Our Pandemic Year
uMarch 16, 2020 I reluctantly taped a sign to the door, “closed due to COVID concerns, see you soon.” On occasion I trust my instincts (working on doing that more often) and my instincts told me that was the right thing to do for our staff. While the loss of revenue was terrifying, looking back now, it was for sure the right thing to do.
This week at a “getting ready for summer” staff meeting we quietly celebrated the end of a year none of us saw coming, a year so filled with challenges none of us imagined, challenges so massive that many would have given up for good rather than simply tape a temporary sign on the door. But we did it, and we learned so much.
We learned that the priority always needs to be the people. While we have invested everything in Jake’s, we would be nothing without the people who mean the most to us. It sounds cliché – something you are supposed to say, but looking back on the year we navigated, there are so many important people that helped us survive the biggest challenges. We learned to love our bankers, our accountants and our attorney. They answered the phone immediately and did their very best to find answers when we all knew there weren’t any. We came to respect our regional politicians, regardless of party line. Many emails and phone calls to their offices looking for guidance were returned; we have relationships with aides in political offices, developed because they genuinely care. Our vendors were amazing across the board. Dealing with similar, but much larger challenges, their focus on us was sincere and they made every request work.
Our staff. Good things is our catch phrase, the reality is that good people make good things happen. They trusted me when that trust came with overwhelming responsibility but they also accepted that they needed to be patient. Together good things would return, but it might take some time. As owners with 30 people depending on us, we never felt the pressure of unrealistic responsibility, they brought smiles to the work place despite the uncertainly and fear that become a part of each of their days and they did it for a long time.
We filled our toolbox. For the first six years of our time as restaurant owners we were overwhelmed pretty much every day. Every single day presented a new challenge. I remember the day that I arrived to learn that a sink drain was plugged. Our staff was surprised and complimentary that I handled the repair so gracefully, we enjoyed the experience together. When they questioned how I kept so calm about it – I said “if this is the biggest challenge we face today, it’s a great day.” From March 16th until this week, I sure wish a plugged drain was all we had to face. But we did it, and the “daily challenge bar” has been set so much higher. But we filled our tool box with new tools that we have become experts at using. Bring it on, plugged drains are nothing to any of us at Jake’s.
This community is pretty special. On April 22nd we were able to provide some sort of “to go” option and we knew we needed to give it a shot. We are certainly not a “to go” restaurant but we adjusted our menus, learned all about packaging and quickly put a new on-line software system into play. It sort of worked. Mother’s Day was a train wreck and we occasionally forgot to send bread and butter but we apologized and delivered that bread and butter and we moved ahead. Staffing limitations and product sourcing challenges made summer a challenge but our outdoor seating provided comfort to many who just needed to see people and you forgave us for our mistakes. You rolled with it, you didn’t complain, you accepted we were doing what we could and you thanked us for giving it our best.
As we return to our groove, as we get our brick oven dialed in and we have a menu that makes us proud, you are back - we are back - and that feels really good. We have found so many wonderfully talented kitchen staff and they are bonding as a team, they work hard – so hard, but at the end of a service they celebrate together because good things are happening again. We have scheduled four outdoor concerts this summer to celebrate the other side together and we can’t wait to watch you smile, and dance, and hopefully not social distance.
Sure we have lost a bit – lost some employees to the stress of the year, lost some friends to the virus, lost lots of sleep for sure, but we gained even more. We have stronger relationships with the people that mean the most, we have a toolbox full of lessons and we have a community we appreciate even more.
Good Things are back.
As a Clarkson School of Business faculty member lucky enough to be able to reflect on 20 years in the classroom I had a pretty important moment today.
An invited guest in an upper level Innovation class (and ironically an important supplier to Jake’s) was asked by a student to identify the exact moment that he felt success. Quite a question. My guest had a rather quick, obviously genuine response. He told us that it was the moment he realized he had discovered what he was supposed to be doing. He described the discovery as “lubricating” and a “tailwind” that he relied on as he pursued a life driven by the pursuit of the discovery, a passion driven life.
I found myself inspired. I pondered the question and his thoughtful response throughout the day, wondering, had I found success? If I had, what was the EXACT moment. I decided that in fact, yes – success has arrived. And it arrived rather recently.
I had a brief, but important conversation with a kitchen employee this week, he shared that his South African accent often leads to questions from those that meet him for the first time. Quickly the question of employment always arrived and the response is that he works at Jake’s. He shared with me that universally the exchange goes to an overwhelming sense of pride when the discovery is exchanged. The pride he feels is a gift we give. The connection from stranger to employee is an unseen, unmeasured, unspoken gift. The gift of pride comes with hard work, building and protecting a brand, sacrificing and committing – being proud and ashamed. We, together, have built something special and the word “together” has truth and meaning for us.
We love owning Jake’s. We love our incredible people. We love their talent, their humility, their struggles and compassion for each other. Yes, for sure we have found success. Our success is in the connection to people, to lives, to pride, to meaning that a little yellow ball of fur inspired.
Good Things Happen at Jake’s.
It is the time of year when our days at Jake’s are filled with new students arriving for their first semester of college and the hospital is hiring new physicians. As a staff, we enjoy engaging tables in conversation about where they are from and what brings them to our area. I met a family from San Jose, California last night and several others from the New England area; all arriving early for orientation and giving their student time to settle into their new home.
Sometimes we take living here for granted, or worse – focus on our “tough winters” or the remoteness of the place we call home. It is refreshing to engage those who have discovered us as they view our region a bit differently. They see the beauty of our rivers, the fresh green vistas that are not cluttered with concrete and steel, the stars and the peace of mind that comes with a safe place that has a slower pace. They comment on how friendly everyone is because where they come from people are far too busy to greet a stranger. For us it is just what you do. They value the tremendous education that our regional institutions offer, and the impressive health care provided by our regional hospital. They come bright eyed, engaged and excited.
The few weeks of new guests arriving and discovering is good for all of us; we step a bit livelier, we work a bit harder to give them the experience they deserve, and we view home a bit differently.
If Hannawa Falls, or Potsdam, or Canton, or Massena, or someplace close to Jake’s is home – take a moment to view home from a visitor’s eyes. It feels pretty good.
A Championship Team
The Clarkson Women’s Hockey Team won their third National Championship this weekend. We are so fortunate to frequently host the team at Jake’s. My other job as a Clarkson professor gives me a chance to get to know the members of the team. I have, at one point or another, had most of them in the classroom.
I spent some time with the coaching staff recently talking about what it takes to consistently win. I was curious from a hockey fan perspective, but also wondered if I could learn a few things that might translate to Team Jake’s. While the fight that the Clarkson Women consistently win on the ice is a unique battle, I did learn a few things that will translate well to our team. And, the timing is perfect as our busy season is just about to arrive.
Lesson 1: They need a break. The week before departing for Minneapolis and the Frozen Four, the coaching staff gave the team plenty of space. The goal was to keep them healthy and reduce the stress a bit. We work hard to give each member of our team a 48-hour break in the schedule each week to recharge the batteries. There needs to be lots of life outside of the kitchen to balance the heat they feel when here.
Lesson 2: Trust your captains. The coach is the last to know and that’s the way it should be – as long as the coach knows what he or she needs to know. The coach needs to trust the captains, but the team needs to trust their captain as well- a tough and important balancing act. We have a few leadership roles at Jake’s, trust and respect of each other’s roles is the key to keeping a large and diverse team happy, while also respecting the needs of the business.
Lesson 3: Learn from the loss. The Women’s team won 36 games this season, impressive for sure.
And they lost 4.
Moving past a loss means examining it carefully and learning from it. Perhaps it was a better team, but not likely this year. More than likely, it was something else that can be controlled for, or something that can be predicted in the future and adjusted for. We have had some bad nights: short staffed, accepted reservations we should not have accepted, run features that just take too long. We get through it, we give the team the night to cool off, and with fresh heads, we review the mistake, learn from it and move forward.
Lesson 4: Soak up the win. I imagine 23 young women are at home with their families today, as Clarkson is enjoying Spring break. As the reality of their accomplishments settles in, I imagine private smiles and reflection on what it took to reach the top. That feeling is theirs to keep…forever. That feeling will drive future success and a commitment to pushing through tough days; a gift that will impact them as professionals. We have tough days for sure-the winters can be long and the bills still need to be paid. This sometimes means shortening the staff and pinching their personal budgets. We are learning to focus on the wins. Easter weekend is 10 days away and graduation weekends, our Superbowl, are on the radar.
There is a bounce in our step today at Jake’s as we remember our own victories. The anticipation of the taste of victory is again making us hungry.
Congratulations to the Championship team, and thanks for the inspiration!
Sundays have become pretty much my favorite.
Sundays usually mean extra time with my family and when it’s not hockey season, a day with less “have to dos” than “want to dos”. Sleeping in, lazy mornings, a little longer walk with the dog, and not feeling guilty about time on the couch, make Sundays different than other days. Sundays are a good day to reflect on the week that is behind you, and to look ahead to the one about to begin.
Sundays at Jake’s are different too. The staff arrives earlier and the smells are different. Rather than the smell of garlic and the smoker that fill most beginnings as the crew starts attacking the prep list, Sunday smells are our house made bacon and coffee. There is a different bounce in the step of the front of the house staff, with the volume of the music up a little higher than normal. While the servers, bartenders, hostesses and bussers prepare the dining room, laughter is common and the morning sun always seems a bit warmer than usual, as it shines brightly into the dining room.
I look forward to sitting at the third stool pretty close to 10:30 each Sunday. I get two scrambled eggs and one slice of bacon with my morning coffee and wait for my father in law to arrive. I am not sure who enjoys his Sunday brunch routine more, the bartender who serves him each week, or him (or maybe it is me). This is my time to soak up his unique approach to every day, optimistic and simple and always with a smile. As you might expect the business is stressful at times but Sunday morning on that stool next to him there is absolutely no stress at all. It’s just Sunday.
This year, New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday. As I reflect on what 2017 was for me, and for all of us at Jake’s, and look ahead at what good things will come in 2018, I was reminded of the message I shared with our staff at our annual Holiday Dinner. Each year I try to find a theme for us to embrace together in the year ahead. Year one was “hold on tight”, year two was “time to define ourselves”, year three was “less better” (do less but do it better) and this year I suggested that “every day is Sunday”. I asked the staff to remember Sundays, the laughter, the sun, the family, the smells – and to try to bring that great morning energy to Jake’s with them each day.
As you prepare for the year ahead and take on days that you look forward to having behind you, consider adding more Sundays to your week. Find a way to soak up what is unique about the day, create a memory with your family, turn the volume up, embrace a simple smell - find your own third stool.
I hope 2018 brings you lots and lots of Sundays.
To Beer Or Not To Beer
So many choices. When we opened 3 years ago I had no idea about all the things I had no idea about.
I pitched a “well thought out” business plan to the bank and off we went.
Every single day.
With 9 draft handles and roughly 2,000 options my quick math tells me that the combinations of choices…well...lots.
We tried leaning on sales reps and learned that their priorities are moving products, I get that now. We tried a variety that features selections that complimented our menu, how bold of us to make that choice for you.
We tried offering what we think is selling in the local walk in coolers at grocery stores – that makes no sense.
And then we had a brilliant idea, sell what sells. We look at numbers, we watch the trends, we choose kegs and bottles that our customers have told us they like by ordering them often – and guess what?
Each week we look at the performance of every bottle, each draft “handle” and eliminate the non-performer and re-order the winners. We still wonder if there are more winners out there though and we gamble on what we call rotational offerings often.
Beer is good, selling beer is fun, drinking beer is more fun.
We recently, rather quietly, celebrated three years as Jake’s. Our first year was a huge milestone as most restaurants don’t make it that far. The second year was also pretty special as we had begun to settle into some sort of a routine and that felt good. This year means we have survived longer than 80% of restaurants according to the “experts” and I guess that’s pretty special as well. But celebrations are becoming pretty routine for us – and that’s actually a very good thing.
I was watching a family celebrate a birthday tonight in the dining room; often when I get to enjoy the smiles and laughs that come with these events I think about a very cold day in January of 2014. I clearly remember standing in front of the fireplace, the only spot in the torn apart building that was slightly above zero degrees. Our contractor used the old firebox to burn scrap wood and keep his crew’s hands warm enough to swing a hammer. I often stood in that spot and imagined what it would be like when we were finished and finally had guests. I didn’t just imagine the look of the property that our talented architect had put on paper, but what the sounds of busy might be, what the smells of great food might be and what the stories and backgrounds of the people who joined us might be.
As the images are real now I often reflect on whether those visions were accurate – and always come to the same conclusion – I was pretty naive. Some of the realities of owning a very busy restaurant are not so good, but most of those sounds and smells and people we meet are far better than I could have imagined. The very best part of this business though, the part that I never imagined, is all the celebrations.
It feels so good to listen to the laughs and see the smiles of celebrations. So many birthdays and anniversaries, graduations and recitals. Tonight three college buddies reunited at the bar and there was no awkwardness to the sincere hugs and smiles that came with recognizing that some things hadn’t changed. We recently celebrated birthday number 81 for a special man – out of birthday candles we stuck a giant dining room table candle on the top of his birthday dessert and everyone’s smiles got a bit bigger.
There is a pretty big celebration this Sunday night, fireworks launch right over Jake’s. We hope you will consider bringing the family, spreading a blanket on the lawn and enjoying another celebration with us.
Laughter and smiles remind me often how lucky we are and that there is some real meaning to our simple slogan, Good Things happen at Jake’s.
Cheers is the best television show ever, hands down. A recent binge of the series reminds me of a simpler time - growing up in the 80’s we had three channels to choose from and when the leaves were on the trees one was barely watchable.
The Dukes of Hazard, Murder She Wrote, The Carol Burnett Show and Hee Haw were weekly favorites that we couldn’t record so the family got together regularly to enjoy the once weekly episodes. Later - Friends, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld and of course Cheers filled Thursday nights and other sitcoms did their best to compete. While we benefited from a weekly escape from life I am sure that those who wrote and delivered weekly stories felt big big time pressure to create and compete. Mr. Charles and Mr. Burrows wrote terrific stories and legendary lines for Norm, Cliff, Sam and Diane - and Coach. I am sure that as the series became a hit the pressure to keep creating was exciting at times, terrifying at others.
Creating is exciting. I spent an hour in the kitchen this morning with a few of my favorite people. Josh was proud to share with each person that arrived his plan to present “North Country Poutine” tonight featuring potatoes he harvested and pork gravy from a pig raised in Canton just for us. Brad was carefully proud to show “the boss” how to grate parmesan cheese carefully so as not to add too much fluff. And Major proudly spilled a mop bucket on himself as he created a cleaner, safer place for all of us to work.
I offered to take on more tasks on the prep list but separating eggs and finding ingredients I couldn’t pronounce was more than I was prepared for, leave the real creativity to the experts. I did my best to assist but it wasn’t long before I knew that I was over my head, the true creators needed their space this morning.
Creating is exciting, and scary. Thanks for visiting, and appreciating our commitment to creating great flavors.
Tomorrow is a big day; we will be watching as our 45th president is sworn into office. Across our country, and world, feelings are all over the place-some people are ecstatic, some downright scared to death, and others adopting the wait and see approach. As we sort through our feelings, we have decided to take a different approach. That approach is going to be about this North Country community that we are lucky to call home.
In the last couple of months, we have had the frequent opportunity to visit Long Lake, a hamlet with 700 permanent residents. It didn’t take long for us to develop some relationships, get to know some names, and learn some back stories and history. When we walk into a place up there, it is not unusual to hear, “the Compeaus are here!” as they shuffle over to hear what we have been up to since our last visit. These visits always remind us why we love living in this North Country region.
Here at Jake’s, we have created a family atmosphere for our employees. We really do respect and care for one another, and it is part of our mission that this philosophy trickles down to you, our guest. We encourage our staff to be friendly, engaging and genuinely interested in you and we hope you can feel that when you visit. Please introduce yourself when you come-talk to us, engage. We truly want to create a wonderful feeling of community. We want you to feel like Jake’s is “your” place and want to greet you by name when you come through our doors. We were reminded in Long Lake how good that feels.
The North Country is a unique place. Here, it is not usually about keeping up with the Joneses, or getting ahead, or acquiring bigger and better. Historically, it has been about the people-genuine caring about those we work and play with. It has been about community.
So, as we sit in anticipation of the Inauguration, this is what our approach to this new era is going to be: we are going to focus more on the people who compose our little area; we are going to smile more, engage in conversations with the people we come in contact with each day; we are going to ask about their family, and really care to hear the answer; we are going to shop local, and when we do we are going to have a conversation with the shop owners; we are going to write positive notes to teachers, doctors, bus drivers, and anyone else who goes above or beyond and touches our hearts in some way; we are going to support local organizations because it feels good and it makes a difference; we are going to do more random acts of kindness; we are going to lend a helping hand. We are going to work to make this little slice of heaven great again.
Won’t you join us? Great things happen in the North Country!
A quick internet search leads me to believe that the Farm To Table (Farm To Fork) movement began in 2000 in Berkeley California and Boulder Colorado, no surprise. The idea of locally sourcing products certainly made sense and the message restaurants were able to share worked well as a marketing tool to compete in crowded markets.
The movement caught on and literally thousands of restaurants, breweries and vineyards began boasting of locally sourcing items to assure freshness, quality and community impact. Unfortunately, with good intention came widespread fraud; claims of locally sourced products that were not, relationships with local producers that did not exist and altering of menu descriptions that deceived customers became common.
Of course we buy local as much as we possibly can. In fact as we wrap up our year end reporting I note that we purchased 110 different menu items from 21 different growers based in St. Lawrence or Franklin County at a cost of $91,022.00 in 2016. This is not intended to get us a pat on the back and I don’t need to share the value of a local commitment; I write this as a thank you to so many hard working producers.
It is currently 16 degrees and the wind is blowing at a steady 20 miles per hour, gusting to 40 mph occasionally. And I know that Daniel Martin, Dan and Meaghan Kent, Pat Kilcoyne, Cindy Rotman, Lee Matthews, Mark Martinchek and many others are probably wrapped in worn out layers of various “barn clothes” doing what they do best - caring for beautiful animals, duct taping greenhouses and farm tools together that should be replaced and scratching their heads trying to figure out how to make pennies get them through the long North Country winter once again.
A very sincere thanks to all of you from Jake’s. Because of your commitment we get to serve our guests food that we know is raised with care - food that tastes and looks amazing. We also get to feel good about doing what we can to help you stretch those pennies a bit futher.
Farm To Table is more than a marketing gimmick, it is a good thing.