The Build: Who's The Team?
The Build takes a deep dive into the process of building up a new restaurant, from signing the lease to opening day. In this episode, not only do you get more glimpses at the fun aesthetic bits, but you’ll also hear about the processes and systems behind making sure customers feel taken care of in the space that Eric and Team Ursula are in the middle of creating. Between architects pointing fingers at plumbers, and deciding on plate ware, you’ll hear about the nitty-gritty required to build up (and out) your brick and mortar world.
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So we're here at Ursula today just to catch up with Eric and chat with some of the Ursula 1.0 employees. And they... It's 11 a.m. they're in full swing. They got several tickets out and the team is moving like a restaurant does: in symphony. They have a small kitchen with five people behind the line. And there is a wonderful picture circa 1980 of Ursula, which is Eric's grandmother on the wall.
Hi. Can you tell us your name?
Grant. And tell us what you do here in Ursula.
I'm a barista. I'm a front of house person.
Tell us how long you've been working here.
I've worked here since the first week, which was maybe two years ago. Six years, 12 years ago. I don't know. Two years ago.
Two years ago. What do you love about working at Ursula?
I love the freedom I have to be, how I am, dress, how I want to dress and, you know, schmooze how I want to schmooze and, you know, all of these things that I kind of feel like if you work in front of house, there's this like expectation just sort of, you know, be charming. But like on the terms of the people who are running the restaurant and like I'd say most of the time they don't have the tools to do that. That's why they hire like us to do it. So it's nice to be able to like, employ my own, you know, tactics to do what I, you know, to to be a good like a hospitable person, like to others, you know.
What are you excited about for Ursula 2.0?
You mean like drinking behind the counter or…
Officially? On the on the record? No. (laughs)
What are you most nervous about?
I've been involved in a few like restaurant openings. I mean, haphazardly. Not that I was like an integral part. I would say this is probably the most integral I've ever been to a restaurant opening. But. And I feel like the thing that makes restaurant openings exciting is also the thing that makes them so stressful, which is the, you know, what happens day to day and like, what are the systems? You know, I'm working here for two years has been great because I know what to expect when I come in. However, this also sort of feels maybe a bit redundant or like banal or boring. So opening a new restaurant, you know, presents a good opportunity for like, you know, just a diversification of tasks. And like, I like problem solving and there are a lot of problems that come on opening or being on an opening staff of a restaurant.
What are some of the problems that you're anticipating?
Oh, my gosh, where where the fuck are the cups? Like, where, where are like, what are we serving today? Like, who's coming in? Wait, there's like only two people here, but we have a restaurant that needs six, you know, And like, she's new staff, you know, that's a that's a great example. Like, you just have like a new people come in and that you meet some of your best friends, which is what has happened here. And then sometimes they come in and you're like, Oh my gosh, I didn't know I'd have to deal with this personality every day. I mean, it's just, yeah.
You said that you're most excited about the addition of alcohol to the business. Tell me, You know, in reality, how will that change the vibe, the space, the customer check average, Like all of those things that are pluses for, for you guys.
Well, you know, that's kind of sides... Alcohol is kind of side speak for, you know, an expansion of menu. I think more so than be like a literal addition of alcohol. I mean, I feel like if I really, really was excited about the money aspect, I would not have chosen the life that I sort of chose. And so I'm more excited about the idea of like having dinner because I've worked dinners with Eric before and like under the Ursula sort of umbrella and I love the way dinner feels.
Tell us your name.
Oh, yeah. My name is Hendor Gonzalez. I'm sous chef at the current Ursula, BK. Yeah, that's right, I guess.
And what does Ursula mean to you?
Oh, I mean, Ursula, I think really, it was like, is the reason why I want to have a career in the food industry. Ursula has been the space for me to like, learn and develop my skills, my confidence. I truly like, learn how to be a leader. And of course, I'm just going to be like a very, like, big developmental part of my life.
How's it different from the other restaurants you've worked in before Ursula?
Oh well, other than just like the success and like media presence, it's also like this is the first place I think I was in where I felt like I could be myself, especially when it comes to terms of like gender and like sexual identity. It's a place where I felt like it's the first place I felt like I didn't like hide any part of myself and to just, like, show up as me. And I think that's very special. And it made me realize I don't have to be afraid of just being myself wherever I go from here, from here on out.
So speaking of the staff, I know that there was some training and some introduction and walkthrough through to the space. Tell us about how that went and about some of the new policies and procedures. And I know a lot of you have been working really hard on an employee handbooks that tell us about how the rollout of that is going and the reception for the team.
Beyond this one.
It's good. I am actually really excited about, you know, what we're going to be able to create in this space in terms of, you know, just knowing your for a really long time and knowing our sort of like we're both, you know, lifers, we're not like. I'm a little bit older than he is, but we've both basically spent our entire adult careers in this industry. And, you know, there's things that work and there's things that don't work. And to be able to have the opportunity to kind of re-imagine or put our stamp on a structure that's like our vision for the future of what a hospitality space can be.
And we have over the last two and a half years. But we've also learned a lot.
Yeah, I mean, it's more it's not as if he it's not as if he hasn't. It's just like, you know, obviously when you move to a new space, you get this chance to kind of like review, like what works, what doesn't work. And like, I didn't have a hand in what he created over there. So it's like I get to kind of see what's been working for him and kind of put my own point of view in terms of like, you know, if you're working towards this goal and these are the things that you have in place, maybe we can kind of like. Yeah. If these are your goals and this is what you have in place and these things work and these things don't like, what can we do to finesse and re-imagine? And working through that with Eric has been like pretty straightforward.
I feel like any idea that I've come up with or iteration, like I feel like we're just on the same wavelength in terms of like, what is the outcome that we want to be able to produce? And I think we're both pretty, pretty attached to like how do, how do we get what it is that we're trying to get as opposed to what it needs to specifically look like, which is really helpful? You know, like the, the reaching what we want to create is the priority. as opposed to like it has to be this way or that way, which I think is always helpful when you're trying to innovate and iterate and you've got different experiences and different points of view.
But you know, I mean, the thing that I think is really cool is we've, we've pulled together a handful of sort of like policies and ideas and like guideposts, really, that structure and underpin the opportunity for Eric to really get a fuller, deeper, clearer sense of the financial picture and health of Ursula as a whole. We have created the opportunity for the staff to maximize their personal income and earnings, and we have given them we're going to be giving them tools to really understand how to do that, what that means.
So we're pulling in elements of like open book management where we're going to be making available at all times, like, you know, just the key, key performance indicators for to use some corporate speak, right? It's like, what's our labor this week? What's our food costs this week? What are our goals? Where are we at for the year? Really being able to look at that stuff at a glance, have it available at a glance so that people can not only really enfranchise in a like a like a deeper way as opposed to like, what am I just working on in front of me? But really, like it's a place where conversations can start around a deeper understanding of how business is run in general.
We are introducing a credits systems so that we can kind of add to the compensation package without being paternalistic around family meal. So right now, family meal is basically like people just order whatever they want to eat and there's kind of almost this weird vibe of like, should just be a burrito. Oh, I don't know if I want to, like, have this expensive special or what am I supposed to do or, you know, that sort of thing.
And we're going to be issuing very if there were a certain like X number of credits that they can spend in house. It'll it'll kind of just be for the week. Right. So it's like if you want to save all your credits and splash out and have dinner or drinks with your roommates on a Friday night, like live your life, it's not for us to say how you can spend those credits, but it every single thing has to be rung in period. And so all of these things kind of go together and support people making more money and everybody's going to be making the same across the board baseline. Everybody's going to be getting a proportionate share of the tip pool because the back of house air quotes are going to have service roles because we have an open kitchen, we have a bar.
So we've just tried to make it. We've just cleared it as much as possible. We've made it as equitable as possible. We made it as transparent as possible. You've given people as much choice as possible and all of the tools and pieces of information that we're using to make all that stuff happen, all support the whole system in this sort of circular way. And so we're we feel like in terms of the whole landscape of like restaurants and working in a restaurant in New York City, we're giving a lot. And we're also going to be expecting a lot, right?
Like when some of this I think too, is is like security and flexibility, but also empowerment. In terms of the credit thing, I know that my experience in restaurants, you have a friend that come in that comes in to sit at the bar or sit at a table. And this is the kind of thing when you when you go to a bar like you want your friend to hook you up like you don't want to pay for anything. That's why you go to the one, the bars or the restaurants where your friends work, so they give you free shit.
And I'm very much into that kind of hospitality. If one of my staff's mom comes in for dinner. I love Mom's and I'll feed her everything on the menu, but I don't want this kind of free for all where friends come in and everyone just starts pouring them free wine and then none of it's being tracked. And I know that through my experience, I never really felt comfortable or empowered to comp or give things away to tables or like when it was appropriate or when not.
So that's how you get into that kind of behavior. It's like, Well, I want to hook up my friend, but I don't know how to tell my boss or if it's going to be allowed. And this way there'll be enough of that credit for them to have their own meal. But it's also empowering them to use it for whatever they want. So if they want to hook up their friend, they just have to ring it in and make sure that they're not going over. But it's giving them some tools to be hospitable, to take care of their friends, but also the accountability model. In which case these kinds of tools and power for them, it's also going to be like a zero tolerance for any kind of theft.
Yeah, I think that makes so much sense when you, again, make people responsible for the expenses, you give them tools to be able to have some of those perks and then you can say you have zero tolerance. Tell us a lot. So you change the pay structure.
Oh, when there will be, there'll be a bonus. Also, I didn't even mention that part like so part of that is we're going to be implementing like a bonus system to go with it, right? So it's like if we're hitting our numbers as a team and we're doing what we need to do as a team, then as a team, we can we can all get but will not us, but the team can get bonuses. And so that also kind of puts this element of like if you're you know, if you're stealing from the store or you're stealing from your friends too. Right. Because it's like we're tracking, we're keeping it, we're watching where the money goes. But you can't really understand what your business is up to unless you're watching where all the pennies go, mine the pennies in the pounds. You watch this, All right? It's like she's got to track everything.
One also like it in a way, to incentivize the work and the upselling of different dishes and items, because where we're giving them the information that it's like this is the the most that we can pay you as a base rate in a sustainable way.
Like, of course, everybody wants to be making $28 and tip plus tips, but that's just not sustainable. So we've looked at some different projections and it's like this is how much we can sustain if we're hitting these numbers. But then if we go over that, then there's opportunity for you to make more, because I think that that's a problem that A lot of younger workers don't fully understand. They want to walk into a place and have X dollar amount as a base wage. And it's like, Yeah, that would be lovely. But then you're going to bankrupt that business and then you're not going to have a job at all. And the idea is job security, financial security, but also financial responsibility.
you switched the pay model, right? Because you used to have tipped people front of house at 1.0, if I remember correctly. And now you have the flat wage and that and that everybody gets the tips. So how was that received from everybody?
I was really nervous about presenting it to everyone and I was like, I didn't sleep the night before. I just expected a lot of negative feedback. It's to be honest, it's a really great system. It's just that some people were coming up and some people were coming down for a base rate. But if you stop and listen and don't actually cut yourself off from the fuller picture, there's a greater earning potential if you were coming down because it's like you can either work off of this pay scale and not be a part of the tip pool, but that's your ceiling always.
Or we bring you down, you can be part of this. And then I threw out some number like I used the the historical numbers over the last eight weeks of what the tips look like and showed them how much it would be if everybody was part of that, but also were brought up to a certain pay rate. And it's like, look, you guys are all going to be making money now. And also there's so much conversation and we saw this happening when Union Square hospitality and a lot of these other restaurants tried to go into a no tipping model.
Everybody talks about equity in the restaurants, but when you actually have to be part of the process, then all of a sudden your mind changes because you had a server who was taking home $250 a night. And then once you're in this no tipping model and your ceiling is $25, they're like, Wait, I'm just going to go back to the old. Yeah, the old style and. Especially in spaces like ours. People want to be progressive. They want to to to change the system. And they say that this is a really good opportunity for us to see who actually believed that and was willing to be part of that process. And it seemed that everybody seemed to be very warm to the idea and very excited about it.
Yeah, I mean, it's I think like the the sharing of the information with them was really about the clarity around it's not a change in your base pay. It is a restructuring of compensation for stop right. So it's like, yeah, your base pay is going to change. But that's not the whole story. The whole story is we've completely restructured your compensation package and here's what it is for some of you that will include a change in a downward direction. You'll be making less per hour than what you have before.
But that only would be a bad thing if you didn't understand that it's like a total restructuring. And from what we've projected, you'll be able to take home more money. Right. And with the other tools that we're going to give you, it's, we're trying to structure it so that everyone can actually just make more money. You know, And we've brought in different revenue streams. We have booths now, you know, and and just really like making sure that people understand this comprehensive of it's not we're not just plucking you from the 1.0, putting you in the 2.0.
Everything's the same except you're making less money like, no, we're in a new space, new revenue streams, new hours, new earning potential. It's a restructuring and the restructuring is around equity. And the thing that I have appreciated so much about working with people who are at the beginning of their careers, who have this like idealism and this like real earnest, like care for the hospitality industry and really like these sort of radical ethics that do often come along with like A being in a queer space, but B, being in hospitality in certain areas of hospitality is like people are super down with it.
They're like, Yeah, great. And this is like they I think a lot of people got it. Like, this is the wave of the future. We are very fortunate because the kitchen is open plan. You can't do this everywhere. The the way we're able to do it is we're structuring the air quotes back of house people to have service components as part of their role.
One, they'll be trained on the POS. The cocktails are batch are batch so anybody can make a drink if we have to. It's but the idea that everybody can step in everyone's position.
So we're we're purposefully integrating. We're really lucky because we're rebuilding the system and we're able to purposely integrate so work with the stupid laws as they stand so that we can have a situation where. If you work 10% of the hours of a given week, you're going to get 10% of the tip for regardless of front of house, back of house. And I'm using air quotes because.
Yeah, because it's all front of house.
It's all house.
So I like that it's.
All the House of Ursula.
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Most restauranteurs will be able to relate to the story we'll hear from Eric today, unfortunately, having to deal with customers that are disrespectful to your staff and your space. Do you remember if we had any disgruntled customers while we were opening goods?
I don't think we had, you know, anything. You know, that's that compares necessarily to Eric story, but we definitely had upset customers either from wait times or whatever. And then we also had, you know, I think part of the challenge that Eric will probably see a little bit as well as sort of growing into a new neighborhood. I think that, you know, our location at the time was developing, and I remember that there was a business across the street that was not exactly happy to have us there. And so sort of went out of their way to make it uncomfortable for us to operate. But I think, you know, as long as you rely on your team the way that that we know that. Eric well, that there's ways through that and to stay positive on your business rather than, you know, fighting against it.
I think that's also the lesson learned here. It's like Eric's been really cognizant of integrating into his community and making sure to engage the community, which is something we didn't necessarily do in advance at Goods, which is probably a fault of ours.
I would agree with that.
So we think many folks can learn a lot from the story you're about to hear with Eric and how he and his team handled that situation. That was very challenging and very tense. So let's take a listen in.
We had somebody that came in this weekend to 1.0 that was upset that she been waiting for 12 minutes for her chicken sandwich. And went off on a rather unhinged tirade against the staff and myself. Calling everyone the F word, saying spread hepatitis that we are incapable of having our own babies. The only real men and real women can have babies. And showing us a picture of her child. Reminding us that her child is not non-binary and. It went on for a little bit, but she got her her refund and she made her way out eventually.
But it was just a little triggering and traumatizing for the staff to have to deal with. We have been really lucky to have this space that is kind of insulated where when we're on the inside of it, we feel comfortable and safe and don't feel so vulnerable. But we forget that we live in a big city and there's no forcefield around the space. Just because we have that love and protection inside doesn't mean that we're not not not vulnerable to somebody that comes in that feels threatened by our presence. So just more communication on how to make sure that everyone feels protected and supported in those situations.
That is quite traumatizing.
So how do you how do you coach your staff to handle customers who are abusive and disgruntled?
I think there's more conversation to be had about it. My as much as my pride and ego, when I sit at the forefront of that and curse right back at somebody, I'm a big proponent of de-escalation in those situations, especially when you can tell that somebody is mentally unwell because you don't know what kind of person they are, how they're how it's going to escalate, how that's going to create levels of unsafety for anyone that's not in the space at that time for any of the customers in the future. This particular person lived on our block too, and we're in it. I think that sometimes when you feel threatened and you want to take certain action, you forget that we're in a stationary place. We're going to be here every day. And so if you choose to escalate a problem, you don't know what kind of retaliation may come on the back end of that. In the future. In the same day. And so I am of I'm of the notion of the de-escalation method, if you can. So it's that kind of conversation, making sure that we all have the proper communication information that we all need to get a customer or a person out of here.
Just making sure that we have effective lines of communication. Like, I wasn't even aware that this person was using those kinds of slurs when I went upstairs, I just saw that there was that she was shoving her baby in everyone's face and that the staff looked uncomfortable. So I just tried to jump in and see what her issue was and get her out. I would have probably had a more defensive stance if I knew that the first thing that she was saying was calling everyone the F word and telling everyone that they spread hepatitis, they probably would had a different reaction. But I only was able to approach the situation with all the information I knew. So if there is a higher level of threat, like how do we make sure that that's communicated efficiently and safely? That's part of the conversation we had. It's I think that's part of a handbook and something that not every business has to consider, but being part of a vulnerable community. It's definitely an important chapter to have in the book.
Yeah, I'm like, thinking about our handbook and we have, you know, anti-discrimination and the anti hate language based on customers and vendors at things, but were not physically. The physical proximity to the customer is so different in the hospitality industry than any other businesses that it's true. Can you know, it's can be really scary when you are like you're saying, or a vulnerable population.
What do you do as a business owner and in the aftermath, like after that happened, how do you, you know, talk to your team and reassure them that they are in a safe space? How do you sort of how do you react to that? You know, once the dust has settled, the customer has gone.
To sort of bring some of it. Some of it is open. Open dialog. It's a kind of thing to them where it's like there's adrenaline or it's like when you're in an accident, you don't recognize that you're hurt right away.
And so even in that moment, right after it happened, everybody was kind of laughing about it and commiserating when she finally left. But then after it set in and it was like, oh, damn, I feel very violated and vulnerable by that, then you start to think about it more and you're like, more upset. And I had to leave from here to the 2.0 to go work on some stuff. So I dipped out and it wasn't until like 45 minutes later that I was even like, Oh, that was a lot for us. And so I texted the front of house staff to thank them for enduring that and simultaneously got a text from Hendor the sous chef that they had decided to close for 15 or 20 minutes just to kind of debrief and let everybody recenter and talk it out. And I think those are those kinds of opportunities where you get to take a pause, take control of your your business in your environment for a second and just see where everyone's at, how they all feel about it. We have a we have a group text right now, the people that we're there to kind of discuss how they felt about it. So yeah, I think it's just making sure that there's. There is conversation to make sure that everyone can express the way that they felt in the situation.
I'm actually, my call after this And talking with a trans drag performer that I know about coming in this next Sunday, at the same time that this woman came in to just come and do a quick little number to kind of remind the community of who we are and also just remind the staff that they're loved by their community.
Tell her tell them to bring some sage, sage this year into the matter.
I think having somebody from the community come and do a quick little performance in the lobby, remind everybody we haven't had anything here in a while to be celebrating of the community like we have done with the Pride events before. So I think it'll just be a fun way to kind of recenter everybody and make everyone feel loved and supported. And a reminder for all the people in the community, in the neighborhood and the customers and what kind of spaces this is.