Fake Hustle

In my house, when the phone rings at 9:30 a.m., it’s either a bill collector looking for my sister, or else Michael’s Restaurant wanting me to come in early because of some problem they are having.

I woke up the other day to my home phone’s Classical Music ringtone. It was about 9:30 a.m. And I went right back to sleep.

So I slept. Eventually I did rise. After showering and dressing, and just as I came downstairs to pour myself some coffee, the phone rang again. Michael’s. It was Eric, new day manager. Missy had called in sick and now the in-times were all screwed up. He’d originally called to get me back on the opening shift. Now he just wanted me there by 11:30 (instead of the usual noon). It was now 11:02.

‘I’ll get there as soon as I can, but I just got out of the shower. The earliest I could be there is 11:40-11:45.’

He said okay and I promised to get there as soon as I could.

And that, my friends is what NBA commentator Mark Jackson calls Fake Hustle.

[I found this youtube of Mark Jackson using the term, though the accompanying video is not the most illustrative example. Actually, the first time I heard it referenced, it came from Jackson’s partner, Jeff Van Gundy. He watched a player chase a ball out of bounds, diving on the first row but not getting the ball. Lots of vigor and intensity. Van Gundy said (paraphrasing), ‘That’s fake hustle. He had no chance of getting that ball, and he knew it. But he dove for it anyway. He’s trying to get hustle points from the coaching staff, but he’s not actually hustling.’

Interesting idea, right? Later in the telecast, Van Gundy pointed out a guard who was defending out near the half-court line. This defending guard was waving his arms, moving his feet like he had burning coals in his shoes, jumping at fakes like he was being goosed with a cattle prod. Van Gundy said (paraphrasing again), ‘That’s fake hustle too. He’s moving around a lot, going really fast, expending a lot of energy. But he’s not really getting anything done.’

So that’s Fake Hustle. Let’s continue on.]

In reality, when Eric called, I was dressed and ready to go. I could have been pulling out of the driveway within 2 minutes. The 25 minute drive to Michael’s would have had me there right at 11:30.

But I wanted to enjoy my usual 30 minute ‘engine idling warm-up’ time: a cup of coffee and reading the L.A. Times on the internet.

So I took half my usual warm-up time, and made the scene at 11:45. I bounded in the door, tie knotted, apron strung, waving to the managers in the office like I was the cavalry arriving.

Out on the floor, Eric was cooling his heels. There were only two tables seated. No big deal. I could have showed at noon and it still would have been fine. But instead, Eric thanked me profusely for getting there early, and he apologized for the scheduling problem. Score another point for Fake Hustle.

Other kinds of Fake Hustle:

The Fake Help Offer

This is my ‘friend’ Blackie’s specialty. ‘Need anything?’ ‘Need anything?’ ‘Need anything?’ It sounds like a cacophony (emphasis on ‘phony’) of chirping birds at daybreak. These people (Blackie-types) know that 95% of the time waiters don’t need anything. So 19 times out of 20 she gets Fake Hustle credits for offering. Of course, we all know what happens when you take up the offer for Fake Help.

‘Yeah, Blackie. I’ve got two salads up. Could you run them real quick to 17? Caesar position one.’

‘Oh,’ she says, a bit of shock in her voice. ‘Okay. Um, I have to make two cappuccinos for my table, then I’ll do that for you.’

I’m a pleasant person at work. But I will get in someone’s face if he/she does this more than once.

‘I can just do it myself in that time,’ I would say. ‘And not only have you not helped me, I’ve now already wasted more time having this conversation with you. Don’t ask unless you’re available right now for help.’

Incidentally, managers really are probably the most notorious peddlers of the Fake Help Offer. Here’s a picture any veteran waiter will find familiar:

The guy in his charcoal grey suit suddenly stammering, looking around desperately, wondering if he can delegate (pass the buck) your request for help, before finally hearing the phone ring and letting out an audible gasp of relief as he runs to the desk (even though the host is taking the call already) without even acknowledging that you’re on your own.

Mickey, the old Michael’s day manager, used this move all the time.

Fake Table Bussing

This has plagued me ever since I started waiting tables 20+ years ago. At restaurants where clearing dinner plates is one of the busser’s duties, I will pass one of my tables several times in the process of doing other work like delivering food elsewhere, taking orders, etc. That one table is ready to be cleared, and I know it.

Now, in restaurants where bussers are expected to clear plates, us waiters use that expectation as part of our workflow. For instance, we know that we have time to enter a big order in the computer right now because in the meantime the busser will clear the plates and we’ll then be timed perfectly to address the table for dessert. It’s not being lazy for the waiter to pass the table and do nothing once or even twice. As part of a team, we each do our jobs to make for the smoothest possible service.

But of course, when one part breaks down you have to rush to save the situation. Which brings me to Fake Table Bussing.

In this instance, I’ll have to finally take matters in my own hands. These poor diners have been staring at congealing gravy and shriveling meat scraps for 5 minutes. Not pleasant. So I load up. My arms are now full. In fact, I’m carrying an entire four-top’s stone- and silverware. Forks are sliding off plates. Ramekins teeter atop a stack of bread discards. I pivot to leave the table and . . .

There’s my busser, arms outstretched, offering to take these plates from me.

Arrrggghhh!

Dude. That is not bussing the table. You are not saving me any time now.

I’ve even had Fake Bussing attempted on me right in front of the dish station. ‘Really? Now you want to help me?’ Sheesh.

Fake Teamwork

I admit I’ve even practiced a version of this. Specifically, when asked to help clear a table at Michael’s (unlike in the example above, bussers at Michael’s are not responsible for clearing plates), I’ll cherry-pick the ‘clean’ plates (plates from which the guest has eaten virtually everything) and stack up a bunch of them to do my part.

What’s wrong with that? Kind of nothing, really. But here’s the trick to it. By grabbing the ‘clean’ plates, I get to avoid the ‘Can you wrap that up for me?’ requests. Obviously, it’s a lot more time-consuming to wrap up food to go than it is merely to drop off dishes in the dish station.

It’s kind of not wrong because most waiters accept responsibility for to-go packing on their own tables. They don’t really expect you to do it for them.

That said, I just earned Fake Hustle points for the minimum time expended.

Fake Food Running

Another of Blackie’s signature moves. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been camped at the pass out bar at Michael’s, garnishing a big order, examining the ticket, calling for sides that accompany the entrees, making sure the plates are in proper order, etc. Sometimes, if you’re not busy, that’s really all you have to do.

Meanwhile, Blackie, who’s not that busy herself, will flit in and out of the pass out line area. You’ll notice her disappear into the kitchen, then reappear on the floor – the whole time with nothing in her hands.

Now it’s go time. You load up 3 or 4 plates. Another server handles the sides. Maybe even another grabs the sauce ramekins . . .

And now here comes Blackie, ready to ‘help.’

‘Oh,’ she says with that same sort of shock in her voice, only this time it’s fake. ‘You got it all?’

Nice move, biatch, only I’m on to you, and I’ve noted it.

Incredibly, Blackie has pulled this shenanigan repeatedly as teammates run her food!

Red Lobster Blog Comment, Expanded

Earlier I touched on a wonderful post I read on Red Lobster Blog. It was about Fairness and Merit in corporate restaurant. At that point, I went back to read it again and couldn’t resist dropping a comment. But then the comment got way too long and I had to pull it and produce this current post instead.

So, please read the post on Red Lobster Blog first. It’s great writing. And it’s funny. If you’re a good waiter (and I know all of you are), you’ll love it.

Are you done reading reader-writes-in-stupid-store-policies yet? Please just read it. I don’t care where you work. If you’ve worked for corporate, you will love it. Haven’t worked for corporate? Then you’ll be blown away by how corporate approaches matters of employee competence and fairness.

Oh. It’s Red Lobster, so you don’t care? Well Red Lobster is, NUMBER TWO, part of the fraternity. What’s NUMBER ONE? Number One is:

The job/essence of waiting tables is the same no matter what money/class/region echelon you’re in.

Come on, just read it!

Also, note that I’m writing in a bit different voice than my blog. (Hey, I have a life outside this, you know!)

Here’s my addendum:

I guess this comment is really for the original letter writer. First, kudos to you, dude! Awesome essay.

I read this 6 months ago. I returned 3 months ago and read it again. And now I’ve written about a tangential topic on my blog, and I couldn’t help linking to it and reading it yet again. This post is brilliant.

It is something I agree with deeply. Regarding doing my job: I don’t believe I have the personality of the letter writer, but I believe I have all the ‘game.’ On the nuts and bolts stuff, I’m like a worker bee (protocol, ‘spec,’ sidework, etc.). With the guest, I connect and they feel good about things. I have many request parties. I have many guests who leave 30-40% tips (and of course not because I’m giving them free stuff – they spend big money at the restaurant). I solve problems and I prevent problems and I ignore problems that aren’t really problems – all so the managers can go on doing productive managerial things instead of having to kill all the little tiny scary spiders so the waiters (or guests) don’t squeal. Or even so the managers can just relax for a freakin’ few seconds in the midst of their 12 hour day.

So anyway, I also feel a vested interest in this trend. I experienced it myself. A manager at my restaurant spent two years slavishly imposing exact equal cover counts on lunch shifts. Including the closer who often would stand around (or expedite-/teamwork-around, in my case) the entire shift while still short 6-10 covers because a table was coming in at 2 p.m. Do you get it? When that late table comes in, finally the Closer gets back up to even in the cover count. Yet every 4th shift that table doesn’t come in at all. Or it’s a 4-top instead of 8, or deuce instead of 4 . . . right? And this is your Closer who you’re treating this way. The one you trust to be around and handle with aplomb whatever comes up, regardless that there’s no server help around to provide ‘teamwork.’ Your Closer has the game to get the job done.

Do you feel my compassionate pain? A great point has been made by the writer. Digressing just a little to drive it home, I’ll mention that back in the last Dallas Cowboys golden era (and I’m not a Cowboys fan, for what it’s worth), Jimmie Johnson, the coach at the time, fielded a question about preferential treatment for his stars. Paraphrasing, he said it would be crazy not to cut more slack to your biggest and most reliable producers (at the time referring to players like Emmett Smith and Michael Irvin). They had earned it, and it also provided a carrot/reward for lesser players to chase to improve themselves.

Waiters come and go, in vast herds. The best places I’ve ever worked rewarded excellence and competence – even the incompetent understood their place. And either they (the incompetent) were just hanging on, or they were trying to improve to reach the next rewarded level. The barely-hanging-on’s usually became the never-quite-made-it’s. The improvers usually worked their way up to respectability and self-respectability. And I agree with the writer: this kind of thing would never have happened if it was institutionalized that every heartbeat-positive body on the floor got equal treatment. And to further support his point, those great restaurants would never have happened under those conditions because guests would have stopped coming long ago because of offensively bad service.

If you recall my previous post, I had suddenly found myself in this enviable position at Michael’s – being trusted with more and ‘better’ covers. Well, that has continued. I pretty much crushed the last few weeks. Except for last 10 days ago Friday, when Eric (the new manager) loaded everyone else before I got my first table. He took me aside and said, sotto voce, ‘I’m kinda loading everyone else up because you’ve been crushing it last couple weeks. The cover counts are ridiculous.’

I was in no position to complain. And in fact, I still felt perfectly fine.

The downside here is that who knows if I’ll be allowed to keep ‘crushing it’ moving forward? All it takes is some malcontent incompetent like Blackie to make some noise, and next thing you know, they’re measuring cover counts like grains of sand again.

Cleaning Out The Refrigerator IV – New Manager At Michael’s

Shortly after my blow-up in December, Mickey put in her resignation, then worked her last shift in the first week of January. Aside from the story recounted earlier, I had one other bone of contention with her: her penchant for over-staffing. So I wasn’t that sad to see her go. At the same time, there is some anxiety because you never know what you’re gonna end up with as a replacement. At least Mickey was a known quantity.

The immediate result was that the General Manager took over the lunch shift for about a month while we all waited for Mickey’s replacement to finish his training elsewhere in the country. Like a lot of GM’s, he’s the aloof sort who’s hard to get a read on. Other stretches when he has run lunch (and of course, the front desk) for a week or two, I’ve gotten the shaft or I’ve gotten styled-out big time. Variously, I’ve thought he didn’t like me; he did like me; he didn’t give enough of a shit to bother with being even-handed; or he didn’t really know what he was doing.

I now think it’s mostly the latter two. This run, for about a month, I got a better feel for him. I discovered he really liked working the lunch. It turns out he’s normally overworked, but the lunch shift gives him a mere 10 hour day compared to 12-14 for his night shift. He also said the rhythm of the clock when he works days allows him to get a full night’s sleep. He was pretty happy.

And so were us waiters. He was not afraid to staff appropriately. Meaning not over-staffing. And if it got suddenly busier than expected, he rolled up his sleeves and took care of biz. Our covers went from 10 per server to 13. The math there is pretty easy. We made $65 a shift at 10 covers per, now we were making $85.

Finally, three weeks ago brought the new day manager, Eric. So far he seems to be a great guy, a server-oriented manager. By that, I mean, when he’s not busy with his primary duties seating guests, running the desk, opening wine, and doing table checks, he shifts into service mode. He grabs dirty plates, he hits the line and runs food, etc. It’s quite nice. We’ll see how long it lasts – and I won’t blame him when/if he stops busting his hump quite so much.

(Michael’s managers are just plain overworked. If they could just do 10 hour days five a week, instead of 12’s for six days a week, everybody would be a lot happier. But because they don’t, I understand fatigue and the power of inertia. Hey, they might not be busting ass clearing tables and such, but they’re busting ass doing 15 other things.)

I was also lucky enough the first week with Eric at the helm to turn in a superior shift (a $350 blockbuster I mentioned in another post). It got busy. I had a full section all day, with a six-top, a couple of fours, and an all-day four-top that lasted 3 hours amassing a $500 check. Included in this mix were a couple of Prime Guests. I handled everything flawlessly.

The other waiters apparently had some problems however. I learned that he corralled them at the end of the shift for a meeting wherein he gave them some gentle ‘focus points.’ I was not invited to this fun meeting. The next day, Eric said to me, ‘You really did a great job yesterday. Thanks!’

Okay. This is what I’m talking about. As long as I can keep up the quality and competence, I should be able to enjoy some slight preferential treatment. If that sounds selfish or conceited, well, I’m sorry. But I’m being honest. And I believe all waiters hope to achieve such slightly-preferential treatment . . . Well, maybe it’s more accurate that good waiters hope for that; bad waiters just hope to get even treatment. Either way, each is hoping for a slight upgrade over what he deserves. This has been addressed exceedingly well on a Red Lobster blog. Please click through for an entertaining and enlightening read about the evils of politically correct corporate restaurants and their fear of what should be a meritocracy.

Since then, I’ve truly been killing it at Michael’s. Just yesterday I had walked with $288. Maybe it’s luck of the draw – or more likely just patience on my part, as I’ve been hanging around for close to six years – but almost every break is going my way.

Yesterday, for example, I was the closer. It was a 3-floor. But server A wasn’t feeling well and was cut earlier than normal. Server B was working her other job in downtown L.A., so she was also cut a bit earlier than normal. Add to that, that the busser was on vacation, and his replacement was doing a double – so they made him cut out at 1:30 so he wouldn’t incur overtime. This left me alone on the floor by 2 p.m. and I still had a full station at that point. And then it got busy.

Tables kept coming. Mercifully, they dribbled in rather than flooded in at once. But it was tough. A 5-top insisted on ordering everything on my first visit to the table: bottled water, appetizers, salads/soups/entrées/desserts. As I was just a bit behind, this first greeting happened as I had my hands full with a tray and a couple of plates hidden behind my back. I couldn’t write all this garbage down. So I just concentrated and memorized the entire freaking order.

I ran four tables from 2-4:30, when they finally started to fall away and not be replaced. Like my first big day with Eric as manager, I managed to hit everything perfectly. No voids needed. No complaints. No fires to put out.

Of course, with no busser and no waiters around to lean on for key moments of teamwork, I got a lot of help from the manager and bartender. No apologies, and no embarrassment. The job had to get done, and I basically orchestrated it getting done properly.

In the end, Eric was again appreciative of how I managed to handle the volume with no problems at all, and nothing but happy guests. I tipped the bartender double her usual, gave the manager double the usual thank you’s, and left with nearly 300 bucks for a lunch shift.

So, this kind of thing has led to my getting luckily positioned in a very good place with the new manager. Combined with a small surge in business, the immediate future at my lunch gig is looking very good (upgraded from at best just ‘solid’) for the first time.

Cleaning Out The Refrigerator III – Banquet Serving Blow-Up

Last couple of posts concerned happenings at Carney’s. Michael’s – my lunch job – had a few moments as well.

Back in December I had an uncomfortable incident with Mickey, the day manager at Michael’s.

First a bit of background. Michael’s does a lot of business in its banquet rooms. When I first started there, more than five years ago, it was the drug companies bribing doctors to prescribe their snake oil. Now it’s all about selling IT guys software/systems for handling their company’s exponentially-growing digital data. Evidently there is a lot of money to be made selling Virtual Machines and the like, because these companies are spending thousands every week to do it – just at our restaurant.

[A side note: If you ever want to know what businesses are making windfall profits, check who is hosting banquet events at high end places like Michael’s.]

Anyway, like every other aspect of restaurant business, banquet volume heats up during the holidays. So more servers are needed to staff these banquet events. There are 4 unfortunate things about this, from my perspective:

  1. I don’t like working banquets. I will do it for the good of the team and the restaurant and not to be a whiner. While I actually enjoy dealing with guests in the normal, ‘on the floor’ arrangement, I don’t like working banquets. It’s just plain labor with no fun attached.
    1. The labor? There’s also more of it. A lot more. Despite an automatic 20% gratuity, Michaels’ system of tipping out everyone including the coordinator, the manager, the bartender, and the restaurant itself as an entity, unfortunately omits the busser. Therefore, the waiters do all the busser work – Breakdown/Reset included, which invariably involves moving lots of tables and heavy wooden chairs.
    2. The money is inferior as well. For our trouble in doing the work of the busser, the waiters get to divide up what comes to 13.5% (out of an original 20%) of the check, pre-tax, after everybody else in the house wets his/her beak. Further monetary insult comes when the presented check includes the gratuity pre-printed by the computer, with no additional blank line offered for the possibility of getting thrown an extra bone or two. And by the way, before this system went into effect, about one in five hosts would tip extra. Now it’s about one in 20.
  2. I work all year cultivating good relationships with my lunch guests. Then comes the one month of the year when I might get either side-tipped (Christmas tips) or get to handle the high-dollar blow-out office party, there’s an increased chance I’ll be unavailable – banished to the salt mines, er, banquet rooms.
  3. When extra staff is brought on from the night crew to help with the massive business at lunch (both on the floor and in the banquet rooms), quite often it is these night servers who end up on the floor getting the once-a-year rainmaker parties. Even though these night servers actually don’t even know how to work lunch – they don’t know the menu, the system, the pace, the tricks of the trade, the guests who come in. And to make it hurt even more, these night servers do know how to work banquets.
  4. And finally, I don’t like working banquets.

So as I say, I’m dutifully logging about a day a week in the banquet rooms. That seems to be the threshold that Mickey (who’s in charge of scheduling us lunch people) adheres to. I’m quiet as a mouse about it because everyone has to sacrifice and that’s just fine. Hey, I’ve been doing this at Michael’s for more than 5 years!

We’re about two weeks before Christmas. I do a banquet shift on Monday. I examine the various in-times for Tuesday’s lunch, which can reveal whether one is on-the-floor or in-the-banquet rooms. Or not. My in-time was inconclusive. So I stop in the office on the way out the door and ask Mickey if I’m working the banquet rooms again tomorrow.

Now truly, at this point I’m just inquiring. If she says I am working the banquet rooms, I would at most comment, ‘Wow, two days this week.’ And there would be no more from me. I’m not the complaining-type of employee (at least to managers – I actually generally sympathize with them and want to leave them to do their jobs with minimum hassle from us stiffs).

Instead, Mickey says she doesn’t actually know yet. So I say, very politely, even kind of mock begging: ‘Pleeaassse, if at all possible can I not be in the banquet rooms tomorrow?’ I say this with my hands folded as if praying, with a big smile on my face. She says she doesn’t know. She’ll see.

Next morning I show up and, yes, I’m in the banquet rooms. I’ll be real: I was not happy. But if for some reason it had to be, then it had to be.

Then I see the floor chart and notice that Celine, a night server who has never worked lunches, is on the floor. And she was the on-call person. As this data sits in the pit of my gut like a smoldering cigarette butt that just won’t go out, I go about the grunt work, er, opening banquet set up. Celine shows up and is delighted that she’s not in the banquet rooms like she expected. She gets a table straight off. I happen to be standing by the terminal as she’s placing her first order.

‘What is the Just-Right-Rib-Eye? Is that the same as the Boneless Rib Eye at dinner?’ she asks me.

The Just-Right-Rib-Eye is the top selling lunch steak for 5 years running. It is just a different name for the same smaller Boneless Rib Eye served at dinner. I equitably answered her question and helped her along with the ordering screens at lunch and gave her some advice on timing.

Then I went back to smoldering. Refer above to the 4 problems I have with Banquet Serving.

By the end of the day I was fit to be tied. I had resolved to demand some answers from Mickey. Namely, how could she put a completely inept and inexperienced (at lunch) server on the floor during the busiest part of the year, while I suffered all year long with $50-70 shifts only to be taken off the floor at exactly the time I finally stood to make some real money, and how after all I had even begged her not to put in the banquet rooms this day and how she actually had every reason – even from a management/profit/be-a-nice-person perspective – to go along with my plea, and yet she still jammed me into the banquet rooms?

Actually, that’s a whole bunch of run-on questions. And when the time came, that’s about how it came out of me. Mickey turned up in the empty banquet room at the end of the shift as I was lugging some chairs. She said something innocuous and I took the opportunity to rant at her. When she claimed that Celine was the on-call and she didn’t know she would need her till the last minute, I countered that she still could have just switched us. It had been done countless times in the past.

As Mickey mounted ever-diminishing excuses, I unfortunately couldn’t contain my frustration, and I raised my voice. Kind of shouted, in fact. She told me to not yell at her. I said I was mad, that’s why I was yelling, and that I was sorry. So I stopped yelling and started in with that kind of so-tightly-controlled-hush-it-still-seems-like-you’re-yelling voice. Then it was over.

Until I was summoned to the office on the way out the door. Mickey and the GM awaited me. Mickey reiterated that she didn’t appreciate being yelled at, that she wouldn’t treat me that way. I said I was sorry, and that I had been upset. She repeated herself, and I said I was sorry again. I started to explain what was going through my mind when the GM jumped in.

‘At this point it really doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘You really weaken your argument when you lose your head like that.’

I apologized again.

He said how surprised he was that this came from me (as I say, I’m not that kind of guy). He went on about how this kind of thing was unacceptable and could not be tolerated, etc.

I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Well what else do want me to do then?’

He kind of got a glimmer in his eye, grinned a bit, and chuckled, ‘Ho . . . You’re not getting sarcastic with me, are you?’

I admit, it was a little chilling and intimidating. But I said, ‘No. But I apologized once to Mickey right when it happened. Then I apologized twice to her right now. And once more to you. And since you’re saying it doesn’t matter at all what I have to say about the incident, apologizing is about the only thing I can do.’

That did the trick, I guess. Because he stopped being menacing. He had a few more words to say. Then Mickey offered to let me have a say about it. So I took a controlled take on the various points I’ve mentioned above, and pointed out I’d spent the afternoon stewing about it because in the final analysis it just seemed so unfair.

I wrapped it up, and then said, ‘So, do you have something for me to sign?’ Meaning a write-up form. The GM said, no, they didn’t think it would be necessary because they couldn’t imagine it happening again. I thanked them for having that opinion of me, and beat it out of there.

In retrospect, while I still think I got screwed that day and I’m even still irritated thinking about the situation, I’m mostly just embarrassed. But then, what the hell? Nobody’s perfect. I’m not the first person to lose their cool at work. Thank god it didn’t involve an automatic weapon.

Cleaning Out The Refrigerator II – More Carney’s Odds And Ends

So after the Big Bang of the Wife leaving Carney’s, more changes were set in motion.

Initially, Ciera was so upset that she insisted on giving the Wife $100 out of her New Year’s Eve money to make up for her part in the debacle. Later, reflecting, Ciera was so disgusted by it all that she nearly quit. But she didn’t. Instead, she renounced two of her four shifts – she, too, filling the void with shifts from her other job (I didn’t mention it, but the Wife got Ciera a job at her ‘lunch place’ – they work together). This has led to some customer defection but not too much, as the Wife and Ciera started letting inquiring minds know that they could also be reached at the other restaurant.

So Carney hired a couple new girls, both in their 40’s. One turned out to be a crack head or have some similar problem, as she went home early with ‘illness’ her first shift alone on the floor, then called in sick 15 minutes before her in-time for her next shift on Saturday night.

The upshot is that her replacement is a delight. A super-attractive girl in her mid-20’s, she picks up things quickly, and implements advice immediately and permanently. On the other hand, it’s tough to predict how such fresh and tender new meat will survive Carney and Harry’s passive aggressive insanity. And, time will tell how long this youngster will be willing to give up all her social Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays (that’s her schedule). Though I already like her, I predict she’ll last less than a year. Carney’s is not the kind of place, unfortunately, where you can just pick up and take a weekend off. The staff is too small, Carney meddles too much, and she makes it seem as if she is sacrificing all so you can have a few consecutive days off.

* * * * *

At the end of the last post I alluded to the omission of the traditional $300 Christmas bonus at Carney’s. That’s a funny situation as well.

Certainly I can understand the decision, in light of the difficult business climate last year. I’ve documented the decline over that time. Also, as I told Carney when she broke the news (and as I told the other waiters), ‘That’s why it’s called a bonus. You don’t count on it.’ As it was, I had never gotten a bonus any place else I’d worked in 20+ years, so what was I to complain about?

Yeah, I could have used it. I was even half-counting on it, despite the rumbling rumors that preceded the official non-bonus. I thought at the time it was just more histrionics by Carney and Harry and that they’d come through in the end.

Anyway, despite my sanguine attitude about no-bonus, there were a few things that developed that stuck in my craw.

  1. The Back of the House probably got bonused. Having no evidence at all, this is just a hunch based on a general feeling. I give it 75%. (For the unfamiliar, Back of the House or BOH is everybody who is not a manager, host, busser, bartender, or waiter. In other words, cooks and dishwashers, although at Carney’s the bussers are also BOH.)
  2. Further, the BOH got bonused every single week during the year. What? you ask. Well, Carney and Harry pull some typical ‘Independent Restaurant Tax Dodging’ on the weekend breakfast/lunches, slipping part or all of the cash transactions out a trap door in the register. Out of this, they issue weekly bonuses to the cooks and bussers. I’m guessing $50 each worker, weekly.
  3. An integral part of Carney and Harry’s self-image as angelic, hard-working philanthropists comes at Christmas when they play Santa to the poor children sired by the Back of the House. Carney will go to 99-Cent Store, Big Lots (formerly Pic ‘N Save), and K-Mart and fill up shopping bags with . . . that sort of merchandise. Then on Christmas day she’ll deliver the booty down to the purportedly happy niños and niñas.

    Typical Carney and Harry Christmas Gift

[Side Note: When this tradition started (best I can tell) five years ago, Carney enlisted the staff to wrap the dozens of plastic knick-knacks. Yes, the Wife got corralled (I dodged it, being a guy). Like people don’t have enough wrapping of their own to do, they have to wrap the boss’s Christmas shopping too? Even more, consider what this actually said about Carney and Harry’s generosity. Running berserk through K-Mart with a shopping cart would take less than 30 minutes. Wrapping all that junk would take hours, not to mention be so much more difficult and tedious. But, ohhh to hear Carney crow about the joy she brought to those dirty little faces on Christmas morning!]

So, yes, there was the traditional patronizing Christmas run again this year. Carney didn’t have Rudolph to help, but Harry’s gin-blossomed nose makes a great substitute.

  1. Most galling of all, Carney told Ciera that we weren’t getting a bonus because they got a new LCD TV for the bar – that was our bonus, she said. (This was Carney’s Corner’s first TV of all time, so a really big deal was made.) I’m not sure if she meant that now we could watch TV while we worked, or that the TV was going to bring so much business we would make a lot more money. Maybe both. Either way, I don’t see how an owner can claim that an investment in his business is equivalent to a direct employee bonus.

    There were a lot of jokes made. Like, ‘Well if that’s our bonus, I want a key to the front door so I can bring my friends down to watch Monday Night Football.’ (Carney’s is always closed Mondays.) And, ‘If they ever close this place, I want my 1/5 of that TV.’ And, ‘Maybe next year they’ll give us a new ice machine!’

Still, a bonus is a bonus, and not regular pay. So I guess they do what they want. It’s just the inconsistencies and jackass explanations that rankle.

* * * * *

On a related note, I have a local pet peeve I continue to hear at Carney’s. Frank the Bartender said it a couple of times to Carney, brown-nosing about getting no bonus: ‘At least we have a job . . .’ He also said another time, ‘Having a job is our bonus.” What a shit-eater!

Okay. I want to make sure I strike the right note here. What follows is not meant to be disparaging of others elsewhere, nor self-aggrandizing of myself, nor unsympathetic to the many restaurant workers who have lost jobs elsewhere. I readily acknowledge restaurants are closing, staffs are shrinking, no one is opening new restaurants. And because of this, there are waiters who don’t have jobs.

But not around here.

Don’t get me wrong, I count my blessings too. Just, there are a few reasons why this is a hollow thing to say in Beach City – at least for now.

  1. No restaurants have effectively closed in Beach City. Some have been sold. And have reopened with a new names painted on the windows. All of Carney’s competition is still in business. The coffee shops, sandwich places, beer bars, sushi spots – they’re all still going.
  2. Staffs are shrinking, yes. Carney’s’ staff is smaller. But it’s happened the same way as everywhere else in town. When someone leaves or is fired for just reason, he is not replaced. I’ve not heard of anyone in town (in our biz) being ‘laid off.’
  3. As 40-something-aged waiters, who haven’t slowed down, we are about as good as it gets. Unless the restaurant industry as a whole collapses, we’ll have jobs if we want them. Around here.

Yeah, I do feel lucky to have a job compared to people elsewhere across the country who no longer have work. But I don’t feel any luckier than usual around here.

The truth is, for us, luck has nothing to do with it. Even if restaurants were closing right and left in Beach City, those of us at Carney’s might still have our jobs because we’re knowledgeable, hard-working professionals. And if Carney’s did close, there’s more than a good chance we’d be able to catch on elsewhere. Good waiters are valued by smart business owners and management. Did you know that Michael’s, my lunch job, has continued to hire waiters all through this recession? Last week, even, the GM did a dozen interviews. And believe me, Michael’s has been fully-staffed the whole time. They continue to hire because forward-looking businesses realize this is a time they can snap up a jewel or two who have for some reason turned up in the hiring pool.

I hope I’m clear here that I’m not unsympathetic to those out of work. And that of course it’s lucky I live in a local economy still strong enough that the industry can take its lumps and not get knocked out. But otherwise, how can you consider yourself ‘lucky’ when everyone around you seems to have the same luck?

* * * * *

As has been the case the last several years (most, actually) January was a good month. Then came February. As expressed in the current parlance in the biz, we crushed it in February. At Carney’s, my weekday shifts averaged $150; weekends were $200+. Then came the 3-day Valentine’s extended remix weekend: $245, $265, $345. At Michael’s I stayed on a $100 a day average . . . unless something unusual happened, like several $200 lunches, two $250’s, and one $350. Feels good.

And yet, when pasty-faced, red-nosed, nearly-retired fat cats ask how business has been? and I reply that it’s been good, that things seem to be creeping back finally – I still get the disagreeing head shake.

I’d like to respond, ‘Hey, what can I say? You asked me a question and this is the fact of the matter. It is better.

The paranoid me suspects that these fat cats are secretly hoping our business is down so they can continue to feel superior and take advantage.

* * * * *

In my never-ending quest to up-sell guests inside their own subconscious, I’ve taken a couple new tacks on downplaying the ‘Bar Plate’ menu. Click that link for thorough detail about the low-priced, recession-inspired menu at Carney’s that has all but taken over entrée sales.

In the past I used to make a game of picking the right words to make cheapskates choose a better wine-by-the-glass than what they wanted – namely, the cheapest damned thing we got.

Example: ‘I’ll have a glass of the house Chardonnay.’

‘We don’t designate any wines as house wines. We have three Chardonnays: Ste. Michele from Washington State; Sterling, designated general California, and BV from Napa.’

Now you’ll notice that I have said nothing that is untrue. Nor are my words colored in any way. I wouldn’t, for instance, add to the BV info something like, ‘. . . which is my favorite,’ or ‘. . . which has a beautiful pear and oak flavors.’ In my peculiar code of ethics, that’s cheating.

So anyway, about the ‘Special Menu.’ First, because of the failure of my many and varied attempts at subtle persuasion through choice of descriptors (‘Bar Plates,’ ‘One-Plate-Specials,’ ‘Supplemental Menu,’ ‘Reduced-Portion menu,’ etc.), my new tack is reverse psychology. Now I really pump up the Bar Plate menu. I mean, I lay it on thick, with no reservation: ‘Make sure you check out this menu here. It’s incredible. Exact same quality – just a little smaller portion – comes with a side and a salad!’

And I swear it’s working. These people look at me (I believe suspiciously), look down at the Bar Plate menu, then shift their gaze to the ‘real’ menu.

The other thing I’m doing is handing out the real menus already open. Recall, one big problem was that the Bar Menu is ‘always open,’ being only a single sheet. Now they have an even bigger billboard stealing their attention. And that’s working too.

Or else it’s just that the economy is improving . . .

Cleaning Out The Refrigerator I – Carney’s Loses A Waiter

Have you ever looked into your well-stocked refrigerator, stared a few moments, poked around on the shelves for another minute, pulled out the crisper drawers and checked the door racks, then shut the damned door?

Nothing to eat.

Of course that’s not true. There’s plenty of good, unspoiled food in there. Delicious food. The only problem is you just don’t have the will or motivation to prepare it. And the readily-consumables – cheese sticks, apples, dry salami, etc. – simply aren’t appealing right now.

MAYBE MY FRIDGE DOES SUCK, ‘CAUSE THIS ONE LOOKS PRETTY INTERESTING

My recent restaurant life has been that refrigerator. Plenty of fine stuff in there, but I just haven’t been compelled to whip up anything to serve. Even the easy stuff, like recounting business volume and tips, gets the ‘Ahh, not tonight’ treatment.

So here’s some of what’s been happening since Christmas.

The biggest change occurred at Carney’s Corner, my night job. As you might know, the Wife works there with me. After a hard-labored and quite successful Christmas season (up from the previous couple years), the staff of four (me, the Wife, Ciera, and Jacqueline) were poised for New Year’s Eve, the cherry on the sundae shift. Well, during the fallow week between Christmas and New Year’s, the Wife needed me to work her mid-week shift. Carney and Harry had previously told us on many occasions that whenever the Wife and I wanted to switch anything (in-times, shifts, whatever) we could do so at will without their advance approval – we’d gained their trust to be always reliable. Now, the only catch for me was that I had to work late that lunch at Michael’s, so in advance I called Ciera and got her to take the opening shift (normally the Wife’s) and I’d come in at 5:30 so I could be on time.

With me so far? I took the Wife’s opening shift, then had teammate Ciera switch opening/closing shifts with me. I arranged this with Ciera a couple days before the actual switcheroo-ing was to take place.

Cut to 4:50 p.m. on that fateful Wednesday. It’s 5 minutes past the time Ciera was supposed to be there opening for me. And she’s not there!. Harry has a monumental drunk on and he’s absolutely freaking out. He has Carney call the Wife, then me, then Ciera. An absolute DefCon 4 condition.

Nobody answered their phones because I was en route from Michael’s, the Wife was unavailable, and Ciera was just then walking in the door at Carney’s Corner. At 4:52, a full 7 minutes late.

All kinds of shit rained down from this massive break in protocol and responsibility. Ciera had to apologize and defend me and the wife against Harry’s raging/intoxicated anger. She said it was her fault because I’d arranged the switch with her and she’d failed to notify Carney when she had the chance.

That was of course not the end of it. At the conclusion of the night (weeknights, Carney normally stays home, while Harry never works evenings), Harry and Carney both returned. Highly unusual. They sat me down at a booth in the bar.

‘Here’s what’s going to happen,’ Harry said. ‘Ciera was late again today. I can’t have this shit. I have a business to run here. There’s only one thing I can do, so I’m taking your Wife off New Year’s Eve. So what do you think?’

I said, ‘Then that’s the way it’s going to be, I guess. If this is the way you want to behave –’

‘I’m not behaving! I have to –’

‘You are behaving. Whether it’s good, bad, or neutral, it’s behavior. If this is the way you want to handle it, there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s no reason to argue when we both already know you aren’t going to change your mind. So, is there anything else?’

I paraphrase a bit, but that was pretty much it with me. Ciera had a couple more sit-downs with them. Ciera doesn’t hold shit back. And unlike me, she doesn’t mind tilting at windmills – she’ll argue with them. She even cried trying to either inject them with, or extract some, sense from them.

Cowardly as usual, Harry hadn’t notified the Wife that he was capriciously taking $350 away from us (that’s what the Wife would have made that night including hourly, had the floor been divided 5 ways instead of 4 [Frank the Bartender was part of the tip pool New Year’s Eve]). When I broke the news to her, she didn’t take it well. She’d had some wine that evening and despite the late hour, she was determined to call Carney and give her an earful. I, being by nature a diplomat, counseled that she wait till she was sober so she wouldn’t burn any bridges out of anger. More importantly, I believed given a day to think about it, Carney and Harry themselves would reverse their ridiculously unfair and harmful decision. If the Wife challenged them, however, Harry would never back down.

At the same time, it’s usually best to let the Wife do what she wants. No sense she and I having an argument over this as well!

She called and went off on Carney, saying, most significantly, that this was so unfair and illogical, she now was going to consider whether she wanted to continue working at Carney’s at all.

Well, nothing changed. And the wife dropped by the restaurant daytime on the Sunday after New Year’s and put in her notice. She managed to avoid ruining her 5+ year relationship with them. For their part, they didn’t accept her resignation. (Ha!) They wanted her to stay and were going to wait a week or so to see if her decision was going to stick.

It stuck, but the Wife is retaining a semi-available status. Not on-call, but she is still willing to pick up shifts if she cares to do so. She has worked 4 or 5 since quitting. Incidentally, the Wife, like yours truly, has maintained a lunch job in addition to the dinner gig. Her lunch place was willing to guarantee a full slate of lunches in addition to 2 dinner shifts with the possibility of more. Our math had that getting pretty close to displacing the Carney’s income. Also, the wife is currently in a paralegal training program; she figures (I don’t, necessarily) she’ll be out of the waiting business by the end of the year anyway.

I’ve resisted summarizing what happened with that decision to suspend the Wife for the New Year’s Eve shift. Hopefully you’ve already broken it down, but if you haven’t, here’s the nutshell:

Ciera was late for a shift (a mere 7 minutes, by the way – and for what it’s worth, there were no tables waiting, and no other “domino-type” problems that stemmed from her tardiness). So Harry suspended the Wife. Huh? His idea was to control Ciera by making us mad at her, thus forcing her by shame, peer pressure, or guilt, to stop being late . . .

Meanwhile, even after this went down, Carney and Harry explicitly admitted they had no problem with mine and the wife’s switch. Which leaves who to blame for Ciera’s lateness (besides Ciera)? Most restaurants hold responsible the person of record for the shift. In other words, unless a change is approved and noted by a manager, the original holder of the shift catches the hell if the ‘coverer’ is late or no-shows or is otherwise unacceptable to work. Following that logic (as if any logic at all was employed here!), I should have been the one suspended, as it was I who negotiated the switch with Ciera.

(In my defense, what I did was pretty much standard operating procedure: Contacting Ciera at work and switching with her left the usual process of her talking to Carney that day – if Carney was still there – or the next day, to get approval on the switch. Which Ciera promised to do. But she didn’t.)

And anyway, it’s all sooooo stupid. We’re dealing with a staff of four waiters, all of us in our 40’s, all of us quite professional and responsible. More, all of us have proven as much to Harry and Carney continuously for the last 5 years (8 years in Jacqueline’s case). Top that off with the facts that: 1) we’ve worked very hard and competently during the just-concluded Christmas season; 2) we’ve repeatedly done ‘extra’ things like purchase supplies for the restaurant during off hours, do computer work like schedule rotations at home because Carney is a luddite, or come in early when we know it’s necessary (without being requested by Carney); 3) none of us got the usual $300 Christmas bonus this year.

And this is their reaction to someone being 7 minutes late?