The Cooler

In Las Vegas gaming, a Cooler is a dealer or pit boss who comes to a table game that is hot, and through distraction, bad vibes, or outright rudeness, changes the spirit of the table and turns it into a loser. If you’ve played more than a few hours of blackjack, you probably know the effect – whether a Cooler was employed or not (it is consensus that big casinos no longer employ Coolers, relying instead on the simple mathematics that are distinctly in their favor) – of when the dealer changes and he/she is a real bummer, and your general winning streak ends immediately.

Coolers might be extinct in Vegas, but they still live, breathe, and eat at the tables in my station. And yours, too, I’m sure.

Here’s A Cooler

Here’s the four top: 42-year-old guy and his 35-year-old wife; both are nice-looking, well-dressed, worldly, social. Their partner couple is about the same age-set. They look fine, but less successful, less worldly, and less-social. It could be either one of them, but I’m gonna arbitrarily pick on the wife. She is The Cooler.

Now her husband, he is at least game – excited to be out and excited to have a chance to get drunk, instead of the wife remonstrating him from across the home dining room table. Removed from the friendly confines of her domicile, she has to maintain pretense of not being a tight bitch. But you can still feel her tightness.

While being seated, she cranes her neck in the familiar endeavor of searching for some other more-desirable table. When her visual scan returns the datum that all other tables are already occupied, you can sense her frustration (here, her frustration = your satisfaction). The Cooler is pale, appropriately, and doesn’t remove her jacket because she’s cold. She keeps to herself mostly in the conversation.

As I said, hubby is excited to be out. Hey, he used to be Frat Brother with the guy on the other side of the table! He’s gonna get a cold one! (Which instead of a beer or a martini, turns out to be his wife, as we will see.)

Here’s how The Cooler works. Our other three are smiling and chatting with each other. They are settling their bodies, bracing for a good meal. Well there I am, greeting the table. ‘So, enough with the water. Would anybody like a cocktail?’

‘Oh no! I can’t have any more than one drink,’ says The Cooler even before the words escape my lips.

A Cooler understands that she can’t speak for the whole table, but she can speak definitively for herself. This tack, together with always being the first to speak, creates an preemptive strike. On fun.

So first Hubby – who was just about to spill out ‘I’ll have a Grey Goose martini!’ – swallows his cold, crisp, dry words and goes, ‘Uhhh …’ and looks to the other couple (ironically, they’re the Cool couple, but for continued clarity we’ll call them the Fun Ones).

The Fun Ones are naturally accommodating. They would have definitely have ordered their martini and Cosmo, but they want to make their friends comfortable. So they demur. (Score one for The Cooler!)

‘Well let’s have some wine then,’ says Fun Guy, grabbing the wine list, but then offering it to The Cooler’s caddy (aka Hubby). ‘Oh no,’ says Hubby, ‘you go ahead.’ He wants Fun Guy to pick out a nice wine, hoping to avoid blame from The Cooler. Hell, hopefully Fun Guy’ll start with a white, then get red with dinner, thereby insuring at least two drinks for Hubby.

‘You like white or red?’ Fun Guy asks of The Cooler, as it’s already obvious who needs coddling.

‘Oh, I don’t usually drink wine. It gives me a headache.’

I say I’ll give them a minute to look over the list and come back to tell them the specials.

Fun Guy chooses a Chardonnay when I return. I give them the specials: ‘We have an appetizer special of Hama Hama oysters on the half-shell –’

‘Oh no, I couldn’t have an appetizer. I probably won’t finish my meal as it is,’ interjects The Cooler.

‘Well then, speaking of meals, our entrée special is a braised Veal Chop. It’s a thick cut, slow-cooked in Pinot Noir and –’

‘Oooh! That’s too big! I could never eat that.’ The Cooler again. This despite manifest interest from the other three.

I do not finish the Veal Chop description, to punish the entire table for The Cooler’s selfish behavior. I return in a couple of minutes with the Chardonnay. Pouring for The Cooler, she stops me with the hand wave just as I’m about to stop anyway – at half a glass. Next (and I have done this), I switch her glass with Hubby’s empty glass. Then I pour just a few drops for The Cooler. ‘That should be more like it,’ I say, affecting a congenial expression that reads “I understand, and I have sincerely taken good care of you.”

A little later, it’s now Go Time. I ask if there’s any interest in appetizers, or if they’ve made selections on their main courses. Predictably, The Cooler launches, ‘Oh, I’m sure dinner will be enough for me.’ I notice that while I will not pour more wine for The Cooler, someone else has – her glass now being appropriately at the half-full mark I’d poured originally.

Now don’t get me wrong. We’re talking about up-sells here, and it’s fine if people resist all of them. Cocktails, appetizers, special entrees, a la carte salads, side add-ons, bottle of wine vs. by-the-glass, dessert, etc. are things people will pretty much always enjoy, but they cost more money and, yes, they might be more than they actually wish to/can consume. So that’s fine. The rub is that The Cooler does his/her work to prevent the entire party from ordering such items.

The Cooler orders the Grilled Chicken and Veggies. ‘Would you like to substitute something for the vegetables?’ I ask. ‘For instance pasta instead?’

The Cooler is vexed. Her head involuntarily swivels in refusal – the nervous tic of a Cooler – but she can’t quite say it out loud because that does sound good. I help. ‘It doesn’t cost any extra.’

‘I, uh, I … no, that’s okay. The vegetables are fine.’ She’s even Cooling herself out of something with no downside!

So basically a very willing group (3 out of 4 of ’em) has now been hobbled into an entrees-only program.

By now you get the idea. Second bottle of wine, and The Cooler weighs in negatively on it, even though she has no intention of partaking. And on through dessert and after dinner drinks, even coffee.

There is no surprise ending. What these poor people (the other 3) have is a mostly joyless barebones meal that has somehow been dampened by an implication of negative political correctness. The Cooler posits (well, actually negates) everything with the shading that what’s not right for her is also not right for everyone else.

Poor bastards.

The Joke Guy

Let’s see if I still remember how to do this . . .

There was a time in my life when I did a lot of writing. I have been directed since I was in high school towards a writing career. Let’s, for now, look past any questions of what rewards that career has brought me. Instead let’s talk about what I did with my time.

I wrote stories, screenplays, TV scripts, novels, poetry. I even tried my hand a couple of factual magazine articles. The remuneration was nearly non-existent. But I always kept plugging. I loved writing, and I loved my dream, and I didn’t mind working towards my goals. I wrote. I once wrote every day – every single day, without exception – for 1.5 years.

And then, at a summer party, I played ‘Pride And Joy’ (by Stevie Ray Vaughan) with my roommate’s band. I didn’t know it then, but that was it. I veered onto a course of concentrating my creative energies on music for the next 10+ years, playing guitar and singing in two different blues bands over that period.

I didn’t stop writing, but I cut back a lot (not willfully – it just happened). Like 90%. And I didn’t really miss it. Instead of smacking away at the keyboard for a couple hours every night, I instead practiced guitar. Or I rehearsed with my band. Or I played gigs. Or I listened to other guitarists to cop licks. Or I went out to blues jams (open mic events). Or I even wrote my own songs.

I’m telling you this because it explains, somewhat, why I’ve stopped blogging for around a year. I discussed this a couple posts (and about 12 months) ago.

For about two years, I posted 5-10 times a month. I was happy doing it, and I didn’t feel like I was running out of material. It was a pretty natural thing to do for two reasons:

  1. I had quit my band and decided not to join/start another.
  2. My marriage was in shambles. For some reason, emotional strife turbo-charges my creative juices. So it was a good way to spend some time while the Wife was not being a member of the marriage.

Then the marriage effectively ended (permanent separation) and I declared myself back on the market. Hence, dating.

I stopped blogging and started spewing my juices (figuratively, of course) in the endeavor of trying to find a new girlfriend/getting laid.

But this time I’m not as happy about it. Especially now that more than a year has passed and I don’t really have much to show for my efforts besides 100,000 words of emails, the reduction of my net worth by thousands of dollars, and the memories of 20-30 forgettable dates (wait, how can you remember something forgettable?).

Imagine if I’d instead written 100k words on the waiternotes.com? I’d probably have gotten a book deal like Waiter Rant!

Okay. Probably not. But I’d have something good. I reread six or seven of my -blog posts last night and was actually quite entertained. Either I have narcissistic delusions or I write pretty well. I tend to think the latter. But then, I’m narcissistic . . . ohhhh, I’m getting dizzy now.

* * * * *

I had a thought tonight at work at Carney’s ($232). What is it like to be married to the Joke Guy?

We all know him. He’s the one who makes a ‘joke’ about every phrase that comes out of your mouth. And also makes ‘jokes’ about everything that he says too.

‘Tonight the chef has Bacon-Horseradish Mashed Potatoes as the side accompaniment,’ I state.

Joke Guy: ‘So then it accompanies the side dish?’ He looks at me with a highly-satisfied glint in his eyes.

‘I guess you’re right. It is a side. It accompanies the entrée. You got me there,’ I say.

‘So the side dish comes unaccompanied? What kind of place is this?’ Twinkling again.

What does a jackass like this expect me to do? I can’t really start laughing, because he hasn’t said anything funny. But he thinks he has. Or is he expecting banter from me, so he can riff some more and impress his sad wife and the other couple?

‘What kind of place is this? It’s actually a Charter School. Are you the English teacher?’

But I don’t say that. I just match his bemused eye twinkle and move on.

At another point, he said, ‘One thing you’ll learn about me. I’m not always right on everything, but I’m always right on.’

Whew.

Usually this bonehead has a suffering wife who spends the meal staring at her food while he excretes his gems like anal beads out of a porn actress. But every guest is different. This time, his wife seemed to think he was just hilarious. And this is no joke (pun intended) – he was ‘on’ for a solid 120 minutes tonight.

So maybe this hits tangentially with my initial thoughts in this post. Getting with the right person is nothing more than finding someone on the same wavelength as yours. Even if you’re flat-lining.

Pet Peeves III – Holiday Edition

Merry Christmas, everyone! And while I’m at it, Happy New Year! Hope you’re still having a fun and profitable holiday season.

Like the rest of you (assuming mostly waiters read this blog), I’ve had a very busy Christmas month. Michael’s ramped up earlier than the previous two years – an encouraging sign, no doubt – and stayed busy right up till Christmas eve. I worked long shifts. I made a lot of much-needed money. I got a few ‘handshakes.’ My best day was $475, which included $150 in Christmas gifts, separate from the tips these generous guests gave me. All told, I’d guess I averaged close to $200 a shift for about three weeks. Michael’s is my lunch job.

My dinner job, Carney’s Corner, was hot for about two weeks – though not like two years ago and earlier. Actually, there was hardly any sense of the typical Holiday Crush, where there are a lot of large parties and tons of reservations. Instead, Carney’s had reservations only moderately heavier than non-holiday times. However, the walk-ins were very strong. You could count on them any night of the week. And there were also a lot more, ‘We’re whooping it up tonight’ vibes floating around – more high-digit wines sold, more steak and lobster combos, more appetizers. Non-weekend shifts ramped up to $150-175. Weekends, $220-250 per night.

I worked a lot of doubles. One week I worked four. I felt good this year. Sure, I got tired, but not too run down or sick. As usual, I kept the end in sight and kept counting off the days till Christmas . . .

I’m sure a lot of businesses (retail, especially) are hectic during Christmastime, but restaurant work has to be up near the top. It’s difficult for ordinary people to understand. First of all, there is a heightened level of activity and responsibilities for everyone engaged in the Christmas season: shopping, wrapping, social commitments, etc. So it would be stressful just to add those elements into a normal month. But restaurants compound the crisis by being twice (or more) as busy. Suddenly, your four hour shift is 6 or 8 hours. In my case, three shifts a week became five – at each job. A four-table station gets fudged up to five or more. Traffic getting to and from your job sucks away more hours of your time. You wake up hungover and tired because you were so tired from the double the day before, you treated yourself to a couple of martinis when you finally got home at 11:30 p.m. . . . Well, I did, anyway.

But it’s cool. There’s a perfectly beautiful symmetry to the year for a waiter. Most other professions will see Christmas coming and also see a lot of money they don’t have suddenly flying out the window. No so for waiters. Right when you need a bunch of extra money to pay for all the gifts you’re buying, all the socializing you’re doing – that’s the exact time you happen to be making a bunch of extra money. It works itself out every single year. And even if you happen to overdo the generosity a bit . . . if you file your taxes as early as possible, you’ll get a tax refund to pay the leftover credit card bills.

It’s really not so bad being a waiter.

Wait, did I just write that? In a Pet Peeves post? I take it back. Lots of things suck about being a waiter. Here are a few I’ve been making notes about the last several months.

Waste Sugar Packets In The Caddy

Why do people tear open sugar packets, empty the contents, then put the shredded paper back into the sugar caddy? Are they ashamed of the ‘mess’ they made, like they just soiled their own shorts, and they’re trying to conceal the evidence? Or maybe they think they’re helping, by keeping the rest of the table tidy?

It makes the restaurant look bad, because quite often the waiter does a brief visual check of the caddy and can’t detect that anything is amiss (the used packet blends in with the rest of them). Then the caddy goes out to another table, and the guest finds this trash. It also goes another degree further because the used packet is usually not emptied completely, and the diner unfailingly puts it back upside-down, spilling sugar into the caddy.

Actually this goes for any kind of waste. I’ve seen gum, wadded up ‘straw paper’ (is there a name for this? A straw sheath?), even stray pieces of food. It seems if it will fit in the caddy, it will be hidden there.

I know I already debunked the ‘They wouldn’t do that at home‘ myth, but . . . dammit, they wouldn’t do that at home, so why do guests think it’s good to do in a restaurant?

Wine Tasting Indecision

These days I take pleasure in not automatically assuming the man will be tasting the wine. I know it’s proper to present and pour the taste for the person who ordered the wine. I usually do this. But sometimes fuzzy logic can be employed if it’s apparent that the party isn’t too uptight.

For instance, the guy orders a martini and says he’ll take a look at the wine list for the lady. I bring his martini. He selects his wine. I return with the wine. At this point, his palate is fucked because of the harsh martini. Further, he was selecting the wine for the lady (though he’ll obviously have some later). So here I might ask if maybe we should have the lady taste the wine?

But here we sometimes run into trouble. The man will say, sure. I pour the lady a taste. She picks up the glass and sets it in front of her date. He puts it back in front of her, ‘No, you go ahead.’

‘No, it’s okay.’

‘No, really, go on and taste it . . .’

So she’ll finally taste the wine . . . and then shove the glass back to her date. ‘What do you think?’

I’ve also seen this play out in perfectly straightforward wine tasting scenarios – no cocktails or other mitigating factors involved.

People, do not pass around the tasting glass to everyone at the table so they can sign off on the wine. Either it is acceptable or it is not. This is not a question like, ‘Do you think this sweater matches my pants?’ If the wine is bad it will smack you in the face with its badness. If your sample of taste and bouquet seems inconclusive to you, then, the wine is fine.

‘Do You Mind Taking Our Picture?’

This isn’t actually a pet peeve of mine. It’s more of a curiosity. Why do people say this? Because, I do not mind at all taking someone’s picture. I can’t imagine a reason why anyone would mind. Are there waiters in France or Manhattan who consider this the foulest of insults? Are these waiters pitching a fit when guests ask them to take their picture? Do they passive aggressively shoot out of focus, or time the flash wrong, or leave people out of frame?

Or maybe it’s the guests themselves. For some reason, they think it’s terribly demeaning for a waiter to take a picture. Perhaps they feel it rubs the waiter’s nose in the fact that this is as close as he is ever going to get to ‘working’ in the film industry?

Wait. You know what? Maybe it is offensive. ‘This is a restaurant, you idiot, not a portrait studio. I am a Waiter. I didn’t spend two weeks training for this job just have you come in and treat me like a common photographer. I doubt, Dr. Wyrick, your patients ask you take a snapshot of them and their family when you finish the colonoscopy.’

Red Sweater Day

Like the inexorable calendar-creep forward of the baseball playoffs, or the backwards creep of the ‘first Christmas shopping day of the year,’ what I call Red Sweater Day happens earlier every year. Red Sweater Day marks the first appearance of the hideous Christmas sweaters donned by (mostly) women. And (mostly) older women. And (mostly) overly precious women. And (mostly) women who order cheap(est) wine and pretend they don’t normally drink more than one glass.

I saw a doozy the other night. A knitted cardigan affair in lime green with candy canes and snowmen (also knitted) affixed like ornaments to the front of the sweater. Read that again. Affixed. These were not designs in the sweater. They were separate knitted entities hanging from the sweater. Sheesh.

I think I’m pretty old (48 now), and I’ve been waiting tables for 23 years, but this makes me think I must have missed something. Because these women appear to be part of an earlier era or generation. But if so, where were they with their sweater in decades past? If it was a tradition that’s been going on all along, I would have noticed in 1987, when they were in their hey-day, sporting their Holiday Reds-And-Greens.

And if not, how did this entire generation get sold, so late in their lives, on the idea of garish holiday wear? Isn’t it a whole lot classier and impressive to simply wear your best outfits? As it is, it’s like an entire month of Halloween night – but Christmas-style. I don’t see people showing up October 12th in a Mummy costume. But these women don Santa hats, and scarlet sweaters, and snowflake pins for a solid month.

Maybe it’s just something old people do nowadays. Sheesh, old people nowadays! (You know, like, ‘Kids these days . . .’? Not funny? I thought it was, but if not, let me know, because I can’t hear you laughing.)

But with all the ‘mostly’s’ accounted for, the worst is the emasculated man in the Red Sweater-Vest in the company of ‘his women’ (I put ‘his women’ in quotes because there is no chance in hell or heaven or this limbo called earth that this man would ever ‘have’ women). He’s typically the white-haired fairy (not to mean gay – just the ‘fun’ guy) of the office henhouse, or the badgered accountant/teacher/no-level salesman husband. This is the same guy who makes bad jokes (usually puns) at every opportunity, and ‘his women’ laugh dutifully, because he’s supposed to be funny. Of course he’s not. What he is, is a disgrace to masculinity. A toy for the office women. Just like a girl’s Chihuahua dressed up in, well frankly, in the same damned sweater he’s wearing.

Don’t get the idea I’m against a red shirt or sweater around the holidays. I have a couple I will break out when the family gathers, or just for general wear on a Christmas vacation. It’s just a color, after all. My problem is with the guy who is decorated. And yes, you can always tell the difference if a guy is clothed by his garments or decorated by them.

Christmas Overtime Panic

A corporate thing. It was refreshing this year: I heard from a manager, himself, that the company wasn’t going to freak out about doubles this year.

Which was in stark contrast to every other year I’ve worked in every other corporate restaurant:

‘Dennis has to get off the clock! He’s working a double tonight! I’m sorry, but you guys’ll have to handle his sidework. He’s got to get off the clock!’

‘No. Even though Megan is willing to cover your shift on the 22nd so you can have Christmas with your 5-year-old twins, that would put her on a double that day and we can’t pay the overtime.’

‘Justin, Fred, and Eunice are here to help out today with the big parties at lunch. I’m having them come in late and leave early so they can still cover their dinner shifts.’

These are all scenarios I’ve experienced . . .

Personally, they all irritate me. But rarely do I even try to get a shift off during ‘The Season.’ So the middle one plays out infrequently. The other two, however, are the worst.

Look, it’s not my fault I have second job therefore making my 18 hour day not your problem. I don’t mind. That’s one reason I have the 2nd job. But when I’m getting stuck with extra sidework from someone making all the same tip money here as I’m making . . . just so the company can save $4? I have to get to my other freakin’ job!

Likewise, I haven’t worked these stupid lunch shifts 11 months this year just to have someone from the dinner shift come in late, wait on the big lucrative parties, then leave early without doing sidework . . . so they can fit into the labor budget.

For Christ’s sake (and I guess I mean it, as this is all for the Christmas season), can’t restaurants just reconcile that it’s going to be super-busy and they’re going to need all hands on deck? Just accept it as the cost of doing business. It’s the cost you’ve saved all year by having fewer employees, by avoiding over-scheduling just to give everyone ‘enough shifts.’ I mean, really, we’re talking about $8 an hour (or far less in many states) employees here. You (managers and corporate bean counters) are paying $4 more per hour for a person who’s generating up to 100 times that amount in sales each hour. Live with it.

And last of all, isn’t corporate mantra (at least as professed), ‘. . . anything that makes the customer happy . . .’? It might make the customer happy if you kept your restaurant fully staffed during the busiest month of the year, and paid whatever overtime was necessary to make that happen.

Happy New Year!

Money – The Ultimate Hammer

Do the rich really get richer? I think they do. And I think the current economic troubles will ultimately result in just that: richer rich people.

I have an illustrative example; and though it’s a tiny detail, it’s something I’ve neither seen nor heard of in my 2+ decades of food serving.

A guest was looking through the wine list at Michael’s, and he asked, ‘Do you have any specials?’ I hesitated, then he jumped in with this story: ‘I was at this other place, looking at the list and there was this older vintage Cab priced at $230. It was a good wine, so I asked the manager, “Would you take $150?” He took a second, and then just said, “Okay.”‘

At that point I recalled the recent addition of a Manager’s Specials page to our wine list. That page has mostly orphan bottles we’re trying to eliminate, but there are also some expensive wines offered at a discount. I told this guest that as a corporate restaurant, we couldn’t make deals like he was describing, but maybe he’d find something on this Specials page. Which he did – a nice Napa Cab for $120 that we used to sell for $150.

I wonder, has this haggling been going on elsewhere and I’ve just been sheltered, or is it just starting up? As I said, I’ve never seen it before. The dynamic I see is that the people who still have money are using it as a hammer. They are kicking a restaurant when it’s down.

Don’t get me wrong. This is obviously nothing more than simple capitalism, and the law of supply and demand. That’s America. Even during boom times there are desperate, failing businesses where wise consumers can get serious bargains. No, I don’t blame the rich.

I’m just observing that as the rest of us scrape and squirm to stay current or avoid slipping too far behind, the rich are further solidifying their strength. In my wine example, I have no doubt that this guest was perfectly accustomed to paying the regular list prices for these wines. However, he can smell the fear in the air – or the blood in the water, whatever you want to call it – and he senses he can get over.

I serve a lot of well-to-do guests at both my jobs. White-haired men with pink faces and expensive watches. They will sit down, order a Ketel One on the rocks, and make friendly conversation with their waiter. Lately, the topic is often the economy. I might offer that it’s been awhile since the downturn started, and we’ve been holding our own, but have seen an uptick lately, and maybe this thing has bottomed out . . .

He will shake his head gravely, slowly. He will sip his vodka. ‘I don’t think so. This is a long way from over. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I just hope you can hang on.’

Then he will order a $50 steak and $175 bottle of wine, and eventually tip 20% on the whole check.

He says he’s worried, but he doesn’t act that way.

I’ve had that conversation twice, and several others that cover similar territory. It always kind of reminds me of the clichéd movie scene where the avuncular-yet-somehow-menacing loan shark puts his arm on the shoulder of the downtrodden anti-hero. The loan shark offers a sympathetic smile, and the words, ‘You know you’re making a mistake, right? But you’re a good guy, so I’m gonna cover you this one last time. I can’t help it, kid. I like you.’

I feel a little bit like that poor sap is me and my restaurant. We’re going down slow; we can’t do anything to stop it. There are but two conclusions to the saga: 1) We hang on long enough until we are rescued by a rallying economy, or 2) We watch our restaurant bled dry of profits (and viability) as we cut prices until everything is a loss leader, with no positive margins to keep us alive.

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.

A New Trend In Verbal Tips?

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

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

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

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

    ‘Thank you for your service . . .’

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

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

    ‘Thank you for your service . . .’

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

Tip? Sorry, Waiternotes. 12%.

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

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

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

So what do you do? Nothing at all.

I can write about it in my blog, however.

Verbal Tips Are Fraud

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

‘You were the best waiter!’

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

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

Verbal Tips are as intrinsic to food serving as:

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

An exhaustive list? By no means.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, guy.

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

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

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

Thank you.