Cassy Hoeft was resting her legs, sitting in an empty bin beneath the serving counter in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ big kitchen.
Hoeft and her mates had served nearly 550 dinners in 90 minutes to patrons of “Beauty and the Beast,” and now she was waiting for the last assault of the night — dessert.
Hoeft listened for the distant stage and the chorus was in full throat: “Be our guest, be our guest, put our service to the test.” Hoeft rose to her feet and started to softly sing along.
“That’s our cue to get ready,” she said, appraising the stack of more than 40 trays laden with apple tarts, cheesecake, hot fudge sundaes and chocolate cake “slices” the size of car batteries.
Soon, 21 servers were lined up single-file at each of the two kitchen exit doors (yes, 42 total), and as the orchestra played the final note of the act, the servers rushed the room, controlled the aisles and got to their stations before patrons had stopped applauding.
Every night, a crew of 40 to 60 is responsible for putting the dinner in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. These are the first actors that theatergoers will see.
“I always say showtime starts when you open the door,” said Michael Brindisi, president and artistic director.
Hostesses and servers give you their best smiles and well rehearsed patter. Tray runners are amazing athletes who fly through narrow aisles holding trays stacked with dinners, high over their heads. The expeditionary forces stay in the kitchen. These unseen heroes plate more than 1,000 salads a day and wash more than 15,000 cups, saucers, glasses, silverware and plates.
“These are my favorite people in the whole building,” Brindisi said. “It’s not easy when you’re serving a thousand people in 2½ hours.”
Chanhassen is one of the few dinner theaters left in the nation. In recent years, it has diversified its business with concerts, wedding banquets and a comedy club, but the kitchen has remained constant.
“There used to be more than 700 dinner theaters in the United States,” Brindisi noted. “There are 10 left, so those have to be really first-rate to survive.”
On a recent Friday, the kitchen anticipated more than 800 dinners, which brought a smile to kitchen manager Manuel Almaraz’s face.
“OK, this is nothing; this is a nice night right now,” he said, checking the count on a screen monitor before his line cooks would start sizzling the 220 or so steaks needed in the main room alone.
On a busy night, Almaraz said he and his crew could be cooking for nearly 1,700 in six dining rooms.
In a year’s span, the Chanhassen kitchen will send out 14 tons of steaks, 4 tons of prime rib, 120,000 chicken breasts, 18 tons of fresh green beans and half a million dinner rolls. The company sells more bottled wine than any other privately owned restaurant in the state.
Chanhassen treats its dinner operation almost like a military endeavor.
Early in the afternoon, logisticians have begun assembling the jigsaw pieces. The dining rooms are mapped, divided into sections, identified as groups, singles, show only, allergies, access issues, any other special need.
“This is tedious attention to detail, and we could not operate without it,” said Lynda Pauly, food and beverage manager.
The staff is divided into groups by the color of their shirts. Hostesses are the blue shirts who greet you and escort you to the table. The white shirts are the servers, your primary contact through the evening. The black shirts include serving assistants, runners (who put on the best show holding trays high in the air and gliding through the dining room) and the expeditionary crew members who fill salad and bread trays.
“They get the flow moving,” said Nico Parker, a serving assistant supervisor.
An hour before the doors open at 6 p.m., all shirt colors are in the main theater dining room, folding napkins, setting water glasses, making sure salt and pepper shakers are full, checking for water spots on the silverware. In the service bars, the garnishes are being stocked, and in the kitchen more than 600 salads are being made and the rolls are warming.
At 5:30, Pauly addresses everyone in the nightly “cue call,” reporting, among other things, feedback from patrons the previous night:
Someone had forgotten to leave a note for the servers that a man at a table had a walker. “What if there had been an emergency?”
She went on. There had been a nightmare of people taking photos; numerous complaints about “yakky kids.”
“Hostesses, keep walking the floor so [photo takers and yakky kids] see that someone is watching them,” Pauly said. “You need to be down here in the crowd.”
There was good news, too. T.J. got a thumb’s up from a customer who thought he had been pleasant and attentive. Jacob “couldn’t have been better.” He was “absolutely fantastic, helpful — and amusing.”
“High sales tonight gets a bottle of wine,” said Pauly, and the meeting was dismissed. The hostesses lined up like bridesmaids near the door, waiting to escort the first parties in.
“Earlybirds are chicken and coffee folks — and then they go shopping,” said Adam Davis, a server. “People who come later typically buy a lot more wine.”
The show backstage
At 6:10 p.m., the first salads are going out. The Chicken Chanhassen has been made, the lasagna is ready, the salmon prepared. Ubaldo Arteaga has been slinging huge trays of vegetables from steam ovens, seasoning them and keeping the plating crews supplied.
A bread and salad tray falls and three people swoop in like gulls on an abandoned pizza at Sea World. In seconds, the scene is picked clean.
“When something falls, it’s not a disaster,” said Gerald Benford, a student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law who was running trays out to the dining room. “You really have to have great communication and cohesion as a team.”
Kara Hippen has stacks of trays lined up next to the warming shelves. At 6:23 p.m. she yells, “Dinner!” and the first entrees head for the floor.
“The first 10 to 15 minutes are slow, then it takes off like a rocket ship,” Parker said.
By 6:30, about a quarter of the dinners have been served and the servers are lined up at service screens, tapping in orders like gamblers at an electronic slot arcade.
“Medium prime rib,” Hippen shouts out, noting a special order.
Meanwhile, the dining room is serene, with the quiet murmur of conversation among patrons who are likely unaware of the controlled chaos that has brought them their dinner, drink and coffee.
Pauly likes to have all the salads out by 7. Hippen has 33 trays lined up, tagged with dinner orders and ready to load.
Timing is important because once the dinner theater is served, the kitchen can get started on the 200-person wedding in the courtyard.
Everyone is hauling back huge tubs full of dishes wounded by dinner, heading for the dishwasher.
“The real superheroes are back here,” said Omar Guevara, pointing to the five men who spend every night essentially in a schvitz, lugging more than 30,000 pieces through the dishwashers. Guevara is Brindisi’s culinary adviser — looking for efficiencies and modest menu changes.
At 7:27, the last four salmon plates go out. Other than drinks and dessert, the show could begin in about 45 minutes.
In the end, Hippen said, “it went very smoothly.”
The cool of the evening
The night refuses to end. Someone needs to check all the salt and pepper shakers once they come off the tables. The caps on the condiment bottles need to be washed. Those bottles need to be filled.
Jacob Dahl, who recently moved up to server, was taking a late break, explaining how the work gets done, who gets tipped, who doesn’t, how vigorously a job like this builds your personal skills.
“How old do you think I am?” he challenged a couple of visitors over dessert. After ages 29 and 25 were tossed out as possibilities, Dahl smiled, satisfied. He’d done this trick before.
“I’m 19,” he said, charmingly impressed that he looks so mature.
“This place will train you for anything,” he said. “I’ve been working here for three years. You really learn time management.”
It is, in general, a young employee group. A few are long tenured, but many are like Austin Van Der Heyden, a student at nearby Crown College. He’s been there a month and sounds as if he’s hit the college-job opportunity of a lifetime.
“I’m working at Chanhassen!” he said, genuinely impressed by his good fortune. “That’s awesome. We make their night.”