Big Hits

I know I haven’t posted for a long time. Well, the Lakers won the World Championship (aka NBA Championship)! I’ve been on a high, naturally. I was previously adhering to a no-drinking-till-after-writing rule. I dropped that system temporarily.

I remember the glory years (both five titles in the ’80s and the three titles from ’01-’03), and the times between. If you’re not a serious (translation: of dubious sanity) sports fan, you won’t understand, but there is a major endorphin rush from winning the title (as a fan). So much so, that it colors your own off-season. You have a generally bright outlook. There’s a snap in your step. You feel more confident.

Likewise, when you lose (as a fan) you are actually depressed for a certain amount of time. It’s embarrassing and, really, unconscionable considering the true gravity of sports in your life and the world in general. But it’s real.

So when the boys took home the title this year, I decided to revel in the happiness and spend my next week or so reading everything I could find about them. I kind of went into vacation mode. You know vacation mode: You’d never consider having a drink at 11 a.m. under any circumstances in your normal life, but on vacation . . . what the hell?

For the record, I don’t drink in the afternoon, even when the Lakers have won the championship. Just an analogy there.

The other reason I haven’t posted is because there’s been a strange massive spike in my ‘readership.’ I’ve kind of been mesmerized by it. Which is exactly the opposite of the normal state of affairs – wherein I don’t post for awhile, hits go way down, and I get nervous and write something new.

For some reason, this post has gotten assigned a high-ranking search result for “Jack Daniels.” Yes, Jack Daniels whiskey is mentioned (and pictured) in the post, but it’s only the subject of a short quip. Some days traffic is up more than 500% from my previous normal. Most days it’s double or triple the old normal.

I don’t regard these hits as particularly ‘real,’ but they are hits and they might lead to new people reading my writing, so I’m grateful.

I’m also grateful that this seemingly random event has led surfers to what I consider one of my better pages (it’s the one about Real Life Waiter Nightmares). Hell, I could just as easily have ended up with a throwaway Tivo/Lakers post getting all the attention.

Anyway, if you haven’t read it yet check out Real Life Waiter Nightmare Type 2 (cont’d). It’s a good read. Everybody’s doing it. Come on . . . What? Are you chicken or somethin’?

Something In The Air

A furious day at Michael’s on Friday. Not me furious, as in my grumpy post about Restaurant Overstaffing, but furious business.

It’s funny that ideas and thoughts are just out there in the air . . . Have you ever had what you thought was a great idea for a movie or TV show, or a simple great invention, or just a new feature for an existing product – only to find out days or weeks later that exact thing in the marketplace? You thought of it on your own, yet obviously the parties bringing this idea out had been working on it well before you came up with the concept.

For some reason, after my post complaining about the overstaffing at lunch vs. dinner at Michael’s (which I concluded by saying I was ‘this close’ to having a sit-down with management on the subject), the next three days bore out exactly the result I was hoping for. And of course I never had the chance to talk to management about my objections.

Each day, management ran the floor with a small staff, forgoing the on-call server. Each day, we had relatively solid business – nothing enough to crash the system, but enough so we all felt busy enough – and the servers on the floor got another 30% more covers than has been usual. Instead of $40-60 days, we had $75-90 days. I was lucky each day, as I got some prime tables. I made $150, $155, and $194.

The last of these days, Friday, though, was a crusher. I had 29 covers, most of them in one seating (tables of 5, 8, 4, and 4). If you recall the last post, us lunch servers had been averaging 9 a shift. But it ended up proving my point magnificently . . . as if management really knew my exact ‘point.’

It was like a Christmas rush day. There were three of us on the floor, and we were all taxed about as far as we could go. We got some life-saving help from available management in running food or at least expediting it. We were totally selfless for each other regarding food-running. I was nowhere to be seen for entrée-delivery of several of my tables. Likewise, after checking back, I returned to several tables to find them cleared and crumbed. I did the same kinds of things for the other two waiters whenever I had an extra moment or hand – including refilling waters and drinks.

And we all got out of it with no more than the normal hiccups, and zero major situations.

Here’s where it proved my point: This was a blockbuster day for three servers to handle, but we did it. In other words, we ran into the absolute outside expectations for customer traffic and we still got through just fine.

I don’t warrant going with three waiters in a situation where you know business is going to be like that. It was hard on everybody, and things could have gone wrong. In that case where management has a pretty damn good idea, then bring on another waiter. But as I said, we saw the enemy, and we still beat him.

Meantime, I hope they’ve learned something here. Unless there are a tremendous number of reservations on the books, just let us go with what we have. There is excess production capacity here.

* * * * *

I haven’t written much about Carney’s here lately. A couple of things:

After our amazing hot streak from January through part of April, things have cooled off. Some weekends have been $120, $150 (Fri-Sat). Some have been $120, $185). But we haven’t been hitting $200+ each day like we were. (For those of you in other parts of the country, things are different where I live in California. I’ve discussed it before. Rent for a 2-bedroom apartment is about $1800 a month. A small 2-bedroom 1-bath house would be $2200. Mortgage on same house, even at today’s prices and interest rates and with 20% down payment would be $2900 a month. My own mortgage is almost $4000 a month.)

Ciera is always having the best time and the worst time. She’s flying to Vegas with a new boyfriend for two days, and she’s making a deal with her landlord to pay her rent weekly so she won’t get evicted.

She really hit a bad deal a couple weeks ago. Her cousin, who was like a sister to her when she lived back in Chicago, was part of a murder/suicide tragedy. The cousin had even been out for a week’s visit with Ciera only a couple of months earlier. The estranged husband killed her with a knife and then shot himself when he returned to his own home.

Of course, Carney tried to spin it as her own tragedy: ‘We have to cover her shifts so she can go back for the funeral. We just don’t know what we’re going to do . . .’

Ciera self-medicates religiously (actually, more than religiously) with pot-smoking and drinking. She usually portrays her travails in a kind of humorous, ‘what else can happen?’ manner. And it’s usually true. Hell, late rent, boyfriend-juggling, car trouble are part of living. And she understands she reaps what she sows, so most of the time she’s not bitter. She’s the kind of person who can have the most vile, screaming phone argument with a boyfriend, then hang up and start cheerfully making jokes about it.

But this. Her real vulnerability is pain and suffering. She always has between 3-7 dogs – all of them rescue animals. Kind of like her boyfriends, but I digress . . .

She has been understandably torn apart with this family disaster. Very sad. She went back for five days to grieve with her family and attend the funeral/wake. Because it involved a few shift-switches, Carney called it ‘her vacation.’

* * * * *

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t tip-off (pun intended) everyone to what I hope is the final game of the Los Angeles Lakers 2008-09 season today. Game Five, the Lakers lead the series 3-1 and can finish off the Orlando Magic today at 5 p.m. Pacific Time. If you don’t care, please root for the Lakers just because I’m asking you to.

Can’t wait till about 6:15 p.m., when I’ll fire up the Tivo (having buffered an hour or so of recorded game), shake up a New Amsterdam gin Martini, and watch it unfold.

Go Lakers!

Restaurant Overstaffing

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that I’m complaining again about restaurant management strategies. Remember my diatribes about Cover Counts? When the money gets tight, people (including me) start to look for something to blame. When business gets slow, every little detail gets more attention. I remember a wise manager back in the ’90s telling me, ‘Sales covers everything.’ I’m sure it was not original, even then.

My own precious mantra, ‘Be patient, things will even out,’ is hard for even myself to accept these days.

Today, yet again, the day manager at Michael’s utilized the on-call server – and, in addition, added an extra server! Okay, sure. That staff of four waiters was the scheduled minimum three years ago. But it’s different now. What it meant today was that there were 22 reservations on the books. Statistics show that at Michael’s covers quite often double the number of reservations.

***Background. Michael’s has strict policy that dinner servers have no more than 3 table stations. Lunch servers, because of the faster pace and less required ‘service overhead,’ are allowed 4 table stations.***

So back to today. Business is down. Shifts are down. Floor staffing is down. But as I said here, about the hidden ‘benefits’ of Restaurant Industry Contraction, when it is slow, at least the natural cutting of staff generally allows those working to continue to make the average $$ per shift. You know: 30% less sales, 30% fewer servers, servers still make about the same money per shift.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been doing the math in your head, the current manager seems dead set on staffing so servers get about 10 covers per shift. Our check average is in the $40-50 range – though it’s probably dipped from that during the last six months. The result of this is that we’re being allowed to sell between $300-500 a shift, translating to walk-home money of $40-70. We used to make average walk-home $100.

My problem here is this: As servers, our workload is nowhere near full-capacity. When we’re getting our 10 covers each – whether it be two on the floor or five on the floor – we’re in no higher than second gear. We go overboard helping to run food and keep up on running sidework (teamwork stuff), but those are the only things keeping us from standing around for long stretches. We could be busy and productive all the time. If we had full stations.

The difference we’re talking about, on a day like today, was just for the manager not to panic and bring in the ‘bonus’ server. As it turned out, we each had nine covers. I sold about $380 and walked with $57. And, again, none of us were remotely busy. If you just remove that ‘bonus’ server, each waiter sells about $125 more, makes about $20 more . . . and we’re still not that busy.

The final point I have to make refers back to the standards of station sizes I mentioned. Michael’s posts daily tabulations of cover counts in Excel spreadsheet format. The spreadsheet even calculates the average covers per server. The pages stack up on the bulletin board for a couple weeks before being thrown away.

Because of my frustration, I took a look at these cover count pages. There are separate sheets for dinner and lunch. Going back two weeks, the general average cover count for dinner was 13 per server; for lunch it was 9-10. That’s pretty bad. Never mind that us lunch servers accept the dinner shift makes more money per cover – that’s just the way it is. But the lunch shift is getting 30% fewer covers per waiter than the dinner shift. That’s not fair, is it?

But wait. Remember the station-size standards? At lunch we’re allowed 33% bigger stations. Hey, all things being equal, we should be allowed 33% more covers. So if dinner waiters are serving 13 covers a night, we should be serving 17 or more at lunch.

What the F’ is going on here?

If I may extrapolate those 17 phantom covers I should have: x40x.085(tax)x.20(tip) means I should be grossing about $148 a day. And remember – we’re not busy – it can easily be done.

I am a firm believer in not challenging management. They have a lot to do, and dealing with griping waiters generally just makes it harder to do their jobs. I believe they are trying to make the restaurant run best it can and be profitable. But this issue gets into fairness.

It seems to me that our day manager is too scared for her shift to be busy, thereby exposing her to risk of bad service and complaints. (I won’t even go there regarding possible fear that she won’t be able to handle average to heavy business.) In doing so, she is sacrificing the income of her waiters. She feels comfortable at all times. We make bad money and are never working as hard as we can handle.

I am this close to asking for a sit-down with management . . .

A New Trend In Verbal Tips?

My last post was a sort of mini-essay about Verbal Tips.

It didn’t start out that way. As I said in the post, verbal tips are such an entrenched aspect of food serving, experienced waiters hardly give it thought anymore. It’s like seeing naked breasts on a Cinemax movie. You’re there on the couch, Cinemax is on, there are the naked breasts . . . you wonder, ‘What’s on HBO?’

It’s like that with verbal tips. You don’t not notice them, but you hardly dwell on it.

The reason I wrote on the subject in the first place was because I thought I had detected a new trend in the verbal tipping subculture.

    ‘Thank you for your service . . .’

This was a few days ago. It came from an obviously well-to-do gentleman in his 60s. The party ordered well, had good wine, were well-behaved – in general they acted like the veteran pro athlete in the end zone: they’d been there before and didn’t need to show off.

So the old man accepts the check presenter with charge voucher. I thank him again, using my most sincerest Thank You. (For one, this was a great table and they deserve it. For two, this was a great table $$$-wise and I need to impress as much as possible.) And then he says it in a clear, direct voice that underscores he really understands this has been very good service:

    ‘Thank you for your service . . .’

Well I’d heard this phrase, more or less, two other times in the last couple weeks. In fact, I had gotten poor tips on those other occasions. But I was still comfortable because this guy was . . . he was just the type, the class, of the demeanor of person who was a 20% tipper. Further, some people do adhere to the Ultimate Rule of Verbal Tips (linked again, sorry, but if you’re lazy, check the 2nd to last paragraph). And he definitely seemed like that guy.

Tip? Sorry, Waiternotes. 12%.

So, to cut to the Check Drop, I think the recent poor economy has created a new breed of verbal tippers. People who used to be good tippers are adopting the policy. They can’t shake the good foundations of humanity they (used to) have, so they have created their own catchphrase.

The meaning is slightly different (but the result is the same) from classic verbal tippers. What these guys are saying now is:

‘Thank you for your service. You have been worthy of the 20% gratuity I used to pay. Times are different now, though. I am no longer paying 20%. In recognition of this fact, I am sending you the coded message that it’s not your fault, but you are getting less. (Maybe things will change in the future.)’

So what do you do? Nothing at all.

I can write about it in my blog, however.

Verbal Tips Are Fraud

The concept of the Verbal Tip is understood by any waiter who has been in the business for more than 2 or 3 . . . shifts.

‘You were the best waiter!’

‘Thank you so much! You were really great tonight!’

I truly hope some of these particular diners are reading this, so they can understand we know what they are doing. But then, the kind of diners who pull this shit are definitely not interested in how the waiter feels about things. So why should I expect they would seek out a waiter blog?

Verbal Tips are as intrinsic to food serving as:

  1. Skating on sidework.
  2. Getting free drinks from the bartender (during or after your shift).
  3. Hitting on the hostess or hitting on the bartender (depending on your inclinations).

An exhaustive list? By no means.

The idea here is that every waiter knows about, understands, and has gotten Verbal Tips.

Frankly, Verbal Tips are one of the most reviled ‘features’ of food serving. Bear with me, but the most common refrain from the waiter is something like, ‘Everything was perfect! Nothing went wrong. They were happy. They said they were happy. The food was great. Nothing came out late. We talked . . . and F’n 10-percent!’

The Verbal Tip is fraud. That’s right. Just like Bernard Madoff said he was giving you a solid return in relation to your contribution. In reality he was keeping the money himself. Here’s how it breaks down for Bernie Madoff (and for Verbal Tippers):

  • We give good faith (service or money).
  • He keeps the money.
  • We get the words.

It’s fraud because these people are redefining the interaction of service and tipping. Just like Madoff and his ilk redefine the concept of investment and returns. There is only one definition for tipping. The guest gives the waiter money commensurate with the quality of the job done. Notice there are no commas, or dashes, or parentheses in that sentence. There are no loopholes. This commandment is etched in stone as much as the Employee Manual Moses’ brought down from the mountain.

The Verbal Tipper has defiled this universal law and twisted it into: ‘I will substitute some kind words for a certain amount of money.’

Look, a commendation and a pat on the back is great from your mom or your kindergarten teacher. It’s also nice from your employer, but your boss doesn’t say, ‘Hey, great job today – and by the way, because I just recognized you verbally, I’m reducing your paycheck 10% this week.’

Besides being fraud, Verbal Tipping is ridiculously condescending. Think about the mindset.

‘The real prize for this waiter is not making money and surviving. It is the honor of serving me. If I leave mere money – heck, anyone can do that, and it’s just perfunctory – he won’t appreciate it. I’m going to give him something way more valuable than money. I’m going to let him know that I approve of him.’

Thanks, guy.

Verbal Tippers are also liars (as differentiated from being perpetrators of fraud, a bigger lie). They are liars because they espouse a ‘philosophy’ as quoted above, but the true motivation is not to approve or reward. It is to save money. Everyone knows that waiters make minimum wage (or less!). Are Verbal Tippers also going around ‘rewarding’ and ‘approving of’ the girl running the fitting room at The Gap? How ’bout our favorite, the cashier at the 7-11? I’ve never heard anyone give the old Verbal Tip to the 7-11 guy. Or the dude hawking flowers at the freeway off-ramp? Or the young man selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door?

Verbal Tippers reserve their special reward for only those situations where it can save them from withdrawing money from their wallets.

Let this be the rule from here forth – no, wait. This has always been the rule: A Verbal Tip shall only, and we mean only, be administered as a reinforcement or supplement to the real, actual, concrete money tip that has been given. If the guest feels there has been excellent service, then the statement will be the percentage of tip awarded. If the guest feels he wants to ‘supplement’ the waiter’s tip at this point, then he can go right ahead and commend him verbally for his competence and his personality and his full head of hair. Anything at all. But the Verbal Tip is only to underline what his actual tip has already stated.

Thank you.