Our Eater NY colleague, Robert Sietsema, notes that greasy spoons are generally small, cheap, not afraid of fat, and adored by their communities. While we often speak of diners when referring to greasy spoons, he and we both know a wide range of places can fit the bill. Fenway and Brighton's El Pelon may not make French fries, but the fry-o-lator is constantly bubbling with fish for pescado tacos or plantains for the El Guapo burrito. Decoration is minimal - mostly photos of customers wearing the taqueria's t-shirts around the globe*.
Owner Jim Hoben has been in the restaurant business since his teen years. After closing his first restaurant, Cena, a vegetarian restaurant located in the space that will soon be Ichiban Yakitori Sushi House, he opened the Fenway El Pelon in 1998. A January 2009 fire closed the shop for nearly three years, during which time he opened his location in Brighton. Jim kindly agreed to keep a diary of a day in the life of the owner of two beloved greasy spoons. It was a day full of mustache wax, vendor drama, and three dinners.
Tuesday, 2:15 a.m. Go to sleep in Boston apartment. I drove up to Boston from our house on the Cape after putting the kids to bed. We live in Yarmouth Port— 85 miles away—so I can relax when I'm home. Michele, my long-suffering wife, loves the fact that four nights a week she doesn't have to deal with my opinion about everything.
8:22 a.m. Wake up, pull the left side of my mustache out of my mouth and roll around in bed staring at the ceiling like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.
8:24 a.m. Pour a plastic cup of homebrew ice coffee, close bathroom door, open window and awkwardly and rapidly smoke two cigarettes before jumping in the shower.
8:44 a.m. Select a green pair of canvas Chuck Taylors and begin working mustache wax into my mustache.
8:49 a.m. Still working mustache wax; it's going to be a long hot day.
8:58 a.m. Double park in front of Fenway store. Quinzani rolls [for the restaurant's torta sandwiches] have just been dropped off and no one is in yet. The place smells amazing. The morning smell of a restaurant and fresh baked rolls always take me back to my teenage years working in kitchens—my first restaurant gig was at 13 working with much older guys cutting fish, working the fry station, and learning highly inappropriate jokes at the Bass River Fish Market in South Yarmouth. At this time in the morning, it is peaceful and hard to imagine the chaos and bustle that occurred the night before or will begin in the next few minutes.
9:06 a.m. Grab invoices and deposits. Check the change drawer to see if they have enough change for the shift.
9:11 a.m. Greet the morning staff. They are a little late but I let it pass because they, too, have a long hot day ahead of them.
9:36 a.m. Pull into Brighton and grab deposits. Help the cook move the grill so we can get a better look at the weld that is beginning to fail along the back leg.
9:55 a.m. Drop deposits at bank and return to Fenway with change.
10:02 a.m. Talk with one of the counter staff about an employee dispute over the weekend. Mediate the dispute and hug it out.
10:12 a.m. Respond to a guest's email about an experience with a rude counter person who is scheduled for tonight.
10:18 a.m. Text counter person to see if she can meet up before the shift to talk. She calls immediately, sensing something is up. We discuss the complaint and she agrees it might be valid. We discuss how rushing because you perceive people to be in a hurry may be a mistake—no one comes to El Pelon because we have the fastest burrito. We discuss some recent points from staff emails about customer service and I share my own experiences at various times in my career where I struggled. She becomes emotional and I offer to take her off schedule for next few nights and we can meet up in person later in the week.
10:31 a.m. Line cook owes me $100 but instead offers $40 and a "high-end shoe insert" that his girl got from where she works which he says is worth "way over $100." Embarrassingly, I accept, and he mentions the other cook wants to talk to me also.
10:39 a.m. Other line cook wants to borrow $200 until payday (Friday). I say okay, but no shoe inserts.
10:55 a.m. Wife calls from mechanic and says the light sensor we just replaced wasn't the problem and she got a failed rejection sticker. Sucked it up and had her just pay to get it fixed.
11:00 a.m. Both stores open.
11:12 a.m. Receive produce order and send back case of avocados because they don't look ripe. The driver says he will be back with a ripe case in an hour. This never happens in just one hour but I know it will come eventually. Every night for 15 years (excluding the fire), we order two cases of ripe avocados
for each store. To let the drivers save face, we often let them think it was just a communication error and we actually wanted one ripe, one unripe, even though we order the same thing every day.
11:15 a.m. Go over elote (Mexican street corn) special with day staff. We all eat a few just to make sure we know how they look.
11:25 a.m. Enter invoices into accounting system.
11:40 a.m. Return emails and calls from the weekend, which for me is Sunday through Monday.
12:17 p.m. Air conditioning condensation pump here in Fenway fails. Call plumber; he comes quickly for a plumber and replaces the pump in 45 minutes for $487.
1:00 p.m. Go out back, smoke two cigarettes while cursing myself for not becoming a plumber.
1:15 p.m. Cinco de Mayo [Chelsea-based tortilla bakery] pulls up, and it's the owner and his elder father delivering today. Out of respect, I help carry the cases in. The 22-year-old counter girls see me lifting the heavy case of freshly-made tortillas and, out of respect, rush to grab them out of my hands.
1:17 p.m. Feel old.
1:20 p.m. Call point-of-sale system programmer about upgrading for PCI [a mandatory credit card security rule] compliance. I complain that both systems are new; they say sorry, but there's no way around it. They will come Wednesday at 9 a.m. Total cost of upgrade: $1150 for both systems.
1:33 p.m. Wife calls angry I haven't returned her calls. Tell her I will call her back when I get back from the gym.
2:10 p.m. Don't go to the gym but lock myself in the car, drink a Red Bull and play Angry Birds on my phone.
2:40 p.m. Call wife back. Whatever it was, it's fine now. Tell her I will call after dinner.
2:45 p.m. Call graphic designer and go over changes to catering menu, arranging for a smaller printing run because we always think of something to add two days after we get it.
3:00 p.m. Office work. Phone calls, scheduling issues with staff. Approximately 28 texts sent and received.
3:30 p.m. Dodge sales calls. I do this most of the day every day; if I took 1/3 of the calls, I wouldn't be able to do anything else. Some highlights: wet wipe advertising, Groupon, Groupon wannabe.
3:41 p.m. Place orders for the next day and review orders placed at other store.
3:50 p.m. Make list of supplies needed for both stores for Restaurant Depot run the next day.
4:15 p.m. Go through mail and throw 90% of it away without opening it. Mostly because of the misspelling of my name or the business name.
4:44 p.m. Check some social media.
5:12 p.m. Go through Zipcar statement matching up catering deliveries and dates of catering. Get confused and assign it to assistant manager who explains it really simply, destroying my failed attempt.
5:29 p.m. Receive avocados.
6:12 p.m. Meet with a guy from Twitter who has mutual real life friends with me about a fundraiser he is planning in the fall. Eat dinner together in the office and talk about the state of rap music.
6:44 p.m. Drive to Fenway and return six emails at red lights on Beacon St.
7:10 p.m. Pull up and talk to customers and landlord about everything from specials we have run to parking and pot holes.
7:29 p.m. Bump in to Tetyana, my friend and cofounder of a new business association focusing on small independent businesses in the Fenway. We aim to help advocate and promote the interests of the area and its citizens.
7:45 p.m. Decide it's best to talk over oysters, so we adjourn to Citizen Public House. Get call from my daughter asking if she can have a paddle board, I say "no, 11 is too young." She angrily passes the phone to my son who promptly ask for a crossbow. Answer—no. "Then, Dad, I need a lighter." "Why does a 13-year-old need a lighter?!"
8:30 p.m. Drive Tetyana to Harvard Square to catch her bus home. She lives a few miles past Davis Square, which I jokingly call southern New Hampshire.
9:15 p.m. Stop into Fenway to check in on air conditioning pump and compressor. Talk to customers and neighbors.
10:45 p.m. Meet with general manager and go over some recently increased prices and arrange for grease trap cleaning.
11:15 p.m. Cash out. Give line cooks a ride home because it's the same direction I'm headed.
11:25 p.m. Use my glove compartment full of sunglasses to shoot a Vine video of one our new prep cooks—we coax him into it by showing him every other member of the staff's video.
11:48 p.m. After dropping everyone else off, stop in with a staff member at Deep Ellum for a quiet dinner. An exuberant bartender yells out "El Pelon!" as we walked in, which, though embarrassing, is also great praise. I take it as a compliment.
Wednesday, 12:33 a.m. Home to bed. I'll wake up at 8:44 a.m. I don't get a lot of sleep during the week, but it's okay.
*Disclosure: This writer wore an El Pelon hoodie when getting engaged to secure a spot on the wall.