Restaurants are typically families more than they’re businesses.
Dysfunctional, flawed, self-destructive families held together by a common desire to be better than themselves, by nature of their best intentions, passionate pursuit of ideals, and righteous opinions on what makes the perfect restaurant, but families nonetheless.
So many of us ended up in restaurants out of a search for passion, meaning, and craftsmanship in our lives. The barrier to entry is better described as a steeply walled pit. Avoid it as best you can, but should you inadvertently step within the event horizon, you’ll find yourself slowly and helplessly being pulled into its warm embrace. Don’t resist. Like a college romance, it’s best to enjoy it for what it is. A momentary adventure that gives you the freedom to embrace new ideas, new cultures, and a nearly consequence free opportunity to express yourself in new and interesting ways.
This new restaurant partnership had highlighted so many of our differences, and highlighted the divisions so much that philosophical lines had begun to be drawn. We were all quick to ignore the problems, as the optimism of our new venture was carrying us forward each new day, refusing to let us be distracted by our differences. There continued, however, to be alignment on both sides, as we all collected our soldiers and staked our territories, just in case the shit should hit the fan.
On one side, my other two partners. Both of whom had been successful in their own right, building unique restaurants of their own, that while never enjoying critical success, were filled nightly with the type of sobriety challenged glitterati that loved a good time more than a good year in bordeaux. Each of their restaurants, while lacking the systems, consistency, and professionalism of a typically successful venture, made up for it in spades with personality.
On the other side, I had a loose collection of proud loyalists to the craft. We were all united by the unflinching vision of creating something awesome. It wasn’t enough to create something successful, it had to be free from the trappings and bullshit of all the typical hot places in town. We wanted to stand for something, and were willing to compromise on so very little to achieve our vision. We mixed old world and new world, taking the best, independent, and forward thinking out of all of it. We didn’t want to fall into a niche, and thus made avoiding a niche, our niche.
United, we stood, divided.
All of us involved knowingly accepted the flawed fellowship of unlikely team mates, knowing full well the potential for disruption of the local market. The only thing left to do was to take a deep breath and jump in.
We had an ugly duckling for a location, we had a trio of owners with wildly differing views, demographics, and fully validated successes behind them, we had a brilliantly talented chef with everything to prove to a city he’d left behind after it failed to get behind his own restaurant, and we had enough blind faith to blissfully ignore the inevitable train wreck we were about to create.
What we didn’t have, was a name.
Marketing experts will always tell you that great marketing is really just great storytelling. Telling the story of your restaurant, however, can sometimes be challenging. Is your story the food, the location, the people? We struggled for weeks with this. There were endless meetings, a long list of rejects, and the inevitable arguments as we cheered the current favourite around the table.
Many name candidates got tossed out quickly, (too ethnic, too trashy, too dirty), others survived much longer, until we would discover a horrible word that rhymed with it, or a definition of it in urban dictionary that even we hadn’t heard about. We eventually started brainstorming around the words that we felt would be great descriptors of the place. Sophisticated, hedonistic, elegant, and debauchery. We realized at that point that it sounded more like we were describing a person, instead of a place. Frustrated, we pushed on.
Building continued, as we wrestled with the naming process. We let it fester in our heads as we tore out the guts of the building, rebuilding it inch by inch, covering the decades of dirt and shame with paint, plaster, and polish. The old beast fought us every step of the way, giving up the secrets of its past, one by one, exposing more and more problems for us to overcome. Electrical, plumbing, structure, everything about this poor wreck was a mess, and no quick makeover would cover them up. We needed to start from scratch.
One of our many trips to city hall ended up yielding a hint to the building’s provenance, in a cryptic reference to one of the building’s past occupants. Under the listing ‘boarding house’, the occupant/operator was listed as one Lucy Mae Brown. Subsequent searches revealed that the boarding house was actually a brothel, and there were suggestions that Ms Brown was a French madame hailing from New Orleans, who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
The story told itself after that. We realized that we had indeed been describing a person, and she had envisioned a house of sophistication, elegance, hedonism, and debauchery as well, fifty years prior. Perhaps her approach was different from ours, but as the previous tenants had proven, the attempts to capture that magic had endured, and we were the latest to try to give her memory a lasting legacy.
The tragic and beautiful story of Lucy Mae Brown had just begun.