Thinking of entering the food biz? It's not all wine and poses

HAPPY EATER

December 13, 1992|By ROB KASPER

From time to time I consider changing careers. It seems like a very '90s thing to do.

Moreover, people have occasionally suggested that I would be happier in another line of work. Some of the suggesters have been subtle, asking, "Don't you dream of owning your own restaurant?"

Then, the other day, I saw that Heineken commercial. It appeared during the half-time of a televised basketball game. It showed a stylish guy on his front porch drinking beer with his equally suave buddies. The guy said that, come Monday morning, he would tell his boss he was quitting his job and opening a restaurant. The commercial ended with the guy's gorgeous wife offering to fetch more beers.

This guy seemed to have it all. A big front porch. Friends who shave on weekends. And a spouse willing to fetch beers. It made me want to open a restaurant. It made owning a restaurant sound so appealing that I quickly talked to two people who used to work with me. They had made the switch from pushing a pencil to making the soup, from newspaper journalism to running restaurants.

I called Jack Dawson, once a feature writer for The Sun. He now runs Sergi's, an Italian food eatery in the Cross Street Market in South Baltimore serving lunch, dinner and take-out dishes.

And I talked with Donna Crivello, who was once design director of The Sun, laying out pages and sizing photographs. She, along with partner Alan Hirsch, has recently opened Donna's, a 40-seat cafe serving three meals a day as well as espresso and homemade desserts. It is at the corner of Madison and Charles streets in downtown Baltimore.

I asked my former colleagues to tell me how newspaper work compares with restaurant work.

One thing I heard them say was that to run a restaurant you need strong feet. Standing on your feet all day was an adjustment, said Dawson, who, like most writers, once spent much of the working day sitting at a desk.

Crivello, however, said she got lucky. She was known among fellow newspaper artists as "the woman who worked standing up," and this stand-up style got her ready for restaurant work.

I asked them about deadlines. We newspaper people pride ourselves on meeting deadlines. Crivello and Dawson said they still have daily deadlines in the food biz. But instead of being called "the early edition," the deadline is now called lunch or dinner. And they said when they miss a deadline, dealing with dTC angry, hungry customers was worse than facing cantankerous editors.

I did hear them say that parts of their journalism training helped them in the food business. Dawson said his writing background helped him craft catchy phrases for his menus and advertising brochures. And I saw Crivello's sense of design at work in everything from her big, colorful plates of roasted vegetables to her questioning the color of the thermostat on the restaurant wall. The thermostat's brown color clashed, she said, with the black-and-white look of the restaurant.

I asked them about working conditions. The hours were longer in the food business, they said. And there are fewer days off than in newspaper work. And both said the paperwork of running a business was a big burden.

But they also talked about the rewards of working with food. Both mentioned the joy of being their own bosses, and the pleasure of getting an immediate reaction to their work. For example, as I was talking on the phone with Dawson, a customer came up to him and complimented him on the seafood salad.

Similarly, Crivello said that one of her customers wrote her a note praising the food and the setting, and saying she felt "centered" when she sat in the restaurant. Other benefits of her new line of work, Crivello said, were that she didn't have to get dressed up, and she didn't have to go to meetings.

This brief look at the basics of restaurant work gave me pause. I also learned that new restaurants, like most small businesses, have about a 50-50 chance of surviving their first five years.

Running a restaurant seems to be an intense, consuming kind of job. Crivello said that even when she is finished working, she hangs around Donna's talking to customers. Dawson said he would like Sergi's to stay open past 6 o'clock at night, the time the Cross Street Market closes.

All this made me rethink my plan to change careers. It struck me that if I ran a restaurant, I probably wouldn't have time to watch basketball games and beer commercials. I would be working.

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