16 Years of Running a Successful Restaurant and How We Survived It (more or less) Part I

It’s certainly no secret – running a restaurant at a profit is very difficult. You can see the evidence of how hard it really is just by making a mental note of how many places go under in a very short space of time.

To be fair, it’s not for everybody. The long hours, the difficulty finding (and keeping) good staff that won’t rob you blind, maintaining your cool during high season, and the patience and strategy you must cultivate during the slower season … it’s a complex equation made even more difficult by changing trends, competition, and not to mention the weather.

Even with decades of experience under our collective belts, we are constantly facing new challenges. Anyone of lesser temperament would likely crumble under the pressure – meaning, it really takes a certain type of person to keep the good times rolling and make it financially viable.

Luckily enough, Amy and I have a passion for hospitality; otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it at all. In fact, it is our love of great food and wine that is at the root of it all, but as simple as that sounds in theory, those are two of the three things that can tank a restaurant right out of the gate. More on that in a moment …

Fortunately, there is a paradigm, and it is upon this all of our success hinges. As long as certain criteria are met, it allows us to focus on our guest experience, which, in the public eye, is the true arbiter of success.

The paradigm is probably the most yawning part of the bigger picture, but briefly, it involves a ratio of costs which must absolutely be kept within margins: food cost, liquor cost, labour cost, and prime/fixed costs (hydro, water, rent, etc). They all have ideal ranges that are based on a percentage of sales, and there is very little wiggle room. One wrong calculation can really tip the apple cart, and suddenly, there is zero profit, or we see a loss.

Customer experience is everything

The other part of the equation is the customer-facing side. As you probably know, your experience while you’re in the restaurant is everything. How you are treated, how you are greeted, how knowledgeable and friendly your server is, how gracious and intuitive the service, the timing, the pacing, the attention to detail. It’s truly the little things that really set a great restaurant apart from a merely decent one.

For instance, you can have a great chef and an impeccable product, but if you aren’t greeted nicely when you arrive, if the tablecloth, menu, or cutlery is dirty, if the service is rude or rushed, or if the management does not respond to problems in a caring and insightful way – worse yet, if there is no management presence at all – how can you justify what you charge for your product?

It’s like anything else, if the value isn’t there, people will simply go somewhere else. And often, you only get one chance. These days, in the age of Trip Advisor, Yelp, and other ratings and reviews sites, the customer is in the driver’s seat, so you need to make sure that you address any of their issues, however small you might think they are, before the customer leaves, or else you might be ripe for an online whipping.

For some new restaurants, this is a learning curve; but they will quickly find out that since there is no way to remove bad reviews, it’s always better to prevent them. Interestingly enough, even before this “new reality” took hold, we’ve always felt the need to be accountable, so for us, this might be less of an issue than it is for others.

And yes, we consider ourselves lucky. We’ve got great staff who have been with us for years, a dedicated and talented chef who is known as one of the top chefs in the County (and beyond), and a dining room that, while challenging from a size level, is manageable with a minimal labour force.

How we do it

Another way we maintain our reputation and composure? Reservation management. We are always mindful of protecting our staff so that they can do what they do best with a minimum of stress. This means pacing our tables in a leisurely way, and not rushing service so that our guests can be assured of the best possible experience. This is also why we (and most other restaurants) don’t take 7pm reservations. A lot of people wonder why this is, so here’s the scoop:

Everybody wants to dine at 7pm. However, if everybody came at 7, the kitchen and staff would be completely overwhelmed and service would suffer – it’s as simple as that. Sure, many high-volume restaurants, or even restaurants with larger seating capacity than ours will accept 7pm bookings, but they often have the extra staff and kitchen capacity to handle it. That’s the long and short of it. Too many 7pm bookings would also mean that our early diners would be rushed out so we could seat the 7pm’s on time. It would also eliminate the possibility of booking later tables, so our overall business, and our server’s livelihoods, would suffer. So next time you ask for a 7pm reservation and can’t get one, now you know why. It’s a popular time, and you’re not alone.

Are you hungry yet?

The Restaurant at the Merrill Inn has enjoyed much success and acclaim over the past 16 years, and we are blessed to have been a part of building its legacy. If you’ve never dined with us, we invite you to book today: call for a reservation and see what all the buzz is about. Cheers!

PEC Jazz Festival: 17 Years of Great Music

Every August, Prince Edward County plays host to one of the most popular music festivals in the area, the PEC Jazz Festival. Now in its 17th year, the festival attracts some of the biggest names in Jazz, including festival regular Guido Basso, and Laila Biali, whose dulcet tones can be heard on the CBC Radio 2 jazz program, Tonic.

For five glorious days and nights starting Wednesday August 16, jazz enthusiasts can experience a wide variety of shows in (count ‘em) 16 venues all over the County. Many of these shows are afternoon winery events, and are often free, inviting attendees to stay a while, enjoy a glass of wine and enjoy the vineyard view. The evening shows take place at some of the County’s most interesting venues, including the historic Regent Theatre, and the Church of St. Mary Magdalene on Main Street.

“Jazz Only” event

The festival has been building in momentum every year, and has the distinction of being a “jazz only” event, which sets it apart from most of Canadian jazz festivals (the Ottawa Jazz Festival, for instance, has Kenny Rogers, Serena Ryder, and Feist, on their roster this year – definitely not jazz!). The performers are a veritable who’s who of the jazz scene, with many Juno, Gemini and even Grammy nominees and winners to its credit.

One of the more buzz-worthy initiatives they run is the Rising Young Star program, which invites young jazz musicians to apply in May for the opportunity to play and collaborate with the festival’s top acts. While there are plenty of opportunities for young musicians to play with their peers, either at jazz music camps or through school or conservatory programs, there are few chances for them to play with seasoned pros. 2017s Rising Young Star was awarded to Andrew McAnsh from Cambridge, Ontario, a trumpet and flugelhorn player who is already making a splash in and around his hometown, and Toronto.

Leading in to the festival this year is a talk and film presentation at Baxter Arts Centre, 3 Stanley Street in Bloomfield, on Tuesday August 15. Festival organizer Brian Barlow will be joined by Andy Sparling for ‘100 Years of Jazz’, a free event that anybody is welcome to attend.

The Merrill Inn has been a proud sponsor of the Jazz Festival since its inception, and this year is no exception. For the 2017 program, we are sponsoring a Piano Jazz Retrospective with Bernie Senesky & Gord Sheard, 2pm at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, just steps from our front door on Main Street. Tickets to this show are $25, and can be purchased at the Regent Theatre box office, as can festival passes and tickets to individual events.

Other festival events we recommend:

Wednesday August 16:

7:30pm at The Waring House: Brian Legere Trio

Thursday August 17:

1pm – 4pm @ Huff Estates Winery: Mike Francis Duo

8pm @ The Regent Theatre: Laila Biali Trio $42

Friday August 18:

4:30pm @ St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (Picton) Rising Young Star concert

Saturday August 19:

1pm – 4pm @ Sugarbush Vineyards: Mike Francis Duo

7:30 pm @ the Waring House (Barley Room) Angela Turone Quartet

Sunday August 20

10:30am @ the Church of St. Mary Magdalene: Jazz Mass with Brian Barlow Quartet & Choir

1pm – 4pm @ The County Cider Co.: Dan Bone Trio

7:30pm @ the Waring House: Lenni Stewart Trio

 

For full festival programming, visit www.PECJAZZ.org. Enjoy!

 

Our Resident Artist and His Most Recent Work

Many of you likely haven’t met our night desk captain, Milé Murtanovski, unless, of course, you’re in the habit of wandering about the Merrill Inn in the wee hours of the morning. While many of our night-time innkeepers choose to sleep, Milé is often busy at the desk during these quiet moments working on one of his current projects, or scheming up a new one.

 

An artist by nature and by trade, Milé’s work can be seen at his own gallery, Small Pond Arts, as well as through various exhibitions in the County and elsewhere. His oil paintings have been curated for popular local shows like Art in the County, and like the man himself, the range and depth of subject matter is both insightful and thought-provoking, often focusing on people and encapsulated moments that bring to light an emotional energy that veritably leaps from the canvas.

 

Milé’s past work is as varied and interesting as the man himself. He has worked extensively in watercolours, though many of his recent works are in inks and oils. His paintings have been shown all over the United States and Canada, and many have found their way into private and public art collections around the world. He has had success as a graphic designer and illustrator,

and has previously worked on a number of short films, including 2007s “I Made a Girlfriend” and 2008s “The Perfect Match”. As the lead photo shows (pictured with Merrill Inn alum Nell Casson and local mini-celeb Ramona), he also dabbles in stilt-walking!

 

Milé’s current show is a collaboration with Celia Sage, an artist we are well acquainted with, both as a friend and as an artist we admire. The project, called “Home” is on display in Picton at the House of Falconer. It consists of ten canvases upon which the two artists contributed equally:

 

They each began with five perfectly square 24” x 24” canvases, and proceeded to independently complete their works around the theme of “Home”. Once they were done, the canvasses were handed over to the other artist, who painted over exactly half of the other’s work. Milé describes this collaborative effort as “weird, exciting, challenging, and mildly controversial,” as each would be painting over the other’s work.

 

“It took me a long time to get up the nerve to tape off and “delete” half of (Celia’s) work with white gesso” says Milé. But in a theme as universal as “Home”, there were uncanny similarities and parallels to their individual choice of subject matter: each painted members of their family, each explored surreal landscapes, each incorporated a single word as a design element.

 

As for the result? You’ll have to see it for yourself. The show runs from August 1 through August 13 at Alex Fida’s art collective House of Falconer, located 1 Walton Street in Picton, next to the Sobey’s plaza and beside the BMO.

Beaches in the County

Everybody knows about the beaches at Sandbanks Provincial Park, but in July and August, it can get pretty crowded. Some days, the queue to get into the park is backed up for miles, making the journey more difficult and stressful than it needs to be.

Getting to Sandbanks

Sandbanks Provincial Park can be accessed via County Road 11, or from Bloomfield via County Rd. 12. There are several beaches to choose from, some of which are day-use beaches that don’t require park admission to visit (just pay for parking and you’re good!). The main beach is the Outlet Beach; it’s a shallow inlet

While Sandbanks is considered to be the prime beach, it’s not the only place in the County to get some sun and sand. Let’s have a look at a couple of the ‘alternate’ beaches in the area, just in case you’re looking for something a little less crowded:

Wellington Beach

The beach in Wellington is a long stretch of sand & pebbles that can be accessed off of Highway 33: turn on Beach Street, and follow along to find plenty of free parking, a wooden boardwalk, a public boat launch, and a lovely view of a lighthouse, as well as the northernmost tip of the Sandbanks. Picnic tables, picnic shelter, change rooms and washrooms are all on site, and it’s super close to restaurants, galleries, and shops. A great place to cool off and picnic after the Wellington Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings!

North Beach Provincial Park

North Beach is a hidden gem, as its westward-facing aspect catches the sunsets beautifully. Just south of Consecon on the County’s far west side, its beaches offer 1200 metres of sandy shoreline, and it’s a perfect spot to soak up the sunshine, swim, kayak or canoe, or even go fishing for largemouth bass, perch or sunfish. It’s a day-use beach, but there is a canteen open for snacks and beverages as well as plenty of picnic and toilet facilities. The cost to park is $14.50, or you could choose to park on the nearby street for just $2.

Lakeshore Lodge, Dunes Beach

Dunes Beach is a day-use beach, and there is no need to pay park admission to access it (just pay for parking). There are picnic tables and washroom facilities, and it’s a favourite spot for kite surfers on breezy days.

A little further along, you’ll find the beach at Lakeshore Lodge. This is where many of the locals go, as it’s free to park on the road, and it is dog-friendly. Reach it via County Rd. 12 from Bloomfield: you’ll miss the big lineups at the park gate completely! Follow #12 down as far as you can take it, park on the side of the road (free) and walk in. While the beach this year is greatly reduced because of the high water line, it’s a lesser-traveled area that might afford you a moment away from the summer crowds. However, note that it is a “no frills” kind of beach, and while there are porta-potties near the trail head where you walk in, the closest washroom or change room is further down at Dunes Beach.

Other places to get some sun and water

Many locals will tell you … on a hot day, there’s nothing better than jumping off the Mill Bridge in Milford! In the town of Milford (10 minutes south of Picton on County Rd. 17), there is only one bridge. You’ll likely see a bunch of kids lining up to do the same, so by all means! Just don’t forget to bring a towel!

Point Petre is another spot where you can enjoy the water. There are plenty of flat rocks where you can perch and enjoy a picnic lunch, and though the shore is rocky, you likely won’t have any company at all. Water shoes are a must! Get to Point Petre via County Rd. 10 through Cherry Valley, then turn on County Road 24 and follow it until you see the water.

So get out there and enjoy some beach time, County-style! And even if it’s overcast, don’t forget the sunscreen!

Beat the Heat with Ice Cream in the County!

When the weather gets hot, ice cream is a welcome chill on a summer day. We are lucky enough in the County to have several options for lovers of this sweet, delectable and creamy treat, so no matter where you are staying you’re sure to find some close at hand.

Slickers Homemade Ice Cream has been a staple in Bloomfield for many years, but in 2017, they have expanded to a second location on Picton’s Main Street – finally! No need to go all the way to Bloomfield for a taste of their campfire flavour, or apple pie, or Jack Daniels chocolate ice cream. Slicker’s always has something interesting and new to try, and if you are visiting the Merrill Inn on a Beat the Heat package, we do include a voucher for two cones.

Nice Ice Baby is a new entry in the local ice cream space. Its flagship café is located in Belleville, but they also have an outlet in the town of Wellington – and it’s open late, too – until 9pm Sunday through Thursday and 10pm on Friday and Saturday. They serve both ice cream and gelato, with more flavours than is possible to list here, and they even offer gluten-free cones. Dairy-free vegan options are available in the form of fruit and coconut-based sorbets, and everything is made in-house. Yum!

The Bean Counter Café is famous for their gelato, which is made right here in the County with fresh ingredients. Grab one of their awesome coffees, and try a dish, a cone, or their signature specialty, Affogatto Amore! – a medium gelato with a shot of locally roasted espresso poured over the top. Sounds good for your afternoon pick-me-up, right? Their flavours include many dairy free and soy-based gelatos, so be sure to ask.

Scooperman is a Picton Main Street staple since 1996, serving up ice cream from Reid’s Dairy, Chapman’s and Nestle’s, as well as over 400 (count ‘em) flavours of frozen yogurt. Peanut butter frozen yogurt, anyone? And don’t forget to bring your camera for some cut-out fun on the street outside. Scooperman is a seasonal business (as most of our ice cream parlours are), but they are the originals, so stop in for a taste of the legacy.

The Old Greenhouse Ice Cream Shop is another new stop on the Ice Cream Trail (I just coined that, it’s not a thing just yet so don’t go looking for a guide and map anytime soon). Located at the former Wight’s Greenhouse building on Wellington Main Street (Hwy 33, just as you’re pulling into town from Bloomfield direction), they have something that is very unique; it’s called FlavourBurst soft serve ice cream – which delivers just about any combination of flavours churned into their premium ice cream. Their hard ice cream is sourced from Central Smith Creamery, near Peterborough. Okay, it’s not the County, but it’s still pretty darn good! Classic flavours like Tiger Tail and Mint Chocolate Chip compete with signature flavours like Algonquin Canoe and Polar Plunge.

Beat the Heat Packages available through August 31

Looking to come to the County for a little ice cream escape? Why not book our one-night, mid-week Beat the Heat package? Along with one night’s accommodation, it includes dinner in the restaurant, breakfast in the morning, a picnic lunch and – of course – a voucher for 2 Slicker’s Ice Cream cones. Call today to book your getaway!