A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to meet Michael Bortz, owner of Denver’s City Bakery. Not just me, but my three kids, too. They were out of school and we were looking for an adventure. We all love bread, and I know City Bakery makes some of the best in town, so I called him on a lark and asked if we could come up to buy a baguette. The answer was likely to be no, I thought, since his is mostly a wholesale operation.
But later that morning, he called back and invited us up for a visit. When we arrived, he literally threw open the door, letting my eight-, five- and three-year-olds smell sourdough starter, showing them the ovens, opening the walk-in cooler where bread was proofing, and — the piece de resistance — letting them pipe frosting onto oversized cupcakes (and not minding when piles of red sprinkles ended up on the counter).
He sent them home with their own boxes of cookies and cupcakes, and filled a paper sack with ciabatta, baguettes, sourdough and rolls for me. He even helped us carry everything out to the car. This from a man who’d been up long before the sun, who didn’t know me or my food background, who had plenty more to do than lead a tour for children. And yet he did, going out of his way and then some.
I’ve been thinking of Michael lately, and not just because his goodies keep popping up at all the places I’ve been stopping for coffee, like Ink, Hutch and Spoon, and Perk Hill. No, he’s been coming to mind because he’s so good at hospitality, and some chefs in town could stand to learn a lesson or two.
On Friday, Denver will wrap up a two-week extravaganza known as Restaurant Week, where two people can eat a three-course meal at hundreds of restaurants for $52.80. The price is an inside joke. 5280 is Denver’s altitude, hence the term “mile-high city.”
You would think that restaurateurs would recognize the possibilities and woo diners with an extraordinary meal. After all, many people view the week as a way to preview expensive restaurants so they know which ones are worth full price and merit another trip — and which aren’t. Yet my experience at Restaurant Week is that some chefs get it, and others don’t. Some restaurants design their special prix-fixe menus with just a few options, so diners don’t get a feeling for the breadth of the kitchen. What’s worse, sometimes those options are tilted toward higher-margin fare like salads, pasta and chicken. I know I’m not the only person who’s had such a poor dining experience during Restaurant Week (at one of the city’s finest restaurants, to boot) that I’ll never go back. Bravo to all the chefs and owners who shun this approach, realizing that short-term profits aren’t what it’s all about.
Which brings me back to City Bakery. During our impromptu tour, I was reminded of a book by famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer called Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. I don’t know if Bortz has read it; for him, hospitality might be intuitive. My hope is that more chefs give it a look before Restaurant Week 2011 rolls around.
P.S. Does your city have something like Restaurant Week? What’s your experience been?