Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cheap Versus Value

Learning the retail side of the restaurant business is a lot harder than I thought it would be. When I first interviewed with "Mr.T" almost five months ago, I did it with the swagger of someone who thought they knew everything, had seen everything, and had used everything they had to offer. I'd often been used in past restaurants as the procurement manager. I was good with budgets, how to prioritize acquisitions, and knew when to order items to put it under the right time-line. Unfortunately, all the big-ticket items were generally ordered from the head office, so I had no idea of the $-to-value ratio so many restaurants depend on. I was a "small-wares" expert thrust into a big-ticket maelstrom.

I now have an 8' x 10' room full of catalogs and the equivalent on my computer to put together bids and quotes on everything from toothpick dispensers to Vulcan 8-burner ranges and $20,000 custom made exhaust hoods. The ranges of quality for each item is stupefying, with varying prices according to construction. I'm now learning the hard way which brands I can successfully suggest to those who are wanting Lexus quality at Hyundai prices, and those which should never be uttered, even to those with limited accounts. One that comes to mind today is an account I visited yesterday who bought a sandwich grill, along with thousands of dollars of other things, from us back in April. This one item was of the, shall we say, discount variety. This deli/bistro is not high volume to say the least, but the grill is trashed. Screws snapped off, electrical cord fraying, grill coating peeling away. It was also about half the price of the "quality" grills we offer, the buyer opting for the frugal option. The manufacturer was contacted, and even though it had a 1 year "limited" warranty, they would not honor it. You gets what you pays for. Unfortunately, the salesman forgot to tell the customer about that, or else the buyer chose to ignore the warnings. I think the latter is closer to the truth.

Our company quotes many ice machines, four-burners, deep-fryers, etc. every single day. It's not an exact science, believe me. We have a list price and a net price. Our customers never pay list price, a number picked out of the blue by the manufacturer. The trick is to present a sale price that the customer can live with. Or pay for. Our big customers get bigger discounts to keep their business. But, you also don't want to overprice something to the smaller customers, since they may be big someday. Also, nicer people get better deals. Today, a chain manager came in today for some required items, thermometers, 1/6 pans, other stuff. He was also a manager who 6 weeks ago had me special order a heated fudge server ($295 list price), took up an hour or so of my time, and then reneged on the order when it arrived because he was over budget for the month. Normally, he would get a 25% discount. Today, he got 10%. I'm a bad, bad man. Although I think I will still sleep very peacefully tonight.

Now, some may think from this that the list price we post is over the top. It is not. We sell heavy-duty, restaurant quality items. And most of you know what kind of abuse this stuff has to endure. I went looking at Kohl's last night and we had some of the same stuff, and they were higher on almost everything. It's all about relationships. We have great relationships with very small establishments and huge conglomerates alike. It's all about reading people and figuring out if they're trying to use you. And if it's them or their bosses pinching pennies. Or if they can really afford Libby or fine crystal.

One company we're dealing with right now started out very promising in a mucho up-and-coming waterside tourist trap. Great credit, good concept, very promising indeed. Opened up in late spring to booming business. Unfortunately, one of those where the husband was starting up a business to get his wife involved in a business. Well, 50,000 dollars later, the marriage is as failed as the restaurant. With us holding the bag, and the debt. Who's at fault, the salesman who sold them all of that equipment, the accountant who okayed the credit, the owner who okayed all of the above? Good luck phoning the now-bad-credit customer.

As in life, we must all learn who to trust, who we must keep a short leash on, and those who need to shop at the "used equipment emporium" down the road.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Top Manager

For all of those "Front of the House" managers out there without a TV show geared to them, I am proposing a new reality show. Everyone else has Bravo's Top Chef, Fox's Hell's Kitchen, "Who the Hell Remembers Network's" Restaurant (the infamous Rocco Dispirito flame-out), and Food Network's Next Food Network Star. I'd like to call my little show "Front of the House Follies", or "Manager Meltdown Mania", or "You Gotta Be Shittin' Me!", or something equally pithy. I'm sure there are many well-paid network hacks who can come up with a consumer-generated title that will draw in the viewers and advertisers.

Here's the premise: First, we'll start with your normal, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, chain restaurant. Your typical expense-pinched, corporate in-bred, tacky commercial-plugged, tired menu-d, family meal emporium.

Next, we'll gather 12 managers who think they have what it takes to run a successful restaurant. We'll put them in a double-wide trailer right outside the back door of said restaurant. They will be on notice 24 hours a day. Vacations may or may not be allowed depending on staffing levels, which will never be above 75%. Sick day are not allowed, since they are already short one assistant manager.

Then, we will promise them the world if they can be managerial, according to their Area Director's whim. Huge monthly bonuses, lucrative stock options, and more will be theirs if they can survive! Of course, the Area, Regional, and National Directors will change on a daily basis. This will challenge the contestants to conform to different ideals with mercurial analysis.

Now, we will throw these contestants into the middle of a lunch rush. But, we will throw a wrench into the machine. Their lone hostess has called in sick. The closing manager has forgotten to place a change order, so all they have is $20 bills and 10 rolls of pennies. And the linen service has not shown up, so they have 50 napkins when 250 guests will show up for lunch. Oh, and by the way, the hot water heater has self-destructed. And the walk-in is at 42 degrees and rising. And toilet #2 in the women's room is stopped up. And the last bag of chicken breasts in the house is still frozen.

The first contestant has gone gallantly into battle. The battle-scarred busser has been thrown into service as a host, which can work, since they know better than anyone else which servers can handle that extra table. But that contestant dissolves into puddles when the first guest of the day pays with a $100 bill.

The next contestant is rushed into battle! Only to blather incoherently when table 61 starts to yell that there is no hot water in the restroom. Send in #3!

Number 3 swoops in gallantly. But is never to be seen again after dissappearing into the ladies' room.

Contestant #4 has disappeared into the back rolling silverware with toilet paper.

#5 is on hold with the HVAC service, hoping that they have someone, anyone, who can come that calendar year to fix the walk-in.

Big, tough, challenger #6 is going through the rollodex trying to find a vendor who fixes hot water heaters.

#7 through #10 are standing around the toilet in the women's room giving direction and encouragement to #11 on how to dislodge the "obstruction".

Meanwhile, #12 is going around to all the tables in the dining room, saying "Hi!" and thanking them for their patience, and helping bus the tables the busser-hostess can't get to. He also called the competitor next door to borrow 200 napkins, promising lunch on him in exchange. In addition, he went to all the servers and requested all their spare change, and begged and borrowed from his guests their singles and fives, and sucked up his pride and called the competitor next door again to get some quarters.

I see Emmys. I see Nobel Prizes. I see good managers leaving in droves.

But it sure would be great television!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Top Chef and Irony

To think that only 3 days ago I was writing about Continental Airlines and the New Jersey Airport. And I get reminded about it once more. On one of my favorite shows. Not funny, not at all.

I guess Continental is spending all their Customer Service money on food and commercial time on Bravo.

I've bought tickets for a round-trip flight in November. My two choices were Continental or Delta for $20 more.

Guess which airline I chose. Tough choice? Nahhhhhhhh. I'm cheap but not masochistic.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Six Years Ago Today....

I couldn't let this day pass without writing about my memories and observances of this very special day. It didn't start out very different for me. Wake up, make coffee, bathroom break, stand by coffee pot, pour coffee, begin to wake up. I had a ritual (some would call it a rut, and I do much the same thing now) where I would get going with the coffee, set up my ironing board, pick out my shirt and tie for the day, and iron while listening to my favorite talk radio station.

I was scheduled for a mid (11am - till - whenever) that day and was in no big rush, had all the time in the world. Although I did want to get in early, since our Area Director was planning a visit to our store that day. I was still in that phase of wanting to impress my superiors with my skill at getting to work early (roll eyes).

So I had picked out a favorite shirt and tie and was ironing away when I turned on the radio. It was very early into the disaster, because the voice coming from the radio wasn't sure what was going on, only that there was a fire in the World Trade Center. Well, this I had to see, so I turned on the TV, which happened to be on the Today Show. Matt Lauer was talking about the situation like it was a mistake that a pilot had made, and how could someone possibly fly into the tower like that?

I was engrossed now and gave up on the ironing for a few minutes while I sat down to watch what was unfolding before my eyes. Certainly no one could make a mistake like that nowadays, could they? And that was when the world turned topsy-turvy. I know it's not verbatim, but Matt said something like, "Oh my God, another plane is making the same mistake!". With my eyes glued to the set, I watched the plane slam into the second tower. Now the mind starts going through different scenarios: Did someone re-program their auto-pilots?; Was there maybe nukes slipped on board?. Being as I lived on Long Island at the time, I lived only 40 miles from Ground Zero and worked only 25 miles away. Would there be evacuations? For some reason, all I could think of then was to get to work. I had to get to work.

I rushed through the whole shower and shave thing and got to work faster than I have ever before. I walked in and my Area Manager, the opening Assistant Manager, the prep cooks, and the opening bartender were all standing in front of the two TVs in the bar. One tower had already gone down on the ride in and we all stood there helpless watching the second one succumb. We all turned to the AD with a look like "Okay, big guy, what do we do? Close, stay open, volunteer?" No, we would go ahead and open. Are you freekin kidding me? How could we open at a time like this? All our AD was concerned about was getting back home to Connecticut. All the stations were reporting that all bridges off the island were now closed. AD kept his cell phone burning and took off like a bat hoping to get on the last ferry leaving from the midpoint of Long Island to Connecticut. He just made it, surely breaking many speeding rules in his BMW.

As soon as he left, we all just king of looked at each other and said "Screw this shit!". We only did enough opening prep for a rudimentary opening and mostly just shlumped around like zombies. We opened the doors and No One Came. Quelle surprise! I think the people of Long Island had other things on their mind besides pasta. Besides Manhattan, I think this catastrophe hit Long Island the hardest. Long Island is considered the bedroom community for Manhattan, and a large, large portion of the fire fighters lived on Long Island, from Hicksville to Long Island City. Everyone on the island knew someone or was family to someone who worked there.

A little while after, our Sunday bartender showed up quite shaken and animated. During the week she worked in the Empire State Building, which was one of the first evacuated after the attack. She was lucky enough to be on the last train allowed to leave Manhattan, but also had a front row seat to see the towers fall as she was being swept off the island.

In the meantime, many of us gathered out in the parking lot, eyes glued to the NorthWest. Plumes of dark, evil smoke could be seen billowing on the horizen, and it was very quiet. Very, very quiet.

We finally got the "higher-ups" to let us close at 3pm after $200 in sales. Pricks.

The next couple of weeks were somber indeed. Almost daily, driving to work, there were funeral processions, many proceeded by red fire trucks.

Being in the restaurant business at the time, many of my thoughts were for those poor, unfortunate souls who worked at Windows on the World Restaurant on the top floors of one of the towers. One minute serving breakfast, the next....... My favorite reference book for wine is Kevin Zraly's book Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. I never got to go, although I had planned on many occasions to splurge sometime, and now I would never have the chance.

What I brought away from my experiences on Long Island changed me forever. I learned a lot of patience. I learned how noble firefighters really were, and how human. And I learned I had to leave there at all costs.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Worst. Trip. Ever. Continued.

So there we were in the great state of New Jersey. No seats. No connections. But, there was another flight in an hour that we could get on the waiting list for. We were originally scheduled to get into Columbus around 3pm, plenty of time to pick up the rental car, get to the hotel, and get ready to go to the Night Before the Wedding Cook-out. Yeah, right.

So we didn't get on that flight either.

We had one last chance. The last connecting flight out of Newark to Columbus would be leaving around 7pm. And again we put ourselves on the wait list. With the power outage going on, everyone was on a waiting list. Except for the bars, which were doing great business.

Well, we did make that last flight, woo hoo! A plane full of grumpy people headed for Columbus freaking Ohio. Which sat on the tarmac for almost an hour because of back-ups across the country.

We arrived at around 9:30pm, picked up our rental car, and were on our way to the hotel. We got there after 10pm and decided to pass on the party, since we had been up all night the night before. We were in no mood to party. Naturally, at 1am, our friends and family woke us up when they returned from the party.

The next day was the wedding and it was great. My aunt and I were the only ones without a hang-over, and still resentful. A beautiful ceremony, seeing old friends, older family, and meeting a lot of good people ensued.

Now for the return trip.........

We arrived at the airport Sunday morning, turned in the rental car (red "service now" light glowing), and headed to the check-in. Everything was proceeding as planned, except for that ominous background music playing through my head.

We checked in at the gate for our return to New Hampshire through Newark (planned this time). The gate attendant had some bad news. The radar system for New England was experiencing "problems". Apparently it went down and was in the process of being totally re-booted, which would take some time. We settled down with some magazines and joked about this latest hiccup. Thirty minutes after our plane was supposed to leave, I'm starting to worry about meeting our connecting flight. I went to the gate attendant and let him know about my worries, and received a slightly convincing "Newark knows of the delay and will be holding planes for the connecting passengers."

Anyway, our flight is called, and we finally board the plane. We taxi out and sit. And sit. And sit. Finally, our captain makes an announcement, "Due to the weather situation that delayed our flight today, we have to wait just a bit longer to depart." WTF! Now they're blaming the delay on weather. Total Bullshit! If you read between the lines on your ticket agreement, it clearly states that the airline is not responsible for weather delays. A man-made problem like the original computer problems would mean they are responsible. Suspicious, indeed!

We finally got into the air almost an hour and a half late. Our original lay-over in Newark was supposed to be, you guessed it, and hour and a half. If we made decent time, we would have 0 minutes to change planes. I mentioned my wariness to the flight mean flight attendant. We got the same ole "Newark will wait for all the connecting flights to arrive". Yeah, right, and that's ginger ale in Britney's champagne glass.

Upon arrival at Newark, half the plane was rushing to get out to meet the "waiting" connections. We jogged the 50 yards to the connecting gate to find an empty waiting area. I approached the desk and with patience strained to the breaking point asked, "Where is the plane? Our flight was delayed and it's only 5 minutes past the departing time! We were promised you would wait for us!"

"I'm sorry sir, it's against company policy to hold a plane for one that is late. It wouldn't be fair for those who arrived on time."


"But we'll be glad to put you on the waiting list for the next flight."

"No, you will give us boarding passes for the next flight to New Hampshire. Your gate attendant in Columbus, and your flight attendant told us you would hold the flight, since your computers were being re-booted, which made your flight late in the first place."

I guess I don't need to tell you that we were put on the waiting list. And the flight left without us. And it was the last flight to New Hampshire. And it was now 9pm. And all the airport restaurants and bars slammed (and I mean slammed!) their gates shut at 9pm while we were arguing with "customer service". And we got no vouchers for hotel rooms or meals or transportation. Just a lot of shrugged shoulders and rude "service managers".

Dinner was a bag of cookies and a Diet Coke from the snack cart on the lower level of the airport, the only thing open after hours. Our bed for the evening was chairs in the waiting area. A very over-air conditioned waiting area.

We did leave on the first flight out the next morning, and arrived with no more drama. But what a trip it was. We missed the big party before the wedding and spending those extra hours with loved ones we travelled 500 miles to see. We spent way too much time going in and out of secured areas to have a lousy cigarette (no sooty, blackened, smoker's rooms like they have in Atlanta). Way too much lack of sleep. No food.

Things didn't improve when I spent may back-and-forths with the Customer Service website for Continental Airlines. DID YOU SEE ME WRITE CONTINENTAL AIRLINES? Customer service continued to blame everything and everyone but OJ for what happened. True, the power outage was not their fault, but cancelling our boarding passes for the connecting flight was. And there was no weather problem on the return flight. They found a stray cloud and blamed it for the rest. And now I'm spreading the word on what a shitty airline it is. Continental, Continental, Continental! I warned them all those years ago, and now I will spread my wrath to all 5 people who read my blog. That'll teach 'em.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Worst. Airline. Trip. Ever.

I can't remember if it was 2004 or 2005, and the exact dates don't come immediately to mind. It should because of the horrific circumstances, maybe I'm just blocking. Many people in the Northeast and Midwest will remember it as the big black-out, when large areas of the country went powerless for no reason whatsoever. It was also a time when I had big plans for a wedding trip.

My cousin (who is more like my nephew, really) was getting married in Columbus, Ohio. I was living in Massachusetts at the time. All of us family members, scattered far and wide, had been planning this trip for months. Finally, we would be getting together for a happy occasion instead of for a funeral, which was our usual M.O. I would be driving up to New Hampshire to fly with my aunt Pat out of Manchester, connecting in Cleveland, and on to Columbus. We had snagged some really cheap tickets on Continental on the net, and all was set........

Now, conventional wisdom is to get the earliest flight out. The later in the day, usually, the more you have delays. The ole' domino effect, what have you. Well, we had the first flight out. Paranoid as I am about over-sleeping for something like this, I pulled an all-nighter. Earlier in the day, there had been reports about black-outs in New York and Ohio, so I kept a close eye on the news and on the Continental web-site. Around 2am, the web-site started saying to call the 1-800 number for "possible" delays. So I did. And I got put on hold. For an hour and a half. But I had to leave to make it to the airport. So I left. And drove. Really, really fast. I picked up my aunt in Nashua. And we drove. Really, really fast.

We got to the airport 45 minutes before the flight, and believe me, the adrenaline was pounding. We approached the check-in and proceeding to be chastised for not arriving 2-hours before the flight. As our flight was for 6:30, I asked the lady if she was there at 4:30. "No, we don't open the window until 5:00." (Insert quizzical, smart-ass look here) I replied, "Well, I've been on hold since 2:00 this morning." Things only got uglier from there.

"Your flight from Manchester to Cleveland was cancelled, but we might be able to re-route you through Newark." Tap tap tap tappety tap. Tap tap.

"Yes, here we go, I can get you on the flight to Newark and then on a connecting flight to Columbus. It's leaving in 20 minutes, so you'll have to hurry." She printed out the boarding passes for this trip and the connecting flight, and we were off!

My aunt and I made like OJ and ran to the Security Check. Do I need to tell you about the line there? And this was before the ole' 1 ounce of this and one ounce of that shit. We got through the line with about 5 minutes to spare, arriving at the gate unable to breathe and made it by the skin of our teeth. And received the evil-eye and tut-tuts from the gate staff, but we got on anyway. I guess my stare-of-death softened them up a tad.

Breathe, breathe, find the seat, relax. We made it! We're on our way! No little power outage could stop us! Ha Ha! The rest of the trip should be toast now! Dum, de dum dumb. Cue the black cats and circling vultures.

We arrived in Newark the victorious warriors. On to the next menial task of checking in for Columbus. Our flight was called and we stepped up with our Golden Tickets for Wonka-land. Slide it into the receptacle 10 feet from the entrance to our chariot. Red light. Slight chuckle. Let's try this again, shall we? Must be some mistake. Red Light! again. Not funny.

"I'm sorry, sir, could you step aside while I check out your boarding pass?" Tap tap, tappety tap.

"I'm terribly sorry, it would appear your boarding passes have been cancelled."

"So, tell me, how could these be cancelled if we were up in the air when it happened?"

"I have no idea, it must have something to do with the black-out."

"Well, Manchester had plenty of power, and, unless I'm totally blind, you seem to have plenty here in Newark. Just print us out 2 more boarding passes and we'll be on our way."

"I'm sorry, sir, the flight is booked solid, so we'll have to put you on the waiting list."

"And how many people are on the list, pray tell?"

"Uhhh, eight so far."

Care to wager how far down the wait list they got? If you chose eight, you win the stuffed giraffe.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

Watching the U.S. Open and Dreaming of What May Have Been

If there's one sport that I can watch for hours on end, it's tennis. I know, I know, many of you will go "Uggghhhh, how boring!". I think a lot of the appeal for me is that I was an only child. Although I've always been a very competitive person, I played very little team sports. I also was raised by a Dad who was very athletic. In his youth he excelled in tennis, basketball, baseball, and golf, so those became the sports I was exposed to. Growing up, I was also one of those kids whose parents had to occasionally shop in the "Husky" section. In these PC times, no department store would dare use a word like "Husky". Now, you're just "short for your weight". Or "normal".

All that changed when we moved to a small city in the middle of Mississippi when I was 13. We moved there for my dad's job, and it was all a big adventure for me. Shortly after, an aunt, my mom's sister only five years older than me, joined us. We lived in a cramped 2-bedroom, 1-bath apartment in town. Luckily just down the street was a brand new park, with six lighted tennis courts. To escape the small apartment, we started playing tennis pretty regularly. With my mom not being very athletically inclined, we had many epic Australian doubles matches (which is 1 versus 2). Over the course of that first summer, we all became pretty good, although my dad was always the victor. Just making it close was a victory for me. During singles between my dad and I, play would get pretty heated, but I never won a match that I remember.

During all this, I was volunteered for the JV football team, mostly because I was "Husky", not that I was a football phenom. I was pretty ignorant about the rules of football, really. The coach kept putting me on the defensive line, and all I knew was to tackle the guy opposite me, and not to go after the guy with the ball (How weird this all is years later!). I got mad because I collected splinters on the bench and quit football. I guess all the coaches figured they didn't need to teach the rules to the Yankee.

It wasn't until my senior year in high school when this redneck school decided to add tennis to the curriculum. Yay! Something I could do, finally! (Although I had figured out the whole football offense/defense thing by now, who wants to do that in Mississippi, in the heat, at a school without air conditioning?). Unfortunately, they couldn't afford to hire a real tennis coach, so the football coach would have to do. As far as we knew, Coach had never picked up a tennis racket in his life. And as far as strategy, Coach didn't have a clue. In our matches with other schools, you had boy's and girl's singles, mixed doubles, boy's doubles, and girl's doubles. And you could only play in one category.

Now, I knew I was the best boy on the team, so naturally I should be the boy's single player, right? No, since I was the only one with doubles experience, I was always stuck with the worst female player in mixed doubles, to "even it out". Needless to say, I saw very little action on the court, as the female player became the focus of our opponent.

I'd thought I was on the path to tennis scholarship, to playing for a University, maybe being the next Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, or John McEnroe. No, I was on the first step of being the new Manager at the Jack's Hamburger joint. I had been working 40+ hours most of my high school years at the local hamburger place, cutting down to part time during tennis season.

Things I did accomplish: I moved out of Mississippi the morning after graduation; I later played a guy on the University of South Carolina tennis team and beat him; and I never shopped in the "Husky" section again.