Demoted To Busser

Rachael wrote (edited):

I’m a server and without my consent our restaurant decided each server would have to be scheduled as a busboy. The woman making the schedule says she’s splitting the shifts but I have seen a ‘top’ waitress only have one bussing shift in one week and haven’t seen her do it since then. … this has been going on for a few months, and … I’ve only seen her do it once, while … I’ve been scheduled to do it 3 times, and this week I was not given any serving shifts. I feel that this is somehow not something I should have to deal with since I was hired as a server, not a bus boy. Please help!

Thanks for your question, Rachael.

I had a similar experience to yours (though yours is decidedly worse).

Then, I was being forced to work banquet parties (something I was not hired to do) vs. regular floor-serving. Admittedly more a lateral move than being demoted to busser.

It’s not comforting, but if you brainstorm for other professions where workers can be shuttled back and forth between positions, you will come up with lots of them. If your boss in the sales department of XYZ Widgets decides to move you to telemarketing, you kinda just have to do it. Likewise if she shifts you to a crappy territory. Regular companies do it all the time and it is framed this way:

‘We’re moving you to <blank> at a <blank> cut in pay. You can have the job if you like. If not, we’re going to have to part ways.’

You have three options:

  1. Do/say nothing and just suck it up, grateful for (or bitter about) the job you have.
  2. Get another job and then quit your current place. Very few restaurants practice the BS you are encountering.
  3. Sit down with someone high up in management and have a calm, reasoned, cooperative conversation about your objections. Including offering a suggestion to fix things.

I recommend #3. But be prepared to find another job. They won’t fire you as long as you continue to cover the busser shifts, yet if they don’t change the system you will be miserable and resentful.

What I didn’t know when I wrote my post, was the fallout from my confrontation with management. The rest of that holiday season – and in fact forevermore – I was not asked to work another banquet. I was lucky. Management took to heart my considerations and objections and apparently decided I was right.

I don’t expect you to have the same luck.

You could try making a stand based on the principle you were hired to be a server, and you chose the job because of that. You could, by all means, play the money card for sympathy – tell them the cut in income makes it impossible to pay your rent, child care, DUI fines, whatever.

As for possible solutions, the most obvious is hire (more?) bussers! Or what about eliminating the position and having all waiters bus their own tables, fill their own waters, bring their own bread, etc? That way no one gets preferential treatment like the ‘top’ server you mention. Or start a tip pooling arrangement where you do cycle through busboy shifts, but the busser position gets the same cut as the waiters?

I’m not hopeful about any of those solutions besides hiring bussers, and I’m guessing that’s not on the table (pardon the pun). So you should reconcile yourself to working at a different restaurant if nothing happens from your communication efforts.

However, before you take any steps, consider whether it will be wise to change jobs.

I don’t know what kind of money you make (i.e., how desirable your serving job is). It matters because if you are pulling $300 a server shift along with $100 on the busser shift, that would still add up to a great bank deposit at the end of a 5 shift week. Your pride might feel better in another job where you didn’t suffer the indignity of bussing tables, but it’d be a hollow victory at $150 a shift.

On the other hand, if you’re in an average-paying server job, then just get out and into another average one (or better!). Just don’t quit till you’re out of training at the new restaurant.

Sold – Carney’s Corner!

I agree. There’s no longer a current narrative here, what with my dropping the story for the last several years. Unless you’re either a die-hard fan, or else possess a photographic memory, you’ve forgotten about Carney’s Corner, and Michael’s.

What’s that? Those names mean nothing to you? Those are my dinner and lunch jobs, respectively.

Carney’s had a big change of life recently. Carney (69) and her husband, Harry (73), sold the place. Rumor has that it went for around $500,000.

As usual, there was no drama too great or small, too absolutely insane or merely neurotic, for Carney not to partake.

More than a year ago, the restaurant went on the block, and the winning suitor was a waitress at Carney’s Corner, Marilee. She convinced her husband that it was a good deal at the full asking price of $700,000. Lots of things happened in the direction of consummating the deal: liquor license changed hands, service accounts billings were changed, cameras were installed, an employee meeting with the new owners (Marilee and hubby) transpired, managers were interviewed, and more. Meanwhile, Marilee and her husband were awaiting financing for their cash purchase. (Carney & Harry wanted to carry paper: for tax reasons, for a steady income, and for the unstated chance they could regain ownership in the event of default. Thus, the cash purchase decision, as Marilee didn’t want to risk paying for five years, then encountering an economic downturn, and losing the restaurant.)

Problem was, they were getting private financing through a friend of Marilee’s husband. The friend knew this heroic character who was a Puerto Rican guy with too much money overseas and who needed ways to get it into the country. So he was willing to lend it to them interest-free.

I’m sure this is already sounding familiar to you. Now, this is only grapevine information, but my grapevine includes two branches who are sisters of Marilee. Grapevine says the lender needed $200,000 from Marilee and hubby to match the funds, or some such mumbo-jumbo. Grapevine says they paid it.

Next comes 12 months of Marilee getting jacked around by the financier: ‘Money will be in the account next Thursday, available for wire transfer five days later.’ That’s a typical TEXT message. TEXT message. Yes, this was his exclusive means of communication. Never mind written letters. Not even an email. Marilee showed me a few of his TEXTs.

Anyway, that Thursday would come, five days would pass, and there would be some snag. Of course this went on forever. Harry and Carney were beside themselves because the fucking deal couldn’t go into escrow. Yet, they were screwed by their own greed because they stood to get 40% more than they deserved if only this pipe dream could come true.

It never did. My belief is 50-50: either Marilee got burned by the old Nigerian scam and was too embarrassed to admit it, or else that was kind of what she was letting ‘inside’ people believe. As to the last possibility, what really might have happened is that she and the hubby got advice/realized they were WAY overpaying (by $200k) and began sandbagging to weasel their way out of it in a politically correct fashion.

Either way, eventually Carney and Harry lost patience and scuttled the deal.

The next buyer was well-funded and pretty professional, having 4 other restaurants as part of their general group already. They made an offer and six months later they took possession.

They fired the entire staff.

Then rehired everyone immediately, except for a two-shift bartender who had bad blood with one of the minority owners going back more than a decade. Our employee discount was increased from 20% to 30% (big whoop). But our precious ‘shifters’ (2 free drinks at the end of your shift) were eliminated. Later, Sofiando, the new manager/part-owner, would allow shifters on Saturday. Only. Which didn’t make much sense, but considering I always work Saturday, and because I largely hadn’t partaken of shifters for five or six years anyway, I’m not complaining.

restaurant-dinosaur
Woolly Mammoth Restaurant Dinosaur

Sofiando is a dinosaur of the Beach City-area restaurant scene. He’s 71, I believe. He’s had major stints (10 years or more) at companies like the Red Onion (going way back), at another local institution steak house in Beach City, and (prior to taking over Carney’s) at the biggest oceanfront seafood place in Beach City. In the process of being a restaurant dinosaur, he concurrently accrued status as a local bar patron dinosaur – Carney’s Corner being one of his favorite tar pits in which to get stuck. So, I’ve known Sofiando for the whole 12 years I’ve worked at Carney’s. This long relationship has at times included literally sitting down having drinks with him. And having drinks with him in other establishments. In summary, I’m in good with my new boss.

Another nice thing about a dinosaur is that he likes things the way they were the previous million years. Soooo, Carney’s Corner has not experienced any big changes under the new ownership. Nor does the new owner want to make many changes.

Philosophically, I couldn’t care less about the changes situation. But as a practical matter, I want things to stay the same until the loyal clientele feels there is nothing to worry about – Carney’s isn’t going to go downhill.

I will also admit to the common mammalian preference for familiarity vs. constant change. When things go well, as they did at Carney’s, I’m in no hurry to shake it all up.

Anyway, through 2 months, I think we’re doing fine. Here are the significant changes:

  1. Ranch dressing now offered.
  2. Sourdough bread instead of French bread.
  3. Soup of the day now offered.
  4. Dessert prices reduced by $2.

Yep. That’s all.

Business is off by about 20% these first two months, and I can’t figure out why, considering essentially nothing has changed. Probably, it’s just a psychological thing for the guests. Carney is gone, so it’s over for them (a certain subset of ‘them’).

However, the last two weekends have been busy, back to Carney-ownership levels. I’m starting to believe the dip was just something that had to happen, while we held the line. And as we continue to do so, everyone will come back. It seems to be happening.

Phone Breaks vs. Cigarette Breaks

Okay. You tell me what you think.

After I tell you what I think.

Most (all?) restaurants have strict moratoriums on employees checking their cell phones during the shift. Which is totally sensible. How is the guest being served by the waiter looking at text messages (and even responding) during the crush hours? Filling waters, taking orders, clearing plates, running side work could all be accomplished during this 60-120 second interval.

For me, however, cell phone checking does not happen during the crush. When I am working, I am working. If there is even one immediate task to be done, that takes priority. Always (well, almost always).

There are other approaches though. Every waiter has seen another with his head cocked down, hands in an approximate praying posture, tapping a smart phone in the side station during the height of the dinner hour. As usual, these are the exceptions who provide the odious rule to everyone else. There was once a time when Michael’s issued a ban on waiters tasting guests’ wine – even when offered by the guest (I guess it would always be a problem if the guest didn’t offer). All because someone somewhere in the organization got drunk partying with a table and did something stupid. We all know having a sip of the guests’ wine is a very positive moment in the experience (for all of us). It gives us a chance to commend them on their wine (corkage’d or not), and to further reinforce our connection with them. It helps build repeat customers and encourages them to feel like family in the restaurant. And, yes, it increases our tips.

But anyway, the universal rule is no cell phones on the job. What would be analogous? How about having your girlfriend sitting on a stool in the service bar the whole shift? Definitely distracting, having to argue about why you don’t empty the dishwasher, every time you come to pick up a couple of Jack and Cokes. Or worrying that she’s flirting with the younger, better-looking waiter who models part-time when he’s at the well collecting Cabernets.

So, yeah, it makes sense.

But, not surprisingly, I have a different take on it. First, the phone problem mainly concerns those who keep it in their pockets. It’s impossible to resist that buzz on the thigh – like your girlfriend feels every time that younger waiter comes into the service bar – when the phone goes off. You have to at least check it. And there we go onto the slippery slope.

I defeat this problem by not keeping it in my pants (one of the few times you’ll read this as the best solution). I leave my phone on a ledge somewhere. For me, this is in the coffee station (at Michael’s, that is – at Carney’s it’s too small a place and the owner is always roaming around, so you just . . . don’t . . . dare . . . check your phone until she’s lodged in a bar seat with her vodka/soda at the end of the rush ). My phone can do whatever it wants and, if I’m busy, I do not pay it any attention. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. But when everything is under control and I have a few moments to breathe, yes, I can power up the screen and see what has happened while I was wasting my time making a living.

My M.O. (modus operandi in Latin, for mode of operation) at such points in the shift is mostly read-only. Sometimes, though, as we all know, there are longer moments of downtime vs. others. If I have another 2 minutes to spare and need/want to answer a text – and think I can avoid falling under the gaze of a manager – I will tap something out in response.

All’s good, I believe. Of course, corporate honchos do not believe the same thing. We often read that research shows, for instance, that on-the-job internet surfing, texting, whatever, costs businesses 100,000 hours of productivity per annum, which translates to at least $100,000 – considering the actual productivity of most workers I know.

Obviously, this threat did not exist 10 years ago. It needs to be stamped out. Right?

Here’s the thing: waiters slacking during short intervals of downtime is nothing new. It’s as old as the Verbal Tip, or managers banging hostesses, or . . . the smoke break.

Why is the smoke break sacrosanct?

Imagine yourself in the middle of the rush and the manager discovers you sitting in the linen closet, just staring at the ceiling.

‘What the fuck are you doing? The wait’s an hour and a half. And we got hot food on the line!’

‘Nothing much. I was just clearing my head. It’s fucking stressful out there!’

But if the manager finds you standing outside by the dumpsters, staring into the night, burning a cigarette, he’ll say instead, ‘Hey buddy. Let’s go.” Or he might even light up and join you on a quick one.

Likewise, if you’re looking at your phone at a similarly inopportune moment, the manager will give you a withering stare and you might get written up at the end of the shift.

I’m not a smoker, but I’ve never held the smoking break against anyone. Even though smokers have routinely stolen 15-20 minutes of my teamwork productivity every night I work when I do not take smoke breaks. Whatever. That’s the kind of guy I am.

But now there’s an equal opportunity un-employer. The Phone Break. Again, the phone break is almost always less than the time for the cigarette break. It’s just a grab, a look, and maybe, some quick typing. The whole thing is a minute or so, max. Cigarette break takes that long just for the human transport to/from the alley, never mind the actual smoking and bullshitting (there’s always more than one out there enjoying themselves).

I mean, in my 20+ year career, I’ve known few precious souls who insist on the government-mandated breaks. Virtually all waiters just charge through, happily and dutifully, because it’s too busy to actually take 10 minutes or 30 minutes (‘lunch break’) from the imperative business at hand. So, now that there is actually something comparable for non-smokers, to the cigarette break, we are expected to cower, apologize, and perhaps suffer disciplinary action? I say no.

Phone breaks should be accepted as a part of the job by management.

Or else no smoke breaks. And how do you think that will go over?

The Cooler

In Las Vegas gaming, a Cooler is a dealer or pit boss who comes to a table game that is hot, and through distraction, bad vibes, or outright rudeness, changes the spirit of the table and turns it into a loser. If you’ve played more than a few hours of blackjack, you probably know the effect – whether a Cooler was employed or not (it is consensus that big casinos no longer employ Coolers, relying instead on the simple mathematics that are distinctly in their favor) – of when the dealer changes and he/she is a real bummer, and your general winning streak ends immediately.

Coolers might be extinct in Vegas, but they still live, breathe, and eat at the tables in my station. And yours, too, I’m sure.

Here’s A Cooler

Here’s the four top: 42-year-old guy and his 35-year-old wife; both are nice-looking, well-dressed, worldly, social. Their partner couple is about the same age-set. They look fine, but less successful, less worldly, and less-social. It could be either one of them, but I’m gonna arbitrarily pick on the wife. She is The Cooler.

Now her husband, he is at least game – excited to be out and excited to have a chance to get drunk, instead of the wife remonstrating him from across the home dining room table. Removed from the friendly confines of her domicile, she has to maintain pretense of not being a tight bitch. But you can still feel her tightness.

While being seated, she cranes her neck in the familiar endeavor of searching for some other more-desirable table. When her visual scan returns the datum that all other tables are already occupied, you can sense her frustration (here, her frustration = your satisfaction). The Cooler is pale, appropriately, and doesn’t remove her jacket because she’s cold. She keeps to herself mostly in the conversation.

As I said, hubby is excited to be out. Hey, he used to be Frat Brother with the guy on the other side of the table! He’s gonna get a cold one! (Which instead of a beer or a martini, turns out to be his wife, as we will see.)

Here’s how The Cooler works. Our other three are smiling and chatting with each other. They are settling their bodies, bracing for a good meal. Well there I am, greeting the table. ‘So, enough with the water. Would anybody like a cocktail?’

‘Oh no! I can’t have any more than one drink,’ says The Cooler even before the words escape my lips.

A Cooler understands that she can’t speak for the whole table, but she can speak definitively for herself. This tack, together with always being the first to speak, creates an preemptive strike. On fun.

So first Hubby – who was just about to spill out ‘I’ll have a Grey Goose martini!’ – swallows his cold, crisp, dry words and goes, ‘Uhhh …’ and looks to the other couple (ironically, they’re the Cool couple, but for continued clarity we’ll call them the Fun Ones).

The Fun Ones are naturally accommodating. They would have definitely have ordered their martini and Cosmo, but they want to make their friends comfortable. So they demur. (Score one for The Cooler!)

‘Well let’s have some wine then,’ says Fun Guy, grabbing the wine list, but then offering it to The Cooler’s caddy (aka Hubby). ‘Oh no,’ says Hubby, ‘you go ahead.’ He wants Fun Guy to pick out a nice wine, hoping to avoid blame from The Cooler. Hell, hopefully Fun Guy’ll start with a white, then get red with dinner, thereby insuring at least two drinks for Hubby.

‘You like white or red?’ Fun Guy asks of The Cooler, as it’s already obvious who needs coddling.

‘Oh, I don’t usually drink wine. It gives me a headache.’

I say I’ll give them a minute to look over the list and come back to tell them the specials.

Fun Guy chooses a Chardonnay when I return. I give them the specials: ‘We have an appetizer special of Hama Hama oysters on the half-shell –’

‘Oh no, I couldn’t have an appetizer. I probably won’t finish my meal as it is,’ interjects The Cooler.

‘Well then, speaking of meals, our entrée special is a braised Veal Chop. It’s a thick cut, slow-cooked in Pinot Noir and –’

‘Oooh! That’s too big! I could never eat that.’ The Cooler again. This despite manifest interest from the other three.

I do not finish the Veal Chop description, to punish the entire table for The Cooler’s selfish behavior. I return in a couple of minutes with the Chardonnay. Pouring for The Cooler, she stops me with the hand wave just as I’m about to stop anyway – at half a glass. Next (and I have done this), I switch her glass with Hubby’s empty glass. Then I pour just a few drops for The Cooler. ‘That should be more like it,’ I say, affecting a congenial expression that reads “I understand, and I have sincerely taken good care of you.”

A little later, it’s now Go Time. I ask if there’s any interest in appetizers, or if they’ve made selections on their main courses. Predictably, The Cooler launches, ‘Oh, I’m sure dinner will be enough for me.’ I notice that while I will not pour more wine for The Cooler, someone else has – her glass now being appropriately at the half-full mark I’d poured originally.

Now don’t get me wrong. We’re talking about up-sells here, and it’s fine if people resist all of them. Cocktails, appetizers, special entrees, a la carte salads, side add-ons, bottle of wine vs. by-the-glass, dessert, etc. are things people will pretty much always enjoy, but they cost more money and, yes, they might be more than they actually wish to/can consume. So that’s fine. The rub is that The Cooler does his/her work to prevent the entire party from ordering such items.

The Cooler orders the Grilled Chicken and Veggies. ‘Would you like to substitute something for the vegetables?’ I ask. ‘For instance pasta instead?’

The Cooler is vexed. Her head involuntarily swivels in refusal – the nervous tic of a Cooler – but she can’t quite say it out loud because that does sound good. I help. ‘It doesn’t cost any extra.’

‘I, uh, I … no, that’s okay. The vegetables are fine.’ She’s even Cooling herself out of something with no downside!

So basically a very willing group (3 out of 4 of ’em) has now been hobbled into an entrees-only program.

By now you get the idea. Second bottle of wine, and The Cooler weighs in negatively on it, even though she has no intention of partaking. And on through dessert and after dinner drinks, even coffee.

There is no surprise ending. What these poor people (the other 3) have is a mostly joyless barebones meal that has somehow been dampened by an implication of negative political correctness. The Cooler posits (well, actually negates) everything with the shading that what’s not right for her is also not right for everyone else.

Poor bastards.

Why Can’t Busboys Become Waiters?

I got an interesting comment about my last post, My Busboy Is A Dick, from someone calling himself Xavier.

Sorry, as enjoyable as your post was I’m afraid I’ll have to take a defensive position. I work at a very large (100+ tables) restaurant in the middle of downtown. I am a food runner/expo and one of my good friends is a busser. We are both young ambitious guys who will outwork a horse if challenged but due to the way things are designed there has been somewhat of a falling out…..not so much with me, but with him. He is entirely fed up with the fact that oftentimes we will both do more work in one hour than most of the servers do all night yet we still walk out the door with 65$ in tips when the servers walk out with 250$+. Sure, servers have a higher ranking job and there’s more volatility in their tips but it sort of seems as if the system is flawed. At parties/buyouts, for instance, everyone does pretty much an equal amount of work yet the servers still walk out with far more. Top this off with the fact that even if we go above and beyond our call of duty for the servers we will get not one dollar more than what the servers are required to tip us. For all those reasons, my friend, the busser, has sort of become like the guy you mentioned in this post. He does the very minimum amount of work to get by and quite frankly I understand where he’s coming from entirely. I would do the same but I just happen to hold myself to a high standard.

I’d appreciate your thoughts on this…

It was a thought-provoking comment – and hit on some things I’ve thought about before. I’ll respond in more or less in the order he laid it out. Of course, I’ve no choice but to take it on faith that Xavier’s numbers and characterizations are accurate.

One question that needs to be answered is whether Xavier and his buddy are getting ripped off, or are they are just not understanding how the money actually breaks down (the problem Lencho had in the anecdote towards the end of my last post).

So, let’s break it down, using my best assumptions.

With 100 tables there will probably be 20 waiters (Michael’s only allows 3 tables per waiter, so I think 5 tables per waiter is a reasonable guess). Total tip-out for waiters is anywhere between 15% and 40% – meaning between bussers, bartenders, expediters and whoever else – that’s how much of their gross tips they give away. So I’m going to put the tip-out for Xavier’s restaurant close to the middle, and a bit higher than the median of my various restaurant experiences (about 12 restaurants) because he’s in a very busy, very large restaurant: 30%. Next, because servers are walking with more than $250 a shift, that must mean they are grossing in the neighborhood of $375 in tips.

Don’t worry, I’m going to put this in a table in a minute. Just follow the words for now. Next, we have to guess who is getting tipped, and what percentages. I’ve just got to go with what I know to be true more often than not. Bussers get 15%. Bar gets 10%. Expediter gets 5% or a flat fee of some kind. And there might be a Maître’d or Wine Captain mixed in there too, but we’re going to say there isn’t.

So here’s what we’ve got.

Server Tips (Gross) $375
15% Busser $56
10% Bar $38
5% Expo $19
Server Walks With $262

That means that servers are tipping $1120 to the bussers. The next question is the crucial one for the bussers: How many of them are there? Here’s where you might blame management for staffing too many bussers, which of course dilutes the money they receive. But I’m going to assume normal staffing.

So, plowing ahead, let’s say there’s a busser for every 3 waiters. And let’s make that 7 bussers on the floor, rounding up. That means each busser should receive $160. So Xavier’s friend is getting shafted. But wait. Many restaurants policy is one busser per station. So, of course, that makes for $56 for that one busser. That also makes for 20 bussers on the floor. I don’t know, but it sounds unlikely. Let’s split the difference and say there are 12 bussers. That still leaves a supposed $93 for each busser. It sounds like they are getting shafted. But remember, they might be getting only 10%. In which case, the individual busser tip would be $62.

As for Xavier, as expediter, every place I’ve worked, the expo got a flat fee – $5 to $20 per waiter. Though I have heard of a percentage being used. The key question, again, is how many expediters are there? If there’s only one, then even at $5 per server (an expected $100 per shift for the expo), Xavier is getting royally screwed. Of course, start dividing things by multiple expediters, and the numbers fall into line with Xavier’s account.

If the numbers are fairly cut-and-dried, there’s nothing to be done about it. Each restaurant has its system, and it’s each employee’s decision whether he/she wants to work in that system. I’ve always said, if the system sucks, don’t work there and find one you like. It’s like getting hired at Disneyland and complaining you can’t wear your nose ring. It’s just how they do things. You can work at Starbuck’s with a nose ring, so go ahead.

To address the point about the discrepancy in pay when there is a banquet-type situation, I must say even I (as a higher paid waiter) have a difficult time reconciling that situation. It is a scenario where people are doing the exact same things: delivering food and drink, cleaning, resetting. It is unfair to pay a busser less of the tip pool just because the waiters ‘outrank’ them. My day job, Michael’s, handles this fairly. When server ‘skills’ are not called upon for a banquet-type job, bussers are cut in for full shares. When server ‘skills’ are required, they don’t use bussers at all – so no tip for the busser.

Which leaves us with the emotional heart of Xavier’s comment. It just doesn’t seem fair that they should work so hard compared to the waiters and make so little. And that further, working extra hard does not seem to result in any extra pay.

This is the sadness of most laborers. And waiters are laborers too.

Most managers I’ve worked with have not impressed me with how hard they work. Yes, they all put in more hours, but those are desk hours, chatting up customer hours, walking guests to their tables hours. And that’s when they’re working, not sitting in the bar with their buddy having a scotch, or smoking in the office with their feet up on the desk. General managers at big (and small) restaurants make six figures a year. And they don’t all work “hard.”

Men and women making widgets in factories work hard and earn $40,000 a year. While a salesman selling them flies around the country, staying in fine hotels, eating on the company’s dime, driving a company car, and earns $200,000 a year.

My take is that specialized positions are rightfully rewarded with more money. There are workers in that factory who could do the same or better job of selling as that salesman. But by far, most of them couldn’t.

There are bussers who could (and eventually will) be good waiters, but most of them can’t.

I used the salesman analogy for a reason. Waiters are the salesmen of the company. Even a waiter who doesn’t know how to up-sell or pitch an expensive bottle of wine in the right way to the right person can do an effective enough job. This is because he has or has learned, the skill of communicating with the guest.

The sales paradigm in restaurants is unlike most other businesses. Customers don’t accept your pitch, your data, your fine personality, and then go back to their office and hash it out (pun not intended) with the boss before making a decision. They make their decisions right then.

And then . . . and then, your company (the restaurant) has to deliver the goods right away. Not take the order and deliver in 5 to 10 days.

This is why it’s so hard, as a waiter, to break into serious restaurants. There is an essential part of the skill set that is being able to connect with the customer so he/she knows exactly what you mean and what you offer. And the other side of that – equally important – is that you in return understand exactly what the customer has communicated to you about what he/she expects.

There are a lot of people, and unfortunately a lot of waiters, who fail miserably here. And they are simply dullards, or high, or both. For these waiters to have gotten the job in the first place, they must have been way overachieving during their interviews.

And then there’s another contingent. Treading lightly, I qualify that in my own career, 95% of my bussers have been Latino. Most of them have had good English – that is, good enough to converse with me somewhat in English. But being generous, I’d characterize only about 10% as being capable of detailed, nuanced communication in English. Again, this is the sample from my career in Southern and Northern California.

There is a large factor of public relations in the job of waiting tables. Being able to shoot the shit with people, being able to detect subtle verbal clues as to their demeanor or true intentions, is very important. It is the big difference in saving a table that is ‘on the fence’ about whether they’re pissed off or not. It’s the difference in knowing the dude is in a bad mood and his second cocktail needs to come before you do anything else. It’s the difference in knowing that never mind what she said it, how she said it actually means she wants it this way.

And then there’s the exactitude of the communications. When you’re making a sale that has to be delivered as expected in 20 minutes, you need the ability to be very precise in your communication. Imagine a salad order where the guy wants romaine only not the mixed, his Ranch dressing (a substitute) light, the tomatoes chopped but not tossed with the salad, add anchovies but on the side, and the chicken needs to be blackened in the pan and not on the broiler. Yes, these nuances can be learned as they have been by most waiters, but without a total command of the English language, that salad will probably not come out the way the guest communicated.

I’m obviously heading in the direction of that oft-heard statement: ‘If you hate bussing tables so much, then get a job as a waiter.’

It’s not just my opinion, it’s borne out in the real world – most bussers would not make good waiters. However, as readily evident in Xavier’s prose, he’s got a good command of the language. And he claims to have a strong work ethic, and a well-developed sense of ethics in general. I have no doubt if he so desires, he will be able to get a food serving job, and thrive in it.

His friend, doing the bare minimum and grumbling about it all the way, however, is doomed. Even in the unlikely circumstance that he has adequate English communication skills, his shitty attitude and unremarkable work will never inspire a manager to promote him to waiter (or even expediter). The stink of his shitty attitude would also raise the hackles of ‘fresh meat’ managers were he to apply for server jobs at other restaurants. That’s why Lencho hasn’t been able to get another job since leaving the Prime Rib joint.

Xavier stated that doing ‘extra’ hard work doesn’t result in any more than the same prescribed percentage tip as normal. That’s too bad – he’s in a bad restaurant. I don’t know how common it is, but it’s definitely not unusual for waiters to kick down extra when their busser is kicking ass.

What do I do? I deal out extra, but not tons. Maybe I’m cheap, but I reward good bussing by rounding up come tip-out time. Using the previous numbers, if my busser was busting ass, I’d make that $56 tip $60. The macro aspect of the house should be remembered too – as managers are always telling waiters. If excellent work is being done, that will result in higher tips for the waiters, which of course means more for the bussers because they are tipped on a percentage.

So finally, my advice for Xavier is to keep up his good attitude and work ethic. But don’t just wait to be recognized by management as ‘waiter material.’ Badger the managers regularly about the desire to be promoted. Likewise, go out and try to get a serving job somewhere else – lying as much as necessary about previous serving experience. (That’s how I got my first waiting job.)

My Busboy Is A Dick

‘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.

‘Three.’

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.

Restaurant Closures

Anti-climax to my distress about failing the MSP test last post. Returned to work Tuesday. I was the closer, so when things slowed down and I was ‘fortunate’ enough not to have any late tables, I procured my retake test from the manager.

Exact same test – not a different one. So I ripped off all the shit I already knew, and that I now know newly (nice turn of phrase, eh? No?), and was finished and had passed in about 20 minutes.

* * * * *

My dinner job, Carney’s Corner, has been neglected here of late. I don’t mean the fact that that I’ve not been posting for a year. I mean, even so, I’ve mostly written about Michael’s.

Well, Carney is pretty happy these days. She has historically been ever-so-eager to spread rumors of the demise of our main nearby competitor, O’Shaughnessey’s. In the six years I’ve worked at Carney’s, I’ve personally heard her get on about O’Shaughnessey’s at least 5 times. And this is not an overheard stray comment. This is dedicated, prolonged prostheltyzing (yes, it took me a really long time to get that spelling). O’Shaughnessey’s never went down. But in the last month, two other competitors have been confirmed as doomed businesses.

One place has lost its lease, and the planned sale that would save it for another owner fell through, so it is shutting down permanently at the end of the month. Another, about 10 miles away is closing just next week.

There are a lot of restaurants in Southern California so you might not think it would matter much. However, these are directly analogous establishments to Carney’s – stodgy steakhouse-type places who’ve been in business for decades. I submit that while steakhouses are everywhere and always cropping up, the old-school ones with long-term reputations are another whole entity.

While one wouldn’t normally think two restaurant closings – in a ten-mile radius that features hundreds of restaurants – would warrant any major change, it does in this case, for Carney’s. The clientele who crave our type of restaurant will simply seek out that same type if their favorite is no longer open.

And sure enough, it has been busy at Carney’s. I might be jumping the gun, since neither competitor is closed yet, but I think the rats are already scurrying from the ship. And further, I heard one guest saying exactly that to Carney this evening.

Since guests aren’t tagged and tracked by GPS, we have to speculate. But I think it goes like this: One table on a weeknight, 2 or 3 on weekends, makes a significant difference whether you’re busy or slow. In our small restaurant (9 tables in the dining room, another nine in the bar/patio).

Result this weekend: $266 Friday, $205 Saturday.