Blackie Takes Down Another One

[This is Part Two of my Blackie post. Click My Old Friend Blackie if you haven’t already read Part One.]

I’m sharing a party with Blackie. Of course I’m cringing, but these things happen. You get through it.

The party arrives, Blackie gets order for bottled water. She’s weak and infirmed, so she nominates me to pitch the featured entrees (see: expensive dinner items) for the group. This pitch at Michael’s is a ten-minute piece of performance art. I say that’s fine, but I in turn nominate her to pitch appetizer samplers to the party while I greet the two new tables in my section (good work, front desk!).

She strikes out on the appetizer thing. As I replace her, I tell her I’m going to do the Features, and all I need from her is to take out the starters for both my new tables. I did a great job (or had great luck), getting them underway before my 10 minute disappearance into the black hole of the Feature Pitch. ‘They’ve got drinks, the first course is already fired, everything’s already in the computer,’ I tell Blackie. She nods.

I’m done with the pitch. I cruise my tables to see their progress, expecting to fire the main courses for both right away.

Uh-oh. Table 22 has one guy finishing his tiny cup of gumbo, while the other guy is staring at empty white table cloth. Right. Blackie didn’t bring out his shrimp cocktail. Which was right at the same pantry counter with the two salads from the other table she successfully retrieved. Thanks.

I was momentarily enraged, but calmed quickly, reminding myself this is what you get with Blackie: Never expect a positive result from any interaction with her.

The big party needed a few minutes to decide. I spent the time tending to my other tables; I retrieved a drink for one. When I came back on the floor, I saw Blackie at the other end of the restaurant taking the order on our big party. Knowing the standard ‘Position #1,’ I could tell she was already half-finished. I decided to let her finish with no help from me, even though this is counter Michael’s policy.

These are the kinds of rules waiters break because sometimes things just work better that way. Number one, there are definite advantages to having a single ‘point man’ in taking the order: consistency, no translation problems, a global first-hand knowledge of all orders at the table. Number two, at that point my joining the order-taking wouldn’t have saved much time at all. So I did something else.

Next thing, manager Mickey is on my ass about Blackie taking the order all by herself. ‘You have to get over there and help her right away!’

So I did, and took three of the eleven orders. Blackie and I went to the computer and she tried to shove the whole mess on me (remember, she’s weak and infirmed). I normally acquiesce, but here it made no sense, considering her handwriting is indecipherable and she had the majority of the data. I gave her my sheet of three orders, clearly translated my writing to her, and let her do the ordering.

Being weak and infirmed, she was too flustered to enter the entire order for 11 at once. She only punched in the first course. (I can hear you old pros out there groaning. And you’re about to be right.)

Next significant thing is that . . . yes, the salads are eaten and she has not entered the main course into the computer. So she’s scrambling with that. I’m helping her by maintaining her tables while she struggles . . . and there she goes . . . last order, position #11 . . . Send To Kitchen!

Ten minute lull while with tidy up the big table and wait for the kitchen to come through. But now the recession-sized understaffed kitchen (just two guys on the line) is freaking out that we didn’t – as per policy – ‘Preview’ the big order. Really it’s just an excuse because they’re screwing up and have a chance to blame someone else. Understand, it was not actually a busy day. For instance, instead of four tables, I had two deuces and my share of the big table. Blackie also had only two other deuces. The other waiters on the floor did not have full stations. Therefore, what would be so different if instead of the one 11-top, three waiters each got a 4-top? No preview required to ‘help’ the kitchen there, and no net difference in business.

[Don’t get me wrong. I understand the reasons for this ‘Preview’ rule. It makes perfect sense when there are multiple large parties, or when it’s a busy day/night and there is a major crush during a short stretch of time, or when the big party is a REALLY BIG party. But please, not when the cooks have only three other tickets on the line . . .]

After the usual amount of cat-herding all the garnishes, entrees, sides, sauces, and special requests left the kitchen and were on the table. (You ever herd a bunch of cats? Even if you haven’t, you can imagine how difficult and chaotic it would be.) I would say the whole ordeal took 10 minutes longer than it should have, which at lunch might or might not be a big deal, depending on the demeanor of the guests.

Turned out the guests were perfectly fine. We got a solid 20% (Michael’s does not allow for automatic gratuities, which often leads to disaster, but again, what can you do?).

But at the end of the shift I got pulled into the office and received a write up:

  1. Not teaming to take the order with Blackie.
  2. Not ‘Previewing’ the large party order.

For some reason I took the high road and didn’t blame it all on Blackie – though of course it was all her fault. If she had found me before starting to take the order, we would not have been guilty of #1. If she had put the order into the computer promptly, she would at least have had the opportunity to ‘Preview’ it; and at any rate she was completely the one in charge of the order, so it was not even possible for me to ‘Preview’ anything for the cooks.

I took the write up like a man. I blamed the order-taking problem on a lack of communication in our team. But I made sure to point out that Blackie was in control of the order and that I would have entered it all at once – just, she didn’t.

The managers were kind of apologetic about it, actually. Mickey made a point of telling me that I could write down my side of the story on the write-up form. It all kind of made me wonder if I was just getting collateral damage because they were finally targeting Blackie in hopes of rooting her out of the restaurant?

I can only hope.

My Old Friend Blackie

Here’s what happened the other day. (Not a bad approach to take with a blog, eh?)

Arrived at Michael’s at noon and was immediately assigned a table of 11. My partner was to be Blackie, the most reviled server at Michael’s.

Every restaurant has one or more Blackies. She is old, slow, an absolute cancer of negative energy and gossip. She simply lives for the rules and regulations of the job. Why in the hell would a person live for and embrace the arcane, misguided, and senseless rules of a corporate restaurant? Because it’s those rules that allow her to keep her job.

An illustrative story about Blackie:

Five years ago, when we were both starting the Michael’s gig for lunch (Blackie came from Claim Jumper and continues to work there), there was male-model-handsome bartender who started with us. Mitch wasn’t much on learning the job; he wasn’t much on performing well; he wasn’t much on showing up for work sober. But he was good-looking, charming, and always ready for a party. Well, Michael’s draws a wealthy clientele, skewering decidedly past age 45. It so happened that the well-alimonied ex-wife of a VIP took a liking to Mitch. She used to visit the restaurant in either a limousine or a Rolls-Royce. She was not a bad looking woman, for her 50+ age. Mitch was very excited when she invited him to a weekend at the track in Del Mar. It would be first class all the way: limo, hotel, restaurants, etc.

A couple of weeks after this dream weekend – and a few other dates – Mitch has given up a few shifts here and there. So now we’re speculating that he’s become a gigolo. Hell, maybe he always was. So one day in the service well, two other waitresses are watching Mitch squire (be squired by?) his benefactor at the opposite end of the bar. And as human nature will have it, they were speculating on their relationship. I knew both waitresses well, in terms of work; we were friendly.

Waitress One: Do you think he fucked her?

Waitress Two: Oh, no doubt.

Waitress One: Is she paying him off for it?

Waitress Two: One way or another.

Right then, Blackie walks up and asks what they’re talking about? Now, even at this early point in Blackie’s tenure, people already have their antenna up about her, so the girls demur.

Blackie: No, really. What were you saying?

Waitress Two: Nothing. Really.

Blackie: No, come on, tell me.

Waitress Two: Forget about it. We were just talking about Mitch.

Blackie: What? What were you saying?

Waitress One: We think Mitch is a gigolo and we were wondering if he fucked Mrs. _____.

Blackie turns on her heel and leaves. At the end of her shift, she lodged a formal grievance about ‘hostile work environment,’ citing the exchange with the other two waitresses. If you understand corporate restaurants, you know there was a colossal freak out over this that went on for more than a week. It ended up with the two other waitresses getting written up, while Blackie walked away leaving management and corporate management petrified to cross her.

That’s Blackie. And please understand that is just one glaring example of her M.O. In the same five years she’s been out on disability/injury claims five separate multi-month occasions. She has written directly to corporate offices three times with various complaints – and those are just the times I know about. She visited another Michael’s once and actually wrote a complaint letter about her server, sent it to corporate. Because he made a flippant remark about a small piece of cork floating in her glass of wine, and then didn’t replace the glass.

She hits on old (late 60s or older) single men dining in the restaurant, probably to establish Sugar Daddy relationships. I know this because one of them told me, and because of that interesting story I was able to note two other older men she gravitated towards and traded phone numbers with.

She is coffee shop trash. Most waiters start in coffee shops, and some of them belong there forever. She never stopped wearing day-glo lipstick and nail polish when the ’80s ended. Her face is beaten and weathered from sun and alcohol and bad karma.

TRYING TO BE FUNNY, BUT THIS IS A LOT CLOSER TO BLACKIE THAN YOU WOULD IMAGINE

She drones endlessly about her ‘boyfriend.’ For a year his name was Steve, but amazingly, when his name changed many times after that, he always sounded like the same person. ‘Steve’ always only calls her up when he wants sex or is out of money. He only goes on vacations with her if she’s the one paying. When he goes on a trip, it’s with the Boys. Most recently, ‘Steve’ was driving drunk (Blackie in passenger seat) and they hit a big tree trying to avoid a cat running across the road. Blackie ‘broke her back’ and ‘cracked (her) teeth in 29 places.’ This, incidentally, led to what became her summer vacation, 2009. (The other multi-month injury claims mentioned above also fortuitously happened at the height of summer.)

When the corporate brass finally thought they had a chance to get rid of her because she’d been out so long with a non-work-related injury, they notified her that she would have to report in two weeks or lose her job.

Miraculously, Blackie was able to overcome her ‘broken back’ and all those ‘cracked teeth’ (that now might not need to be replaced like she said originally), and return on the last possible day.

That’s Blackie, and now we have her back.

Okay, okay. One more Blackie story. My very first one. Our training process at Michael’s was brutal. It’s normally an intense two week deal. But three things conspired to stretch ours out:

  1. This was to be the grand opening for lunch – Michael’s was previously dinner-only. A class of 20 people was recruited.
  2. We were one of the pilot lunch programs for the entire chain, so corporate was super-involved. They even came in for their own two week training period with us.
  3. The restaurant integrated remote printers simultaneously. Previous practice was to order in the computer, collect a bunch of chits at the ‘local’ printer, then when you needed to ‘fire’ you would physically walk your chits to the appropriate location, i.e., the hot line, the pantry, the bar, etc.

Amidst this cluster-fuck, the trainers had to arrange on-floor training shifts for all these waiters. Obviously it won’t do from a guest perspective to have 20 trainees following 12 waiters around all night. It really won’t do even to have 6 following – it’s just too much traffic and it’s distracting to the guest, makes it seem like a place doesn’t have their act together. Expensive places need to maintain an air of permanence and stability, and nothing says the opposite better than a cloud of nose-picking trainees swarming around on a Saturday night.

The trainers took down our individual schedule constraints (of course we all had other jobs during this five-week process – we had to survive), and then apparently disregarded them entirely, drawing up a complicated two-week floor training schedule of 3-4 servers per shift. When this schedule was unveiled, everybody had conflicts and we all spent about a half hour at a large table bartering shifts to fix our schedules.

I was having terrible trouble with a particular Friday night shift – one week away. Blackie heard me asking around about it, and volunteered that she could probably switch it with me. Great. That was my last hurdle. She just said I had to call her two days later to make sure she was available to do it.

Six or seven calls and 6 days later, she still hadn’t committed, leaving me hanging after each phone call that maybe she’d know the next day. I finally gave up, pled my case to the trainers, and they figured out what to do with me.

That extended episode was the equivalent of being on the floor and a server asking, ‘Do you need anything?’

‘Well, yes. Could you please take two coffees to table 16? That’d be a big help. Thanks.’

‘Okay. I just have to take an order on 25 first . . .’

Huh? You just asked me if I needed help . . . If you’re gonna screw around and not do it now, don’t waste my precious time asking me and making me think about it. I’d be better off if you never asked and I handled it myself.

Incidentally, Blackie pulls this move as well. Sounds like this: ‘Nee-n-thing?’ She says it ten times a shift to each server – meaning it not a single bit. At the end of the day she has done zero favors, even when someone is stupid enough to respond that that, yes, they do ‘Need anything.’

So now we’re 1200 words in and you still don’t know what happened. Sorry. This is too long, so I’m going to have to break it into two separate posts.

Click to read Blackie Takes Down Another One.

Waiting On The Big Guys

Worked Michael’s for lunch and I had to wait on the Big Guys.

It was the founder of the chain, the regional VP (in charge of the entire West Coast) and a regional supervisor. Again, that’s the Founder. The guy who created the very first Michael’s from scratch those decades ago, and who continued to build it into a nationwide brand.

I’m 47 years old. I’m not jaded. I try not to be. I’m professional, and I’m experienced. And . . . yeah, I’m old. I don’t get over-excited about dealing with important people. I’ve served captains of industry, mobsters, and movie stars, and I know how to keep my heart-rate down and do a good job.

But I’d be lying if I said the adrenaline doesn’t pump when you get these people (celebrities, important businessmen, corporate honchos) in your station. And I don’t believe anyone else when they claim they they’re not affected when they wait on the Big Guy.

* * * * *

If nothing else, it gets my competitive juices flowing. I know how to do this job. I’m good at it. And I can be as charming as necessary. Let me at ’em!

At the same time, a seasoned server has also become accustomed to running things his/her own way. Michael’s has canned verbal scripts for waiters that it sends out to all its restaurants. Every server is expected to learn the new pitch, word-for-word. Most do not – and quite deliberately. We have the idea that we are doing an extremely good job for the restaurant (have been for years) and that we know the new data, and can deliver it if the situation arises, but there’s no reason to change the direction of a charging bull.

This puts me in a funky position waiting on corporate honchos, because I don’t really do everything by the book. It’s been so long, I have a hard time remembering what the book is. And now these guys who wrote that book will be evaluating me.

They might be evaluating me. Most of the time, honchos couldn’t care less about the meal they are having in one of their own restaurants (as long as it’s made well and things go smoothly). They are talking business. They’ll give you a polite and sincere hello, and call you by name initially, but that’s usually the last eye contact you’ll get until you give them the check to sign (and maybe not even then).

That’s why it’s silly to get too worked up about serving the Big Guys – they’re not even paying attention to you.

But sometimes they are, at least to some degree. This meal was not really about the service, thank goodness, but the Big Guys did order every course: appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert, and coffee beverages. This was pretty rare. I think they really were checking things out. At the same time, they were deep into their conversation whole meal.

The beginning went well for me. I told them about a special sea bass, and two of them were actually surprised. Which in turn surprised me. Michael’s is very corporate. We do not do specials designed by our in-house chef; specials are passed along through corporate channels. There also was some discussion about a new salmon we are using for lunch only. The Regional VP was bragging about what an improvement it was on the salmon salad, and I was able to chime in with an affirmation. One guy ordered the sea bass.

The most perilous part, for me, of an uneventful meal was when I had to pitch the entire dessert tray. These guys definitely knew everything on it, but I was required to do the full verbalization. They listened intently, but at the same time, I knew they couldn’t care less about my verbalization. So I did what any good waiter would do. I read my table and ripped through the presentation, so as to save them the time and pain. They ordered three desserts, a coffee and a cappuccino.

Everything was just fine in the end, and I got a $30 tip on what would have been a $144 check. My best table of the day. I ended up walking with $110 on the day.