I first met Michael sitting on the bar at Fiction. I was working my usual shift behind the bar, chatting with locals and regulars, blissfully unaware of the insanity that lay lurking in my not so distant future.
I loved working that bar. It spanned the entire long, narrow dining room, as if over-compensating for the small-ness of the space, and imposed its presence with it’s thick, ancient wooden beams. It was built to support the weight of 20 people dancing, should the need arise (and it often did), but polished up nicely as a long communal table where kits locals and industry regulars would pull up a stool, dive into a microbrew or single malt, and take down a cheese plate and some yam fries, any night of the week.
The people you would meet working that wood were creative, engaged, opinionated, and above all, thirsty. You build up a tolerance for personalities when you tend bar, and an affinity for them if you do it long enough. The crazy ones have better stories, and once you filter out the ones that pay their bills from the ones that don’t, all you need to do is sit back and let the fiction roll in. After awhile, a bartender tends to think they’ve got a pretty good read on most people, and I was no exception. In my 25 years in the business I had read very few people wrong, but none more than Michael.
Michael was quiet, soft-spoken, and solitary. He smiled openly, genuinely, and with a quality that drew you into him. He ordered a bottle of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, for himself. We chatted at length about restaurants, people, the hard road to success, and all the challenges of chasing a dream. Michael was loose, relaxed, charming, and engaging. The topic of opening a restaurant together came up almost immediately, and knowing he had two successful rooms under his belt in the downtown core, I couldn’t help but be entranced by the idea.
As we explored the possibilities, I would eventually find myself at his flagship, Allegro Cafe, where I witnessed the legend that was Michael Mitton.
Memories have a tendency to lean towards the hyperbole, and I’m sure mine are influenced by the indecent amount of alcohol that flowed freely through that room, but my wonderment at watching him work the floor made me feel like I was witnessing a restaurateur Willy Wonka, a social savant, a genius of geniality. He never served a dish, and was always drinking, but he knew the name of every. single. guest.
I studied him, both curious and dumbfounded. Michael defied every rule of restaurant management, he had no systems, no controls, the dining room wasn’t even sectioned off. Servers were managing tables from all areas of the dining room, running the length of the room, making their own drinks, and finding ways to deal with their chaos as best they could. The place was an asylum, and it was awesome.
I was watching all the rules get broken, and seeing it work. Not just surviving, it was thriving, packed full at 10pm on a Monday night. The room was filled with spenders, and Michael played them to perfection. This was the old school method, a lost art, and the approach that all the chains had beaten out of me years before, and I had a chance to learn it.
I became an eager student, and thus a willing drunk, as I spent more and more time at Allegro, picking up the intricacies of his process. I adopted many of them, and rejected a few. I wasn’t about to disregard a decade of study on business fundamentals, marketing philosophy or operational and management systems, but damn, a full restaurant all the time sure fixes a lot of budget issues.
The entire restaurant was entirely guest focussed. If the guest smoked, there was a stash behind the bar so they never go wanting another pack. If the guest had a girlfriend, they would never tell his wife. They knew their names, their kids names, what they did for a living, and what they drank. They worked as a team, passing a series of whispers and notes whenever a detail was forgotten. There was no database, no list, simply the hive mind that could be counted on to collectively remember the tiny details. All too often Michael would see a guest after a year had passed, and ask if the kids were still studying law, or if they got that promotion, all to the amazed faces of the guests who immediately felt important, and part of the family. The hive mind was uncanny, all trained by Michael to remember every last detail of an interaction, and pass it along to the hive.
Michael’s training methods were as classic as it gets. No training, no teaching, no information. Trial by fire, if you last the week, you’ve probably made it. He would snap at a passing employee ‘listen to me’ before issuing any order, and it required immediate follow through. Typically, the ones that survived were big personalities, impact people with thick skins, A types that knew the cash in their jeans at the end of the night came with a bucket of crazy, and it was simply the cost of doing business. Pablo Picante, Doug Hanson, and the many others I met were some of the most charming sons of bitches you’ll ever meet, and had livers of impossible capacity, with a wit to match. I learned quickly not to play poker or drinking games with any of that crew.
Michael had another secret weapon, his chef. Passionate, driven, humble, and beautiful. Barbara Reese was the kind of woman you expect to find in a classic film. A mix of Julia Child and Katherine Hepburn, she stoically navigated the kitchen through the nightly tempests, and often I was surprised to see her emerge from the kitchen to bring us fresh-baked scones , as we polished off Heinekens at 3am.
With her last name being Reese, and a signature dessert that included chocolate and peanut butter, I couldn’t resist asking if the two were linked, and indeed they were. Barbara explained that her previously wealthy and luxurious life did very little to fulfill her, and the culinary craft beckoned. Her husband refused to allow his wife to work, and she promptly divorced him, choosing the craft over a life of leisure.
Michael had created a machine that perpetuated itself purely on personality, and an unmeasurable force of will. It was a sight to behold, and I considered myself fortunate to be able to open a restaurant with him as a partner. Clearly, any venture with his charms involved would be a success, and any adjustments to process, systems, and organization that were needed was simply a matter of convincing him of the values of management. After all, I had learned all of those values from Jeff and Stan Fuller, the founders of the Earl’s and Cactus Club chains, numbering in the hundreds of stores, with hundreds of millions in revenues behind them, it would be ludicrous to toss all that experience in favour of chaos, right?
No artist wants to be told how to hold their brush, and Michael was no exception. It wouldn’t take long to discover the other side of Michael, the one that required the thick skin, the pocket full of dollars, and freely flowing alcohol to tolerate. I eventually adopted all three, but they weren’t enough to stem the tide of insanity that was set upon me as we set about building the next great Vancouver restaurant.