Dining After Dark: Join the Table for the New Staff Meals
In the early 1990s, Chef Christopher Gross pulled a little promotion prank on the media.
He sent out a press release announcing that “leftovers” would be served at his eponymous restaurant after 10 p.m., never intending anyone would take him seriously. The joke was on him though, because the story landed in the local newspaper and soon hungry night owls arrived in droves, catching him totally off guard.
It sparked a new trend in late-night dining and to this day, Christopher’s Restaurant still serves late-night “leftovers” every weekend in the adjoining Crush Lounge. Hanger steak or roast chicken or the evening special (for example, veal cheeks with braised cabbage and roasted tomatoes) often end up on the “leftovers” menu with a slashed price, usually around $15.
Fast-forward nearly 20 years, and late-night dining has a new spin: “staff meals.”
Only this time, there’s nothing prankish about the concept or how it’s promoted: through the social media platforms of Twitter and Facebook.
Two popular, independent Scottsdale eateries are luring weekend crowds—mostly young and mostly industry-types—away from drive-ins and dive bars and into their restaurants about the time regular patrons are paying the check.
FnB and Petite Maison—coincidentally within walking distance of each other—entice their colleagues to drop in after their shifts for late-night noshing and camaraderie with cheap-but-chic eats. It just so happens that the general public is invited, too.
Astute followers look for tweets sent early in the week (or even the day of ) announcing the staff meal menu:
@PetiteMaisonAZ: Tonite’s STAFF MEAL (10p-Mid) Josh’s Rockin’ Chicken Fried Steak w/Pomme purée $10, Foie Gras Tartines w/Black Pepper Gastrique $12
@ciaomari: Late night @FnBAZ Friday & Saturday; soy/mirin-marinated pulled pork sandwich|slaw w/miso vinaigrette| BBQ chips $10 PLUS…vegetarian chilaquiles also $10 TGIF!
Background on the Staff Meal
Staff meal is a term for the food that restaurants serve their workers, usually before a shift, other times referred to as the “family meal.” Not every restaurant feeds its staff, and even among those that do, the quality of the meal—or at the very least, the creativity of it—varies dramatically.
Worse case: The family meal consists of prepackaged, processed mac and cheese, or past-its-prime soup that didn’t sell.
Best case: The responsible cook puts some heart and soul into the meal while still using scraps and inexpensive ingredients, always a prerequisite for a staff meal. Rarely, if ever, do meals served to employees resemble anything served to the paying public.
Late Night at FnB
During her tenure as sous chef at Rancho Pinot, Charleen Badman was responsible for the staff meal. In fact, when Badman left Rancho Pinot to open her own restaurant with hospitality guru Pavle Milic, the Rancho Pinot crew told her the thing they would miss most was her staff meals.
“I always put a lot of effort into the meal at Rancho,” she says. “I mean, for some of us, it’s the only meal we eat that day. So I want it to be good. I want it to be special.”
Soon after opening FnB (short for Food and Beverage), Badman and Milic bounced around the idea of having “industry” meals after their regular dinner service. Both missed seeing their friends from their previous jobs.
“We wanted to come up with a little something to eat for our friends on their way home,” Badman says, “something better than what’s out there.”
Badman always dishes up some version of chilaquiles (one night it was chicken with roasted tomatillo sauce) on the late night menu, along with one or two other dishes, none topping $10.
It makes perfect sense. After an evening of cooking or serving some of the top plates in the Valley, Badman and Milic didn’t want their friends to settle for a fast-food burger or a sloppy plate of Mexican beans and rice when they could come to FnB and have something substantially better.
Badman and her crew banter ideas back and forth early in the week about what to feature for the coming weekend. Sometimes it’s a craving they have (like seafood pho) or sometimes it’s a gesture of thoughtfulness, like a Colombian pork stew, a nod to Milic’s roots.
Once the menu is planned PR and marketing “schmooze diva” Marianne Belardi then tweets out the menu on Twitter (@ciaomari) and posts a longer, tantalizing description on FnB’s Facebook page.
On any given Friday or Saturday night, Rancho Pinot servers and cooks and staff from Prado (where Milic was general manager before branching out on his own with Badman) take up positions on opposite sides of the U-shaped bar at FnB, while Badman cooks up chilaquiles or tandoori chicken or other hearty dishes.
FnB pours cheap drinks, too, to go along with the $10 eats. Modelo Especial, served from the can or Michelada-style (over ice with fresh lime juice and perhaps a shot of hot sauce) is only $2, as is a bottle of Prescott Brewery’s Liquid Amber Ale.
Late at night, the mood is festive and Badman is joking with old friends, meeting new ones and serving up delicious, gussied-up comfort dishes. She seamlessly transitions from the role of an intensely focused chef to the more relaxed role of a gracious hostess.
“This is really a labor of love for us,” Badman says. “We’re not trying to make money. We’re surrounded by friends at the end of the week and we want them to feel at home. That’s enough for us.”
Late Night at Petite Maison
Chef James Porter and his marketing maven, Wendy Goldman, were also thinking about late-night dining when Petite Maison, a tiny French Bistro in Old Town Scottsdale opened in August of 2009.
“Wendy and I talked about this from the beginning,” he says. “We wanted a late-night happy hour of sorts but I’m not into discounting. Our prices are reasonable to begin with, so why would I discount?”
Still, they wanted to offer something different that would also attract friends and industry workers. So the ideal of late-night staff meals took hold. It’s grown organically, mostly through Twitter feeds, but there is also a mention of staff meals on the regular menu.
“Sometimes at the end of the night, we want a taco or a burrito,” Porter says. “Or, sometimes, we might want lobster Thermidor,” he says, half joking.
Looking at some of the “staff meal” offerings from Petite Maison, the classic lobster Thermidor dish is not that farfetched.
One evening, the staff meal included a foie gras club sandwich for $10. A four-inch square of buttered, toasted brioche held a creamy foie gras mousse, garnished with pickled red onions, frisée and a smear of golden raisin and caper purée—quite sophisticated for a staff meal.
When asked how the staff meal menus are developed, Porter says this: “We have no boundaries, we do what we want. We come up with the ideas collectively. I want to barbecue oysters this weekend, so I think I’ll order a bunch and we’ll work them into the staff meal.”
At 10 p.m., the vibe in the sliver of a dining room at Petite Maison begins to change. The lights dim, the music switches from old-school to new, ratcheting up a few notches too, as Porter’s friends and industry colleagues start rolling in. Porter takes a seat at the bar and catches up with his friends over a glass of wine. Staff meal is served.
LATE-NIGHT NOSH AT POSH
The newest member of the “industry meal” late-night nosh club is Posh, the improvisational restaurant headed by Chef Joshua Herbert.
“It really was peer pressure,” he says. “My [industry] friends were all asking when I was going to do some latenight love.”
So as not to compete directly, Herbert is only serving the 10 p.m. till midnight munchies on Thursday evenings, and like the others, is using social media to spread the word. He even solicits ideas for the menu from his Twitter followers, too.
@poshrestaurant: Thurs late nite menu…Boar bacon $10, shrimp chawan mushi $6, Brandade Stuffed shells $10, Foie gras torchon brulee $10. Drink Specials;)
Follow on Twitter @poshrestaurant
Thursdays, 10 p.m. to midnight
Price range $5 to $10