My Busboy Is A Dick

‘My busboy is a dick.’

It’s a big, wide world of waiting tables out there, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who can say this . . . but, isn’t this one of the most unlikely things you would ever expect to hear a waiter say?

Bussers are paid by the waiters, anywhere from 10-30% of their tips, or some similar calculation based on sales. Bussers exist to assist the waiters – or at the least that is the basis of most of their pay. Sure, job descriptions vary restaurant to restaurant. For example, at Michael’s the bussers’ only official duties with regards to the waiters, is to promptly bring bread and water to new tables, refill waters and iced teas, and reset the table (once plates have been cleared by the waiters – ouch) when the guest is gone. That’s not much. But then, we are only required to tip 10% there.

Still, at Michael’s it is informally expected that in absence of those duties to perform (and other things like filling ice wells, putting bread in the ovens, and packaging ‘sets’ for resetting the tables later), the busser will make himself useful by clearing plates or running food, or otherwise assisting the waiters. Hell, some places even call them Server Assistants or, SA’s (which is kind of funny because Ese – prounounced the same – is Spanish slang for buddy or homeboy, and of course around here most bussers are Mexican).

Not so with Lencho, my busser at my lunch job at Michael’s.

Lencho is about 5’6″, somewhat round, thoroughly bald, and around 50. He has that kind of dry, mothball-smelling breath which is visually enhanced by the little bits of white scuzz at the corners of his mouth that appear when he talks too long. And boy can he talk – with a super-thick, nearly impossible to decipher Mexican accent. He will corner you and go on about how great are his life, his children, his house, his car, his vacations, and more.

Ehhh. Somewhat close, but the vibe is right for Lencho.

He used to be a busser at a famous Prime Rib joint farther south. During those years he used to brag about how much money he made working special parties there. He always threw around figures like $200 and $250 a shift. During the holidays, he would bring in the schedule from this other job and regale us waiters with how many large parties he was working that week – and of course, how much cash he expected to bring home for each one.

A couple years ago, the Prime Rib joint decided it needed to shake things up, as the dinosaurs were winning. By dinosaurs, I mean the classic term for old and long-tenured waiters who are entrenched in their positions. Dinosaurs don’t work particularly hard or fast. Their precise job description is branded into their brains like a forged brass plate, and they will do nothing above and beyond. They are totally rigid and unhelpful when it comes to their schedules – in fact, they often have set schedules that they do not allow to vary temporarily nor change permanently. They resist change in general, and they usually win. They work the minimum in time and effort and scrape the maximum amount of cream off the top.

People who don’t work in restaurants can’t understand how dinosaurs can exist. But every waiter knows. Dinosaurs usually ‘outrank’ their managers by a decade or more. Of course they don’t really outrank them, but their years of ‘service’ give them some pretty good clout. It is socially difficult for a manager of 2 years to boss around the crank who’s had old Mr. Greenback (who spends $50,000 a year at the restaurant) as a call party for 20 years.

But as usual, I digress. Lencho’s Prime Rib joint (where he was indeed one of the dinosaurs) finally went Ice Age on their staff. From what I understand, about half the crew were dinosaurs. The joint obliterated the set schedule. They obliterated guaranteed shifts. They obliterated preferential stations based on seniority. It was time to change and get rid of their reputation for slothful and disinterested service.

The dinosaurs roared (to hear Lencho report it, and roaring a bit himself). Many of them threatened to quit, and many of them did, including Lencho.

Well, that was that. He was out of his night job, and he has not managed to get another that lasted more than a month or two, since. At least every other week he asks me what I know about Restaurant X in the South Bay, because he has a supposed ‘in’ for a job there, and an interview later in the week. But he mostly goes un-hired, and if not that, then quickly enough un-retained.

Anyway, I don’t know if you (assuming you’re all waiters) can picture Lencho, because he really doesn’t sound like any busser of the common description. But maybe if you instead imagined a short, bald, middle-aged white guy manager who did hardly any work, and loved to blow hard and long about his previous positions of importance at hotshot restaurants – then you’d get the idea.

So besides being full of himself, here’s how Lencho is a dick:

Let’s begin at the beginning, when he first gets to work in the morning. He comes in the door, punches in, and walks to his station. He will pass you along the way, and you will say, ‘Hey, Lencho! How’s it going?’ Or ‘Como estas?’ Lencho’s reply: ‘ .’ Yes, that’s nothing. Not a mumble. Not a head nod. Not even eye contact.

The first thing he will say to you comes about 30 minutes later, consisting of a grunt and a tip of the head as he is wheeling the ice bucket to the bar. This is because he demands help hefting it to dump the ice into the well. When you’re done, you don’t get a thank you, naturally enough.

He takes his employee meal with the rest of the Mexican staff, the kitchen staff, then retires outside to ‘make deals’ on his cell phone in the last 15 minutes before we open. He will not enter the building a second before 11:30, usually a couple of minutes after. And then he will take up residence at his busser station and begin producing sets. Mind you, the doors open at 11:30 and there are almost always parties to be seated at that time (sometimes earlier).

There is a window on the swinging door behind him that looks out onto the floor. He will not turn and peek through that window, ever, to see if there are parties being seated (his cue to produce bread and water).

And here’s what happens next. The waiters are on the floor, ready to serve (imagine that!). So, I, for instance, will be standing there as a group sits. I’ll say my hellos, take a drink order, and gather up the extra sets to take back to the busser station. He will not budge an inch to allow me to put the sets on the rack, but I will force him to at least break his rhythm as I reach past his arms. It’s clear at this point that a table has been seated, no?

Now go to the computer and punch in the drink order. I make an iced tea. I go to the bar and wait for the glass of wine. I return to the table and serve the drinks … hmmm, guess what? No bread or water yet. This has taken easily 3-5 minutes depending on the bartender. And of course, there are no other tables in the restaurant demanding other attention. Where the fuck is the bread and water?

So now I go back and tell him 14 needs bread and water. He does not acknowledge. And he does not stop making sets. It’s as if nothing has happened and nothing has been said.

I return to the table. They are ready to order. I get the order, and only as I’m walking away from the table – only then, maybe – do I see Lencho on the floor with bread and water pitcher in his hands.

Another Lencho pet move: Expediter Fantasy Camp.

Because of his previous exalted position at the Prime Rib joint, Lencho fancies himself as nearly a waiter. He was, in fact, briefly hired to expedite at another restaurant, until they evidently decided it was better to let food sit and cool off rather than have him actively screwing up orders. So at Michael’s, at a bustling lunch, rather than moving briskly about the dining room filling water and iced tea, you’re far more likely to see him with his back to the dining room speaking Spanish with the cooks at the pass out line. Then when plates appear on the line, of course so do the waiters appear. We promptly start garnishing and prepping the order, trying awkwardly to accomplish this with Lencho’s inert frame occupying a 3’x3′ block of real estate. The order ready to deliver, we will eventually use him to carry, say, a single ramekin of sauce. Hey, at least he’s doing something!

When you ask Lencho pointedly to do some task like picking up a couple of plates, he will do it, but without acknowledgment, which leaves you with the mixed blessing of slight anxiety he didn’t hear you and pleasant surprise when get back to the table and see he actually did grab the plates.

We have complained repeatedly to management, who have talked to him repeatedly. He will not accept criticism; his response often includes the sentiment that when he does ‘extra’ work, the waiters don’t tip him accordingly. For some reason, management relays this to us, as if it’s entirely acceptable that a restaurant worker withhold work and effort in doing a proper job for the guest if he’s not in his mind being tipped enough. I’ve always wondered how that would fly for a waiter speaking to his manager: “Why should I give the McNally’s good service? They only tip 12%!”

Then there’s the end of the shift. Even though Lencho has no night job to run off to, he is always in a hurry to get out around 3 p.m. As the closer, I often have a few tables working at this time, some finishing up with coffee and dessert. My point here is that, of Lencho’s official duties where waiters are concerned, final clearing and resetting tables is fully half his job. When he leaves at this juncture, I have to do that half. His performance leading to this moment of desertion is not exactly strong, so I just deduct these tables’ proceeds from the amount he gets tipped on.

And there is the rub that I don’t understand with surly bussers. We, the waiters, are his customers and we have the ability to pay them accordingly. If he does the good work, saves my ass on occasion, makes my job easier, he gets paid well. If he half-asses his shift doing the bare minimum in untimely fashion, forcing me to do extra work, then fine, I will do extra work and I will ‘pay’ myself for it. Out of his tip.

So finally, as I steal a moment from running around and servicing my late tables, I’ll find Lencho in the service bar, rubbing his hands together, apron off. I give him his 10% which he takes wordlessly, counting the money in front of me. Then he bustles out of the restaurant with more speed than he ever exhibited during the shift, on his way . . . somewhere.

Some days, I am literally so busy I can’t spare the 3 minutes to figure and count out his tip. These days, Lencho just silently leaves, again in some inexplicable hurry. When I count my money, I set his aside in a pocket of my ‘book.’ I will give it to him the next shift. Even though I (we) have been doing this effectively for a few years, about once a month Lencho lodges a complaint with management that I didn’t tip him from, say last Friday. So I get a talking to from management at some point the next shift, even though I have already found the money in my book and given it to him, like always, the first time I saw him.

Lencho managed to pick up some temporary employment for a couple weeks during the holidays at a ritzy place. I asked him in January if they kept him on. ‘No. Just Christmas. I don’t want to work there anyway.’ (translated from the original thick-tongued dismembered English)

Then he told this quintessentially-Lenchonian story. He had to work Christmas day at the ritzy place. ‘Very busy. Very busy. $5000 tips. One Captain. Three waiters. Bussers get only $330.’ He stares at me, mouth agape – behold the injustice! ‘Captain take $1000. Only $330 for the bussers.’

‘Each?’ I ask.

He nods. ‘$5000. Captain take $1000.’

‘How many bussers were there?’ I ask.

‘Three.’

Hmmm. So I walked him through it, illustrating on the calculator that was handy. $5000 in tips. 20% of that is $1000. Divided by 3, that makes $333. ‘That’s a 20% tip. What do you expect?’

‘No, no, no. $5000. Captain take $1000.’

Ahh, Lencho. You will never be happy or satisfied. Nor will you ever work hard, I expect.

It’s kind of sad and funny. Lencho’s son is a busser at a rival steakhouse nearby. Several of Michael’s waiters work a second job there. They say Lencho’s son is awesome, a dynamo who takes care of business and doesn’t need instruction to do so. They’ve told me they tease him. ‘How come you’re so great and your dad sucks so bad?’ Reportedly, he just looks down and shakes his head, saying quietly, ‘Hey, I love my dad.’

Well, Lencho has got that. But there will probably come a time soon when that’s all he has, besides 12 months of unemployment insurance.

Employee Re-Qualification Test

Before I talk about my recent Employee Re-Qualification misadventure, I’d like to thank PurpleGirl at slightlycrankywaitress.blogspot.com for contributing so heavily to the increased traffic here. She writes a helluva funny and interesting blog, and her loyal readership shows that. Just getting onto her blog roll increased my traffic six-fold. Thanks!

So . . .

At Michael’s, there is a yearly employee test called the MSP Test, for Michael’s Spec Packets. The Spec Packets are available in the restaurant at all times, and hold the most essential information about the company, the restaurant, the food, the procedures, the programs, even the philosophies. It is a lot of data.

Previously, we were tested twice a year. Also, it was a 100 question test including ball-breakers like, ‘What are the 12 ingredients of the Cobb Salad?’ and ‘Name the 9 ingredients of the French-Italian Vinaigrette dressing.’ I have always passed this difficult test, by going back to the Packets and reading with full attention, occasionally stopping to quiz myself on something. Just like in college.

Now the test is annually. It’s been reduced to 60 questions, but they are all fill-in – no true-false or multiple choice. We were informed in advance that the new test would be a real killer, so to be prepared.

I merely did my usual – pored over the Packets for 3 hours the night before, and 2 hours the day of the test. Which was plenty. It’s not like this was the first time I was learning the material. Regardless what parts of those Packets they questioned me about, I would surely score at least 90%. I knew the stuff.

Saturday afternoon, about 30 employees gathered in the dining room. I sat at a round with four other waiters. Unlike (many) other years, there was very little opportunity to cheat, as three managers circulated about the room. Still, we were able to share an answer or two sotto voce at choice moments.

Finishing the test, I was quite confident I had basically aced it. The managers collected all tests, then redistributed them so we could correct each others’ tests then and there. The instructions were to mark a question if it was wrong or incomplete in any facet. For instance, getting 11 of 12 Cobb Salad ingredients ‘right’ was not good enough for a correct answer; or, describing a preparation as ‘grilled’ instead of ‘broiled’ would also result in a missed question. The threshold of pass/fail was missing 5 questions.

As the answers were read aloud by the manager, I felt further confidence. I noted a couple of things I had missed, yes . . .

But I was also grading another waiter’s test. That is: I was looking the other way when he got stuff wrong or was close to the right answer. I passed over at least 10 answers I could have marked wrong based on strict-adherence to the grading rules set forth. This in addition to the 3 I had to mark wrong because he hadn’t even filled in an answer. And this guy was the co-lead trainer of the restaurant.

So I figured, what with the Bro-Discount that was surely coming my way, I would easily pass.

Wrong. Which made a total of 11 that I missed, including with the 10 on the test.

The dick that graded my test either was a zealot or hated me or was totally unimaginative. He marked me wrong on two answers that were actually correct, right down to the letter – the aforementioned Cobb Salad question, and another two I had written exactly as set forth in the MSPs. It was as if his confusion was grounds to penalize me rather than cut a break.

So I give 33% blame to the unfriendly dick. I’ll take 33% of the blame myself because I missed 2 questions where I carelessly answered only the first of the two parts. One was, ‘How is ________ prepared? And what is the cooking time?’ I didn’t notice the second question and omitted that answer. Stupid. But still, that left me well-within passing range.

The last third of the blame goes to the f’n’ test makers and the managers. It’s called the goddamn MSP Test. It covers the MSPs. And it always has. Strictly.

Only this time, there were questions about Specialty Cocktails and restaurant practices that are not in the MSPs. The Specialty Cocktail thing really kills me. This is from a list that exists only in the bar and was introduced just a month ago. That counted for 3 more missed questions.

The managers figure into this because they had plenty of opportunity leading up to the test to let us know what areas to study beyond the actual MSPs. I mean, shit, just mention that we’re responsible for that 20 drink list, and I would have learned them all. Easily. Worse, the ‘tips’ we did get from management included, ‘Be prepared to know about Banquet Events. There’s like 8 questions on that.’ Actual number of Banquet Event questions: zero. Thanks, a-holes.

I was truly upset. Besides never having failed one of these, and the fact I got substantially reamed, I had wasted all those hours and effort including the 3 hour roundtrip endeavor of taking the test on a Saturday.

I’m sure I could get the erroneously graded questions reversed, but that’d still put me in fail territory. Now I have to retake the test – a different test. Arrgghh!

Blackie Redux – Part Two

(This is Part Two of a long post about my arch-enemy, Blackie. Part One mostly covered an incident where Blackie f’d up a big table we shared, in the process soiling my psyche because I had to deal with her. Check it out you like bloody descriptions of waiter shifts, and if you want to know what leads up to this post, which is a more general discussion of why Blackie sucks and some other smaller anecdotes that put her in a black light.)

. . . But that’s precisely the problem. Blackie sucks. She approaches food serving just as a mechanic might approach disassembling a transmission: here’s the required wrench, there’s the bolt, here’s how many turns . . . Well, that’s what the manual says, so I guess I’m fine.

Of course, a good mechanic would understand if the prescribed wrench didn’t fit he would have to try another. And if 4 turns didn’t loosen it enough, he’d try 5, 6, or whatever it took.

Blackie, being an incompetent (or worse, because I regard her as actually malignant in the restaurant), believes that if she can ‘master’ the details in the employee manual, she will be able to keep her job.

Unfortunately, in 99.9% of corporate restaurants, she’s right.

Meantime, another day about a week after the scene I just recounted, Eric the day manager pulls me aside for a private quiet sit-down. We all know this usually means you’re about to get in some sort of trouble.

‘Totally no problems with you, Waiter,’ says Eric. ‘None of this is performance-related in any way.’

That was nice to hear, but what’s up?

‘Well you know Blackie’s been drilling me about getting some closing shifts.’

(I did know this, from Eric. A few months previous I had ascended into the role of go-to lunch closer, getting 3-4 such shifts a week. After a couple months, she got jealous and started rattling his cage about why I got the shifts and not her.)

Eric continued, ‘She keeps pointing out how you and she have the exact same tenure here, and she would really like the opportunity.’

(More background: In a vacuum, fair enough. Of course, I have a different philosophical bent regarding the rewarding of superior performance – check again the great Red Lobster Blog post I’ve referred to in the past. But more important, in the full five years both Blackie and I have toiled at Michael’s, I have continuously maintained the public stance with management that I wanted to have more closing shifts. While Blackie has never voiced such a desire. In fact, she did the opposite, wielding her night job at Claim Jumper in all manner to help her avoid undesirable shifts, skip mandatory meetings, and frequently get front-loaded with covers at lunch so she could leave early to make it to Claim Jumper on time. Only now that she has seen me killing it, getting great tables and making new, high-quality call parties, does she try to horn in on that action.)

Eric went on to explain that he stalled her off as long as he could, hoping she’d give up the quest, but she finally wore him down, and he couldn’t tell her no on any logical basis . . . So she was getting my Thursday closing shift. He continued that I’d still be making the same money because of all my good call parties, etc.

It was actually a little uncomfortable. I told him that although I appreciated it, he didn’t need to make explanations to me; I respected that he had a job to do as manager, and that was enough for me. At the same time, I said I was flattered that he was making the effort.

Then, I said, regardless, I wanted to say my piece about Blackie. She was dangerous, manipulative snake. He hadn’t had the dubious benefit of 5 years history with her, but I could testify that she had been a continuously selfish, malicious person. I dropped a couple of choice Blackie anecdotes on him. I pointed out it’s not so much losing the shift, it was losing the shift to her – as her effort to steal it was obviously the result of jealousy and a destructive will towards me (of course, she’d be destructive to anyone else in her path as well . . .) It galled me that, yet again, she was gaining something based on wile and cunning, instead of simple performance and team play. Blah-blah.

And anyway, I have the attitude that she’s getting herself enough rope to hang herself. Lunch closing shifts are not an easy animal to ride. Your responsibilities are greater, as you must do the full 7-10 minute dinner menu spiel. There is virtually no team-type help around. The waiters are gone. The manager is doing office-type manager things. The bartender is doing closing sidework and handling his bank, etc. Even the day busser is gone and the night bussers don’t get in until 4:30. You’re really on an island. It’s you who has to serve and clear every plate and drink. If you’ve got a four-top, that means at least two trips to serve, two trips to clear.

Then there’s the cook situation. There’s a 90-minute stretch when there’s almost no one around to make your food. At the start of that period, you have only the lunch executive chef. His guys at the pantry and dessert stations, and his sautee guy on the line, have all gone home, and the exec chef is scurrying around trying to finish his own sidework (do cooks/chefs call it sidework?) so he can leave too. Somewhat later, you have plenty of dinner guys roaming around, doing dinner prep, but they have this attitude that their job is making dinners, not finishing up late lunches. As such, they don’t check their printers. When they do find a ticket, they ignore it, assuming it’s leftover from much earlier in the day.

What happens is you physically have to find a live body to make your food. It is definitely not enough to order and fire a ticket for a Chef Salad. You have to locate the exact person who has that responsibility and ask them if they’ll please make it for you. If you get the wrong person, he will shake his head, saying nothing, look away, and not return to the issue again. Fire the entrees, and the ticket will just sit there on the printer – even though there are a couple of guys behind the line, doing prep. Here, you grab the ticket yourself, hold it up to the dinner broiler guy, and say, ‘Hey, uh, I got a couple rib eyes here.’

So Blackie is going to run into this situation, and she’s gonna melt down. There will be complaints and comped dinners, and she will be relieved of her closing shifts permanently.

Of course, I must have forgotten who I was talking about. This is Blackie! The cockroach of the restaurant world. She will do nothing if not survive. What will actually happen is that Blackie will first run up against a milder version of this closing shift challenge, and realize she’s completely overmatched. She will at that point withdraw from the closing shifts, lest risk write-ups and possible termination.

One addendum here. Two weeks in, and Blackie hasn’t had her Chernobyl scare. My petty side has taken quite a bit of satisfaction that she has made absolutely shitty money (like $30-40) in her two Thursday closing shifts – each day I incidentally made over $100 and left at 2:30. But that’s not what I wanted to say. The other day, she was prattling on to me about her closing shift (who knows what she was saying? It’s so hard to listen to her.) and she said that Eric had asked her if she wanted to start picking up closing shifts?

What?

He asked you?’ I verified.

‘Yes. He asked me.’

‘That’s not what he told me. He said that you asked him to start doing them.’

‘Oh no. He asked me.’

‘Well then you’re saying he’s lying. Because both those things can’t be true.’

I said nothing more, and neither did Blackie.

Blackie And The Pretense Of Competence

If you’ve been reading, you know my nemesis at Michael’s is Blackie. Is it fair to say you hate someone?

NO, I LOVE KEITH RICHARDS. BUT THIS IS A FAIR APPROXIMATION OF WHAT BLACKIE LOOKS LIKE

Hell, why don’t I digress right out of the chute?

I say it’s okay to hate someone. It’s all semantics anyway, but here’s what I think.

Real hate is not productive. It consumes the hater. And in fact, that’s probably a primary tactical objective for the ‘hated.’ If you’re worthy of hate, it’s because you’re a despicable person, trying to destroy other peoples’ live for your own benefit. So if, as a ‘hated’ person, you can generate the kind of all-consuming obsession of hatred in someone, then you’ve won. Because the person who hates you is severely diminished, spending vast precious psychic resources on the activity of hating you. That person is definitely not functioning well. And it’s all because of you. Nice job.

But I hate Blackie. Because she is this person. She’s completely selfish. And, as stated above, she thrives by creating disturbances in her rivals (who are everyone), thus backhandedly kicking her up a notch because everyone she touches becomes less effectual. Because whenever Blackie touches you, there is something wrong with it.

‘Hi, Blackie. How’s it going?’

‘Fine. But I’ve about had it. When I left home this morning, Larry said he wasn’t coming back unless I apologized to him about going to the Raiders game without him . . .’ and on and on.

Another typical one. Blackie: ‘I made these brownies because I just couldn’t sleep last night so I figured I might as well do something. And then I didn’t have enough flour, so they were sitting there, half-made and I didn’t know what to do. But then Larry was being a bastard and I woke up and couldn’t sleep so I just decided, I might as well go and get some flour at 6 a.m. and finish those brownies. I mean, right? Why not?’

Is it just me, or do you also feel the need to take a shower?

So to get back to the digression, I say it’s fine to hate someone when you just realize they f’n’ suck. Give the devil his due, right? These are people who obviously don’t want to be loved or even tolerated. Or else why would they be the way they are?

Okay, so anyway. On to the topic of this post. I made this note awhile back: ‘Just saying something doesn’t necessarily get the job done.’

Naturally, Blackie spurred this thought, causing me to scribble it on a chit-sized piece of thermal printer paper.

Here’s Blackie telling the specials: ‘. . . freshalaskanhalibutcomeswithcucumberrelishandgarliccroutons . . .’ And no, that’s not some unwieldy URL. That’s the way she talks to her guests.

A guest will order the steak salad. There are two official steak salads on the menu at Michael’s, not to mention that you can add steak to any other salad (or for that matter substitute it for the meat on a chicken- or seafood-themed salad). Instead of clearly and politely explaining the differences between the two steak salads, and asking which the guest is ordering – or even instead of pointing physically to the two menu items to get clarification – Blackie does this: ‘Hotsteaksaladismedallionsonasiangreenswithsoygingerdressing. Newyorksteaksaladisoverchoppedlettuceandvegetableswithredwinevinaigrette.’

It’s practically asking the guest to order the wrong thing. Please order the wrong thing! If there’s any way I can help make this complicated enough so you order the wrong thing, let me know.

I truly believe that on some level, this is because of what I wrote above: she wants to create disturbance and chaos in others.

Then, when there is a problem and the kitchen is scrambling to get the right dish in front of the guest, and the manager is called into action to deliver the corrected entrée, Blackie explains to the irritated manager, ‘I told her the Hot Steak Salad had medallions and asian greens, and she said yes, that’s what she wanted.’

Just saying something doesn’t get the job done. No more than an insincere ‘Thank you,’ or a sarcastic apology, firing off technically proper verbiage at the guest without taking care to connect is a waste of time, offensive, or both.

The waiter has to take full responsibility for the delivery and receipt of his communication. Hell, just the waiter? Everybody in life.

This classic Blackie move exhibits what I mean by the title of this post. The Pretense of Competence.

I suppose I could define true competence as the ability to get the job done. Easy enough to agree on, isn’t it?

Well, for those masters in the performance art of the Pretense of Competence, there are lots of great moves. Like watching Andrew McCarthy furrow his brow, clench his jaw and look hard to the left, in the Pretense of Internal Frustration.

Here are the ways Blackie (and your own personal Blackie), mounts her façade:

  • Ask A Lot Of Questions
    • Have you ever noticed the fakers at the Saturday employee meetings who have to ask a question after every managerial proclamation? And not necessarily only at employee meetings – any time someone in authority gives information to her, this server (hell, why not call her Blackie?) comes back with 2, 3, or more ‘clarification’ questions. She is pretending to be competent. In other words, I know my job so well, I need to know from you exactly how this is going to fit in with everything else I’ve learned perfectly. More to the point, however, this is my chance to show you how much I already know about my job.
    • Ironically, this same server becomes a close-minded know-it-all when a peer says something similar to what the Big Wig would say. If I said to Blackie, ‘Hey, you know, from now on, let’s just keep the dessert tray in the walk-in during lunch instead of out on the floor. There’s only three or four of us, and it’s not losing us any steps, and it saves a whole tray of desserts from being ditched between shifts,’ she would respond, ‘Well maybe, but I really need it to be out on the display table next to #147. It’s always been there and I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t there.’
  • Talk A Lot
    • Of course, all kinds of people talk a lot. And many of them are perfectly competent. I’m speaking of Blackie dealing with her tables. Words, torrents of words, cascading streams of uninterrupted words. Verbal waterboarding. From the Tommy Gun delivery of the specials, to responses to questions, to any other stock verbalization required during the meal.
    • Then there’s the ‘personality’ aspect of the job, wherein talking a lot makes up for being interesting (such is the subconscious computation in Blackie’s head). Ever see a guests with a fork mid-air, loaded with a delicious steaming bite, and that fork stuck in a holding pattern above Airport Pie-Hole? All the while Blackie bludgeons them with the details of her vacation to Rancho Cucamonga?
    • Yes, the job description unofficially includes making the guests like you. Blackie is operating under two misunderstandings: 1) the guest will automatically like anything he/she hears about you; 2) the only way to get them to like you is to get them to know you.
      • Of course, getting to know Blackie will inevitably lead to hating her. More interesting, however, is that for a restaurant guest, they can come to like you plenty if you just stay out of their way and give them great service.
    • Click the above heading for my full post on this.
    • Maybe a finer point I can put on it for purposes of this topic, though: Maybe call it activity for its own sake. A busy person is generally perceived as a good worker. Blackie mines this concept like thar’s gold in them thar hills!
      • First, she pretends to be busy when she’s not, by doing things like fine-tuning table maintenance at the exact time when real work (like delivering entrees) needs to be done.
      • She even engages in Fake Anti-Hustle! She will ask for help doing things she could easily do herself – just to prove that she’s in tune with the teamwork aspect of the restaurant. (Now you may think I’m going overboard here, but it actually happened to me today, with Blackie. She had three tables. Two were eating entrees, and she was seated her third. I had no tables so I was able to understand what was going on in her station. She had only one current task on her ledger: get initial beverages for the new table – the other tables were completely contented and serviced. I happened to be standing in the waiter station when she was getting iced teas . . . ‘Can you get me a 7up for postion 1 on #36?’ I dutifully get her 7up and bring it to her as she is preparing her tray of iced teas [we get sodas from the bar, iced teas in the server station]. ‘Oh, can you drop that? I said position 1.’ So I drop on position 1, moments before she arrives behind me with her tray of iced teas for everyone else. Sheesh. Did she just invent Fake Anti-Hustle?
  • Over-Refinement
    • I invented this term initially as Over-Courtesy, specifically for driving situations when car drivers are too courteous and thus gum-up the expected workings of gears and driving.
      • A pedestrian is standing on the sidewalk, at a crosswalk (this is California where drivers legally have to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians whenever demanded by said pedestrians). A motorist will see this guy standing there and screech to a stop inches before the crosswalk, and motion the totally-surprised pedestrian to cross. Meanwhile, there might be other lanes unaware that this jackass driver has set this deathtrap in motion. Other lanes of traffic might not be aware of this over-courtesy and that pedestrian might well get his clock cleaned once he clears that first car. But more practically, the problem is that the pedestrian was not actively soliciting traffic be stopped. He’s happy merely (and properly, I believe) to wait till traffic has cleared enough for him to cross. Now he’s forced into a maelstrom of steaming, grinding metal, hoping ‘the law’ will provide enough for him to live through the experience. I’m a pedestrian quite frequently. I understand my place: I’m trying to survive. I will not insist on my ‘right of way’ at the expense of my life. So, that said, motorist fools who practice over-courtesy are actually endangering the lives of those pedestrians.
      • Much more common are the jackasses who defer turns at stop signs and lights where they are the ones entitled to the right of way. Come on, people! Just do your job. Understand, I’m the one who’s deferring to them when I say this. I approach a stop sign and another guy is just settling to a stop. Two beats and I stop. Jackass looks at me, I look at him, he motions to me to go ahead . . . Jesus! You were there first. Just go when you’re supposed to, and we’ll both be where we want to be sooner!
    • It’s the same in restaurant work. Same as the Ask A Lot Of Questions waiter. There are no instructions simple enough that won’t be met with over-refinement questions. Teamwork things like, ‘Run plates 1, 2, and 3’ get hammered with a retort like ‘Who’s #1?’ (even though positions are standardized). Or, ‘I didn’t clear the side plates because someone was still chewing something.’ Or, ‘Do you have the dessert silverware down already?’ Look, dude, if I ask you to run desserts, just run the desserts.
    • In Rules and Regulations, Blackie will figure out ways to gum up the works because of perceived incongruities. Like, ‘Chicken dishes always come with lemon and parsley, just like seafood, but now seafood is only coming with lemon . . . what am I supposed to do?’ Or, worse, the guests’ meals are coming out late, but Blackie will make them later still because she refuses to deliver the entrees without the table first being ‘marked’ with fresh silverware . . . Argh!
  • Narrating Aloud What They Are Doing
    • ‘Table 7 is just killing me. I’m getting this guy his fifth Diet Coke refill right now, and it’s not like I have the time ’cause 15 is have four courses and I have to keep resetting silverware. Are you having trouble with the kitchen today? I just had a French Dip that took 20 minutes, and this was the table that told me straight off they were in a hurry . . .’
    • Besides the probable explanation that Blackie is just doing this because she knows it’s annoying, there’s also an Implication that by saying everything she’s doing, she is proving herself in control and competent.
    • Here’s what I think of this: Shut up.
  • Too Organized To Participate In Teamwork
    • Every time you ask Blackie for a teamwork-type favor, you get this: ‘Okay. I have to make two cappys for 12, and then run salads for 13, then I can refill your coffees for you.’
    • Similar to Narrating Aloud, she’s feigning competence while accomplishing the parallel goal of avoiding work. Actually, Not bad; this is the most efficient you’ll ever see Blackie.

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.