‘My busboy is a dick.’
It’s a big, wide world of waiting tables out there, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who can say this . . . but, isn’t this one of the most unlikely things you would ever expect to hear a waiter say?
Bussers are paid by the waiters, anywhere from 10-30% of their tips, or some similar calculation based on sales. Bussers exist to assist the waiters – or at the least that is the basis of most of their pay. Sure, job descriptions vary restaurant to restaurant. For example, at Michael’s the bussers’ only official duties with regards to the waiters, is to promptly bring bread and water to new tables, refill waters and iced teas, and reset the table (once plates have been cleared by the waiters – ouch) when the guest is gone. That’s not much. But then, we are only required to tip 10% there.
Still, at Michael’s it is informally expected that in absence of those duties to perform (and other things like filling ice wells, putting bread in the ovens, and packaging ‘sets’ for resetting the tables later), the busser will make himself useful by clearing plates or running food, or otherwise assisting the waiters. Hell, some places even call them Server Assistants or, SA’s (which is kind of funny because Ese – prounounced the same – is Spanish slang for buddy or homeboy, and of course around here most bussers are Mexican).
Not so with Lencho, my busser at my lunch job at Michael’s.
Lencho is about 5’6″, somewhat round, thoroughly bald, and around 50. He has that kind of dry, mothball-smelling breath which is visually enhanced by the little bits of white scuzz at the corners of his mouth that appear when he talks too long. And boy can he talk – with a super-thick, nearly impossible to decipher Mexican accent. He will corner you and go on about how great are his life, his children, his house, his car, his vacations, and more.
Ehhh. Somewhat close, but the vibe is right for Lencho.
He used to be a busser at a famous Prime Rib joint farther south. During those years he used to brag about how much money he made working special parties there. He always threw around figures like $200 and $250 a shift. During the holidays, he would bring in the schedule from this other job and regale us waiters with how many large parties he was working that week – and of course, how much cash he expected to bring home for each one.
A couple years ago, the Prime Rib joint decided it needed to shake things up, as the dinosaurs were winning. By dinosaurs, I mean the classic term for old and long-tenured waiters who are entrenched in their positions. Dinosaurs don’t work particularly hard or fast. Their precise job description is branded into their brains like a forged brass plate, and they will do nothing above and beyond. They are totally rigid and unhelpful when it comes to their schedules – in fact, they often have set schedules that they do not allow to vary temporarily nor change permanently. They resist change in general, and they usually win. They work the minimum in time and effort and scrape the maximum amount of cream off the top.
People who don’t work in restaurants can’t understand how dinosaurs can exist. But every waiter knows. Dinosaurs usually ‘outrank’ their managers by a decade or more. Of course they don’t really outrank them, but their years of ‘service’ give them some pretty good clout. It is socially difficult for a manager of 2 years to boss around the crank who’s had old Mr. Greenback (who spends $50,000 a year at the restaurant) as a call party for 20 years.
But as usual, I digress. Lencho’s Prime Rib joint (where he was indeed one of the dinosaurs) finally went Ice Age on their staff. From what I understand, about half the crew were dinosaurs. The joint obliterated the set schedule. They obliterated guaranteed shifts. They obliterated preferential stations based on seniority. It was time to change and get rid of their reputation for slothful and disinterested service.
The dinosaurs roared (to hear Lencho report it, and roaring a bit himself). Many of them threatened to quit, and many of them did, including Lencho.
Well, that was that. He was out of his night job, and he has not managed to get another that lasted more than a month or two, since. At least every other week he asks me what I know about Restaurant X in the South Bay, because he has a supposed ‘in’ for a job there, and an interview later in the week. But he mostly goes un-hired, and if not that, then quickly enough un-retained.
Anyway, I don’t know if you (assuming you’re all waiters) can picture Lencho, because he really doesn’t sound like any busser of the common description. But maybe if you instead imagined a short, bald, middle-aged white guy manager who did hardly any work, and loved to blow hard and long about his previous positions of importance at hotshot restaurants – then you’d get the idea.
So besides being full of himself, here’s how Lencho is a dick:
Let’s begin at the beginning, when he first gets to work in the morning. He comes in the door, punches in, and walks to his station. He will pass you along the way, and you will say, ‘Hey, Lencho! How’s it going?’ Or ‘Como estas?’ Lencho’s reply: ‘ .’ Yes, that’s nothing. Not a mumble. Not a head nod. Not even eye contact.
The first thing he will say to you comes about 30 minutes later, consisting of a grunt and a tip of the head as he is wheeling the ice bucket to the bar. This is because he demands help hefting it to dump the ice into the well. When you’re done, you don’t get a thank you, naturally enough.
He takes his employee meal with the rest of the Mexican staff, the kitchen staff, then retires outside to ‘make deals’ on his cell phone in the last 15 minutes before we open. He will not enter the building a second before 11:30, usually a couple of minutes after. And then he will take up residence at his busser station and begin producing sets. Mind you, the doors open at 11:30 and there are almost always parties to be seated at that time (sometimes earlier).
There is a window on the swinging door behind him that looks out onto the floor. He will not turn and peek through that window, ever, to see if there are parties being seated (his cue to produce bread and water).
And here’s what happens next. The waiters are on the floor, ready to serve (imagine that!). So, I, for instance, will be standing there as a group sits. I’ll say my hellos, take a drink order, and gather up the extra sets to take back to the busser station. He will not budge an inch to allow me to put the sets on the rack, but I will force him to at least break his rhythm as I reach past his arms. It’s clear at this point that a table has been seated, no?
Now go to the computer and punch in the drink order. I make an iced tea. I go to the bar and wait for the glass of wine. I return to the table and serve the drinks … hmmm, guess what? No bread or water yet. This has taken easily 3-5 minutes depending on the bartender. And of course, there are no other tables in the restaurant demanding other attention. Where the fuck is the bread and water?
So now I go back and tell him 14 needs bread and water. He does not acknowledge. And he does not stop making sets. It’s as if nothing has happened and nothing has been said.
I return to the table. They are ready to order. I get the order, and only as I’m walking away from the table – only then, maybe – do I see Lencho on the floor with bread and water pitcher in his hands.
Another Lencho pet move: Expediter Fantasy Camp.
Because of his previous exalted position at the Prime Rib joint, Lencho fancies himself as nearly a waiter. He was, in fact, briefly hired to expedite at another restaurant, until they evidently decided it was better to let food sit and cool off rather than have him actively screwing up orders. So at Michael’s, at a bustling lunch, rather than moving briskly about the dining room filling water and iced tea, you’re far more likely to see him with his back to the dining room speaking Spanish with the cooks at the pass out line. Then when plates appear on the line, of course so do the waiters appear. We promptly start garnishing and prepping the order, trying awkwardly to accomplish this with Lencho’s inert frame occupying a 3′x3′ block of real estate. The order ready to deliver, we will eventually use him to carry, say, a single ramekin of sauce. Hey, at least he’s doing something!
When you ask Lencho pointedly to do some task like picking up a couple of plates, he will do it, but without acknowledgment, which leaves you with the mixed blessing of slight anxiety he didn’t hear you and pleasant surprise when get back to the table and see he actually did grab the plates.
We have complained repeatedly to management, who have talked to him repeatedly. He will not accept criticism; his response often includes the sentiment that when he does ‘extra’ work, the waiters don’t tip him accordingly. For some reason, management relays this to us, as if it’s entirely acceptable that a restaurant worker withhold work and effort in doing a proper job for the guest if he’s not in his mind being tipped enough. I’ve always wondered how that would fly for a waiter speaking to his manager: “Why should I give the McNally’s good service? They only tip 12%!”
Then there’s the end of the shift. Even though Lencho has no night job to run off to, he is always in a hurry to get out around 3 p.m. As the closer, I often have a few tables working at this time, some finishing up with coffee and dessert. My point here is that, of Lencho’s official duties where waiters are concerned, final clearing and resetting tables is fully half his job. When he leaves at this juncture, I have to do that half. His performance leading to this moment of desertion is not exactly strong, so I just deduct these tables’ proceeds from the amount he gets tipped on.
And there is the rub that I don’t understand with surly bussers. We, the waiters, are his customers and we have the ability to pay them accordingly. If he does the good work, saves my ass on occasion, makes my job easier, he gets paid well. If he half-asses his shift doing the bare minimum in untimely fashion, forcing me to do extra work, then fine, I will do extra work and I will ‘pay’ myself for it. Out of his tip.
So finally, as I steal a moment from running around and servicing my late tables, I’ll find Lencho in the service bar, rubbing his hands together, apron off. I give him his 10% which he takes wordlessly, counting the money in front of me. Then he bustles out of the restaurant with more speed than he ever exhibited during the shift, on his way . . . somewhere.
Some days, I am literally so busy I can’t spare the 3 minutes to figure and count out his tip. These days, Lencho just silently leaves, again in some inexplicable hurry. When I count my money, I set his aside in a pocket of my ‘book.’ I will give it to him the next shift. Even though I (we) have been doing this effectively for a few years, about once a month Lencho lodges a complaint with management that I didn’t tip him from, say last Friday. So I get a talking to from management at some point the next shift, even though I have already found the money in my book and given it to him, like always, the first time I saw him.
Lencho managed to pick up some temporary employment for a couple weeks during the holidays at a ritzy place. I asked him in January if they kept him on. ‘No. Just Christmas. I don’t want to work there anyway.’ (translated from the original thick-tongued dismembered English)
Then he told this quintessentially-Lenchonian story. He had to work Christmas day at the ritzy place. ‘Very busy. Very busy. $5000 tips. One Captain. Three waiters. Bussers get only $330.’ He stares at me, mouth agape – behold the injustice! ‘Captain take $1000. Only $330 for the bussers.’
‘Each?’ I ask.
He nods. ‘$5000. Captain take $1000.’
‘How many bussers were there?’ I ask.
Hmmm. So I walked him through it, illustrating on the calculator that was handy. $5000 in tips. 20% of that is $1000. Divided by 3, that makes $333. ‘That’s a 20% tip. What do you expect?’
‘No, no, no. $5000. Captain take $1000.’
Ahh, Lencho. You will never be happy or satisfied. Nor will you ever work hard, I expect.
It’s kind of sad and funny. Lencho’s son is a busser at a rival steakhouse nearby. Several of Michael’s waiters work a second job there. They say Lencho’s son is awesome, a dynamo who takes care of business and doesn’t need instruction to do so. They’ve told me they tease him. ‘How come you’re so great and your dad sucks so bad?’ Reportedly, he just looks down and shakes his head, saying quietly, ‘Hey, I love my dad.’
Well, Lencho has got that. But there will probably come a time soon when that’s all he has, besides 12 months of unemployment insurance.