Doing the cafe dance: Long hours serving short orders in Vail Valley
February 20, 2012
After my experiential research outings in the back of the house at two premier fine-dining restaurants, I thought it was time to see what’s on the other side of the kitchen door. It also was time to experience a short-order cafe where the dynamic – and the pace – is quite different from high-end restaurants.
Fine-dining dishes are the culmination of daylong prepping – and sometimes even longer. Stocks that are the base for sauces and soups simmer for two days in large vats before the final reduction in smaller containers, such as the tilt skillets Ludwig’s uses. Short orders are just that: They take a short time to prepare and serve. So if the rhythm of Splendido resembled a ballet and Ludwig’s an opera, Cafe 163 was a blend of the jitterbug and break dancing, where I discovered agility, speed and stamina are needed to survive a busy shift, working in tight spaces.
By juggling two stages in one day, I experienced the daily routine of so many people in the Vail Valley. In the morning, I worked nearly four hurried hours as a hostess at Cafe 163 and an additional seven that evening as an assistant to a catering chef – the subject of next week’s column. Cafe 163 proved a perfect spot for experiencing the start-stop, ebb-and-flow pace of a diner, particularly during one of the busiest times of the week.
In July 2010, while the valley was still reeling from the 2008 real estate market crash, Cafe 163 opened. The cafe is the brainchild of three local residents well-known for their involvement with the Edwards sushi restaurant Sato’s: Jeff Sandoval, Peter Mueller and Kim Risi. Sandoval wanted to set the record straight that he does not own Sato’s but was brought to the Vail Valley in late 1998 by Cafe 163 co-owner Peter Mueller to open Sato’s. The cafe is aptly named for the Edwards Interstate 70 exit number and reflects the love of the Edwards community the co-owners share.
Though still unknown to many people east of Edwards, Cafe 163 became an instant hit with local residents. Sandoval’s vision for the cafe and passion for his favorite meal of the day come from growing up in Milwaukee and Chicago, where great breakfast “joints” abound.
“Upscale-diner style” describes the model he endeavors to achieve: A neighborhood setting that provides a combination of friendly, efficient service and great food at a great price. Upon opening, Cafe 163 perfectly fit the new norm of a struggling economy, and it rapidly become a hotspot not only for breakfast but also for breakfast at lunch, particularly on Sundays. For Sandoval, each day at Cafe 163 is like throwing a “brunch party.”
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On this Sunday, I arrived at 9:15 a.m., during the proverbial calm before the storm. Although I had never worked as hostess or waitress, I knew I had to be a quick study not to let down Sandoval or his staff. He quickly showed me what was expected on one of his busiest days of the week. In the tiny kitchen, I found a beehive of activity. Rorry Rutti and his team of two cooks rapidly were flipping pancakes, frying up eggs and bacon and assembling the ever-popular breakfast burrito, while Sandoval and his three servers came and went through the narrow, swinging doors. The dishwasher recycled the dishes and cutlery for the incoming wave of Sunday-morning diners, while the servers dealt slices of bread into the toaster to be snatched up and plated as they scooted out of the kitchen with an order. As with Splendido and Ludwig’s, I found the dishwashing station to be one of the most crucial in preventing logjams. Oddly enough, knives seemed to be the most-needed cutlery item, though why, I don’t know. Knives are paired with forks, are they not? So why would one part of that pair be in more demand? I never quite could figure it out.
In the front of the house, Sandoval and his team – which included me – matched the speedy pace in the small, hot kitchen. Amanda Ponzi multitasked as barrista, bartender, server and glass washer as bar seats filled up. I tried to count the number of glasses she washed throughout the morning rush but quickly gave up at 50. My job as hostess was to welcome diners and bus and reset tables, often all at once. Sandoval requires everyone work together in an efficient manner. And it works with everyone supporting one another. Efficiency in all actions is the key to the success of a short-order restaurant, and movement cannot be wasted.
Never in the four hours did I see the servers, Rachael Sheffield, Erin Page and Nina Sysco, take a break other than to grab a sip of water. When there was a lull, no one stood around. Water pitchers were refilled, the floor swept or sugar containers refilled. I can only imagine the miles those ladies walked and the number of “dance steps” they made as they dodged one another coming and going from the kitchen.
Cafe 163 has become an extension of many local residents’ homes, as they frequently stop in for breakfast or lunch. On this day, the well-known Vail Valley dog whisperer, Mark Ruark, was having his regular Sunday breakfast. On most days, Britten Roetzel, the shining star of the local art scene whose art has become a sensation well beyond the Vail Valley, can be seen sitting at the bar having lunch. However, on Sunday, she was not clad in paint-stained clothes but in her usual chic casual attire. Though her contemporary style consists of bold as well as subtle colors, the breezy, whimsical style of her earlier days adorns the walls of the cafe’s restrooms and blackboard.
So what’s next for Cafe 163? With business slightly up this year despite the dearth of snow, the ownership team hopes to start dinner service later this year. They will extend their “upscale-diner” dishes into the evening with traditional short-order favorites but with a Vail Valley twist. The only question about dinner offering that I failed to ask is whether I can still get my breakfast favorites long after the sun has set. Only time will tell, but one thing is certain, the efficient, friendly service that punctuates the earlier hours of the day will extend well into the evening hours.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.face
book.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.