Backing into the Restaurant Game and How We Got Hooked
By Gary Moffat
From the very beginning, I harbored a strict bias against ever getting into the restaurant business as a means of growing Carpe Vino. As a kid living near Chicago, I squandered my youth busting my butt working in restaurants, and I saw first hand the all-consuming nature of the game. The hours were brutal, the risks substantial and the personalities involved were always volatile. Yet as a teenager, working in a restaurant was my first experience actually being part of something—a true team—and I witnessed people at their best and at their worst. I carry lessons learned with me to this day.
Laboring in a restaurant was the basis for shaping my work ethic. It was the first time I excelled at something, and I always sought the toughest assignments because it made the time fly. The dinner crush was truly an emotional and physical rush, and we pumped adrenalin like we bought it in bulk at Costco. I worked in a big kitchen of a family dining establishment, and my cutting board was my helm. At 17, I was among the youngest, but people put you in charge when they respect what you can do. I learned then that if you take responsibility, it is given to you.
I never actively dreamed of owning a restaurant, though there were many times I secretly thought it would be cool to have my own joint. “Yeah, this is my place. . .welcome.” But the omnipresent downsides of waste, theft and constant turnover in people always squashed such notions. I didn’t want to deal with those realities. . .plus, making another huge Carpe Vino investment to create the infrastructure was something I wasn’t willing to do. We were already “all in,” and that was enough.
The talents of Courtney and Eric just couldn’t be ignored
But then we met Courtney McDonald and Eric Alexander, two of the most talented chefs and hardest working young people I have ever encountered. Courtney is an Auburn native, trained in classically French cooking at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. She met Eric there, and after graduating and floating around the country working in restaurants and hotels, they ended up back here. When my son, Drew, met them they were working at another restaurant, but not coming close to exploiting their skills.
My first reaction when Drew suggested we figure out how to employ them at Carpe Vino was “no freakin’ way.” He’s relentless though, and after meeting the pair and understanding their skills, I thought about it for awhile and finally agreed on a plan: Courtney would launch an upscale bar menu, and if that worked, we would open up a restaurant at Carpe Vino within a year. She joined us in February, 2005.
What really sealed our restaurant fate was when we pressed Courtney into service to create a winemaker dinner after a visiting chef cancelled on us at the last moment. Courtney’s presentation was a smash hit, as were all of the others we produced during 2005 (in our miracle kitchen that consisted of a couple of hot plates and a commercial convection oven—we had no stove!). In October we started designing the dining room and kitchen and working with the City of Auburn to secure permits.
It was an immensely difficult struggle and in the midst of it all, my marriage to my former wife, Laura collapsed. Somehow, some way, we kept it together, though, and Eric joined us full time in February, 2006. We started dinner service with a soft opening in April.
The Sacramento Bee puts Carpe Vino on the map
At launch, we were open just four nights a week, and our first few months were encouraging as people learned about what we were doing. After being reviewed in the fall by the Sacramento Bee and earning 3 _ stars… out of 4, traffic started to pick up nicely. In December of 2006, we were named to the Bee’s Top 12 list of area restaurants by Mike Dunne, and our fate was sealed.
Now we’re open five nights for dinner service, and if you want to eat here on Friday or Saturday evenings, a reservation is a must. Business continues to grow every month, and we’ve been recognized by Sacramento Magazine, Sunset Magazine and Sacramento’s NBC affiliate, KCRA. So now, our reputation is ranging far afield of Placer County.
Carpe Vino blends the best of food and wine
The restaurant has changed everything here. First and foremost, we’re still a wine shop, but the restaurant has created an entirely new dimension and welcomed revenue stream. Fine dining helps differentiate us from the crowd of plain restaurants and wine shops; we’re a hybrid, and sometimes that creates perception problems about exactly what it is we do. At the end of the day, we’re in the business of oral gratification, and people seem to like what we’re doing.
In Carpe Vino’s tiny kitchen during the crush of action, everyone knows their job and they do it, from the servers to the chefs to the dishwasher. It is so cool to watch the dance, with people shouting orders, the hiss of the grill, the wonderful odors fighting each other, and everyone in constant motion. It reminds me of an aircraft carrier launching and recovering aircraft. It’s all about precision, perfection and timing. One bird hooks the catapult and is literally thrown off the flight deck, while another circles round to slam back down. Perfectly prepared orders fly out, while always-empty dishes cycle back in. Both operations have been described as controlled chaos, and that’s totally accurate.
Some of my closest working relationships have been forged in restaurants. You get to really understand people and learn who they are. You meet people from all walks of life, and you accept that while everyone isn’t equal, each person is respected and valued for the work they do and for the contribution they make in keeping the service on track. That’s the way it is at Carpe Vino.
No matter what we really are or how people perceive us, I really love this business. We’ll never get rich doing it—believe me—but no act of labor has ever given me more joy. People tell us over and over again how much they love the joint. People thank us for adding a unique dimension to Auburn and especially Old Town. They thank us for creating a place of civility and refinement where they actually feel comfortable and welcome. That makes me very happy.
I know, deep in my heart, that this is a special place that cannot be replicated. The building, the food and the people are all one-offs. And it is the unique combination of all of these elements that draws people back over and over again. For as long as it lasts, we’ll do our best to keep it this way.