Business, Food, ZingLife

Thursday at the Roadhouse

It’s Thursday afternoon at the Zingerman’s Roadhouse and the front-of-house staff is preparing for the weekly menu changeover. At about 3 p.m., they gather in one of the dining rooms, closed (for the moment) to the public by a long, dark curtain. Inside, Roadhouse Head Chef Kieron Hales will give a preview of the new dishes coming to the menu, followed immediately by a tasting. The new menu goes live at 5 p.m.

First, however, they discuss business. The Roadhouse staff begin by reviewing “the numbers,” the measurements used to follow the overall performance of the restaurant. Everything is tracked. From sales, to the number of dinners served, to customer compliments, complaints, and suggestions. The tone is informal and all staff are encouraged to participate is what is essentially a conversation, rather than a presentation. If something is tracking below plan, everyone is welcome to offer suggestions on how to improve it. This input is treated seriously by Zingerman’s leadership, and can often lead to procedural or policy changes if the result means a better outcome.

Roadhouse staff talk over business.

After the numbers, Roadhouse server Sharon stands up to review best practices for good service at Zingerman’s. A handout circulates, and Sharon walks everyone through three pages of surprisingly specific and nuanced service tips. The emphasis is on ensuring that Roadhouse guests have the best possible experience, known in-house as the “Zingerman’s Experience,” and many of the serving staff share their own suggestions.

Next, a document detailing and expansion of the Kids’ Menu is passed around, and a couple of the managers lead the discussion. As the changes are relatively minor, the staff moves on to announcements, then to a Zzang Bar chocolate tasting. Many of the staff had not yet sampled the Zingerman’s confections, and the Roadhouse management wants servers to be able to speak directly to the flavor and quality of the food, so… “If I must, I must,” says a server as she pops a slice of candy in her mouth. “Awesome,” is the conclusion.

Head Chef Keiron Hales

Finally, it’s the main event. Chef Kieron has been bringing in large plates of food for the past few minutes, and now he stands in front of a table filled with steaming plates. The room is filled with delicious aromas, and he has everyone’s full attention. A photocopy of the updated menu moves around the room. Kieron begins by describing the additions to menu, how they’re made, the ingredients, and what can or cannot be substituted or eliminated from the dish. He goes further, reviewing last-minute substitutions, gluten-free items, and fielding random queries from the serving staff.

As he talks, he quizzes staff about the food to make sure they feel confident in talking about the dishes with guests. When he’s satisfied the staff understand the new menu, he describes the food on the table before him, then tells everyone to dig in. Clearly, this is an anticipated moment and the staff quickly moves in.

Roadhouse staff dig in.

I sample the Beef Bourguinon Short Ribs, a traditional favorite made with beef from Cornman Farms. The meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender, and filled with such flavor that it seems a shame to eat too quickly. The mashed local potatoes are thick and delicious, a perfect accompaniment to the beef.  I try a bite of the Garlic Roasted Chicken next. The skin is crispy, the meat inside tender, juicy, and delicious. Finally, it’s the Southwestern Tsimmes, a spicy take on a traditional Hanukkah favorite. Made with sweet potatoes, heirloom carrots, apricots, New Mexico green chiles, and chipotle chiles. The peppers both contrast and accent the sweetness of the dish, and my mouth is full of delicious flavors.

Clockwise, from top-left: Tsimmes, Short Ribs, Mashed Local Potatoes, Garlic Chicken.

After the tasting the group quickly breaks up and everyone begins preparing for evening service. Some stay behind, efficiently cleaning and setting the tables, removing all traces of the meeting. The curtain is drawn open, and the restaurant managers walk through with a critical eye toward getting the room ready for the night seating that is now just minutes away.

I catch up with Kieron to ask a couple of questions about his inspiration, and he is gracious enough to share the books he used as source material for several of the new meals. There is more I want to ask, but it’s after 5 p.m. and the dinner rush is upon us. He disappears in to the kitchen. All around me, the restaurant is kicking into high gear, the staff moving quickly and smoothly. Showtime.