Blackie Redux – Part One

Bear with me. A couple of reasons.

Number One, I’m going to do a two-parter based on the new effective star of the blog, Blackie. (Grrrr.)

Number Two, I’ve got about half a martini and two glasses of wine in me.

It all started when I got to work (lunch job, Michael’s) Tuesday and the new boss, Eric, said there were two 9-tops on the books and not much else. I was to get one and Blackie was to get the other. Because servers at Michael’s aren’t allowed to take more than an 8-top by themselves, it was mandatory we share. Therefore, Eric decided the solution was for us to share both of them.

‘Are you okay working with her?’ he asked somewhat conspiratorially. Recall, Eric is new; he likes what I do; I’ve earned his trust as ‘his kind of waiter.’

‘Honestly, I’d rather not,’ I told him. ‘But I don’t care enough to make an issue out of it. It’s fine.’

So here’s the inevitable link to my other dark escapades with Blackie. If you haven’t read them, at least click here or here, for another one, and give a quick scan over a bit of our history.

This day I actually felt much more confident because I had already thoroughly identified what hell I could expect. Also, it promised to be a much more manageable day – only three on the floor and a helpful manager and not much danger of getting overwhelmed with surprise traffic.

The first table was billed as a grudge lunch wherein the host had lost a bet and now his compadres were going to take him to the cleaners (while he took them to Michael’s). We were excited, visions of dinner steaks, appetizer symphonies, and $100 bottles of wine dancing in our heads.

Blackie suggested I do the full dinner spiel (a great sales technique, normally omitted at lunch because of time constraints) because I was so much better at it. I couldn’t disagree. I also liked it because it put me in control of the table. I do not like the manner Blackie uses with her tables. Her other job is at the Claim Jumper . . .

Okay, so a tangent is in order here. I do not disdain Claim Jumper or similar ‘echelon’ restaurants (TGI Friday’s, Chiles, Outback, Coco’s, etc.). Ironically, I actually place Claim Jumper as my favorite restaurant for when I choose that ‘level’ of dining. Their quality is excellent. The service is generally spot-on. The restaurants (locations I’ve visited) are always spotless and well-kept. You get the feeling the hierarchy is working well and doing its job. I love the Claim Jumper. I always suggest it when the wife says, ‘Where do you want to eat?’ Of course, whenever I suggest a solution for a problem the wife can’t figure out herself, I always get shot down. <click-click … ‘PULL!’ Blam!> But that’s another sub-tangent . . .

Anyway, back on tangent . . . I actually regard Claim Jumper as first class. The problem here with the Claim Jumper is that you take the worst prejudices about Claim Jumper and combine them with what you already know about Blackie, and you find the worst stereotypes are true.

Think about a highly-corporate place with a lot of rules and behavior codes and what kind of virulent bacteria could breed in that Petri dish (Blackie). Think further about what that dangerous burgeoning organism (remember: Blackie) would turn into after a dozen years of incubation (as opposed to the usual 6–24 month tenure of Claim Jumper waiters).

Minus the expected gum-popping and cigarette-breath, there you have Blackie. She does not communicate with guests. She dispenses information (no, not even that – she dispenses words) just the same way as she slings a plate of hash: ‘You’re not supposed to understand this, much less enjoy it. Just take it. ‘Cause here it is.’

So to wrap the tangent up, take your worst bigoted preconception of a mid -level chain restaurant waiter, and, even though the restaurant chain itself doesn’t deserve that branding, you have exactly that in this person Blackie.

End tangent. For now . . .

Yes, I was excited to be doing the spiel because I could handle this table which might well be our ‘meal ticket’ (there are just sooo many restaurant/food metaphors out there!). So I made contact with the table. Introduced myself and mentioned my partner Blackie. I pitched the idea of wine (remember, these guys were potentially taking their friend to the cleaners) and cocktails. They were happy to have the wine list at the table because it was a maybe (remember, this is lunch). I sussed it out that pressure was not the correct tack. I thought that common peer pressure, or else inertia (i.e., the body in motion being the idea of having a drink) would eventually prevail.

Of course, just after I leave the table after my spiel for the dinner steaks, etc, Blackie charges at them with her typical tactless hard line about ordering wine. No surprise, we were removing the wine glasses from the table about five seconds later.

So much for my managing this table into a moneymaker.

It came time to take the order. Michael’s requires multiple servers take orders on large parties. Blackie started at position 1. I started at position 9 and worked back.

We met in the side station to place the order. Turned out, I had the host – who authorized a round of appetizers. But there were also four salads ordered for the table. Naturally, you want the apps to go out before salads, followed by entrees. So we placed the order that way. However, at Michael’s this particular appetizer symphony is not that quick to prepare. Another factor to consider before you read what follows: some guests acknowledged they wouldn’t have any of the shrimp appetizer on order.

After about 10 minutes, I fired the salads for the table. By now, I’m expecting the appetizer symphony to be ready or nearly ready. Further, I know the salads might take a 4-5 minutes (in a normal world not, but at lunch when the pantry guys are doing multiple jobs, it can easily take this long), so this will allow the shrimp appetizer to be delivered and perhaps consumed (it’s only about a piece per person, after all).

Well, the shrimp app is just about ready to go out. But the salads are now ready. Blackie, ever ‘helpful,’ is standing by the pantry, ready to grab the salads (shrimp app comes up on the front line). She asks me if she should take the salads, since they are ready, or wait till the appetizer is served and removed? I weigh it all . . . and tell her . . .

Go! Serve the salads!

After all, some of the guests are not having shrimp. Next, these people are at lunch, so time is always a factor. Next, eating a single shrimp (for those six eating them) doesn’t take more than a minute or so. Next, some have ordered dessert in advance as well. And, remember, we’re still at lunch.

Now, I have not gotten the idea that these folks are in a hurry. But I can tell they are at lunch. They are going back to work. So I am using fuzzy logic, just as I mentioned here (fuzzy logic part towards end of post).

A good waiter knows how to properly time courses. A better waiter knows how to judge when guests don’t give a shit and are silently placing a premium on continuous, expedited service. Admittedly, it’s mostly a lunch thing, but that’s what I’m working at here. Same with Blackie. For the last 5 years.

So I make the judgment that it will be okay if those having salads are eating them, and those eating shrimp appetizers are eating them, and those eating both combine the experience.

I have other tables of course, so since Blackie has implicitly agreed to deliver the salads that were practically right in her hands when we had our exchange, I took care of some other business.

I finish my business and double check on our 9-top and see them happily eating their shrimp appetizer. Wait, what happened to the salads?

Despite her asking me what I wanted her to do – as she was right there about to do it – and my telling her to do just that, she had somehow not done it.

Blackie strikes again!

Okay, okay, don’t get too worked up. The timing still worked out fine. It was just classic Blackie.

So as a team we deliver the entrees. I have positions 1-3. Position 2 has a small New York steak. Oops!

He says he ordered the New York sandwich. Naturally, staff immediately goes into emergency mode to prepare a NY Sandwich for him.

Meanwhile, Blackie explains he ordered the ‘small New York’ and she repeated it to him and he said yes, she was right . . .

Well, she was wrong.

Yet more meanwhile, Position 1 has a question about why she didn’t get prime rib instead of the Rib Eye like she asked for . . .

Again, Blackie explains that she told her just what she was ordering.

Maybe Blackie should explain more to her guests rather than her managers and fellow waiters?

(This is Part One. Part Two is Right Here.)


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!

Waiting On The Big Guys

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Got To My Fourth Waiting Job

Fourth Of July holiday is tomorrow. As I am taking a road trip up to Ojai, then on to Carmel – total five days off – I’ll drop a post on you before I leave.

Recap of the last almost two weeks:

Carney’s Corner (week ago) weekend roundup: Fri-Sun, $169, $195, $125. Then I yesterday (Thursday) and had a great night of $185. Only tonight’s shift to go before starting my vacation.

The previous week at Michael’s was a good one. Off Monday, then on-call (and not used) Tuesday. I worked Wed.-Fri. and averaged $117 per shift. This week I got four shifts, for which I’m grateful. However it was a bad week: averaged only $50 per.

But that’s now.

This is then:

In 1986 I was everything. Fresh out of college, young, good-looking (at least, as good as I was gonna get), poor, bereft in love, motivated, excited about the future, and moving to another place.

Get In The Mood – Right-Click Image <open in another window> To See or Listen To Sledgehammer Video

Southern California had been my home after high school in No. Cal. The parents had moved, and I moved with them.

I underwent college. I emerged alive. I got a job . . . three jobs waiting tables.

Six years into Southern California, I had made some real friends. I even resurrected my sex life – my big-time high school romance back in ’79 yielded the end of my virginity, but also marked the beginning of a massive drought. The biblical seven years of blight and famine (lost virginity in 11th grade) were punctuated by a slight cough in Year Four when I hooked up with a voluptuous brunette at a Roy Buchanan concert in Palo Alto.

We went to her friend’s abandoned dorm room on Stanford campus, as it was May or June and school was over . . . but I digress. It’s easy to do when you’ve been waiting that long . . .

I only bring up my sex life because it plays a major emotional part in the move away from So Cal. My situation begged the question: Why the hell would you move away when A) you’ve finally gotten some friends, B) you’ve finally started making some decent money, C) you’ve finally finished college, and D) you’re already living in the best place in the world?

Because heartbreak knocked me into an ‘early-life-crisis.’

My romantic affairs had become just about normal for a healthy single not-unattractive man of 24 years. I say this because there was no ‘normal’ ramping up like most would experience. I had a girlfriend in high school. Then nothing. One night in 1983. Then nothing. Until finally in 1985 I started to go out, date, ‘hook-up’ if you will.

At the peak of my new-found powers, I completely flipped for a young girl. We became official boyfriend/girlfriend. We never had sex. The meaty part of the ‘relationship’ lasted about a month. But I was totally smitten. As such, and having been barren for so long, I lost it thoroughly when she disregarded me. I just didn’t understand these things. She was just a high school student.

(Yes, I was more or less innocent. I met her working as a doorman at a nightclub. Her ID was reputable – which wasn’t hard in those days – so she was 23 years old to me. After romancing her, eventually meeting her parents, and then standing/observing as her house of cards tumbled, it came out that she was a 17-year-old in her last year of high school. To be honest, at that point, I didn’t care anymore. I was in love. I guess I can say now I’m glad we never had sex, because of course it would have been highly illegal, but at the time I didn’t care in the least. I did have opportunity, had I been willing to be persuasive, but that’s not generally my nature. And anyway, I thought this was the love of all time – so I was in no hurry. When she backed out of our ‘relationship’ and eventually slept with another full-grown adult, I was brutally traumatized. I just wasn’t ready – I’d had no experience in the normal ways of dating – to handle what I considered infidelity. Of course, what should I have expected of an 18-year-old? That’s why I wasn’t ready.)

That’s why I included Peter Gabriel above and the link to his epic Sledgehammer video. This was the internal theme song of my deepest love and yearning for this girl. Sheesh!

But it’s an awesome song. And a really great video that until now I hadn’t seen in years.

So here we are in 1986. It’s summertime in So Cal. I might have love interests, but I’m obsessed with my erstwhile 18-year-old girlfriend. Driving place to place, I’m listening repeatedly to the 12″ single cut of Sledgehammer on the tape deck in my 1979 red Honda Civic. All of ripe, juicy life beckons me . . .

Meanwhile, I had kept contact with good friends from high school in No. Cal. My best friend, Dick, was/is a funny, inventive, energetic type. Through various correspondence, we had trumped up the idea to write a novel together. We hashed out the general concept of a ‘woman’s novel,’ as that was the most marketable and (we thought) easiest kind to write. We hashed out a fragile bones of a plot, as well.

Well, I wanted to be a writer. I was through with college. I had been devastated by a heathen woman (actually a naive teenager, but who’s counting?). I had no decent career. As far as work went, I was waiting tables at Olive Garden (check here for that story) and making no money, having no fun, and not even eating any good food for the trouble.

Under those conditions, moving back to No. Cal. with my best friend from high school seemed an attractive proposition. Dick was ready to move out of the family home as well, so he lined up a place (with another good friend) for us to share. Memory is hazy, but I think the rent was like $750 a month for a three-bedroom house. The master bedroom guy would pay $300 and the others would split the rest.

I know what you’re thinking, and I thought the same thing: That’s pretty freaking steep!

But anyway, I did it. I packed all my albums and other possessions into my little Honda and made the trip. Do you realize I had three fruit crates of vinyl albums? (What’s a fruit crate of albums? It was 1986. You had to be there.) That’s like 40% of the storage space in a 1979 Honda, including the body of the driver. Oh yeah. I also had an Apple II computer with monitor (actually a clone made by Franklin), and of course an amp, speakers, and a Technics turntable to play the vinyl. And my whole wardrobe. I have no idea what I was thinking, or how I did it, but me and my stuff got up there.

I remember the night I left. That car was an empty driver’s seat, with the rest of the interior packed as dense as a black hole. There were no rear sight lines besides the driver’s side mirror. It was night. Before I left home, I topped off the oil. On the way to the freeway I stopped at a mini-market on the main boulevard (coincidentally only a couple of blocks from the Olive Garden) for salty snacks and Coke. It was about 11 p.m. Walking back to the car, I saw smoke shooting out of three sides of the hood like someone had forgotten about a grilled cheese sandwich on the valve cover.

I opened the hood and discovered the oil cap was missing. Engine oil had been splattering all over and burning on the hot metal. I couldn’t believe how stupid I was. At this point, five miles from home, I didn’t know if I could safely drive back without blowing my engine. I mean, are there any guidelines on how much oil you lose when your oil cap is missing?

It would be really embarrassing and irritating (not just to me, but to my family – who were probably ecstatic I was finally leaving for good) to return home after all the hoopla of my leaving. This just had to be a freakin’ joke . . .

So, in the mini-market parking lot, I took another look at my engine . . . and saw the oil cap nestled cozily in the web of spark plug wires.

Okay, so that’s a long way to go for a false ending. But that’s actually how my trek started. 11:30 p.m., at a mini-market with a tight oil cap, but a still-smoking engine, finally on my way to Northern California.

* * * * *

. . . I’m sorry, but that’s all for now. I ran a little long in the preamble. Check the next post, probably after I get back from vacation, to get the details on my actual Fourth Waiting Job.

Have a happy Fourth!

[Here’s the link to what happened on My Fourth Waiting Job.]

Something In The Air

A furious day at Michael’s on Friday. Not me furious, as in my grumpy post about Restaurant Overstaffing, but furious business.

It’s funny that ideas and thoughts are just out there in the air . . . Have you ever had what you thought was a great idea for a movie or TV show, or a simple great invention, or just a new feature for an existing product – only to find out days or weeks later that exact thing in the marketplace? You thought of it on your own, yet obviously the parties bringing this idea out had been working on it well before you came up with the concept.

For some reason, after my post complaining about the overstaffing at lunch vs. dinner at Michael’s (which I concluded by saying I was ‘this close’ to having a sit-down with management on the subject), the next three days bore out exactly the result I was hoping for. And of course I never had the chance to talk to management about my objections.

Each day, management ran the floor with a small staff, forgoing the on-call server. Each day, we had relatively solid business – nothing enough to crash the system, but enough so we all felt busy enough – and the servers on the floor got another 30% more covers than has been usual. Instead of $40-60 days, we had $75-90 days. I was lucky each day, as I got some prime tables. I made $150, $155, and $194.

The last of these days, Friday, though, was a crusher. I had 29 covers, most of them in one seating (tables of 5, 8, 4, and 4). If you recall the last post, us lunch servers had been averaging 9 a shift. But it ended up proving my point magnificently . . . as if management really knew my exact ‘point.’

It was like a Christmas rush day. There were three of us on the floor, and we were all taxed about as far as we could go. We got some life-saving help from available management in running food or at least expediting it. We were totally selfless for each other regarding food-running. I was nowhere to be seen for entrée-delivery of several of my tables. Likewise, after checking back, I returned to several tables to find them cleared and crumbed. I did the same kinds of things for the other two waiters whenever I had an extra moment or hand – including refilling waters and drinks.

And we all got out of it with no more than the normal hiccups, and zero major situations.

Here’s where it proved my point: This was a blockbuster day for three servers to handle, but we did it. In other words, we ran into the absolute outside expectations for customer traffic and we still got through just fine.

I don’t warrant going with three waiters in a situation where you know business is going to be like that. It was hard on everybody, and things could have gone wrong. In that case where management has a pretty damn good idea, then bring on another waiter. But as I said, we saw the enemy, and we still beat him.

Meantime, I hope they’ve learned something here. Unless there are a tremendous number of reservations on the books, just let us go with what we have. There is excess production capacity here.

* * * * *

I haven’t written much about Carney’s here lately. A couple of things:

After our amazing hot streak from January through part of April, things have cooled off. Some weekends have been $120, $150 (Fri-Sat). Some have been $120, $185). But we haven’t been hitting $200+ each day like we were. (For those of you in other parts of the country, things are different where I live in California. I’ve discussed it before. Rent for a 2-bedroom apartment is about $1800 a month. A small 2-bedroom 1-bath house would be $2200. Mortgage on same house, even at today’s prices and interest rates and with 20% down payment would be $2900 a month. My own mortgage is almost $4000 a month.)

Ciera is always having the best time and the worst time. She’s flying to Vegas with a new boyfriend for two days, and she’s making a deal with her landlord to pay her rent weekly so she won’t get evicted.

She really hit a bad deal a couple weeks ago. Her cousin, who was like a sister to her when she lived back in Chicago, was part of a murder/suicide tragedy. The cousin had even been out for a week’s visit with Ciera only a couple of months earlier. The estranged husband killed her with a knife and then shot himself when he returned to his own home.

Of course, Carney tried to spin it as her own tragedy: ‘We have to cover her shifts so she can go back for the funeral. We just don’t know what we’re going to do . . .’

Ciera self-medicates religiously (actually, more than religiously) with pot-smoking and drinking. She usually portrays her travails in a kind of humorous, ‘what else can happen?’ manner. And it’s usually true. Hell, late rent, boyfriend-juggling, car trouble are part of living. And she understands she reaps what she sows, so most of the time she’s not bitter. She’s the kind of person who can have the most vile, screaming phone argument with a boyfriend, then hang up and start cheerfully making jokes about it.

But this. Her real vulnerability is pain and suffering. She always has between 3-7 dogs – all of them rescue animals. Kind of like her boyfriends, but I digress . . .

She has been understandably torn apart with this family disaster. Very sad. She went back for five days to grieve with her family and attend the funeral/wake. Because it involved a few shift-switches, Carney called it ‘her vacation.’

* * * * *

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t tip-off (pun intended) everyone to what I hope is the final game of the Los Angeles Lakers 2008-09 season today. Game Five, the Lakers lead the series 3-1 and can finish off the Orlando Magic today at 5 p.m. Pacific Time. If you don’t care, please root for the Lakers just because I’m asking you to.

Can’t wait till about 6:15 p.m., when I’ll fire up the Tivo (having buffered an hour or so of recorded game), shake up a New Amsterdam gin Martini, and watch it unfold.

Go Lakers!

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.