Why do those patatas bravas cost $9? - blog post image

Why do those patatas bravas cost $9?

Why DO those patatas bravas cost $9??

An inside look at the huge but little-known costs of running a small business

By Deborah Hansen

Chef-Owner-Sommelier of Taberna de Haro

That snowy Thursday had me thinking about a sultry night back in August. It was 5:15 pm, all was brilliant with late afternoon sunshine and excitement, and my patio was full. A restaurateur’s dream unfolded before my eyes - every table was seated, the song of lively chatter warbled, the familiar smell of my Spanish food wafted, my waitstaff scurried about amped and efficient. James Taylor would start performing in 2 hours just down the road at Fenway Park, and close to 100 of his fans came to Taberna de Haro first. An honor, and a profitable one at that!

It’s only profitable if all goes well. I mean Swiss-clock, synchronized-swim, Alvin Ailey dance-troop well. The man at table 104 who proclaimed his lamb chops inedible because they were too rare for his taste unwittingly nibbled at the profitability when he demanded they be removed from his bill - rather than asking for them to be cooked a bit more. The woman at table 3 who sent her gazpacho back because it “wasn’t what I expected” took another slurp out of the profits. The party of 8 that confirmed but then never showed up chomped into my bottom line as I could have served 8 more hungry guests while the table stood empty for 45 minutes. And the guest who forgot to mention he wanted his martini made with vodka rather than the standard gin, sipped again from Taberna de Haro’s profitability. But the real shark bite came at midnight when I was jolted awake by the text from my employee stating: “There’s water all over the basement floor. A lot.”

By 8:00 am my cook was on the job of clearing the water from the floor and the clog from the pipes. The power snake we keep on hand wasn’t up to the job, and I had to call in a professional plumbing service. $690 later, that sweaty and diligent plumber showed me the wad of paper towels that caused 4 inches of water to gush onto my floor, back up my sinks, and make my toilets unusable. It was nothing more than a full stack of hand towels, easily recognized, as they were not even balled up from use.

What possesses someone to put a stack of hand towels into a toilet? I must add that 2 trash cans are provided in that very bathroom. What goes through someone’s mind, right before going to hear the legendary James Taylor sing, that a toilet-clogging, pipe-jamming, floor-flooding, sink-sliming, grease trap-overflowing paper towel prank is the thing to do? Is it possible the poignant strains of “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground…” just aren't as moving without an expensive and destructive blow to a small business’ plumbing, as a pre-game event? I will consult several psychologists for consensus and share the results next time…

So when people query, as they do, how it is that a dish of fried potatoes with hot sauce and some garlic mayonnaise costs $9, I can answer them thus: The unseen costs of running a small business are simply enormous. Let’s break it down. A case of potatoes contains about 80 potatoes. In each order of patatas bravas, this hot-sauced potatoes tapa from Spain that everyone loves, I use about one potato and a half. That yields me 53 orders of patatas bravas, and $477. Given the $35 cost of a case of potatoes, and the accompanying sauce which costs about $20 a batch, profitability should be unquestionable and my kvetching should be minimal. However, I’d like to elucidate on a few general expenses that may be surprising, if I may. You know all about fair wages, sick time, 2 weeks paid vacation, payroll taxes, the costs of high-quality ingredients and Brookline rent, but consider, if you will, these numbers (Warning, this generally happy and grateful restaurant-owner is going to gripe for a few minutes, but she promises to conclude on a cheerful, upbeat note):

  • Trash collection costs $453, monthly, and yes, we recycle;
  • Energy costs run from $2500 - $3500 monthly, and water, another $500;
  • A full liquor license in the Town of Brookline costs $5500 per year, and the right to play recorded music is another $225;
  • Insurance is about $5000 per year;
  • Comcast takes $275 per month yet does not feel obligated to keep my Internet functional 24-7, and the losses in business incurred each time the internet fails can climb into the thousands. In the olden days, temporary phone outages caused this same problem. Nowadays, the high-tech shiny system, the internet, is just as fallible as that low-tech clunky one, the telephone.
  • I pay a C.P.A to keep me I.R.S.-compliant, and a bookkeeper to keep me in the kitchen rather than tethered to my desk, $200 and $350 per month respectively;
  • Open Table, without whom I cannot survive, charges me an average $850 monthly, based on how many reservations they deliver me;
  • Having a website costs about $100 per month when you factor in updates, QuickBooks on line is another $30, and Single Platform updates my menu changes across many on-line sites for about $40 monthly.
  • Laundry service, mandatory fire-monitoring, burglar alarm monitoring, payroll services, and pest prevention services total over $800 per month;
  • A state of the art POS system costs $150 per month; repairs, another $200.
  • These expenses add up to almost $8000 per month, and remember we haven’t contemplated the biggest expenses of rent, salaries, taxes, nor goods yet!! So why do I do it, this crazy little thang called restaurateur-ing? Because I love to make food, I love to share Spain, I love to turn guests on to interesting Spanish wines, I love the heat of a kitchen and the hum of a dining room. I simply like to make people happy by feeding them well and by offering them an experience. I love making people smile by easing them into a carefree place where the food on your plate, the wine in your glass, and the people at your table are all that matter in this world for a couple of hours.

    To do this, I need to charge you $9 for the patatas bravas. I raise my glass to all the small business owners in the world whose gripe-list may well exceed mine. I raise another to my dear guests who have allowed me these challenges and joys for close to 20 years now.




    BY Deborah Hansen | 0 Comment(s)
    TRAVEL, EAT, LEARN - blog post image


    Elizabeth Gilbert may have transformed her life through
    Eat, Pray, Love, but Chef Deborah Hansen is hoping you will transform a bit of your life by joining her in Spain with nonprofit Oldways in November

    Chef Deborah is no stranger to longtime Taberna de Haro customers. But Oldways? Even if you haven't heard of Oldways, you’re probably familiar with some of the things we've created -- the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid and the Whole Grain Stamp.

    As part of educating Americans about the Mediterranean Diet and foods like extra virgin olive oil in the early 1990s, we also created culinary travel adventures for food and health journalists, retailers and cookbook authors. Almost twenty five years later, we continue to believe in the importance of culinary travel and our trips are now open to the public, giving everyone a chance to take part. Oldways “Culinarias” are extraordinary culinary tours, planned with our firm belief that the heart of any culture can be illuminated by exploring its food, wine, and culinary traditions.

    In our ever-changing, complicated world, there is great value in experiencing and understanding other cultures, and the prism of food is one of the best ways to embrace other cultures. This is one reason culinary travel is important and can make a difference in how individuals see things.

    Oldways has another reason to believe in the power of culinary tourism: health. With our mission to inspire healthy eating through cultural food traditions, culinary travel is an ffective (and enjoyable!) cog in the wheel. Participants learn how regional products are made, and how they combine to make healthy, traditional dishes and meals.

    We're so excited that Chef Deborah has agreed to join us for this week long culinary and cultural tour in Andalusia -- the heart of southern Spain. We'll spend time in two of Andalusia's most vibrant and historic cities -- Granada and Sevilla -- and in addition to learning about Spanish cooking and ingredients like olive oil, wine, sherry, and cheese, we'll focus on art, history and culture with Art Curator Ronni Baer, and experience flamenco at the Flamenco Museum in Sevilla.

    We're sure you'll come home with a new appreciation for the elegance and vibrancy of Spanish food, culture and lifestyle....and we will bet....you'll fall in love with Spain and start planning your next trip!

    For more information, or to join us, click here to fill out our webform.
    Alternatively, contact Abby Sloane at asloane@oldwayspt.org or 617-896-4875.

    Sara Baer-Sinnott - President, Oldways 

    BY Deborah Hansen | 0 Comment(s)

    Politics in the Kitchen

    The drudgery of this winter gave most of us pause, to contemplate simply everything. The pool of customers determined and sturdy enough to risk their ankles and automobiles to get to my restaurant diminished severely just as my energy costs began to exceed $3000 a month for 3 months running. (Glacial Energy is particularly culpable in this arena, I don't mind telling you). Marketing, the 20th century solution to everything, and I know bloody well we are in the 21st, that's my point, put me further into debt. Add to that numerous bungled repair jobs in my Taberna that required several visits, each one botching things further, each one causing my heart to beat like bongos being played by a bonobo on triple espressos. In a hurricane. With amplifiers. My spreadsheets in a wad, my bank accounts one and all flushed a feverish bright red, I hired a consultant.

    Eli was wonderful and had me crying tears of relief after our first meeting. He contemplated simply everything. He gave me immediate tips for better service as well as advice to purchase a POS upgrade, created by a local company called Toast. Crawling with brilliant and personable MIT grads, Toast seems to have predicted every one of the infinite needs of a restaurant when designing their system. The change was smooth, and I have a better grasp on the numbers, with Eli's help.

    Through it all, my cooks kept turning out flawlessly sautéed spinach and perfectly roasted free-range chickens and identically round and tender meatballs. In return, l let these kitchen full-timers maintain the hours they've always had, despite the drop in business. They have rent and mortgages just like the rest of us, so despite my crimson numbers, I kept them fully employed. "Your wages are extraordinarily high," said Eli, "and that creates a need for a very large increase in revenue." Truly. Several dollars per hour above the industry standard, it turns out. How on earth do I fix that? Fire excellent workers who have been with me for more than a decade?

    Luckily he was not proposing that. As attrition happens, hire at a much lower rate, he suggested. But attrition doesn't happen in a kitchen where workers are well-paid and love each other like family. Mind you, that does include the bickering requisite of familial relationships at times. They stay. Not only do they stay, they come in early to fix the broken faucet with parts they had to buy had Home Depot which required an extra trip on the T. They bring in their boy-tools when the grease trap is hopelessly fouled up so I don't have to call the fix-it boys who charge $90 an hour and make things worse. They build shelves in the wine cellar on slow nights and paint the kitchen floor after hours so it looks nice. They were patient when the old POS dropped entire days from the payroll report and they had to wait for the remainder of their wages. They cover for each other and never, ever call in sick. Nor hungover. When all else fails, they send a cousin who's done time in a kitchen to get the job done. They all have keys to my Taberna, come to work on time, and perfectly predict the amount of preparation needed for a given day. During intensely important soccer dates, they do their prep work at very strange hours in order to make time to see their team play. The only woman in this elite group cried with me and told me to be strong during my divorce, told me not to think so much. They have watched my children grow from chubby toddlers eating oxtail with their fingers to tall teenagers who eat oxtail with a knife and fork.

    Congress is discussing the Living Wage and I have 5 cooks who make $19 an hour who work anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week. Those working only 20 or 30 have two jobs. They lead dignified if not luxurious lives, raising families and sending money home to family members who haven't been able to immigrate like they have. In my climate change-induced poverty this winter I am much chagrined to admit I actually had moments of resentment. They were getting paid and I wasn't. I was going further into debt while they paid down their mortgages. Rise above it, I thought, and that got easier as the weather warmed and Eli continued to advise. Rise above it, and live your principles, I advised myself. Did I not vote for Elizabeth Warren? Barack Obama? Do I not cringe when I hear the the CEO's who earn several million dollars a year decry a raise in the minimum wage because it will result in widespread layoffs and raise unemployment?

    Justice requires struggle. My struggles this winter were enormous, and I'm sure every small business owner in the region can speak of similar anxiety. However if we abandon our principles and harm those who have even less than we do, we cannot hope to enjoy a thriving economy nor a prideful society. This is what brings an increase in revenue for everyone.

    Deborah Hansen



      Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence