Walking A Mile In The Manager’s Shoes

Even though I’m kind of an a-hole as far as criticizing/stereotyping restaurant managers and owners, I hardly get any hate mail from them. Or any mail at all.

Maybe that’s because writing a waiter blog is, ironically, like stripping down naked and walking a mile in the manager’s shoes.

Let me explain. There are so many similarities.

Bad predictions and bad solutions

Managers are notorious for overstaffing – predicting more business than materializes. Conversely, they will under-staff to save labor, and the restaurant will get buried. Managers decide Server A can handle being triple-seated, and Server B can’t take another table, with the result that A gets pounded with complaints while B pounds the manager with complaints that she’s bored and poor.

Managers also provide stupid solutions to problems. Like recently when Michael’s waiters complained that employee of the month awards weren’t fair. At the time, management nominated a handful and kicked them around during a manager’s meeting to decide as a group. The “solution” to this problem is that now the employees vote on it, with the managers getting an equal weighted vote. Stupid. Now it’s just a popularity contest. Not to mention that as a lunch server, I will never get the award again, as I am totally off the radar of the more populous dinner crew.

Another example? Michael’s instituted a Running Sidework list for dinners, wherein servers are responsible for ongoing, during-the-shift tasks, like stocking silverware on trays in service stations, making coffee, etc. Nice idea. Except the problem arose because servers were too busy during the shift to handle these things in the first place. Now, in addition to the tasks themselves, they are expected to be monitoring each other’s effectiveness on running sidework . . . like they have time to do that, in addition? So now there is a dry erase board on the wall, with the names of 3 servers assigned their running sidework . . . from a Sunday a few months back. Hasn’t been updated since.

Well, us bloggers aren’t much different. We make bold, provocative predictions – about business volume, cash flow, interoffice politics, even the direction of the nation (with regards to foodserving). And we’re constantly wrong.

Likewise, our blowhardy solutions to the problems we gleefully present are quite often stupid. Thankfully, nobody listens to us, or else we’d see our ideas backfire in the harsh world of reality, rather than blossom and flourish in the rose-tinted universe of our dreams.

No More Convenient Amnesia About Failures

Speaking of backfiring in the real world, of course us waiters are always there to remind the managers of how retarded they were when their appetizer sales contest got gamed and ended up discouraging everyone (except the cheating winner) from trying. Or that their new cover count system actually ended up making everyone more petty and self-absorbed, rather than freeing the staff from obsessing about their own money.

No, we would never allow that. No disgrace is big enough that it can’t be amplified just a bit more.

Same for waiter blog writers. People read and love to point out the folly of our ideas/solutions. When our house-of-cards “improved” systems collapse in the real world, there’s always someone out there to point out what idiots we are.

Limited Audience

Managers don’t have many people to speak to. A large restaurant will have 20 waiters. And of those, maybe only 10% will actually listen.

Waiter blogs do not have massive audiences – unless you’re willing to go public and tell all your friends and co-workers, notify on Facebook, and of course risk getting into deep shit or getting out of a job when you tell too much truth.

So it can be a little dispiriting for us both drop our pearls of wisdom (self-perceived) and have them lapped up only by the few swine who are even barely listening. Not that my readers are swine . . .

The Swine Don’t Know

As a manager you’ve got those two waiters who will actually hear you (listen, maybe not). But even those two are preoccupied with the chronic waiter affliction of not really caring beyond what it means to their tip revenue. They are more concerned with their child with the sniffles, or finals coming up, or that their other job won’t give them Sundays off. So they will gobble up your nuggets of management, swallow, and completely forget. Not important.

While I will compose a post over a couple of days – or in this case 6 or 7 months – it will be read by 30 to 50 people who respond with . . . silence. Next blog. Or next shift. Or, ‘What time does Happy Hour start in this one-bedroom apartment?’

People Are Happier When You Don’t Say Anything

For me, refer to the aforementioned silence after a laboriously-crafted post. My hits have actually climbed steadily in these months of total silence on the waiternotes.com blog. This leads me to believe readers are glad that I’m there when they need me, but are just as happy that I’m not continually bleating at them about cover counts and my arch-enemies.

Like when you need a problem smoothed out at a table – thank god for that manager! But otherwise, please, dude, just stay in your office in front of the computer monitor. Or at the end of the bar with your Johnny Walker Black on the rocks drinking friend.

Pander And You’ll Lose Their Respect

When a manager starts trying to be your friend, it’s great at first. It’s happened to all of us. It might start with your massive computer mistake that he secretly voids to protect you from a catastrophic disciplinary action (or even having to pay money for it, in the case of Mom and Pop restaurants who try to get away with that). Then there will be after hours drinks in the restaurant, followed that night or another time with drinks away from the restaurant. Then kibitzing privately about other waiters, managers, or confidential restaurant business. And later still you might play golf, or see a concert, or just more drinking together. Okay, it’s almost always just the drinking.

But the time comes when you take for granted that manager will always have your back, even when she shouldn’t. You lose respect for any of those pearls of instruction cast before your swinish self – she means everybody else, not you. And then the final domino falls when the rest of the staff susses up that the manager is toothless and their respect (what little existed in the first place) fails as well.

Writing a post that panders to my audience by taking an indefensible position regarding, say, being late to work, and it becomes immediately clear that the blogger is just a blowhard hack (in waiting and writing). Mind you, most of are anyway, but it’s not necessarily immediately clear.

I’ve read blogs like that, myself. When I read about the guy who thought the owner was an a-hole for not letting him off on Valentine’s Day because his ‘girlfriend’ of two weeks is expecting a date, I can’t help but complete the picture of this swine: wrinkled, untucked shirt, shoes that look like mud-cast fossils from Bigfoot, cell phone ringing in his pocket when standing at the table, and drinking a bar mat shot at the end of the shift.

This is the guy I’m reading for food serving enlightenment?

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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.

Restaurant Overstaffing

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that I’m complaining again about restaurant management strategies. Remember my diatribes about Cover Counts? When the money gets tight, people (including me) start to look for something to blame. When business gets slow, every little detail gets more attention. I remember a wise manager back in the ’90s telling me, ‘Sales covers everything.’ I’m sure it was not original, even then.

My own precious mantra, ‘Be patient, things will even out,’ is hard for even myself to accept these days.

Today, yet again, the day manager at Michael’s utilized the on-call server – and, in addition, added an extra server! Okay, sure. That staff of four waiters was the scheduled minimum three years ago. But it’s different now. What it meant today was that there were 22 reservations on the books. Statistics show that at Michael’s covers quite often double the number of reservations.

***Background. Michael’s has strict policy that dinner servers have no more than 3 table stations. Lunch servers, because of the faster pace and less required ‘service overhead,’ are allowed 4 table stations.***

So back to today. Business is down. Shifts are down. Floor staffing is down. But as I said here, about the hidden ‘benefits’ of Restaurant Industry Contraction, when it is slow, at least the natural cutting of staff generally allows those working to continue to make the average $$ per shift. You know: 30% less sales, 30% fewer servers, servers still make about the same money per shift.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been doing the math in your head, the current manager seems dead set on staffing so servers get about 10 covers per shift. Our check average is in the $40-50 range – though it’s probably dipped from that during the last six months. The result of this is that we’re being allowed to sell between $300-500 a shift, translating to walk-home money of $40-70. We used to make average walk-home $100.

My problem here is this: As servers, our workload is nowhere near full-capacity. When we’re getting our 10 covers each – whether it be two on the floor or five on the floor – we’re in no higher than second gear. We go overboard helping to run food and keep up on running sidework (teamwork stuff), but those are the only things keeping us from standing around for long stretches. We could be busy and productive all the time. If we had full stations.

The difference we’re talking about, on a day like today, was just for the manager not to panic and bring in the ‘bonus’ server. As it turned out, we each had nine covers. I sold about $380 and walked with $57. And, again, none of us were remotely busy. If you just remove that ‘bonus’ server, each waiter sells about $125 more, makes about $20 more . . . and we’re still not that busy.

The final point I have to make refers back to the standards of station sizes I mentioned. Michael’s posts daily tabulations of cover counts in Excel spreadsheet format. The spreadsheet even calculates the average covers per server. The pages stack up on the bulletin board for a couple weeks before being thrown away.

Because of my frustration, I took a look at these cover count pages. There are separate sheets for dinner and lunch. Going back two weeks, the general average cover count for dinner was 13 per server; for lunch it was 9-10. That’s pretty bad. Never mind that us lunch servers accept the dinner shift makes more money per cover – that’s just the way it is. But the lunch shift is getting 30% fewer covers per waiter than the dinner shift. That’s not fair, is it?

But wait. Remember the station-size standards? At lunch we’re allowed 33% bigger stations. Hey, all things being equal, we should be allowed 33% more covers. So if dinner waiters are serving 13 covers a night, we should be serving 17 or more at lunch.

What the F’ is going on here?

If I may extrapolate those 17 phantom covers I should have: x40x.085(tax)x.20(tip) means I should be grossing about $148 a day. And remember – we’re not busy – it can easily be done.

I am a firm believer in not challenging management. They have a lot to do, and dealing with griping waiters generally just makes it harder to do their jobs. I believe they are trying to make the restaurant run best it can and be profitable. But this issue gets into fairness.

It seems to me that our day manager is too scared for her shift to be busy, thereby exposing her to risk of bad service and complaints. (I won’t even go there regarding possible fear that she won’t be able to handle average to heavy business.) In doing so, she is sacrificing the income of her waiters. She feels comfortable at all times. We make bad money and are never working as hard as we can handle.

I am this close to asking for a sit-down with management . . .

Cover Counts

Counting covers is the practice of trying to give each server an equal number of guests per shift, thus ensuring in the long run that waiters have opportunity to make the same amount of money. Simply alternating tables doesn’t work because a table of six is not the equal of a table for two. Tables would be even at 1 to 1, but one server gets six customers to two for the other.

Because waiters are a naturally greedy and jealous lot, the system of counting covers is imperative to allay paranoia about management favoritism towards select waiters. Counts might vary a few guests either way, but because of the effort, these variances even out over time.

Many restaurants don’t use cover counts. They are bald-faced about their system of favoritism. Usually it has to do with seniority, and often who is sleeping (semi-secretly) with the manager. And that’s fine, too, I guess. If you know going in what to expect, you can decide if it’s okay with you, making below average money for a year or more, so you can eventually make above average money on the back end. People who complain about restaurants like this kind of bug me. Anywhere you work, the system being employed should be obvious to you after just a few months – if you didn’t know it already from Day One. Waiters have the option of being transient. If you don’t like it (and it’s working for the restaurant, as evidenced by its many years of operation), you should leave.

Michael’s, my day job, employs cover counts. Carney’s doesn’t, and it doesn’t matter because we pool tips there.

I’ve had an ongoing beef with the particular cover count system used by Mickey, the day manager at Michael’s for the last two years. It’s a small tweak she uses regarding the shift closer. My experience in every restaurant has been that the closer stays later, has more responsibility, and often has more work (checking other servers’ sidework, closing sidework, etc.). The reward for this is that he/she gets extra tables (and therefore, more money) after the rest of the floor has been cut. The other waiters almost never have a problem with this, as they recognize the extra work and later hours involved with closing, and because 95% of waiters always want to get off early. Meanwhile, the closers like it because they are the other 5% and enjoy making the extra cash, and don’t mind working for it while the other jackasses are out spending their earnings on cocktails.

Well, Mickey’s tweak – she believes, an improvement – is to manage the covers to take into account the late parties the closer will get. For example, she’ll cut the floor with Waiter X at 15 covers, Waiter Y at 14, and Waiter Z (the closer) at 9, because she knows there is a four-top coming in later, and she expects another possible table or two to walk in.

The first problem is obviously that this eliminates the ‘Closer Bonus.’ The second problem is that nothing is guaranteed. Reservations don’t show up; in fact, late reservations are more likely to no-show than any other. Expected walk-ins are just a roll of the dice. You could get five tables and run your ass off, or you could be chasing tumbleweeds for two hours.

I only close one day a week at Michael’s, so percentage-wise her system might serve me better because of my more numerous non-closing shifts. But I just don’t think it’s right. I’ve talked to all the other waiters about this, and they agree too: This is not the way it is done anywhere.

I (and at least two other waiters, separately) have addressed Mickey about this issue specifically. She won’t change. So we have had to accept it.

But it still doesn’t keep us closers from getting mad watching the other waiters get loaded up in a 4-to-1 ratio vs. the closer.

It happened today. Three on the floor (incidentally, as the closer, I nevertheless opened the restaurant as well). I got an early 3-top and that was it. The other two got numerous tables, finally totaling 8 and 9 covers each by the time it was 1:20. A slow day, obviously, with only one six-top reservation left on the books. I figured at this point everyone was pretty much cut, and I would get the six-top, and any walk-ins.

Sure enough, a quality walk-in comes in, Mr. Corelli. I had him last week. He’s a regular, good for a 30% tip. Another waiter normally gets him, by his request, but last time I did such a good job he said he wanted to sit with me whenever she was not working.

Because of the cover count and floor-cutting situation right then, and because his usual waiter was off, I immediately went to his table as he sat down. We said hello and chatted, I got the cocktail order, I referred to a dish he ordered last time that wasn’t made quite right (for him), and how we’d get it perfect this time. He was glad to see me and things were rolling.

I ring the cocktails, deliver them. These guys like to start slow and finish abruptly, so I leave them alone to talk and drink. Back in the side station I’m just dicking around, pretty much killing time. After a few minutes, Mickey comes back with a chit (for each party seated, a chit with a name and other instructions/info is printed and given to the server). She says, ‘I’m going to give this table to Chrissy, because you have the six-top reservation coming in later.’

I say no problem. I assumed another table had walked-in while I was back there. This would ultimately put me with at least 13 covers and Chrissy with 10 or 12, depending on the size of the ‘new’ walk-in. Fine.

After another few minutes I return to the table. Chrissy is chatting up Mr. Corelli, which isn’t unusual because he’s a regular, a nice guy, and a great tipper. As I get closer it becomes obvious that this is the table Mickey was giving her. It was awkward at the table because Mr. Corelli looked at me like, ‘What’s going on?‘ In fact, he even said that out loud. ‘We thought we were getting you.’

‘Yeah, well, Mickey has a way she runs things,’ I said, knowing better than to bring internal stuff to bear on the guests. I just told him this is the way it was, and Chrissy will definitely take good care of them.

But I was freakin’ flaming. Nevertheless, I immediately transferred the table (in the computer) to Chrissy. You need to obey orders or the whole system breaks down.

So now I was back to 3 covers. Back to zero customers currently in the restaurant. It’s 1:40 and the other waiters are doing their sidework. I complained to Chrissy herself, not because I wanted action or blamed her – just that she’s a friend and we all disagree with Mickey’s management of cover counts. She said she understood. She even said I could have the table if I wanted. I said no because I’m not a strong-arm guy. I didn’t want to steal the table; I was just upset because it should have been my table.

Mickey came back to the side station a few minutes later. I was fit to be tied.

‘I just can’t understand how you can do that to me,’ I said.

‘But you’re getting the six-top. They’re in the bar.’

‘Right, but now Chrissy is up to 12 covers and the six-top only puts me at nine. I’ve had three covers.’ If you can’t tell, I was super upset. ‘And the worst thing about it is you know Mr. Corelli is an $80 tip. And you gave it to her and she was already ahead of me on covers . . .’

Unfortunately, Mickey became upset and frustrated. She offered that if it was okay with Chrissy I could still have the table. As I said, I didn’t want that. So, having said my piece, I went back out to stand sentry over a (nearly) deserted floor.

Mr. Corelli looked over his shoulder, spotted me, and waved me over. ‘I hope you won the coin toss,’ he said.

‘Well, I wish I had too, but I didn’t.’

‘But we wanted you. You were already working with us. She hasn’t done anything,’ he said. ‘Isn’t there something you can do?’

‘The only way anything would happen is if you talked to Mickey, because it’s what you want that matters,’ I said, coming pretty close to, if not actually, crossing the line. But then, he did ask. And I certainly wouldn’t want him to think I didn’t care, which would be insulting to him. I continued, ‘But you if you do, you have to let her know I had nothing to do with it. You called me over here.’

At that moment, Mickey swung by the table, asked how it was going?

Mr. Corelli: ‘Oh, it’s fine. You know I called Waiter over here to find out why you were switching Chrissy on to us. She’s a great girl and everything, but Waiter has got us going. He’s been doing everything for us.’

Mickey quickly capitulated, putting me back on the table, making it seem like that was the reason she was coming over anyway. It’s possible that was true.

After that, Chrissy transferred the table back to me in the computer; Mickey pretty much didn’t talk to me the rest of the day; and Chrissy left without saying much. I went on to get the six-top and wait on the two tables.

The issue got a little more sticky when the six-top ordered a bottle of Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet – $350. They proceeded to order appetizers, salads, and dinner entrees, and multiple bottles of water. Their check was $930 and I got a $200 tip.

Mr. Corelli had a big day even for him. Despite bringing his own wine (VIP’s don’t pay corkage), his party of four rang up a $450 bill. He tipped me $150.

So I felt even worse for all the ‘greedy’ drama. I wasn’t able to psychologically fall back on the fact that Mr. Corelli was the only saving grace of my day. Still, intellectually I have to realize that the good fortune of that six-top was just that. It would have been more likely that a random group of six people at lunch would run up only a $250 bill and I might get a $40 tip off it.

The real problem I felt I had to address was the screwed up logic employed in giving Mr. Corelli to someone else, at that exact time, place, and situation. It wasn’t consistent with even Mickey’s flawed concept of fairness; and it became more egregious – less acceptable to just let it go – when the table in question was a well-known big tipper.

I suspect I’m going to have to chat about this with Mickey when I return to work on Friday. My instinct is to apologize, but thinking it through, I can’t really do that. Although I am sorry a conflict and some hurt feelings resulted, the situation wasn’t my fault. I was initially victim to misapplied rules. I got upset and emotional, and merely voiced my frustration to the manager. What happened after that was kind of an uncontrollable snowball effect.

Final wrap-up: I walked with $350 for the day (I got a couple of piddly tables much later – score a half-a-point for Mickey, I guess – for an additional $30 tips. Whereas I broke out of my three-month stretch of $60 shifts a couple weeks ago, this marked breaking the $200+ drought that had been going on since December. And what a way to break it.