The Making of a Philly Restaurant 2008

What, you thought it would be easy opening a little French bistro?

JULY 2008

Anticipated opening: July 24th — “Or the middle of September. Or never.”

It should have been a simple phone call, a routine appointment with PECO to install the heavy-duty power lines demanded by the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerators and exhaust system. All the forms for the necessary electrical work had been submitted weeks earlier. But the utility had no record of the work request. It was July 1st, three weeks before opening day, and Peter, who doesn’t do angry often, or well, was livid. “My blood was at 211 degrees,” he says; that’s chef-speak for almost boiling. For the first time in the process of opening La Minette, he was faced with a problem he couldn’t solve.

The cause was a simple misstep; an electrician faxed the forms to the wrong phone number. But by the time Peter and John realized there was a problem and resubmitted the work request, just before the Fourth of July holiday, the damage had been done. PECO couldn’t install the power lines until September 8th. Opening day, scheduled for July 24th, would be delayed almost two months.

“I called everyone I could think of,” Peter says, his head in his hands. He’s sitting at the Bean Exchange, a Queen Village coffee shop that has become the restaurant’s unofficial office. He’s talked to his councilman, the building developers, other restaurateurs, even his father’s neighbor, CBS 3 consumer reporter Jim Donovan. Days of working the phones, and there’s still only enough power in the building to operate the yellow-caged construction lights, strung from chandelier to chandelier, and maybe a microwave. But his optimism wins out. He’s certain PECO will arrive any moment. He has to be. He’s afraid any delay will mean losing the staff it took days of interviews to hire. He knows any delay will mean losing money. “There’s always a second mortgage,” he says warily.

“There’s a PECO man out front!” Peter stage-whispers, more than once, during the staff training, moving forward in the un-air-conditioned restaurant. But it’s always a false alarm; it’s never the PECO man. Finally, Peter delays the July 24th opening, even though he promised his wife it would come before she left for a month-long trip to France on July 25th.

Then, on August 8th: Five PECO trucks arrive outside the restaurant. Peter watches their every move from the dining room window. “I feel like a kid on Christmas,” he says. He turns on the lights.

AUGUST 25th, 2008

Opening Day

In the moments before John unlocks the front door and welcomes the first paying customers into La Minette — a table of two with 5:30 reservations — the restaurant looks remarkably like the one Peter imagined two years ago (though the Philadelphia French restaurant scene, particularly with the July addition of Stephen Starr’s Parc, is different). The details of La Minette have changed, but the essence — authentic, French — hasn’t.

Throughout the last-minute preparations, Peter was calm, carefully portioning halibut and steak, serving up a hearty staff meal of cabbage salad and pasta, asking silly questions at lineup. But now he transforms into “Chef,” dressed in his blue-embroidered whites, his actions quick and efficient, his commands even more so.