This post was originally published back in June. Sorry for the redux but an “Internal Server Error” demands I re-post or lose it in the bowels of virutal limbo…
As my screen name implies, I am a small town guy. I was born and raised in one, moved away to several others in my youth, and ended up back in this one again. And just like Creedence used to sing, I never had seen the good side of a City, or any reason to live in one. Now, Napa Valley has its charms; but after living here so long you become blasé about many of them. So, we had been to Jazz Fest a couple of times, we were ready for a big change to stir things up, and the California Real Estate bubble was just about to pop; so we loaded up the truck and moved to New Orleans (thank you Jed Clampett).
New Orleans is a lot like San Francisco. If you count the outlying areas on both sides of the Mississippi, their pre-Katrina populations were pretty close to the same. Both have many distinct, separate parts; their neighborhoods are like small towns unto themselves (Carrolton/ The Mission); there are tons of good restaurants; the residents don’t go to the tourist areas (the French Quarter/Fisherman’s Wharf) unless they have out of town guests; the music scenes are cool; and people actually ride the Cable Cars/Streetcars to get around. I rode the St. Charles line home almost every night from the Steakhouse in the Quarter. The free entertainment on the Streetcars after midnight is stranger-than-fiction stuff, and I may cover that in more detail at a later date. I truly enjoyed living there, however brief. My first “Big City”. But then The Storm hit, and it was on to Atlanta.
They call Atlanta the “New York of the South” but it is really more like the “L.A. of the South”. In terms of population, business, and slick urban lifestyle it makes New Orleans look Podunk. Six million people live there. Take a map of the Bay Area and scrunch the nine counties into the area occupied by the Bay, and you’ve got Metro Atlanta.
We had planned to open our own business in New Orleans, and for a while, we investigated doing the same in Atlanta. There was a burgeoning food and wine culture there and we, as former residents of Wine Central, were ready to capitalize. Then we discovered that we didn’t have enough capital to capitalize; so I went looking for a job. I had been in management in California before leaving the restaurant biz to sell wine for seven years, and wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back to it just yet, so I went looking for a waiter job. My philosophy as a waiter was that I was essentially a commissioned salesperson, so I wanted to work at the highest priced place in town. I was told the Buckhead area in north Atlanta was the place to go. So I typed up a résumé and jumped on a MARTA train (lots of free entertainment here too, as well as some unique shopping opportunities). I checked out a few likely candidates, even worked a couple of weeks at one that was supposedly the “French Laundry” of Atlanta, but finally settled in at Chops/Lobster Bar, a high-priced “Boy’s Club” steakhouse that was allegedly the busiest place in town.
Up to this point in my restaurant career, I had worked for big corporations, smaller “restaurant groups” (they didn’t want to be called “chains”), Mom and Pop shops, and some that wanted badly to be big corporations but, in their heart of hearts, were still Mom and Pops no matter how you sliced them. Nothing I had done up to that point, however, had prepared me for this “urban steakhouse”. This place was a factory, a veritable meat-spewing machine, that did $16 mil a year in two restaurants, three bars, and a don’t-bring-your-wife, bring-your-girlfriend private club, all under the same roof. The main restaurant upstairs, Chops, sat maybe 180 but had the capability to add about 80 more to that when we built the big tables up. The downstairs restaurant, Lobster Bar, with the same basic menu, sat about 130. The Club had about 100 seats. A slow night upstairs was 200 covers. Busy was 500. Really busy, and you had December. You will never see anything in your waiter-life like Chops in December.
When I started there, it was April. As a newbie, I kept my mouth shut (a distinct challenge for me) worked my low-rent station, built up a small clientele of local regulars that would ask for me, and worked my way up the waiter food chain. My partner and I (we worked in teams, with the same front waiters/back waiters staying together) had worked together in New Orleans (she was a Katrina refugee, too) and we quickly made an impression on the crew and the bosses. We started to get our share of shifts on “The Rise”, the middle portion of the floor where everybody wanted to sit and be seen, and where all the money was made.
During the spring and summer months when it was slow, all the crew talked about was “The Season”. “Just wait till The Season gets here,” or “you’ll make mad cash during The Season”. Unlike Napa Valley, where the tourists hit in droves spring through fall, the winter was the busiest time in Atlanta. The Holidays and the ensuing convention season were what it was all about. In Napa, and other summer vacation areas, “The Season” was 5 to 8 months long. In Atlanta, especially at Chops, they crammed it all into 8 or 10 weeks. During December, any table that could be was popped up, or built up with these crazy plywood tops that seated 10 to 14 or more. There were four tops that suddenly became eight tops. Booths were built out to tables of 12 or 16, so the person who sat in the middle on the banquette side had no hope of ever getting out to use the bathroom. You had to get to work at least an hour early to horde silverware, glassware and CHAIRS so you would have the equipment to make it through service. Waiters guarded their stocked guerdons like Mama grizzlies. Guys that waltzed in at 4:00pm, the actual start time for the dinner shift, found their carts pillaged of silverware and their tables of wine glasses. Try waiting on a full, seven table section with three forks and a soup spoon and you would easily see the logic in arriving early. The floor was so crowded with big tables that their chairs were back to back; you always had a couple of seats in your station that you literally could not reach. You would have to walk all the way around five or six other adjoining parties just to get back to the opposite side of the table to serve anything. And the weird thing was, none of the guests seemed to mind. They seemed to be used to it. The GM was great, one of those guys you would run into a burning building for. They had one or two competent Assistant Mangers, but the rest were useless. After seating 30 people in your station in less than 10 minutes, one guy used to sashay though and “help” by re-folding a napkin or picking up a used Sweet-Low packet off one of your tables. “God bless you Masked Man! And we didn’t even get a chance to thank him!”