It was a very good year…

Tuesday, March 29 2005, 00:00:00

Rick's celebrated it's first anniversary on March 1…in many ways it seems like yesterday. I can remember vividly the anxiety and mixed emotions I felt then. I had been working on the project for more than two years, and for the most part I worked alone. I developed a business plan, got a loan from a friendly bank, found the ideal site in the Ancienne Medina, sought out investors, recalculated costs, pursuaded Bill Willis to advise me, found an architect, bought lamps, finessed relations with the bank when the budget doubled, meticulously tracked expenditures and costs, found equipment providors, bought lamps, went on Atkins diet, moved 4 times in 2 years, sought out more capital to balance increased debt, cried, read a lot of books, bought lamps, screamed at sub-contractors as construction started, lost a lot of weight, bought a cute puppy, recruited chef and bartender, found an accountant and turned over financial records, received capital from capital risk firm, lost chef and jettisoned bartender, finessed relations with the bank, bought one last lamp and all of a sudden my days of solitude and lonliness (and early nights) were gone.
The construction was still in full swing, but the New York Times had published an article February 22 in their Travel section, complete with picture, saying we were opening on February 29 to coincide with the Academy Awards. Calls, e-mails and letters were pouring in from all over the world. I had ordered 5,000 postcards printed with the banner "Reopening March 1 after 62 years of rennovation." By this time I had more than my fill of the subcontractors and construction crew who'd been working one year on the 7-month project and were showing indications of it being their life's work. I told them, "I know it doesn't mean anything to you, but when I put something in writing I mean it."
The ground floor was sufficiently complete and could be installed with tables and banquettes. I remember we only had two barstools, but in those days people didn't mind standing. Plans for an "official opening" for invited guests had gone by the wayside due to the fluctuating date. We just opened. I laugh today when people brag that they attended the "inauguration" because there was none.
We opened without a chef. The delays in the project had cost me one I'd recruited months earlier, and another had just fallen through. I'd dreamed of the day when I'd be able to dress formally and greet my guests at the door, but had never anticipated having to put an apron on and do a stint behind the stove. Friends were looking around, but one suggested I think about bringing in catered food…so for the first week we worked with LP Catering who provided a variety of light dishes and finger food. It got us over an important hump, but I didn't feel in control. Fortunately on the second or third day a chef came in for an interview who was just what we needed for our debut. I was worried about a group from the City of Chicago Sister City committee - 45 persons - for a cocktail/dinner on the first Sunday after opening, prepared that anything we'd make on this event would be lost in the catering fees. The prospective chef said he could do the event on his Sunday day off if I could do the marketing. Shopping being something I am good at, this was a good deal. So he came to work and our immediate cooking problems were resolved.
Issam began playing the piano in the second week, giving Ella Fitzgerald a welcome break. The upstairs started filling out. Lennie Bluett arrived in mid-March for a month and he and Issam provided continual piano music and entertainment. When the palm trees were placed in the courtyard they added the right touch of ambience, and combined with the music and lighting a real mood was developing. I "moved" from my apartment on Mohammed V into the apartment that had been built on the terrace level - it was all meant to be so glamorous, but it's been more than a year now and I still haven't moved the stove, refrigerator or dishes.
So how do I feel after a year? I don't spend a lot of time looking back, as it scares me still to recall what I've been through. Highlights of our activities and press recognition are chronicled here on the website, so browse away for the upside. But of course it hasn't been all smooth sailing. After being so scrupulous in following all the financial transactions linked to the investment, giving control of this to an accountant was something I still struggle with. And suddenly there was the day-to-day income and expenditures that brought another dimension of unpredictability. It has been a struggle to keep on top of reporting and tracking and conforming to administrative procedures. After a year I have a tight unit of people I trust…and a new accounting firm. On the personnel front I've demonstrated more than once that my smiling exterior and trusting nature goes only so far, and once someone over-reaches there's no second chance. We've quickly filled the positions of people who thought they were indespensible and it's been a good lesson for those who remain. The first chef left long ago, and since then I've taken more control over the menu and the quality of our plates.
As the first year anniversary got closer, I gritted my teeth and committed money I didn't readily have to publicity, the party and some final decorative touches to make Rick's look just right…yes, among those touches was one last lamp! I think that's what has made the difference in the eyes of our public (not necessarily the bank, however!) - one can immediately appreciate the expense that has gone into detail. After all, Rick's in the film "Casablanca" is a legend…we had to live up to grand expectations whatever the personal and financial risk. I think we've pleased the audience, and can only feel positive for a long run at the box office.
Thanks readers for meandering into my corner - I look forward to seeing you one day in my "gin joint."