Thursday, June 28, 2007

It's Not ALL Bad!

I spent some time last night looking back at what I've posted so far. Boy, can I be a whiner! Sometimes it takes an indifferent outsider to evaluate and offer constructive criticism (thanks, RG!). Even good parents can be blind to bratty offspring.

So, tonight, for a change of pace, one of the many reasons why I toiled so long in the restaurant biz, and why I still care so much.

Suggested mood-enhancing music..."Reasons", Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Once, many years ago, I was chosen to help open a new "Linguine Bisto" in the Northeast. One of my favorite parts was interviewing all the interesting people who showed up. Anyone who enjoys people-watching at the mall would be enthralled, especially since you now get the back-story to go with the visuals. Such a varied cross-section of America!

One day, two women in their forties showed up at our little trailer in the parking lot, looking a little apprehensive, a bit out of place. Most of these mass job interviews comprise mostly younger, aggresive, hungry job searchers looking to upgrade from their fast-food roots. These two stood apart, and my natural curiosity caused me to zoom in on them. Since I was the only one interviewing at the time, I had them all to myself.

I called the first one to my little table off to the side. She had a little experience cooking, but mostly was a home cook who wanted to earn more than she was. Sometimes, these are the diamonds in the rough that experienced managers look for, to polish and nourish like tulip bulbs, until they spring forth and bloom. She was in her 40's and mature, something we like to help stabilize a combustible kitchen. Hired!

I went up to her friend and said, "Okay, where's your application?"

"Oh, no, I'm just here to support my friend. I'm not here for a job interview!"

She was early-forties, not especially chic, but had dressed better than most, and had a smile that made you want to smile back. We joked back and forth, and I talked her into interviewing anyway. She had a part-time job preparing those tid-bits that they accost you with at Sam's Club, and I could tell she wasn't in love with it. A little prying, a touch of charm, a smidge of prodding, and I had her agreeing to a part-time daytime Hostess position. I knew I could build her into a quasi-Mom, a stabilizing influence at lunch. Alas, she wasn't the sharpest ax in the woodshed. But, hey, she had boatloads of personality.

A few weeks into the opening, we had a running gag amongst the managers that we shared only with ourselves. The GM had hired a guy named Anthony to be a busser. Anthony was a challenge to be sure. He almost had to be re-trained at the beginning of every shift, as I'm sure he must have been terminally ADD. Unfortunately, he didn't last long, and we all enthusiastically reminded our GM of "his Anthony". It all turned into a revolving joke of "Whose Your Anthony?" amongst the management and who we each hired. "Dina", the Hostess, became my "Anthony".

I welcomed the ribbing, since I could claim that Dina showed up for every shift...early. She also brought in home-cooked goodies at least once a week. She also became the "quasi-Mom" that I envisioned to the young waitstaff. If I needed a shift covered, she was there. She never questioned, she never talked back, and she seemed grateful that we had hired her.

After nine months at that location, I was transferred to another store 30 miles away. It was sad to leave a store that I had helped give birth to, and it was a birth with no epidural, although plenty of adult beverages were ingested.

Two years later, after moving 1500 miles away and leaving the chain, I was visiting a relative in the area on vacation and drove down for a visit. Who greeted me at the door? My "Anthony". She was now the senior daytime person and had really found her calling. Although none of the previous management was still there, the current managers still carried on the tradition of the "Anthony", and my "Anthony" was the only one still there, and was an integral part of their success.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Tale of Mr. & Mrs. Leatherface

Here begins the tale of Mr. & Mrs. Leatherface. Location: "Linguine Bistro", Ft. Myers, Florida. My part in this tale: temporary Assistant Manager brought in to help restaurant that has been struggling with only two managers instead of the usual four. The scene: my second night on my own, a busy Friday night.

Into the later part of the rush, approximately 9:30pm, one of the better servers comes up to me holding the check presenter in his hand. "Hey, Ex-restaurant Manager, my table would like to talk to you."

Me: "Okay, fill me in on what's happening."

Server: "Well, there's this couple that comes in all the time. They order the "honor system" house wine every time, drink the whole bottle, and then claim they only had two glasses. Tonight, they brought in two friends, drank two bottles, and claimed only four glasses. [One 1.5L bottle will completely fill 5 1/2 of the 9oz glasses] They've done this every time since I started over 2 years ago, and nobody else would wait on them. No other manager has ever said anything to them, they just take it off the bill, and are done with it."

Me: "You're shi**ing me!"

Well, off I go, offending check presenter in hand, to confront our "guests". I put on my "friendly manager" face and walk over to the table. Approaching the table, I'm confronted by the snarling faces of Mr. & Mrs. Leatherface and friends. They had the pusses of two people who had too much time on their hands, and spent it all in the sun doused in Pam. The servers definitely were not exaggerating with the nicknames. What had once been, I think, two attractive people, now resembled Pruneface from the old Dick Tracy cartoons, mixed with a little aged Spalding baseball glove. These were two people who would never be accused of succumbing to plastic surgery. Or having scruples.

Me: "Hi folks, your server has told me that you have questions with your bill?"

Mr. LF: "Yes, your server has overcharged us on the wine!"

Me: "Well sir, my server said he opened up two fresh bottles of house wine for you, and here they are, still on your table, bone dry."

Mrs. LF: "But we do this every time, we are never questioned about it, so it is your policy to never question us about it. Now, go take it off the check, and bring it back with just 4 glasses on it."

Me: "Well, Ma'am, it's called the honor system, because you're supposed to be honorable when claiming the number of glasses you've had. He charged you for two bottles, and you drank two bottles."

Mr. LF: "Are you calling us liars? Because if you are, we'll have your job!"

Realizing that this was going nowhere real fast in the middle of a busy dinner, I tried to negotiate with them. "Okay, how's about we just charge you for 8 glasses and call it a night?"

Mr. LF: "I won't pay for more than 4 glasses and that's my final offer."

Me: "Sir, I'm trying to be reasonable. I'll make it six, but I will not go any lower."

I turn to leave and head for a register with my hands shaking like Lindsay Lohan in rehab. I change the check and hand it to the server to take back to the table, since I didn't trust myself to go back and face the assholes. I know, I know, I can be a chicken-shit at times, but I truly felt that I could not be professional with them anymore. All of the servers, it turns out, had been watching from the side of the restaurant, silently cheering me on. Turns out, none of the other managers even bothered talking to the Leatherfaces, and they now considered me a hero for confronting them.

Scene Two: a couple weeks later, the Leatherfaces return. I'm near the host stand and see them being led to a table. I check the sections, see who's going to be their server, and grab him before he goes to the table. I inform the server that if the LFs order wine, to take it two glasses at a time, and to give them a new check each time he delivers them to the table. A-ha! Fool me once, etc.

Server: "Ex-RM, table 51 wants to see you right away."

Me: "No problem."

I arrive at the table just as they are blusteringly getting up to leave. In a huff, they yell over their shoulders, "We've never been so insulted in our lives!" as they make a bee-line to the exit. All the servers break out in applause, for it seems that not only do the LFs cheat the restaurant out of income, they are generally 10-percenters as well. Well, I informed the GM of all these going ons, and he supported me in what I had done. Even though this corporate chain usually says the customer is always right, this GM had my back.

A week or so later, Mr. & Mrs. LF come in on my off night and get My GM. Their server informs him of their identity and he enacts the same policy that I had before. Well, the LFs proceed to make a stink in the middle of the dining room and the GM tells them they must leave or he will call 911. Well, they leave, but they stand outside the entrance yelling and telling all arrivees how we suck, etc. The cops are called and the policemen tell them forcefully to leave. GM has banished them from the restaurant. Is the nightmare over, you ask? What do you think?

A couple of weeks later, who should be standing at the host-stand when the LFs walk up.

Me: "Hi folks, I didn't think I'd see you again in here."

Mrs. LF: (Digging in her purse) "Well, I just wanted to show you that your "big boss" says that you're wrong in how you treated us and that we're supposed to get a free meal!"

Me: "And what is the name of my "big boss"?"

Mrs. LF: "I don't know, but as soon as I find that letter, you'll be singing a different tune!"

Me: "Ma'am, unless I get a personal phone call from this "big boss", or you have a letterhead with his signature on it, I don't have to give you anything."

Mrs. LF: (triumphantly waving an envelope in the air above her head) "See, here it is right here, now you have to let us in and give us whatever we want!"

Me: "May I see that?"

Mrs. LF: "No, I won't show it to you!"

Me: "Ma'am if you don't show it to me, I'm going to have to ask you to leave." I turned to the Hostess and said loudly, "Dial 91, and if they won't leave, dial the last 1."

Surprisingly, they turn around and leave calmly. A couple of weeks later, I'm transferred to North Miami Beach, and never see them again. (Or so I thought)

A few months later, I'm in North Miami Beach at the "Linguini Bistro" there, standing at the host-stand and who should walk in???!!! You got it. The Leatherfaces.

Me: "Hi folks! What brings you all the way over from Ft. Myers?"

Mr. LF: "Uh...uh...table for two, mumble mumble."

I seat them, and immediately grab their server to fill them in. They order two glasses of house wine with their meal, eat very fast, and leave with no problems. I'm left with a very warm feeling inside.

End of story.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Restaurant Crack

Although I come across as being totally turned off by the Restaurant Industry, it's only the "industry" part that occupies a black, black space in my soul. I love(d) the pace, the instant gratification, the camaraderie. When a kitchen and dining room are in the "zone", and things are zinging like a sewing machine, there's not a better sense of accomplishment I've ever felt. It's as addictive as chocolate covered crack. But (and you knew a but was coming, dincha?), it's also like the morning after a one-nighter. You open your eyes, and there's the zit on the butt; the noxious morning breath; the snoring. And you're snapped back to Earth, and you go back to work to get a little bit of that high you had before. Unfortunately like every addict who develops a high tolerance to their chosen drug, the highs come farther apart and harder to accomplish.

Next post will be about a couple we liked to call Mr. and Mrs. Leatherface. It will be a long story, but worth it for the sheer hutzpah, the dramatic ending, and the comedic farce it all became. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

One True Truth

There is only one constant in the restaurant business, and that is constant change. Chain restaurants that have the same management for more than six months is the exception, and not the norm. With costs, like gas (delivery surcharges), labor, and health care, rising faster than Bush's disapproval rating, cuts have to be made somewhere. Unfortunately, it's usually with the salaried personnel in a restaurant, read management.

Restaurant management used to be, and still is to some extent, a fairly lucrative job.....good benefits, decent pay, consistent raises, etc. Then, around five years ago, things started going in the wrong direction. Bonuses started being re-formulated to include guest satisfaction surveys. Stock options started going only to the top of the top management. Bonuses started having a "maximum" payout. The main problem with chain restaurants started to be with the stockholders' greed, and not with present and future performance of said restaurant. It used to be that beating a 20% labor cost was fantastic, then 19%, then 18, then 17. After cutting all those hourly hours, how are you going to make it up? Uhhhhhh...geez, maybe the salaried folks will have to pick up that slack! What once was a 50-hour week became a 55 to 60 hour week.

Suddenly, that $14/hour sous chef working 40 hours per week (absolutely no overtime allowed), was making more than all of the managers. Who in their right mind would consent to that? I've met some masochistic managers in life, but that's a stretch even for them. Every one of the good - to - great managers I've ever worked with (myself included, thank you very much), have now moved on to something else. After awhile, you just ask yourself, "Is this worth having no life, whatsoever?".

And that is why, when you go to almost any restaurant nowadays (excluding $100 per head chi-chi restaurants), your service will suck, the bathroom will be a mess, your reservations will be behind, the help will be surly, and the management non-existent on the floor.

For all you restaurant peeps, rest assured. There are other careers out there. Save your pennies, hire a professional to do your resume, and never stop searching. There is hope. After decades in the biz, I've found what may be my perfect job. And I repeat, once again, 40 hours, Monday thru Friday, all week-ends and holidays off, same money. All you need to do is SEEK!

Happy hunting!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

So Far, So Good

One week down at the new job and things are going swimmingly. I was training at another store and will start at my regular store starting Monday, so next week should tell if I chose the right job. So far, having week-ends off and getting home while it's still light out is very easy to get used to. The guy training me said many good things about the owner, so things are looking good.