Visiting a young friend with a terminal affliction can be a very sad affair. Despite the air of health that they exude, you both know that this time might be the last. But unlike the elderly, it’s a very rare young person that gets through four stages of dying to arrive at “acceptance” because too close there lurks that memory of their days of youth and vigor. You probably lost many a young friend in the form restaurants. Their illness was their balance sheet.
Mas serves outstanding tacos and delicious margaritas. The drinks are priced in accordance with the neighborhood and times. Tacos are priced high but not outrageously – if ordered by themselves. So why then must they charge US$3 per tablespoon of salsa? Why $8 for 2 spoons of guacamole? Why not have ANY other condiments available (for free) for those who may not wish to season their entrees so expensively? Some Cholula for duck’s sake! There are 2 possible reasons.
Reason A is the case study of Orange, one of the city’s first hipster breakfast places. They actually had signage posted that distilled their management’s opinion that the customer (you know: that person PAYING THEM) did not know as well as the kitchen what they wanted in an omelet. “If you want to customize an omelet, go to Golden Nugget.” Was seriously on the sign. A dramatic escalation beyond not having salt on the table.
Reason B can be the science of accounting infecting the art of kitchen wizardry. Never minding the science of ingredients and taste and the trendy acts of “deconstructions,” cooking is, at its pinnacle, an art-form. The peak of the profession draws from the science of taste and hopes to channel it into an experience not just to be tasted but to be seen and felt and smelled and perhaps even heard – as in Mr. Achatz’s decompressing aromatic pillows. A mix tape for the senses.
But accounting is an icy science with low regard for anything but bottom lines. It’s why there is an everlasting struggle between the business and the chef when the two concerns are separate. It’s also why when the chef is also business manager, restaurants become defunct at such a staggering clip. Pleasing the customer at all costs can have a very steep cost indeed. And I suspect that the creativity at Mas has been overpowered by accounting.
When we arrived for brunch on Friday, a lone employee was the host, the waiter, bartender and probably even the cook. (He confessed as much.) Only short-term bottom-line analysis can possibly think this is a good idea. We felt so sorry for the polymath employee that we even bit our lips and put on the air of friendliness while service took 3x longer than it should have. Given our propensity for fission in the face of service shortfalls, this represented containment of a high order.
Just like a healthy organism, a healthy service business must find balance between doing everything it can to please the customer and doing so, on average, profitably. One can no more run a healthy restaurant by letting one faction run amok than one can expect to get in shape by working out one muscle group. Although, some dudes at the gym still believe that after 10 years of being fat and working only bench, suddenly, in year 11, they will wake up one morning with a 6-pack. The truth is that nothing in life or in business exists in isolation and the constant struggle between different sides yearning for excellence is very healthy. One can never grow new muscle without first tearing up the old, letting it recover and going it again. Mas, like so many restaurants before it, needs to give its accounting muscles a rest. The food is very strong but the overall experience falls far too short of satisfactory. Having seen the symptoms so many times before, I fear that the next step in the decline is the fall. And the shutters. So if the balance sheet is really terminal, wouldn’t it be great to let the last gasp of a dying kitchen be channeled to the roar of triumph instead of a wheeze of penny-pinching pettiness?