A day in the life of a Payne Avenue restaurant owner


Marjorie Otto/Review • When business picks up during the lunch rush, Eddie Wu steps in to help cook. On this particular Tuesday, it was just Wu, one cook and one server.

Marjorie Otto/Review • Cook St. Paul restaurant owner Eddie Wu in his office, which is decorated by artwork from his family. During a recent Tuesday, the Review shadowed Wu to highlight what it takes for one restaurant owner to do business on Payne Avenue.

Marjorie Otto/Review • As Wu jumps from task to task, he refers back to his boards — a series a white boards that list his daily, weekly and long-term goals. Some of the long-term goals include planning a new breakfast special and things that need to be fixed following a health inspection.

There’s a sense of magic when eating at a restaurant — your order goes in and a bit later, a warm meal comes out. 

Behind those swinging kitchen doors, though, so much goes into running a restaurant that customers don’t see. When a seemingly successful eatery shuts its doors — the stated reason being that’s just how it goes — loyal customers are left wondering what it is that makes the restaurant business so hard. 

It was something many East Siders pondered after Ward 6 closed earlier this year, since restaurants have played an important role in the revitalization of Payne Avenue. 

In an effort to try to shed some light on what goes on behind the scenes at a restaurant, the Review shadowed Cook St. Paul owner Eddie Wu through a recent Tuesday at work.

 

The hustle and bustle

A work day for Wu usually begins around 6 a.m. when he arrives at the restaurant — he said he usually gets up around 5 a.m. to drive in from his South St. Paul home. 

Cook St. Paul, an Americana-Korean fusion restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch with a “Korean twist,” is open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a typical weekday. It’s located at 1124 Payne Ave.

Wu was coming back from what will probably be his one vacation for the year, a four-day weekend in Los Angeles with his family, so his to-do list was extra long. 

The sun was just barely coming up as Wu cut checks in his upstairs office for the delivery drivers he knows will be showing up in about a half hour. He’ll cut other checks for food and drink deliveries later in the week, as he finds time in the day. 

Wu said it’s important to prioritize his tasks because he never knows when he may need to jump into the cooking line, serve tables, or work in the prep kitchen. He said as the lunch rush nears, he’ll only start in on projects he knows will be easy to jump in and out of as he fills in.

Around 9 a.m., Wu headed downstairs from his office to premix pancake batter, enough to make about 30 pancakes. He said they can’t pre-make too much batter at a time, otherwise the meringue used to give the pancakes extra fluff will go flat. 

As the lunch rush neared — it usually takes place between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. — Wu went down every half hour to check in on staff. 

In between, he made phone calls, checked sales from the past busy weekend, and cut more checks while frequently referring to his boards, a series of three whiteboards in his office that help keep track of his tasks for the day, the week and his long-term goals.

 

‘There is no normal’

Wu is very hands on, both out of necessity and because of his interest in cooking. 

He’s also recently had to make some labor cuts — while working with a local nonprofit to help him budget, it was estimated he should be cutting labor costs by nearly $5,800 — so he’s often taking on entire shifts, on top of running the restaurant.

“Unfortunately, in this business, you die fast and you recover real slow,” Wu said, noting it will be about six weeks before the finances level out and he feels okay again, though the past, busy weekend makes him feel better.

In the past few weeks, with Wu picking up nearly 60 hours of shifts, he’s only seen about $900 in savings. His most recent payroll costs were $9,500, for anywhere from 11 to 14 employees, who work a mix of part and full time. 

Asked what a normal work week looks like, Wu said, “There is no normal for this job.” Some weeks he works 70 hours, others may be near 90. Those aren’t all hours at the restaurant — they include going to an area Korean market to get ingredients and going to community events.

Wu has more than 20 years of food industry experience, which includes cooking and managing. The only time he didn’t work in the industry was the five years he served in the Marines, which he only half-jokingly described as a “respite”, signaling the grit one needs to survive in the restaurant business. 

 

Worth it

While the costs and decisions may be stressful to balance, Wu said what makes him love what he’s doing is being his own boss and choosing his own hours, making sure he is spending lots of time with his family. 

He said he’s also determined to make the restaurant a success. After using his and his wife’s savings, along with his father-in-law’s retirement funds as collateral for loans to get it off the ground, he said “there’s no way on God’s green globe I’m going to let this restaurant be my failure.”

“I can’t handle others being miserable for my failures.”

Asked if Cook would be what it is if it were located elsewhere besides Payne Avenue, Wu said no way.

He had looked at a variety of locations when he knew he wanted to open a restaurant — Northeast Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul — but he said he didn't think he could run the type of casual restaurant he was envisioning in those neighborhoods.

He said he wanted to be a part of a community while providing what he calls “elevated food,” while doing so for working-class people who deserve it.

“Eastsiders aren’t going to put up with [BS] and they don’t want to be lied to,” he said. “They just want to eat food.”

When he found the restaurant’s future spot along Payne Avenue, what excited him most was a chance to be a part of a community, a place where at any point of the day, he could go out to the dining area for a break and strike up a meaningful conversation with a customer, which happened many times that recent Tuesday. 

One time after visiting, he laughed coming back through the swing door to the kitchen, saying, “That’s why I can’t serve anymore, everyone wants to talk with me.”

While his original plan was to become a firefighter like his dad, a spinal injury during his time in the Marines changed that plan, and now he said he sees the restaurant as a way to impact people’s lives, through good food and kind service. 

“I get to make those decisions about the things that matter to me, like Houston,” Wu said, referring to helping out a friend’s firefighting crew as they rescued people following the destruction of Hurricane Harvey last fall. Wu drove down and prepped food for the crew for a few days so the firefighters could have some warm meals. 

“That’s the best thing,” he said, “having a positive impact through food.”

 

A long, fast day

As he worked to stay on task, Wu paused to listen for the ticket machine in the kitchen. When a server puts in an order, the ticket machine relays it to the line cooks. 

Wu’s office is directly above the kitchen and he can hear everything going on downstairs — he can tell when the chef is making hashbrowns, when customers come in and when the ticket machine really starts to go, which he said is the worst sound in the world for a cook.

“Many conversations have been had about what a nightmare it would be if we released an app that was that [sound]” of the machine going off, Wu joked. “It would be the worse thing for cooks to hear, just to mess with other cooks ... because it’s the same sound in all restaurants.”

During his check-ins with staffers, he reminded them to let him know before it gets bad, too busy, rather than trying to catch up.

“I had a friend that told me, ‘Running a restaurant is just taking all the small fires and preventing them from becoming a conflagration,’” Wu recalled. “There’s 20 small fires and you can keep them from overlapping, but once you can’t then everything just burns down.”

Some of his small fires for the day included a server who called in sick,  prepping the pancake mix, dealing with an electrical inspection, doing payroll, paying maintenance bills and dealing with switching banks. 

He’s also trying to start a remodel of the back garage to turn the space into a commercial kitchen that he can rent out to catering companies to add some revenue, something that, whether he likes it or not, is always on his mind.

Sales for the whole year have been down 17 percent compared to others, but the recent busy weekend provided some good news — it was the busiest of the year, with 20 percent higher sales than the previous busiest weekend.

At about 1 p.m., Wu grabbed his cooking apron — he’s got one for serving and one for cooking, discerned by the stains or lack thereof — and jumped on the line to cook until the restaurant closed an hour later.

After, it was back to taking care of the small fires — more phone calls, payroll, a visit from a city inspector — before Wu finally went home around 4 p.m.

 

– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto

 



THE ECONOMICS OF PANCAKES: 

For Wu, one of the non-negotiable characteristics of the restaurant he owns, Cook St. Paul, is using locally sourced ingredients and making things from scratch. 

In the back cooler, there are vats of homemade kimchi — spicy, fermented cabbage, a Korean-staple — and the pancake batter is made by hand, with meringue folded in for extra-fluffy cakes.

Despite the cost of cooking from scratch, Wu said that’s the choice he’s sticking with, because he wants his customers to have quality ingredients and he wants to support local farms. 

“I’m putting money into appreciating the customers,” he said. 

Asked if he could save costs by using non-local ingredients, he said “Oh definitely, without a doubt,” but that he wouldn’t feel proud about what he serves to customers. 

For example, the butter served with the pancakes, which comes from Hope Creamery, a farm in southern Minnesota, costs about five cents per tab, while butter from a larger manufacturer, like Land O’ Lakes, may cost a cent or less.

Why the higher cost? Wu said he’s told a small company, like Hope Creamery, produces about half a million pounds of butter a year. A bigger company like Land O’ Lakes may be producing a million pounds a day. 

Wu said it’s the same with the natural maple syrup he serves with the pancakes. Each ounce of syrup is 30 cents and it’s $40 per gallon when Wu buys it from the local Richter Farms. 

The farm-fresh eggs Wu buys are also more expensive — those are about 20 cents each — and the daily loss of eggs is a factor too. A customer may order an egg over-easy and if it sits a little too long on the flat top stove and becomes a medium, you have to start over.

There are other small things that add up as well. Wu says he factors in about $50 a month in silverware losses, mostly from utensils being tossed away with napkins. 

Another often-forgot-about cost? Credit card fees. Wu said each swipe costs him about 10 cents, which is paid to credit card companies. But, about 90 percent of his sales are paid for by credit card, he said, and he can’t expect to have people only pay via cash.

“It’s not the world we live in anymore,” he said. 

Wu calls his policy of serving food with quality ingredients the “royal blue collar and the greasy silver spoon.” He knows that the majority of his customers are working class, but he also believes that they deserve quality food at affordable prices and he doesn’t want to cut corners.

In total, food makes up about 19 percent of Wu’s total operating costs. He said in the restaurant industry, food costs are usually the first place owners go to try to save money in order to keep them at 30 percent or less of total operating expenses.

“But what do you want your restaurant to be worth?” Wu asked.

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