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Canal Street Bistro's Seth Gray Has You All Figured Out

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Photo: ENOLA

If you've ever walked through the door at Canal Street Bistro, odds are that Seth Gray has made a casual academic study of you, and, by the time you've been seated, has a good idea as to whether you're a management, bossypants type on a leisurely mid-afternoon lunch break, or an office worker with exactly 45 minutes to scarf down a Cuban sandwich before your boss senses your absence. That sort of attentiveness might have something to do with Gray's tour of managerial duty in several of the city's bars and cafés, but it more likely has to do with his degree in Cultural Anthropology from the University of New Orleans, with a focus on the relationship between food and culture. Not only that, but Gray also won the Christine Wilson award from the Society of Food and Nutrition, so you'll forgive him for trying to anticipate your every dining whim, since, you know, it's sort of his métier.

It's 8 pm on a Saturday night. How long does a party of two with no reservations have to wait for a table?

It's usually not too bad. We tend to be as flexible as we can. For the most part, having a reservation means having a guaranteed table, and not having a reservation doesn't necessarily mean you won't get one. It just means that you might be waiting for a few minutes. We have a full-service bar, so we're fine with walk-ins. We can just direct people to the bar, where we have a fantastic, really knowledgeable bartender. He's so good that, half the time, people end up eating at the bar.

Are there any nights when you can expect to be slammed?

Thursday nights tend to get really busy because we do a theme night, which definitely drives traffic. It depends, though.

What are some of the front of house challenges of doing breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

The breakfast and lunch transition is pretty smooth. We have a pretty established menu for that, and our summer specials or seasonal specials are really established. For us, the biggest challenge is that we have a completely different dinner menu. It's almost like we're running two restaurants in one building, and that definitely creates some challenges. The kitchen has about two hours to switch out from the daytime to the nighttime. We don't begin service until 6:00 pm, so the front of the house has it a lot easier because at 2:30, we end lunch service. Most tables, even if they come in five minutes before we shut down for the afternoon, only take between and hour and a hour and a half for lunch, so that gives me from 3:30 to 6:00 to get ready for the dinner crowd. We're talking about doing a happy hour at 5:00, which would compress that preparation time a little, but we won't necessarily need a full kitchen for that.

The service at night is much more casual fine dining, as opposed to casual during the day. The evening service, therefore, is going to be slower per table, so you don't see the volume you might see during the day. Dinner features much higher ticket items, much higher revenue, much higher alcohol sales, which, for any restaurant, is a big money-maker. A server has maybe three opportunities total to sell food to a table, but as many as five to ten chances to sell alcohol.

Which is your favorite service?

I like being busy and I'm a morning person, so getting up in the morning and being active, ready to go by 8:00 am is no big deal for me. My brain stops working at certain point in the evening. I may be here, but my staff notices that I get significantly dumber as the night goes by. [Laughs] I'm sure anyone one of them would be happy to tell you that.

I enjoy the breakfast and lunch the most. With fine dining, people have certain expectations?when you're spending anywhere between $100 and $150, everything better be top-notch. For breakfast, you have a chance to really wow people, the same as you do with lunch. Lunch is going to be a little more turn-and-burn because we're catering to business folks who maybe have only an hour for lunch. They've got to get in, out, and back to work. You can have one or two late lunches, but eventually people will stop coming if they realize that lunch takes too long may be causing problems at work. Lunch has to be tight and quick. There isn't a lot of room for mistakes. Even remaking a dish adds ten minutes to service, which could mean someone's commute time.

I've also noticed with the day crowd that, after a while, it becomes pretty easy to spot who's in management and who isn't based on, first of all, what they order, but second of all when they come in for lunch. Your normal, cubicle-type people have 12:00-1:00. That's their time. If you're a manager or supervisor, your lunch can be 12:30 to 1:00 or 2:00, so it pushes things back a little bit. As a supervisor, you may have an hour and a half and having a glass of wine is okay.

I see that you're putting that anthropology degree to good use...

Haha, if you know what to look for, you can read the signs.

With all that stuff to juggle, what's your go-to gatekeeping tool?

Honestly, for my sections and keeping my servers happy, I just have a piece of scratch paper where I tick off who's got the next table. Anything like that to help facilitate communication is great because, in such a tight environment, working on such a tight schedule, I won't be able to run around and find a reserve, and a waiter who just sat someone can't run around to find me and tell me that it's so-and-so's turn. Having a central place for people to keep track of this information is key. Our seating and reservations are all old-fashion?strictly
clipboards. We're too small a place for a big electronic seating system.

The space does feel pretty big, though.

It used to be someone's house. We say it was a mistake when they built the bar because it's about eighteen inches too wide in the back. It could be a little more narrow and we could then fit a few more tables in the front, but, since the bar is so wide, it feels like there's more room up front. That's one of the big things. I want people to feel comfortable when they come in, like they're eating at someone's house. Packing someone into a restaurant where they can barely move doesn't make for a pleasant experience.

Which is your favorite table in the house?

There's a deuce right by the window with a little bit of extra room around it, so it's a little more quiet and intimate. It has one of the big fun chairs, which we call the queen chairs because more women than men tend to sit there (probably because we refer to them as the queen chairs and that scares some of the men away).

Have you had any outrageous requests, things that have just totally thrown you?

Yeah, for sure. A lot of this will happen on high-volume days like Saturday and Sunday during the day. The biggest thing is that people come in, spot an empty table, and think they can sit right down because, hey, there's an empty table right there! There's a challenge, though, to making sure your servers are not in the weeds, that they can handle something new. Just because we have an empty table doesn't mean that we can necessarily service that table. You can sit somebody down, but that immediately triggers them to think, "Okay, now we're here, in the restaurant, and we're waiting." If they have to wait five, ten minutes on a wait list, they're usually fine with that. If they have to wait that long at a table, that's a problem. Where people wait is a big, big part of handling a weekend morning rush.

The biggest part of my job as front-of-house manager is anticipating problems. I have to try and spot problems before they happen and fix problems before they happen, which can make for a pretty pessimistic point of view. Being able to read guests is a big part of my job, too.

Do you have different crews for breakfast/lunch and dinner service?

Yes, it's very different staff. A whole new crew comes in. The managing of the nighttime shift is a lot easier because everyone comes in all at once. I can pre-shift with everyone, get everyone up-to-speed. The day crew is staggered, so I have to repeat myself a lot. Doing two different concepts in one restaurant creates a lot of challenges that other restaurants just don't have.

· Canal Street Bistro [Official Site]

Canal Street Bistro

3903 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA 70119 504-561-6585

Canal Street Bistro

3903 Canal Street New Orleans, LA 70119