Sunday, August 26, 2007

BOH Versus FOH

One of the great rivalries in the restaurant business is BOH versus FOH. For those of you who have never worked in a restaurant, BOH stands for Back of the House, and FOH stands for Front of the House. Back of the House comprises the Chef, Sous Chef, Line Cooks, and Dishwashers. The Front of the House encompasses the Floor Managers, Hosts, Servers, and Bussers. Depending on the restaurant, the Expediter can be either. Some restaurants foster resentment betwixt the two, the smart ones foster a team philosophy.

My worst experience with inter-restaurant wars was with an independent, family owned, high-end Italian chain in Michigan. If you've watched the Sopranos, you know these characters. I was a server at the time, and I would have felt right at home on Riker's Island. These guyz had a real Godfather fixation and tried to browbeat everyone into a subservient role. Imagine arriving to work and having to pay $3.50 to park there (valet was $3, but unavailable to worker-bees). Opening sidework was a 2-hour ordeal, starting with wiping down every single plate and piece of complete silence. We would be standing side by side and not allowed to talk to each other. Then, your individual side-work, which would be done in, you guessed it, complete silence. Then, the dining room would be set to Obsessive Compulsive Perfection. I'm picky, but compared to them, I was Oscar Madison. (For you guys under 30, that's an Odd Couple reference) Next, while waiting for our section to be sat, we would line up next to the Host stand in formation. Again, in complete silence. And you would be shooshed if you talked! As each table would arrive, it was our duty to seat them for the, Hostess.

Dealing with the BOH (Back of the House) guys was even tougher. We were taught a complex language of how we were to ask for our food. One word off, or out of order and you were severely reprimanded by the Neanderthals behind the line. Oh, these Cretins put out some delicious food, incidentally. As long as you didn't get some of their cigarette ash mixed in. And if you were to make any mistake ringing in that order? You bought it. But, you couldn't eat it. That was for the cooks between Marlboros.

There have been good relationships, although they're harder to remember, being rarer. That was one good thing about Macaroni Grill. There was interaction between the FOH and BOH, since the kitchen is an open kitchen. Chit-chat was offered back and forth, and things were generally cordial.

I think the main generator of discord was $$$. When business is booming, those guys behind the lines know the servers are raking in some high dollars per hour. And I know some prima-donna servers don't realize how hard those cooks are working and sweating so that they can make those bucks. I think they should all work a week in each others' clogs. Maybe there'd be a little more harmony, a little more compassion. server alive would last a night as a dishwasher, the real backbone of any restaurant.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Everybody Wants To Be Bobby Flay

Being in the position I'm in now, I talk to many, many people who come in to check out all the paraphernalia associated with starting up a restaurant. They see shows like "Top Chef", "Iron Chef", "Rachel Ray", (insert any Food Network show), etc. and somehow get the notion that "Gee, that looks easy and glamorous and rewarding!". Some I just want to slap upside the head like Cher in Moonstruck. [GET OVER IT! Whump!] Others, I want to put my arm around their shoulders and talk to them like a father to a kid wanting a dog. "You'll get tired of it soon, it takes all your time, let's start small with, like, maybe a fish. I'm a bit gentler than that, after all, I'm there to sell all that stuff. I do, however, see a lot of these folks leave with the glassy stares of someone in shock.

Mind you, many of these people do about 1 hour of homework before showing up with scraps of paper littered with lists, diagrams, and words with big ???'s next to them. Those are the slappable ones. They watch way too much Food Network, Home and Garden TV, and QVC. They've never seen the inside of a Williams and Sonoma, let alone a real working kitchen. They ooh and ahh over the stainless steel saute pans and stock pots, not knowing most kitchens use cheaper aluminum. They ogle the Vulcan char-broiler and flat-top, until realizing you can buy a decent used car for the same price. Bone china plates and German crystal would look super on their non-existent linen tablecloths, but alas, chinese plates and Libby glasses would better suit their meager budgets. Lord help them when they encounter the hurdles thrown up by local, county, and state administrators! The romance fails quickly, they quietly go back to their "so-called" mundane lives, and we never see them again.

Then there are the ones who've done their homework. They worked as a waiter/sous chef/assistant manager at XYZ restaurant most of their working life and want a place of their own. They walk in with a thick binder full of notes and lists and pictures torn out of Saveur, Food and Wine, and Restaurants and Institutions . They've saved their pennies, worked two jobs, driven an ole' beater for years to finally be their own boss. These are the ones I want to succeed, and pass on tidbits of insider info: how to impress the Health Inspector; where to spend their meager budget smartly (and yes, if they can get something cheaper somewhere else, I tell them where); what areas are begging for a good bistro. They've been in the trenches and know it's a marathon, not a sprint, and are not afraid to put in the sweat equity required to start a budding empire.

None of those TV shows will tell you all of this. Some magazines may touch on some of it. Networking with other restaurant professionals is the real key to starting your own Spago or Commander's Palace. Read all the books you can on the subject. Just don't be a Rocco and self-destruct on national TV. That was just sad.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

"Linguine Bistro" For Sale. Make Your Best Offer!

There's been a lot of turmoil in the restaurant ranks lately. Rare Hospitality (Capital Grille, Longhorn Steakhouse) is being bought by Darden (Red Lobster, Olive Garden). IHOP is buying Applebees. Darden closes it's Smokey Bones BBQ joints. And now, Brinker International has announced that Macaroni Grill is for sale. Obviously, some of you are smarter than the average bear, and can glean from earlier posts that I worked for Macaroni Grill (Linguine Bistro). Since I never signed a secrecy pact, I will give my impression on where they went wrong, and where they can get it back.

When I first started at Mac Grill, they made all of their sauces from scratch. All of them. That was one thing that seperated them from Olive Garden. It was a genuine pain in the ass, though worth it. I still remember boiling over a whole steam kettle of Garlic Cream sauce while in training. (Not my finest moment, and quite a mess!) There were two things, mostly, that put the kibosh on scratch cooking. One, labor cost, the other consistency. Labor costs were a crappy reason, really, but that's what we were told. The real labor cost was having a Kitchen Manager to make sure the sauces were made correctly. Once they got frozen bags o'sauce, they could get rid of the Kitchen Manager position. As far as consistency, with no "chef", all the worker bees in the kitchen wouldn't make the sauces to the recipe without someone to watch over them. They're reasoning was to kill two birds with one stone. What they did was to kill a concept.

Next, when the old CEO left for greener pastures, they hired a person with no idea of what she should do. They hired the discarded head of YUM Brands ( Taco Bell, KFC). Yeah, that's the ticket! Can you say lowered food standards? The Chairman of Chalupas running things, what could go wrong? Everything! Management perks being amongst the first things to go. Stock options? Only for GMs and above. Bonuses? Now there were maximum amounts you could earn. Evaluations and raises? Now tied to Guest Surveys and Year-over-year guest counts. And now only once a year and not every six months. Can you say "Exodus"? Before I left, I found out my original GM and Area Director had defected to another concept.

During all of these changes, it came down from on "high", that many things that were a part of the culture of MG were being shown the door. Forget the opera singers. No more ringing of the bell for 86's. No more clapping when someone dropped a plate or tray. Now, they were, indeed, "mainstream" (read: Olive Garden clone).

Anyone who has ever been in the restaurant business knows that "It's the food, stupid!". That should be step one. I almost had a stroke last week when I went to the neighboring Publix supermarket and saw Macaroni Grill Entrees in the refrigerated section. Oh...My...God... Now they're TGIF, offering their restaurant food to anyone in the grocery store! Why even go to the restaurant now? No reason that I can think of.

Any corporation thinking of buying Macaroni Grill ( and Phil Romano is supposedly thinking of it), should go back to what made it a success back in 1986. Good, made-from-scratch food. Quirky, but fun service. Down to Earth atmosphere ( when I saw the new Pensacola store, all I could think of was "Who put the Fine Dining Restaurant in the Macaroni Grill space?). I've spoken to employees at the Pensacola store, and they say that people coming from the mall walk in the door, and then turn around and walk out because it looks too upscale. It worked once when it was the anti-Olive Garden. And it could again. Just sayin'.

Friday, August 17, 2007

TGIF Ya'll!

Today was one of those days that adult cocktails were invented for. Things started out crappy (and I'm not talking about the fish), and went slightly downhill after that.

First thing that I need to do is get a new alarm clock. I've threatened to do that since I bought this one about a year ago. It has a severe design flaw. The snooze button is small and is right next to the alarm off button. Which Einstein at Durabrand signed off on that design. I know, I know, I should have noticed that when I snagged it at Wallyworld. But, how much time did you last spend studying the box of an alarm clock? You expect those things to be worked out by 2006. Anyway, I must have turned off the alarm instead of hitting the snooze button and woke up on my own an hour later. Luckily, I woke up early enough that I only had to skip the second cup of coffee, move my butt a smidge faster, and get to work 10 minutes early instead of the usual 20-30. No biggee, but an inauspicious way to start the day.

Next, I had a pre-arranged meeting at 10:00, 30 minutes away from work. At 9:00, I got a phone call from a customer telling me they had decided to buy the item I had quoted them on the day before. But only if they could get it before 1:00 that day. Uhhhh, okay, that's a $1700 item that I don't even know is in stock at the distributor, I don't know where the delivery guys are or when they'll be back, and I've got to be out the door in 30 minutes, tops. Quick phone call to distributor only gets me the dude's voicemail "Hi, this is ****, I'll be out of the office for a couple hours this morning, leave a message, blah, blah, blah." Crap! Call back to talk to the Mensa-member receptionist.

"Hi, this is X-RM at *****, I need to talk to someone about stock."

"Okay, let me transfer you to the salesman on duty."

"Hi, this is ****, I'll be out of the office....." Double crap. Tick-tock. I really should put this number on speed dial. Call again, this time another receptionist.

"Hi, this is X-RM at *****, I really, really, need to speak to a live person who can tell me if you have this item in stock!"

Finally, I get a real, live person, who tells me that, unfortunately, the item I need is not in stock, nor is it still in production! Say what? But we do have 2 of the newer replacement at a $100 difference. Call back the customer, fill him in, he's fine with that, when can the delivery be made? Well, here's the rub. Our delivery guys are 40 miles away and won't be back until early afternoon.

"Well, sir, if you really need it that fast, you can pick it up at our distributor. And luckily enough, our distributor is only 2 miles from you." He takes that option, thankfully, and that is that. I look at my watch, 30 minutes until my meeting. Okay. Pedal to the metal.

I arrive with 2 minutes to spare at the meeting at the new restaurant that needs a new high-capacity ice machine. I'd spent an hour of my time putting together a nice package with print-outs of 4 different options, spanning a full range of what they might need. During my call to his secretary the day before, she had said that he only wanted to meet in person, as he didn't want it e-mailed or faxed, it needed to be in person. Okay, fine, I can deal with that. We are talking about a $4000 purchase. I go in.

"Hi, I'm X-RM from ***** to see the boss about an ice machine."

"Boss isn't here, did you have an appointment?"

"Yes, I talked to his secretary yesterday and she said to be here at 10:00."

The MOD (Manager on Duty) gets on his cell phone, talks for a minute, and then hands it to me.

"Hi, I'm X-RM from ***** and I'm here with your quotes on an ice machine."

"Hello, well, I'm in Gulf Breeze and won't be there for a couple of hours. I don't recall having an appointment with anyone."

"That's funny, your secretary, Paula, said to be here at this time."

"Well, just leave the paperwork, or fax it to me, or e-mail it to me, we don't actually have to meet in person. I don't even know if we need a new one or not. The repairman should be there soon, and we'll know then if we need to buy a new one."

Needless to say, I hope Paula gets crabs the next time she goes potty.

So, to make my time out on that side of town worth something, I thought I'd go have lunch at a place I've been trying to get some business from. Show the owner, "Hey look, I want your business so much, I'll even eat here!" So I drive the extra 10 miles to her place, take a seat and proceed to enjoy lunch with the paper. As I'm sitting there with my average burger and so-so curly fries, she pops out to the bar to make change.

"Hey, *****, looks like they're working you pretty good!"

"Oh, hi X-RM, as you can see, we're really busy, so I can't talk to you right now."

One, I didn't come here to kiss your ass again, just to show my face. Two, duh!, it's the middle of lunch. Do you think I'm stupid enough to think you'd drop everything to talk about the price of beer mugs? Geesh.

The rest of the afternoon at work went pretty quickly, we were busy so the hours flew by. Then, at 30 minutes until close, I was taking a quick break out back when I was paged to the front. There at the counter, with brat in tow, was a woman who I had quoted some custom benches to months ago (so long ago that I had thrown out her paperwork).

"Hi, X-RM, remember those benches you quoted me on before?" Barely, but I remember you poo-poo'd my numbers against a fly-by-night web-site, where you'd get no service, questionable quality, and no recourse if it was all wrong. Put on big smile.

"Yes, hi, how are you?"

Well, she wanted to totally change all the dimensions and add some things, change the colors, and myriad other things. I dug out the catalogs again and realized we could be there for hours.

"Listen, ma'am, we're about to close, the vendor in Atlanta is gone for the day, so there's things I can't answer for you today. Let me do some investigating on Monday morning and I'll give you a call on Monday, okay?"


Needless to say, I was ready to go home. I hadn't accomplished squat at work, people had been less than professional to me, and I was in a mood.

But, I'm better now. I know those restaurant managers who blew me off are working their asses off this coming week-end. I've got a tall glass of liquid refreshment next to the keyboard. I've had some very nice comments on my blog this week. And I'm going to kick back and maybe watch a nice movie with said libation. For the first time in 17 years, I truly enjoy Fridays again. TGIF indeed!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Things Only My Best Friends Know About Me

*I'm very picky about my clothes. And no, I'm not a "label queen". One of my favorite shirts is an $8 Wal-mart find. But, that shirt is pressed just right, the pants match and the shoes go with it in a complementary manner. I'm the person people go to and say, "This is my closet, what should I wear?" When I wore a shirt and tie, I always got complements (yes, I miss that). And I never, ever pay full price. Money doesn't buy class, labels don't constitute dapper-ness, and trendiness won't make you trendy.

*I drive by the rules. I got my license when I was 14, that was 33 years ago, and I've gotten zero tickets. I've been in 2 accidents, both in the same car, and neither my fault (also my favorite car, sob!). I don't drive like a fuddy-duddy, but if I speed, I do it when others are speeding too. And I hate tail-gaters with a passion. And people who change lanes every 100 yards. I love it when I pull up next to them at a light after 10 miles of them zig-zagging like fiends, and me staying in the same lane remaining calm. I give them the ole friendly nod and move on, reminding myself why my insurance is much lower than theirs.

*My favorite snack is apple with crunchy peanut butter. Weird maybe, but don't knock it until you've tried it.

*The one sport I excell in is tennis. It's the only sport I "lettered in" in high school. I'm more of a one-on-one type of player than a team player in sports. Golf is my #2, although it's so darn expensive, I don't play as much as I'd like. If you didn't get it in the clothes paragraph, I can be a tad cheap in some things.

*People who don't know me well think that I have it all together. (Insert spit-take here) Hahahahahahahaha! I can be a real slob. I don't make my bed. (Horrors!) Dirty clothes litter the floor around my hamper. On days off, I rarely shave or shower. It's all mostly a facade, I just hide it better than most.

*Besides the sport thing, I'm a team player to a fault. Until you talk about me in front of my peers. Then, all bets are off. I don't reciprocate, but I will not cover for you ever again (that's the Taurus in me, I guess). I will not say things about you, but if asked, I will say the truth.

*I sooooo want to get personal, but I lost my trust a long time ago. I have to know you really, really well to open up. But, when I know you well, you know everything about me.

Okay, enough opening up, I don't know you that well.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

How Not To Apply For A Job

A job applicant this past week brought back memories of the many people who have pressed an application into my hands. In the restaurant business, you are always hiring. Learning which ones to spend your valuable time on is an acquired skill. Obviously, a skill they don't teach you in school, and one they should. If you are about to make the circuit to fill out those apps, a few words from the worldly wise:

If you show up with one of the following, that is strike one: shorts, flip-flops, dirty clothes, wrinkled clothes, mid-riffs, facial-piercings, cleavage-revealing tops (not every male manager is straight!), crazy-ass hair, jeans (yes, even jeans, I don't care if they're $200 jeans), dirty fingernails (my personal judge of people).

If you come in to fill out an application, bring a friggin writing appliance with you! If you ask me for a pen, that's strike two! 50% of you fail this oh-so-elementary step.

If you utter the word "dude", that's strike three. My name is "Sir", until I say otherwise. (I really don't like being called "sir", but this gives me an idea of how you will address our customers.) It also gives me a window into your parents' child-rearing skills.

If you show up with a four page resume, you killed a tree for no reason. There are a thousand free sites on the web that will tell you, "Keep it simple, stupid!". List where you worked and for how long. The details will be handled during the interview.

Anything I need to know will be found out during the interview. Be relaxed, look me in the eye while speaking to me, and smile where appropriate. Don't schmooze me, I'm schmooze-proof, and so are 95% of the people you interview with.

Don't keep calling back to see if you've been hired. In this business, if you're not immediately given a 2nd interview with the GM, or asked back within 2 days for a second interview, you are not what we're looking for. What we'd like to say is, "Don't call us, we'll call you", but some managers don't have the guts to say that, or our lawyers won't let us say that.

That being said, do not sweat applying for a job in the hospitality business. If they say they are not hiring, they are lying. If you are a clean-cut, responsible, mannered person, they will give you a chance. Even at restaurants where I was fully staffed, if I got a super-star applying, I'd give them a chance. There's plenty of flotsam to make way for.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

To Bagdad and Back

Bagdad, Florida that is. One of my favorite things to do is to look on the map and find a town or city that sounds interesting. Then I Google it to find out interesting things to see. Then I go.

Well, after reading the paper this morning, I saw that there was an antique glass show in Milton, and it's right next to Bagdad. These are supposedly "historic cities" and I decided to check them out. There's an antique mall in Milton called The Copper Possum that I wanted to check out also.

The morning started out stormy with a cleansing downpour, just enough to raise raise the humidity level from "sauna" to "gills required". After driving over the Garcon Point Bridge, things cleared up and it was sunny the rest of the day. There's something soothing and mind-clearing about a drive in the country. The best day-trips have a destination in mind, but no concrete route, and no time-table. Just put the radio on the 70's channel, turn it up, put on the sunglasses and cruise.

First, I got to the Santa Rosa County Auditorium for the Depression Glass Show, "Depression" being the operative word. There were more vendors than vendees. And I was the youngest person there. By a lot. And a lot of pink, pressed glass plates and cups. Thirty minutes and I was out of there. $3.50 blown. Oh well, maybe I'll win the door prize, whatever it is.

On to Bagdad! Upon arriving at the town limits, they have those signs saying "Designated Historic District". Last time I checked, "Historic" usually means something besides run-down and over-grown. I guess those years I spent in Massachusetts spoiled me. Maybe 1/10th of the houses had paint from this century. Most had old couches and other detritus lining their porches. Now, I know this area got hit fairly hard by Hurricane Ivan and Dennis, but that was three years ago. Damn people, I heard Home Depot might have gotten a shipment or two of paint since then. True, a lot of houses there could be really neat, but hardly anyone takes any pride in their abode. And every restaurant was closed on Sunday. Depression #2.

Just outside of Bagdad was a flea market that I had heard about, so I headed there. First impression, not so good. When the first thing for sale outside that you see is flags, including a Confederate flag, things don't look so good. Then next to the entrance is a guy cooking burgers on a George Foreman grill wearing a dirty wife-beater (the guy, not the grill). Once inside, things don't improve much. You remember all those dust-accumulating tchotchkes your parents had years ago? They've migrated here in all their glory. At prices above their original cost. Uh...buh-bye.

Things improved once I got to the Copper Possum. This was a nice antique mall, except for a few small things. A lot of the nicer old wood pieces were painted with cheap white paint. Neat old Hoosier cabinets, old wooden trunks, and some nice primitive cabinetry were all coated in a flat white paint. I blame the "shabby chic" contingent. If it wasn't covered in bad paint jobs, it was re-finished to a shiny newness that would bring the staff of Antique Roadshow to tears. Someone should be severely slapped.

By then, I was ready to just go home. Golf was on TV, there were coupons to clip from the Sunday paper, and there was Bloody Mary fixins' in the fridge.

Ahhhhhh.......civilisation at last.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Sellin' It!

This last week began the new phase of my new job. I've been out drumming up business in areas so far untapped by my company. I had very positive feed-back from those I met, service being pretty lacking in this up-and-coming area.

I originally thought I'd be fairly nervous doing this kind of cold-calling, but years of talking to people "off the cuff" prepared me pretty well. This coming week will be follow-up with price quotes on everything from equipment to beer mugs. We'll see. Wish me luck!