly-shaped entrees like whole fish, dishes for sides and desserts, etc., etc. And, something everyone can relate to, is that it is like buying hot dogs and buns – cups might come in cases of 20 and saucers in cases of 24.

I don’t like plates with designs. I like white plates with rims. At Venus, our bread and butter plates had colored rims and you could interchange them. They were pretty cool – so cool that they were frequently stolen. I’d like to avoid that type of thing in the future.

And I really want flexibility. Having plates that can only be used for certain dishes takes up too much room and is limiting. My china salesperson had a good idea. She suggested that instead of getting dishes that can only be used for bread and butter and another that can only be a saucer, getting a slightly larger plate that can be used for Amelia’s amazing bread and coffee service, as well as cheeses and sides. I love that kind of flexibility. I mean, why stock a saucer that can only be used for coffee? Does anyone really use saucers anyway?

The dinner plate I finally settled on is contemporary, but hopefully won’t look dated in five years – like bellbottoms. Another thing I like about it is that it is big enough to plate whole fish and over-sized steaks, without the food going over the rim. I think it looks sloppy when food goes over Purio Bowlsthe rim.

Purio PlatesI am looking at soup bowls. If you use a plate under the bowl, it slides around when it is being served. The way to prevent sliding is by using doilies. I just want to pick a bowl that doesn’t require me to use a plate or doilies. I hate doilies under plates, I just do, I don’t know why. That’s just the way it is.   

Next is silverware. We picked our pattern a while ago. But, just because it looks right doesn’t mean it feels right. Don’t you hate when the knife flips on your plate? I do. I want silverware that works well with my plate, feels good in my hand and looks good on the table.

Now that New Year’s Eve has passed, I’ll be planning a short trip to Maine to film a special episode of Fretz Kitchen. I always love being on that show and I hear Maine is cold, but beautiful this time of year. Speaking of cold, when you’re in Alison at Blue Bell, try our hot cocoa with Amelia’s homemade cream-filled chocolate sandwich cookies (they look like giant Oreos-even though we can’t say that.) Stay warm…

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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.

 

 

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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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