Happy New Year’s Eve 2009

I hope everyone’s Christmas was fine, safe and happy. It’s been too long since I’ve posted here, but as we all know, it’s a busy time of year – even more so for waiters than other professions.

I visited my sister in Northern California for the holidays. A perfect storm developed that allowed me to have an amazing one full week of time off from both jobs, ending tonight at Carney’s. I spent four days with the family in No. Cal. then returned here for some relaxation and bill paying.

Christmas was fun. The family scaled back quite a bit this year, and it turned out much better, in my opinion. For the first time in years, I was finished with my shopping early. I spent the majority of the days before the holiday quite relaxed and happy. It was much more like the days of my youth when Christmas was a season of free time, pleasant thoughts, and anticipation.

Looking back now, money was down in the biz quite a bit. The lunch job at Michael’s maintained about a $120 per shift average, which isn’t bad. However, years past, I made more than $200 for a couple weeks running. Dinners at Carney’s were pretty much the same for the weekends, but the weekday and Sunday shifts I worked were off 20% or so over previous years.

I’ve switched in the main from my credit card ways to a predominantly cash basis for purchases. Not that I’ve always racked up a lot of credit card debt before – I usually put as much as I could on the Amex to amass miles. The problem was that then the bill would come due and I’d have trouble paying, which caused late fees and rolling over to revolving credit, which would also spill over into difficulty handling the mortgage. The last six months or so I’ve enjoyed getting small Amex bills. Sure, I missed out on some miles, but the certainty of being able to pay that bill has been a plus.

Something singular happened at Carney’s one night a couple weeks ago. Maybe other waiters out there have seen it before, but not me.

A guest ‘re-gifted’ the change from a gift certificate. Yes. Re-gifting is a time-honored white lie amongst people, and I have no problem with it. As long as the gift is appropriate to the new receiver. If it’s a dog gift for a friend or relative that always gets you a dog (or nothing) in return, perfect. If it’s something nice for some special people, perfect also. I think you must also do your best to maintain the illusion that the gift is ‘fresh.’

This couple had the cheapest meal possible at Carney’s: split a house salad, split an entrée, drank only water, no coffee or dessert. With the check, they gave me a $100 gift certificate and some cash, with the instructions to use the cash to make sure the ‘change’ from the gift certificate was exactly $50. (It’s common policy for gift certificate change above a certain amount to be reissued in another gift certificate. In this case, $20 or more.) The particulars of dollars and cents escape me now, but the cash left over from this gift certificate derivative was around what would have been a 20% tip. I returned everything as directed. And the couple pulled back a couple of the dollars change, leaving me just 15%.

Now, they didn’t say what they were doing, but a little deduction made it obvious. If they intended to return later with the new gift certificate, why would they care what the dollar value was? Why go through the rigmarole? Further, it was made all the more clear by their stingy tipping, that their ordering strategy was based on cheapness, not on what they really wanted to eat. They had to keep the bill under or close to $50.

As I said, this was a first for me. Sheesh.

By way of update, I understand that the cloud has lifted off of Ciera. She was under daily strafing from Carney as punishment for her cowardly gambit in covering her shift without Carney’s OK when on vacation several weeks earlier. As a reminder, I didn’t condone how Carney freaked out about it, but I still held Ciera responsible because, good or bad, that’s just the way it is there. Our owners are crazy and we all know it and for our own survival we have to account for it.

Anyway, after Christmas Ciera and Carney apparently made up and things are back to normal strange.

Tonight’s the big night. I actually don’t have huge hopes for the money this evening. There’s an extra server scheduled, combined with 1) we lose a few tables because of the entertainment, and 2) we have to pool with Frank the bartender. He probably will make a lot of money, but he’s a snake and all of us are sure he’ll hold back whatever he can.

One year we pooled with him and he turned in 50% of what we each did (he wasn’t allowed to have diners at the bar that year – this year he is allowed). While we were settling up the money, someone ordered seven shots of Louis XIII cognac, $200 a shot. The high roller and his pals camped out at the bar and kept drinking and us waiters went home. Frank tried to keep all the tip money from that tab, $300, until a couple of us reamed him in front of the owners. He claimed he had it set aside for us but left it at home.

Does he sound like anyone you know?

Happy New Year!

Team Waiting

Some restaurants implement team waiting as part of their permanent labor structure. Team waiting takes myriad forms, the most extreme of which is the ‘Front Waiter/Back Waiter’ system. Essentially, the front waiter handles the P.R. and customer relations: Greeting, order taking, orchestrating service, handling the bill, and being general liaison with the guest; the back waiter more or less does the grunt work like making salads and other server-prepared items, running food and drinks, clearing plates, etc. Like all teamwork arrangements, if each person is strong at his/her job, the results are exceptional. Just like having one man building a car is slower, less efficient, and likely resulting in inferior quality, while the assembly line system is the opposite, with different people of different expertise handling specific jobs.

In my experience, team waiting has a lot more duplication of duties, though certain tasks have a natural way of falling into the hands of the most capable person for the job. For instance, if a waiter is much at ease with his tables, has a great personality, and is a great salesman, he’ll usually somehow end up performing those functions, while his partner will do other things.

The last two days at Michael’s I had teammates. This is pretty common during the Christmas season because of the surplus of large parties. Yesterday (Tuesday) I paired with Jane, a young lady who was a pretty good worker. I have a lot more experience than she, both at Michael’s and in general. I did a lot of the orchestrating: ‘You go set table 48 up for appetizers, and I’ll do the specials on the new table.’ That kind of thing.

Communication is very important. The left hand needs to know . . . There were problems only a couple of times, and none of them serious. At one point, I really needed help and I couldn’t find her. I spent a minute or two searching and gave up. It turned out she was taking the order for the large party in the private banquet room. So, this was necessary and productive, and ultimately not a bad thing. It could have been better if I’d known though. Because in my head, besides the other tasks I needed help with, I knew the banquet party needed to order soon, and I was stressing about that.

The opposite of good communication is obvious. But there’s another angle to it – and one of my pet peeves – over-communication. There’s a certain waiter at Michael’s that I hate to be paired with because she soils the communication lines with extraneous, confusing, and often totally useless data. I’ll be entering a complex order into the computer and she’ll interrupt me to say that she just refilled all the waters. ‘Great. Thank you. But I don’t really need to know that. It’s something we both should be doing on an ongoing basis and there’s no need to brag about it.’

She also likes to inject too much complexity, especially when serving the order. Most (all?) restaurants serve based on seat numbers. But this waiter will be standing there with the first three plates in her hands, and I’ll say ‘Go!’ And she’ll hesitate and ask who’s the first position? Well, the same as it always is: the person in position 1. (There is a codified system in most restaurants for position 1. Easiest example is, standing before a booth, the person on your left is #1, moving along through #4, clockwise.)

‘Is that the lady with the red and black sweater?’

‘I don’t f’n’ know who’s sitting there, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a naked werewolf! Deliver this steak to position 1 and move along.’

One time she royally screwed up a party of 20 by doing this, because as the ‘other’ server on the party, she started directing our helpers.

Anyway, today I was with another teammate, Jack, and he was even better than Jane. He really takes care of business. He doesn’t ask too many questions. Detail work, like resetting silverware, he just does it. He also has a good personality. I had a good handle on our two big parties during the second turn. Meanwhile, he did a lot of talking with a VIP deuce, which was the perfect thing to do. He worked them good and got a 20% tip from a habitual 17%er. He knew without asking that if I wasn’t doing something important that had come up, he should do it.

It was a very pleasant day. We worked hard, got a $300 tip on $1100 from our best party, and ended up walking with $215 each.

I’m off tomorrow night because I’m going to the Dan Hicks concert at the Coach House way down in San Juan Capistrano. Maybe I’ll let you know how that went tomorrow night or the next day, depending on how much I drink.

Merry Christmas

Customer Types: The Decision Muddler

Your first clue is when you take them to the table.

Wife: ‘Is this okay with you?’

Husband: ‘Yeah. Sure. It’s fine.’

Wife: ‘All right then. But it is near the aisle. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable up over there?’

You offer appetizers, suggest a prawn cocktail. He says, yes, that’d be great. She agrees. Then she asks, ‘Are you sure though? The dinners are big here and you might want a salad.’

‘So I’ll order a salad,’ he says huffily.

As irritating as the Decision Muddler is, I do get some satisfaction that quite often her mates find her just as tiresome.

It gets worse, naturally, if there are more than two diners. Then the Decision Muddler gets involved with everyone’s order. ‘Ooh, that’s good,’ she comments. ‘But don’t you usually like the lamb?’

It takes a hard-headed individual to resist her, because people out to dinner with ‘friends’ are always so courteous of each other. So her fellows humor her suggestions that they reconsider what they really want. What should take two minutes balloons out to ten or more as you try to convince everyone that their first instinct is absolutely correct.

So you can repeat the scenario through every possible action. As a waiter, I quickly adopt the strategy of avoiding eye contact with DM; I behave as if she has said nothing when she questions another’s choice; when a friend does waffle, I strongly reinforce how incorrect she is and how correct the friend was from the beginning; and I draw attention to what DM is doing.

Me to other diner: ‘See? You thought you wanted sea bass, and it turns out you were wrong. Ha.’

Me to DM: ‘You’re obviously having a hard time deciding, so we’ll do you last.’

Me to DM when it’s her turn to order and she still can’t decide: ‘Tell you what. There’s no rush. I know it’s not helping, me standing over you like this while you decide. I’ll just leave for a bit and give you a chance to figure it out.’

I generally place my hopes for containment on peer pressure I can manipulate. Sometimes just a cross word from the spouse can improve things for everyone.

On occasion the DM will be relatively unhappy with her choice when I do the check-back (part of the Steps Of Service where the waiter returns a few minutes after serving the entrees, to check how everyone likes their dinners). I’ve been known to say, ‘It’s too bad you didn’t go with your first instinct.’

* * * * *

As this is the first post since Wednesday, I’ve really let things slide. At Michael’s (lunch), $114 and $130 Thu. & Fri. At Carney’s, $155, $200+, and $250 Thu.-Sat. Pretty good business.

Friday at dinner saw myself getting zero tables before 8 p.m. Looked grim. But there was a big-spending 14-top at 8:15 p.m. Some company supplies the military with NASA-type stuff, all European guys with a taste for serious eating, drinking, and after-dinner drinking (Courvoisier VSOP). I garnered a $418 tip there, and pulled down $465 for the night before pooling and tip-out.

Michael’s on Friday was busy with banquets, just ordinary with regular business (considering it’s ‘the Season’). I was on a banquet for a big VIP who brought in more than two cases of wine for 65 people. Despite corporate rules that corkage is waived for no one, we don’t charge corkage to VIPs. This hurt the bottom line, obviously, but then, we did get the rest of the business in a rough climate. I’d guess the final tab including gratuity was in the $8000 range. As always with Michael’s, even with volume down, the people with money still have money and still spend it.

Waiter’s Retirement Program

I contribute to the Waiter’s Retirement Program between 1 and 4 times per week. Hey, you have to if you ever expect to enjoy your golden years with anything better than Social Security.

What are the benefits? Well, right now, the payout is expected to be $207 million. And the next drawing is Friday.

The Lotto (in California there are two games: Mega Millions and Super Lotto) captures the imagination of millions. You don’t have to be a waiter. But wherever I’ve worked, the mere mention of a big jackpot triggers a collection and a group purchase. So everybody can retire.

I’m the optimistic dreamer-type. I fantasize about what I’ll do, what I’ll spend money on, what problems I’ll be free from, what I can do for my loved ones . . .

The other is the doubting, fearful, risk management-type. They wouldn’t normally play, but there’s no F’n’ way they are willing to risk that everybody else might win and they would be left holding down our shifts.

$207 million. I’m going to need it. I’m sorry to report that lunch business at Michael’s has been very poor. Certainly by now we would normally have been getting our fair share of Christmas parties. Instead, the last three days have actually been even slower than usual – forget about a bump up. I was off Monday, cut before I left home on Tuesday, and cut today after I got to work. To be fair, I could have stayed today if I had liked, but when I arrived at noon, there was only one deuce seated. Twenty minutes later, still only the same deuce. The reservations promised only another ten covers, and the opening servers hadn’t even ‘gotten theirs’ yet. That would have left me waiting probably another hour for my covers – which might never come at all.

I do know, however, that Friday will be strong. And the following week is definitely already booked up. Also, last week at Carney’s was pretty solid – and I worked two extra shifts – so that helps.

Still, the economy is a scary thing right now.

Ciera’s Nightmare

Tonight I worked with Ciera and Carney and Mark. Did you read yesterday’s post?

The drama was not over for Ciera. Carney was very snippy and condescending with her tonight. I sometimes find it amusing when Carney treats an employee this way; other times I find it irritating; but I always find it strange. And that’s because Carney herself is such an inept manager. Don’t get me wrong: She’s an excellent baker, a pretty good promoter/PR person, and maybe a good administrator (running the books). But for one, she’s not good at handling people, and for two, she hardly knows anything about serving or bartending – even after all these years.

As an example, she once  deigned to chastise me for putting the bill on the right side of the check presenter. ‘I thought it didn’t matter,’ I said, ‘but, okay.’

‘Oh, no. This is just like a book,’ she said. ‘When they open it up, they look at the first page, on the left.’

So, like, if they didn’t find it on the left, they’d close the check presenter and give up?

Well, I described the bombshell of Ciera getting Mark to cover her shift without clearing it with Carney yesterday. Today Ciera had to work brunch with Carney. Ciera said it was hell. Carney scolded her for being disrespectful. She theorized that they were ‘too much friends’ that Ciera didn’t treat her enough like a boss. Ciera wondered, to me, why Carney thought they were friends? Carney asked if she was sticking it to her because of an incident a few weeks ago when Carney flew off the handle at her, for which Carney later appropriately apologized?

Tonight I had quite a bit of sympathy for Ciera because Carney orchestrated a Waiter’s Nightmare for her to live out. There was a party of 16 with a limited menu, and a set price of $40 a head, including tax and gratuity. However, there would be 8 separate checks. And the cocktails would be on separate tabs. And if that wasn’t enough, the desserts were also on a separate tab, to be paid by one individual. Then, instead of allowing Ciera to tally separate bar tabs for the separate parties and then merely add that tab informally to the $40 per person, she insisted on integrating the bar tabs into the dinner checks. Carney then drew up her own dinner checks for presentation purposes, making Ciera transfer her own log of drinks served onto the new checks. And, of course, the bar tabs had to have their 20% tip added in as well. Making it even more complicated, the guests didn’t understand how the whole thing worked, so they started squawking and questioning everything.

Imagine Making Up 8 Of These ...
Imagine Making Up 8 Of These ... For One Party

It was a disaster. Fortunately, these were long-time guests with whom Ciera had a very solid relationship. But a disaster that the guests happily accept is still a disaster.

Ciera didn’t help things by picking up Table Eleven early in the evening. Did I mention Table Eleven some earlier post? Carney’s has ten tables in the dining room. When Ciera wants to have a quick glass of wine she ‘orders’ one, takes it in back, and chugs  it next to the women’s restroom. That’s Table Eleven. Some nights Table Eleven rings up quite a tab.

Tonight she was keeping her evenflow going with a vengeance. Her head really wasn’t in the game. Her personality is excellent, so the guests always like her and she gets good tips, but when it comes to the logistics of manual checks, she’s a mess. And on a night like tonight, she needed an extra-clear head to combat the mathematical/logistical rat’s nest Carney devised.

But as I always say during the worst kind of hell shift, ‘No matter what happens, this night will end.’ And sure enough, it did. We made over $200.

Sunday Papers

The last four years or so I’ve been blessed with most Sundays off.  I start every Sunday with coffee and the Sunday L.A. Times. I pretty much go through the whole thing – maybe losing steam or time before hitting Calendar. Fascinating, huh?

Ciera was in the news again last night at Carney’s. She took a vacation to visit family in Chicago. Her father is a long-time pilot, so she gets to fly free anywhere (domestically only?), provided she goes stand-by. She arranged for a couple shifts off (that’s why I worked Wednesday), ‘planning’ to come back Saturday in time for her dinner shift.

Only she didn’t really plan that. She secretly negotiated that shift covered too, by Mark. I might have mentioned Mark earlier, though not by name. He’s the older millionaire alcoholic who works pretty much to stay out of trouble. He’s been fired by Carney and Harry three times before; he also is a peer of theirs – he and his wife, Joanna, vacation with the owners of Carney’s. Upon his most recent rehire he seemed pretty much done as a waiter – he’s at least 60. He doesn’t move real fast, doesn’t learn real fast, and isn’t in any hurry to start learning real fast. Mostly, he would do the opening shift, take a couple tables, and then bug out at the earliest possible hour – spending the intervening time chatting with his one or two tables or taking cigarette breaks.

With some time, however, he’s turned out to be a pretty good waiter. Nowhere near the hungry workhorses the rest of us are, but he does a great job with his tables, gets great tips, is always available to help with our greater workload, is content to stay as long as necessary, and even expects a smaller cut of the tip pool (though we give him a full share anyway).

All that said, he’s the weakest we’ve got. So Ciera recruiting him to work Saturday is not the kind of thing that would sit well with a micro-manager like Carney. Worse, Ciera was too chickenshit to give Carney the heads up; she called everybody on the staff – literally, even Frank the Bartender – finagling the situation, but left Carney to find out when she came in at 6 p.m. Ciera’s ‘official’ lie is that her flight got cancelled because of a snowstorm.

Predictably, Carney hit the roof when she found out, calling Ciera selfish and a liar. She started asking us what time Ciera talked to us, trying to triangulate whether it was a lie or not that she couldn’t get Carney on the phone. She griped that this was the thanks she got, after lending Ciera money . . . that this is what happens when Ciera hangs around Candy too much (Candy, Ciera’s best friend, was fired a year earlier) as Candy is just so disrespectful. ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to do!’ Carney says, picking up the phone to alert Harry at home.

‘Why don’t you fire her?’ Mark says.

‘Oh, no. We won’t do that. I just . . . I just . . .’

It was the perfect comment from Mark, one that we couldn’t make. It put some perspective on the situation. For Christsakes, shut up about it already.

There was a parade in our neighboring beach town last night which every year draws away our clientele for that evening. Yet we still had a respectable $160 night. And, yes, despite Ciera’s throwing a stick of dynamite into our fragile machine, the night went smoothly all around. Except for Carney freaking out.

Unfortunately, despite the calendar telling me it’s Sunday, I have to work tonight. Covering another shift. It’s funny how this time of year, you just don’t get any days off. The money is the best during December, yet that’s when everybody is desperate to give away their shifts. While the rest of the year everyone complains about how poor they are.

I’ll write a full column someday about my assertion that the only thing you can really depend on with a waiter is he will complain. Busy/slow. Long shift/short shift. On-call/day off. Full schedule/light schedule. Hands on manager/hands off manager. Marketing and promotion/no marketing and promotion. Large station/small station.

I can go on. Presented with a situation, a waiter will complain. Solve that complaint definitively, and he will complain about the reverse situation.

Waitress Upset Because She Works Too Much
Waitress Upset Because She Works Too Much

Maybe tomorrow.

Waiter’s Holiday . . . Uh, no

Hey, no one posts to their blog every single day. And if they do, they’re boring.

I called in sick on Tuesday at Michael’s. And no, this was the rare occasion that my ‘illness’ was not what I call a Waiter’s Holiday. That would be when you are anything but sick, and you just want to take the day off.

As a generalization, waiters do not call in sick when they actually are sick. ‘I can’t call in sick. I need the money.’ I’ve even seen waiters pimp their illness for better tips! As Mikethewaiter noted recently, we can be a self-centered bunch.

Of course the implicit reverse of this is, ‘I don’t need the money right now, so I’m calling in sick.’

It reminds me of a weekend about fifteen years ago. I was working at the Fish House. The schedule there was a fixed affair – wherein you are always scheduled, for instance, Thursday through Sunday (coincidentally, that was my schedule for years at the Fish House). If you want a day off, it’s on you to get the shift covered by one of your mates. Same for vacations. The managers washed their hands of the whole thing. Personally, the fixed schedule is my preference over the manager-written schedule. You have high predictability because it never changes; you have high flexibility because you’re not dependent on currying favor with the manager; you have ultimate fairness because others can’t curry favor with managers to get better shifts (or get them off). The schedule is the schedule.

Anyway, back on point. Super Bowl Sunday was approaching and my gang of friends was going to rip it up at a fancy seafood brunch down in Orange County. At the time, the attraction to us was that they put a bottle of Stoli on ice in the chilled buffet bar, next the shrimp and oysters and everything. We also expected a lot of girls to be there.

superbowl-trophy

Being scheduled Super Sunday, I couldn’t find a waiter to cover my dinner shift. But I was able to switch with the On Call server. That put me just a step away from having the day off. I consulted the manager, who told me that it would not be exceptionally busy at the Fish House Super Sunday, so, barring a server calling in sick, I would have the day off.

That wasn’t enough for me. I then went to every server scheduled that night – five of them – and told them my plans. I asked them fairly if they were planning on calling in sick to get the day off. If so, I wouldn’t bother with the On Call switch, I’d just work. To a man, they assured me they wouldn’t. There was one woman, though, who was at the time a good friend of mine. She said I would have no problem. She was meeting her boyfriend in San Diego for his bike race on Saturday, coming back Sunday afternoon. No problem.

We hit the Stoli and beers and peel-and-eat shrimp pretty hard that day. The girl thing was a disappointment, but everybody was getting trashed, so it was fun anyway. I called dutifully for my On Call at 3 p.m. Just a formality of course.

‘We’re gonna need you at five.’

I thought he was joking. But he wasn’t. I was seething. My woman friend had called in. She claimed ‘car trouble.’

I immediately quit drinking and started watching my friends have fun. I was sober enough to drive, and ended up at work, having a quite profitable evening. I got home to find my roommates crashed out already. Next day, I was bright-eyed and fresh. All told, it really wasn’t so bad.

Except for the fact that I knew she and her boyfriend had two cars. She could have taken his home to cover her shift. And of course, it was all a lie anyway. I couldn’t believe she would be so selfish as to do that to me, when I’d asked her (again, fairly) in advance. I had acknowledged she might be planning to lie and call in to have the day off. If so, I was willing to defer to her and let her have it. We were not friends for a full year after that, and even then, it was never the same.

So what did I do for my Waiter’s Holiday? I was actually sick. Caught the stomach flu, or the something flu. Almost the whole family got it in a three day period. I spent 32 hours in bed. Felt okay to work yesterday, but had to nap between shifts. Then crashed again when I got home. Well, crashed after watching the Lakers handle the 76ers on Tivo.

Today again, I had a rock solid two-hour nap between shifts. I’m pretty much feeling better now. Another good night’s rest and I think I’ll be up to snuff again.

Yesterday was poor all around. Thirty-five dollars at lunch and $65 at dinner. Today, on the other hand was $110 at lunch and $155 at dinner.

The mood at Michael’s for lunch has been pretty good. Volume is down, certainly, but the guests are spending. It’s as if the only ones left are the ones who can really spend money – and they’re doing it. Today I had only three tables. It’s been like that.