Challenging Conventional Wisdom – Round Two

I enjoyed writing the last column about Challenging Conventional Wisdom so much, I realized I have a couple more arrows in my quiver. Please, keep in mind, I’m having fun here.

Without further delay, here a couple more etched-in-stone restaurant industry standards that I think are pretty much BS.

‘Never Scoop Ice With The Glass!’

I’d like to apologize: To my first trainer at Red Robin. To all subsequent trainers at every new job along the way. To my managers. To my restaurant’s owners. To my mom. And to anyone who’s generally just a tight-ass about safety.

I’m sorry.

I always scoop with the glass. I only use the ice scoop when it’s faster and more convenient (say it’s a big scoop and I’m filling multiple glasses), or else when the glass I’m using is something unusually delicate, like a wine glass.

For the non-waiters reading this (are there any?), you are never supposed to fill glasses with ice by digging the glass itself into the ice well – an act which is, of course instinctual. Instead, you’re supposed to used an ice scooper, and transfer the ice from the scooper into the glass. So that’s one reason for the rule, correcting what’s otherwise natural behavior.

Others reasons/justifications are:

  • Sanitation, supposedly. Your hand goes into the ice, possibly transferring waiter germs.
  • Eliminating time-consuming accidents. ‘Oh, shit! A glass just broke in the well! Now we have to burn the well (melt the ice with volumes of hot water till the well is clean and the glass is picked out).‘ If it’s your only well, you’ve got some serious hoops to jump through to keep serving – never mind the labor and time involved with burning the well and refilling it. Even if it’s not your only well, it’s a big pain in the ass.
  • Finally, probably the biggest reason (or at least the most politically correct) is safety. It’s virtually impossible to spot broken glass in a sea of ice cubes. You think you found all the pieces . . . well if you’re wrong, you might end up serving a piece of glass in someone’s drink. I believe swallowing a shard of glass would be very harsh on the digestive system.

But I still do it. You know why? Because modern glasses do not break in ice anymore. Today’s water glass is approximately as durable as stone. Have you ever examined a well-used water glass? It is a serious piece of engineering. The lip is beaten and scuffed and worn down, but not chipped or cracked. It is probably made with some silicone or plastic mixed in, much like shatter-proof windshields. Yes, it can be broken – for instance if you dropped one from 10 feet onto a cement floor (I say 10 feet, because I’ve dropped many from 5 feet – shoulder height – or less and had the damn things simply bounce). I’ve actually had dropped water glasses break plates.

Over the years, in my career as an irresponsible, selfish, public-endangering waiter, I’ve broken maybe five or six glasses ‘in the ice.’ I’ve been waiting tables since 1986, and I’ve certainly been a glass-scooper since at least ’88. That is not a lot of broken glass. In the interval, I’ve saved tons of accumulated time and movement . . .

‘. . . and made my guests happier with my prompt service and in the process . . . made more tips!’ – This message brought to you by every script-reciting, ‘motivational,’ monthly-Saturday-afternoon-Staff-Meeting corporate manager I ever had.

[Incidentally, I just mimed both actions: 1) grabbing a glass and scooping. 2) grabbing a glass, grabbing the ice scoop, scooping, dumping scooped ice into glass. Using the scooper (#2) takes twice as long. It took about 2 seconds to complete #1. How many iced teas, sodas, and waters do you think I’ve served over the years?]

How To Be A ‘Safe’ Glass-Scooper

There is a technique to glass-scooping, but I hesitate to espouse that if everyone learned proper technique we could, as a nation – as a planet – eliminate all dedicated ice scoopers. Instead, I say simply that this works for me:

  1. With a supple and not-firm wrist, slide the glass into the ice. Take care to dip into the center of the well, not at the metal edges of the bin, where you might encounter . . . the metal edges, or else refrozen and hardened blocks of ice. The center is where the loose – safe – ice resides.
  2. Do not scoop boldly. Think ‘dip,’ not ‘plunge.’ Consider it more like gathering ice, almost as if it were liquid you were collecting.
  3. Do not scoop two glasses at once as they might bang into each other.
  4. When you’re done, glance at the rim of the glass. If something has broken or chipped, you should be able to notice it.
  5. If there is a crack or a chip on the glass, step away from the well and be very quiet. Wait till the area clears of personnel, then tell the next busser you see that someone has broken a glass in the ice, and ‘we’ need to burn the well.

But, as I say, a beaker has been known to break in the dark practice of glass-scooping. What happens? Well, I catch it. I examine the glass, see that it has broken, and, damn! . . . where’s that busser?

And then I wait another four or five years for it to happen to me again.

**I would also add that I’ve seen many a glass broken by the heavy lead (or aluminum) ice scooper itself. Are we actually saving, net, any broken-glass-over-ice incidents here?

Now, were I a bartender, and that was all I was did – make drink after drink after drink – I would use the scoop. A busy bartender doesn’t have time to be doing visual checks on all her work. It’s like a touch-typist copying a letter – you don’t keep looking at the screen to check your work, you just trust your fingers and go.

Regarding the sanitation aspect of the rule, I have no patience for the idea that putting your skin in contact with ice is much of a health risk . . .

. . .

. . . hmm . . .

(I’m just debating whether to go on a rant about the suspension of disbelief the general public, and perhaps corporate restaurant honchos, engage in concerning the pristine path of hygiene that restaurant food travels before it ends up in front of the guest . . .)

Okay, I’m gonna do it. And I might as well make it my next item challenging conventional wisdom:

‘They Wouldn’t Do That At Home!’ – Round Two

Wherein the general public rails at exposés of poor restaurant kitchen hygiene. We’ve all seen the local news Hidden Camera reports showing Bill’s Bistro dropping food on the ground, picking it up, dusting it off, and starting all over again. And all the other stuff.

Some of us have seen the movie Waiting…, which is actually pretty funny and quite honest in most ways. It is, however, overly-weighted towards the disgusting and filthy apocryphal (kind of) tales of restaurant worker revenge (spitting in food, etc.).

Indeed, egregious and dangerous habits are practiced; there’s no limit the depths of human carelessness and disregard. This is not about those dregs. Instead I refer to the average or better Bill’s Bistros who are just going about business as usual, where mistakes are made.

I’m not here to say all restaurants are cesspools and people aren’t willing to acknowledge it. I’m saying that, yes, We Would Do That At Home!

  • We’re at home, breading a chicken breast and it slips – oops! – and hits the floor. Yes. We’re picking it up, rinsing it off and getting back to the business of making dinner.
  • We’re at home, and notice some lamb chops have been in the freezer quite awhile, probably too long, but we can’t be totally sure . . . Well, better hurry up and cook ’em. And make sure to slather on a lot of sauce. Even mint jelly!
  • We’re at home, ready to toss a salad (this is before dinner, remember), and the salad tongs are in the dishwasher. Hey, no kidding, we actually grab it with our hands and toss it up!
When You Were A Kid (or Even Now) You Pick This Up, Don't You?

The short-hand justification I’ve heard most recently (from waiters inside the restaurant) is, ‘They want me to make their martini extra dirty with the same olive juice every waiter in the restaurant is dipping his fingers into?’

Even if your restaurant uses ‘virgin’ juice (kept in the well by the bartender, as Carney’s does), you can still get the general sensation of disgust by considering any bar garnish dropped into the cocktail you’re drinking. Fingers, fingers, fingers!

Well, I’d like to give the finger to anyone who has a problem with mine or any of my co-workers fingers. Please, people, release the clutch on your sphincter and instead grip reality:

People are handling your food. Why does it not bother you watching Iron Chef? You know it happens.

Even if in some hermetic dream you are in a place where the chefs all use tongs and spatulas, change rubber gloves after handling each new item, and use hand sanitizer after they snap their fingers (after all, the Thumb might have infected the Middle Finger!) . . . even if . . .

What do you think has been going on further up the ‘Food Service Chain?’ How ’bout the guys at Sysco? Or the meat purveyor? Or the truck drivers who might or might not have cleaned their semi-trailer properly between shipments? Or the boys and girls in the slaughterhouses in Kansas City and Chicago? Or even the damn cow or chicken or pig or head of lettuce itself?

Food is prepared by humans. (And if it’s not, then it’s a plant that’s probably been pissed on by animals.) It’s been that way since the dawn of man. Somehow, civilization has advanced lo-these-many-years with human beings touching the food all the time.

How have people survived?

I have no idea. Must be some sort of built-in defense system in the human body . . .

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Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Here at Waiternotes, I’m a progressive sort. I’m interested in advancing the profession. While I endorse learning the ABC’s of the craft (and have done so rigorously myself), I also believe the business is evolving – and even where it isn’t, there can be better ways that no one thought of before. If you read my post about What Makes A Real Pro, there’s a section about waiters using what I call Fuzzy Logic (not claiming I invented the term – I’m just the one applying it to food serving). I just believe there’s always room for creative thinking.

That said, I’d like to submit a couple of commonly held standards/sayings and why I think they don’t hold up.

My number one, which I’ve been championing for more than 20 years:

‘Never Take The Last One!’

Wherein you, the server, reach for the coffee filters to make a fresh pot. Oops! There’s just one filter left. As a responsible waiter who’s learned the ropes, you are required to go to dry storage and restock the coffee filters before (without) taking the last one. Everybody knows this saying. It’s been used since the days a nickel tip was perfectly acceptable.

Instead, I say, ‘You know what? No. Go ahead, take the last one!’

It does not make any difference at all, and I’m going to tell you why.

I first challenged this bromide because I realized that not taking the last one did not save any work, time, or trouble. There is no advantage to it. The person who restocks before the last one is taken is doing no less work, spending no less time, than he would if the last one were already taken. Restocking is still the exact same process of time and effort. So why the hell not take the last one? When the next guy comes along, he restocks.

I say the catchphrase should instead be, ‘Hey, lucky me. I got the last one!’ At least there’s some joy there. It’s great to get the last one in just about everything: last cigarette, last raffle ticket, last one in your size, last call, last chance for romance. It’s a kind of victory, cause for small celebration. Removing that tiny joy is a shame, especially when there’s no good reason for it.

Once I realized not taking the last one saved no labor and created no net convenience, I started to look for further justification for my contrary position.

It turned out, it was actually wasteful in some cases. Let’s take the coffee example (which will also allow me to drop in my disclaimer). If you’re about to pour the last cup of coffee, and it’s the end of the night, and you robotically make a new pot rather than take the last cup, there’s a good chance that pot will be wasted. My disclaimer is that if there’s an item that is ‘made’ (like a pot of coffee) and is usually required on short notice (like a cup of coffee) and there will be an ongoing need for it through the shift, then this is the exception. But this exception really doesn’t go all that far. Imagine you make your own salads as a waiter. You’re going to need salads all night, yes, but how fast do you need them? And how fast can more mixed greens be gotten/produced? In my experience, with the salads . . . ‘Go ahead and take the last one!’

When I peeled away all the layers of the onion, I got to the rotting, black-hearted weevil in the core that is probably responsible for the adoption of this rule:

It was invented by managers.

Who else has the motivation? Every waiter I know is just joyous to get the last one, and hates having to restock. Why would a waiter ever invent that rule? Managers did it because whenever they need something – be it a paper clip, a piece of bread, or that coffee filter – they detest having to do that kind of work. And, of course, if you think about it, have you ever seen a manager observe this rule when he was the guy taking the last one?

‘They Wouldn’t Do That At Home!’

Wherein us waiters and all restaurant professionals complain about guest behavior, pointing out how uncouth it is that a guest just washed his face with the warm finger towel. Or that he just pulled out a pocket-pick and flossed his teeth at the table.

They wouldn’t do it in their own homes, so they shouldn’t do it in our restaurant.

I used to say this a lot, myself. When I said it yet again last month, I paused to examine the statement.

In fact, I think it holds no logic.

Mainly, the guests are not at home. That’s pretty much the whole point of going out, isn’t it? Why would anybody ever go out if it sucked as much as being at home? It would be like cheating on your wife with a woman who complained about you all the time, was 15 lbs. overweight, and didn’t give blowjobs.

In other words, being able to behave differently is the biggest attraction of going out.

  • At home you have to make the food yourself. Out, you sit back while we make it for you.
  • At home you could never (most of us, at least) order up a complicated meal from your significant other and expect it to be done at all, let alone come out perfectly.
  • At home, you ruin the after-dinner glow by doing your own dishes. Out, you just sign a check and think about it not a whit.

Being able to behave differently applies to almost everything you can think up. Sweeping crumbs onto the floor? Check. Impatience? Check. All kinds of special orders/instructions? Check.

I’m not saying a lot of these types are particularly polite or tactful . . . I’m saying that if there’s more or less no harm done, we should cut them all the slack in the world.

Meanwhile, what doesn’t fit the category of Different Behavior falls in the opposite column and disproves the saying (The Wouldn’t Do That At Home!) directly: Yes, they would do exactly that at home.

  • A guy’s talking on his cell phone at the table. Can’t we agree this guy probably does the same at home?
  • The blowhard shouting over everyone else at the table (and in the restaurant). I’m sure he’s the same obnoxious ass at home.
  • Belchers? In fact, they probably do even more belching at home.
  • An overweight, over-age slob makes a pass at the waitress at the end of the meal . . . At home he’s leaning back on the sofa, pants unbuttoned, ‘Honey, who needs dessert when I got you? Now come on over here . . .’

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

As you must know, I work in two restaurants. My lunch job is at Michael’s (high-end chain steakhouse). My dinner job is at Carney’s Corner (somewhat high-end Mom ‘n Pop prime steakhouse). Both restaurants have been hit by the receding economy the last couple years.

My personal stats on Lunch:

  • I went from 4-5 lunch shifts a week, to 2-3 + an O/C.
  • The money used to average out weekly to $100+ per shift; that’s gone down to about $75.
  • Meantime, we used to run 5 or 6 servers. Now we go with 3 or 4.

Stats on Dinner:

  • I used to have 4 shifts, now I have 3.
  • We used to make a reliable $200+ weekend nights and $150 per weekday night. That’s dropped to about $160 and $100.
  • Used to be 4 servers weekends, 3 weekdays. Now it’s 3 and 2.

At Carney’s the owners’ answer to falling business is to cut prices. And that’s their only answer.

I addressed this in abbreviated form a year ago in Hammer And All The Nails, wherein I observed and groused that Carney’s husband Harry had only one tool in his box: cutting prices. The title refers to the old saying, when your only tool is a hammer, eventually every problem looks like a nail.

Sadly, things have only gotten worse. The most precipitous decline in check average came about when Harry collected all the ‘bar plate’ specials (he used to drum up business by offering cut rate entrees for bar customers only – for instance, a smaller filet mignon, with mashed potatoes, and a salad, all on one plate for about half the price of the regular, larger filet) and put them on a special menu supplement – now to be available also in the dining room. Gone were the inserts of the ‘specials’ and fresh fish that went inside the regular menus. Now there was a separate open-face ‘specials’ menu, featuring about eight cheap entrees, and the fresh fish.

We all know waiters don’t like to sell cheap stuff. We don’t make as much money because we’re tipped on a percentage of the check. That’s why coupons, happy hours, and early bird specials are roundly despised by waiters. Yes, we recognize the need to keep customer traffic healthy. Yes, we understand that these lower-echelon diners will still be paying full price for other elements of their meals (booze, appetizers, whatever). And yes, we know that getting new guests to try the restaurant is a good thing that might yield repeat business down the road.

But damn it, I still have a problem with it.

First, let me grouse about the new ‘specials’ menu at Carney’s. First, it’s an attention-hog. It’s like a sleazy girl with an okay body wearing a really short, tight dress. Even if she’s not your type, you’re not in the market, or you’re even a gay man, you will take notice and stare. Well, this menu is open faced, as I said. It is staring at the guest every single second. Whereas the ‘real’ menu is two pages book-style. It’s dynamite, loaded with things like Australian lobster tails, double cut rack of New Zealand lamb, New York pepper steak. But it’s closed. I can’t tell you how often diners don’t even open the regular menu. The ‘specials’ menu is staring them in the face. The prices are 50-60% of the regular menu. Portions are smaller, but it includes a salad – usually a $6 add-on in the ‘real’ menu.

So, yes, I can hardly blame people for ordering from this special menu. But it does get worse. Everything on the specials menu is a cannibalization of impressive and superior entrees on the regular menu. The specials are basically half orders. The lamb? Just a single rack and already sliced into chops: half price. Pork loins? Sliced pieces from the same amazing thick-cut pork chop: 2/3 the size, half the price. And everything, incidentally, is prepared the same way as the regular menu.

The other day, Carney, herself, pointed to the ‘specials’ menu and said to me, ‘You know, this is what’s saving us. This has become 70% of our overall entrée sales.’

Great. Just like when Coca-Cola’s marketing folk introduces five new flavors/permutations of Coke, and then brag about how the new products have become 20% of gross sales.

Well guess what? The pie hasn’t gotten bigger. It’s just been divided differently. And it’s your same pie, you idiots. And further, what you’ve ‘added’ to the mix are actually increased sales of the lowest priced and least profitable items.

Don’t know if you’re keeping track through the blog, but Carney’s does not advertise.

That said, I want to add this: I can’t tell you how many times regular, well-to-do Carney’s guests will sit down – prepared to order their Carney’s Corner favorites – and see this new ‘specials’ menu and opt for a small filet instead of their usual 10 oz. baseball cut.

These are people who don’t need to be ‘sold’ by lower prices. They are already here. They are here because they already like the traditional Carney’s fare – portion, preparation, price, everything. They are ready to order off the ‘big kids’ menu. But instead our owners just cut their own income in half by billboarding the specials menu.

Harry’s take is along the lines of shearing the sheep many times rather than slaughtering it once. Sure, wealthy people can afford the higher prices. But wealthy people are not immune to fear; they are looking to cut back where they can just like us normal poor people. Harry reasons (though he hasn’t said this specifically to anyone) if these frightened rich people see they can eat at Carney’s for $85 instead of the usual $120, then they’ll come back more frequently – maybe keep up their historical frequency of visits.

And it’s a fact that’s hard to argue with that, but that doesn’t usually stop me. Rather than rehash the argument I made in another post, I’ll just state here that without making people aware of this strategy (read: promotion and advertising) it takes too long to effect. We could well be out of this downturn by the time people are widely cognizant that Carney’s is quite reasonable for a ‘fine dining’ restaurant. But more on that day later.

Rather, for Carney’s my take – stipulating the reality that there’s no advertising going on – would be to have smaller, inferior, and different items on the lower-priced ‘specials’ menu. If people are motivated by price, then let them take a flier on some of these items. Why not offer a Choice top sirloin (we serve only prime steaks currently) that doesn’t duplicate the filet, new york, and rib eyes we do serve? It’s a cheaper cut in the first place, it’s also a lower grade. It would still be a good steak. Just not prime.

Meantime, this strategy preserves the primacy of the signature dishes, the dishes long-time guests return for again and again. And they pay the regular prices for them.

Let’s move on to Michael’s, my lunch job. A corporate place, Michael’s has behaved like all the others. First there was the New York and Crab package special. Used to be a summer-only thing to boost business in the slowest months. Lately? I haven’t been keeping track meticulously, but I think it’s been running without cessation for the last two years. It is steak and crab legs and a salad and side item and dessert for each person for $60 per person. Yes, each person gets all of those things. Not shared. It’s more food than you’d know what to do with, at Michael’s quantities. It’s about $100 of food at normal prices.

I won’t lie. As a lunch server, this was a great thing. It was a massive up-sell over our $15-27 lunch fare. For dinner, it didn’t work so well. Mainly, though, I want to show the sign posts on the way to Michael’s self-fulfilling prophecy.

Next, we were dealt the Prix Fixe Deluxe at lunch. A selection from five normal-sized lunch entrees inclusive of a side, choice of soup or salad, followed by a dessert: $22. These items ordered a la carte from the lunch menu would run in the neighborhood of $38.

God bless them, Michael’s at least will promote when necessary. After a moderate media blitz, the Prix Fixe Deluxer’s (let’s just call them Prix) flood into the restaurant, ID tags dangling from their belts, the men in ill-fitting suits, the women wearing hair and outfits that have that ‘I woke up this morning at my boyfriend’s apartment and didn’t have a change of clothes nor the time to do my hair again’ –look.

Business ticked up for about a month, at least volume did. Of course, we weren’t making any more money. Remember Restaurant Overstaffing? Don’t get me started there . . .

Similar to Carney rationalizing the ‘specials menu,’ our Michael’s pre-shift meetings featured a lot of talk about how all these Prix are people who wouldn’t normally be coming into the restaurant. And it was easy to agree with that. It was depressing to imagine how many covers we would have had some days without the Prix.

But which came first? The desire to go to Michael’s or the desire to get a good deal at Michael’s? In other words, what would have happened if the moderate media blitz instead promoted the fantastic lunch menu and high quality product and service? I kind of think we would have gotten a similar uptick in volume, and from our core-type guests: people with money.

Both my restaurants have created self-fulfilling prophecies by cutting prices then sitting back and noticing, ‘Wow! This program is really popular for us! It’s a good thing we did this, because it’s only thing people are buying!’

Well of course! And I think a $15,000 Mercedes-Benz sedan and a $75 Louis Vuitton hand bag and See’s Candies for $2.99 a pound would also be popular with their respective clientele. They’d find that quickly those items became the majority of their sales.

Congratulations! You’ve just destroyed your brand.

Which is my final point. Now that this new order has been achieved – Carney’s and Michael’s are successfully selling to more guests by lowering the prices and their profits, while still putting out the same quality – how do you re-convert your core guests once the economy turns around? How do you suddenly (or even gradually) take away these deals your guests have come to expect from, and even to identify with your restaurant? How (just one more rhetorical question, I promise) do you get them to feel good about paying $50 for a steak when they used to pay $30 and be perfectly happy?

The restaurant industry is in tread-water, stay-afloat mode right now. We’re all just trying to get through this till the seas calm down again. Unfortunately, what’s happening to many of the misguided and/or desperate places is they are making the wrong decisions and in the process disfiguring themselves. When they emerge from the economic storm, they will be unrecognizable to those wealthy whales [I know this metaphor has gotten out of hand, but just live with it, okay?] who are ready again to buy $100 lobsters and $200 bottles of wine. Meanwhile, their new ‘regulars’ will recoil when suddenly the ‘little’ menu is no longer available.

It takes some restaurants (Carney’s Corner) years to build up to a reputation of ‘high quality and expensive, but worth it’; and it takes others (Michael’s, who started out that way) years to entrench themselves in that position, able to fend off challengers because all those ‘qualities’ remain constant.

Now that I’m finished mangling my Stormy Seas, Bad Weather metaphor, let me finish with a new one. My restaurants will be like that unbelievable girl you somehow dated one time in high school. Then she appears at the 10 year reunion after too many years of clubbing, bad boys, cigarettes and cocaine. She doesn’t sound the same. She doesn’t look the same. She doesn’t have the same mojo. And even though you know you have a shot at her now, you’re really just not interested.