Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Last Days of Mio Kitchen & Wine Bar, an insiders point of view

When the Chef calls you into the office, it's never good news.

On this particular day, at 10pm, service was slowing down and Chef Matthew Porco had just come in from the newly opened pizza shoppe just down the street. He was covered in flour, head to toe. It followed him through the upstairs hallways, an ashen monkey doppelganger clinging to it's host. I was leaving for vacation the next day, and thought he just wanted to discuss the upcoming week with myself and Cara Moody, the server who would be handling all managerial duties while I was on leave. When we got to the office, however, the topic of discussion turned out to be very different.

"I've got bad news... Mio is closing. We're gonna run through the next two weeks and close on Saturday, August 28th."

My first thought and subsequent response was "Shit. I wish I didn't just spend $2,000 on our wine inventory." My next thought, which I kept to myself for the time being, was "How is this going to affect my vacation?"

Chef talked a little about options he had on the table which he'd hoped could pan out before we actually had to shut the doors, but I think he knew it was over. Confiding in us with the news was the last piece of the puzzle to complete the portrait of Mio as a sun setting over the Allegheny.

"I feel terrible. Sean you are the classiest manager I've ever had here. I wish I'd hired you 3 years ago. Cara, you are like a sister to me, and I hope you know if there's anything either of you ever need, you can always call me." and with teary eyes and a cloud of baking flour left in his wake, Matt returned to Mio Pizza, and Cara and I returned to the floor to announce the news to the unsuspecting staff.

It had been apparent from the beginning of my short tenure at Mio that the restaurant was not doing well. Although when I took the position the Chef had just been named "Pittsburgh Magazine's Chef of the Year", and deservedly so. Hailing from Veritas in New York, Matt had wanted to bring New York city style fine dining to his hometown of Aspinwall. (Interesting side note: Mio was closing it's doors on the same night that Veritas was closing it's doors in NYC) A lofty ambition that succeeded greatly for the first year or so, but as the economic woes started to deeply affect Pittsburgh's dining culture, the cash slowed, the service staff was cut down to 1 server 1 bartender on the weekdays, and the wine cellar quickly diminished leaving only the higher priced bottles and shortages of medium value wines.

I came on in April and went immediately to work on the wine list which had been grossly overpriced, putting NYC price tags on an Aspiwall cellar. We ran with a tight crew throughout the lean days of summer. I brought in servers I had worked with in the past, the line in the kitchen basically ran on a 3 person staff with two on the grill & saute and one garde manger/dessert. One dishwasher, sometime 2 on weekends was all it took to support the line. A Saturday expo/food runner was added for FOH support. In all we had just over 10 on staff to operate what was considered one of Pittsburgh's top 10 Restaurants.

But what a staff we had!

Front of House we had Cara Moody who I referred to as "The Boss". Cara was the veteran, and the one who called me when the GM position opened and gave me a stellar recommendation. She knew the ins-and-outs of Mio better than anybody and helped me settle into my new position with great ease. Cara and I had worked together at Casbah 3 years earlier, along with my first two hires Eddie and Angela F. Upon starting I was introduced to Alyssa & Dana, both of whom I grew to love as fellow family members. Such is the small restaurant life.

We had many cameo appearances throughout the summer, including Joanne (Casbah again), Maggie (bartender from Eleven), Angela D. (who I worked with at Firehouse Lounge), Rachel (a terrific college kid working through the summer), and the one-night-only return of Raj to help us close on a high note.

Back of House was equally talented, if not doubly-so. Ephraim and I worked together at Casbah as well, and he helmed the ship as Exec Sous Chef. With a poorly tuned song in his heart and a Will Ferrell quote on his tongue, he kept the kitchen tight and consistent until he left us in July for the new restaurant Elements.

Derek stepped into Ephraim's shoes without hesitation, and, quite frankly, caught us all off guard with his talent. We worked together well, and I had very high hopes for the future with him and I, as a team, running Mio.

Sara came from Kaya and was quite at home in the spaciousness of the line, after being stuck in the Kaya cubicle of a kitchen for so long. Always smiling, always cheery, she was the pixie sprite fairy of the Mio kitchen line.

I fell in love with Megan immediately when she took over the garde manger position and we regaled in our commonalities which we shared: Thundercats, Mountain Goats, a game of pool, and deepening regard for Chartreuse. In the last week there Megan & I collaborated on the taste sensation that became Green Chartreuse Sorbet. She even took it a step further, creating Yellow Chartreuse Gummi Bears which she promises to make for me whenever I beckon.

The heart of any kitchen is always the dishroom. It beat strong at Mio pulsing freshly polished silverware, glassware and pots & pans through the veins of our little restaurant. Gi was master of this domain and he kept spirits high in down times with a half thought through joke or ribbing, mingled with Buddha-like sage wisdom.

On the weekends, his cousin Lou would come in to help. Much rougher around the edges, with street wisdom masked amidst vulgarities. I imagined him as a reflection of Gi, 20 years earlier, though you could never tell him that. There was no way you couldn't love Lou.

So these were the people all out of jobs in 2 weeks. But nobody was too distressed. When everyone on staff is as talented as this crew, we all just kinda shrugged our shoulders and said "onward". Before the end of the night everybody had a backup plan, including myself. After securing my job at Firehouse/Embury back, I had one plan: to join my family in Tionesta, sit in a river all day and not think at all about Mio. And that's what I did for week #1 of the two week closing period.

On my return we were faced with a few obstacles to hurdle. Mainly fielding angry calls from customers about redeeming gift certificates, calling all reservations for after Aug. 28th, recreating the menu daily to move through the last of our supplies, and answering the same question over and over and over and over again "Why are you closing?"

Now I can appreciate that each guest can not possibly be aware that I just answered that question 2 minutes ago and 2 minutes before that... and just got off the phone with somebody who wants the number for the pizza shop "oh, and did I hear you were closing?"... but please, do not ever ask a restaurant manager why their restaurant is closing and follow it up with "That's too bad. I love this place even though I haven't eaten here in years." Because, quite frankly, THAT's why we're closing.

My favorite was "I'm so sorry you're closing. This is my first time here. I can't believe you're closing, the food is delicious. What happened?"

Sometimes it can be very difficult not to strike a fellow human being.

The true frustration with that question is that it's not an easy answer. No one thing ever happens to a restaurant or any business that forces them to close. There was a different answer for every table. And by answer, I mean the individuals version of what they THINK actually happened. For Mio, it was the economy, it was the price perceptions, it was Route 28, it was the pizza shop, it was the huge staff turnover, it was the hot summer weather, it was the location, it was the fact that Pittsburgh has so many great restaurants, it was the fact that so many great restaurants opened over the summer... these all contributed to the demise of Mio. But what it really boils down to is that people were not walking in the door and spending their money there.

So after fielding all the inevitable calls, it's time for service. And here's were the professionalism of Mio's staff really shined. Running out of food daily, juggling hours and shifts, knowing there is no silver lining in the week following, where most would lose any sense of pride in their work place, Mio put out the best last week of business it possibly could. Booked all week with Gift Card redeemers and 1/2 off bottle of wine seekers, there was not a step missed or a gracious smile not given. It was beyond business as usual. It was "let's go out on the highest note we possibly can." And we succeeded.

Some highlights from that week included:

  • Serving Allen Chen from Tamari, and his family the last order of sweetbreads
  • Megan's concocting of my Green Chartreuse Sorbet idea
  • Casbah night where I called up the reserves of Casbah employees and the whole FOH that night was Casbah employees circa 2006-7
  • Raj lighting each candle in the restaurant for each past employee of Mio on the last night..."and this candle is for Bob Flood..." Survivor style.
  • The chef cooking the very last order of short ribs for me.
  • The final, heartfelt toast at Mio given by Chef Matt Porco thanking everybody for their dedication and loyalty.

After opening a few choice bottles and sharing some stories, it was time to go.

I was the last to leave. I shut off the lights, turned off the stoves locked the front door, headed to the back and added one more item to the 86 Board... "Mio"

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