"Sorry, We're Closed…"

Our move to Atlanta has pushed me into doing a lot of things I haven’t had to do for several years:  moving, for one; going to and dealing with all the various public and private agencies one needs for power, cable, water, garbage (still waiting for my trashcan from the City of Atlanta after almost a month, by the way), driver’s licenses, insurance, car registration, etc.  I am also back on the job market, and that means doing something else I loathe almost as much as going to the DMV:  interviewing.

They say that a person is never closer to perfection than when they fill out a job application.  It’s a real “First Date” situation.  Both require the candidate to put forward an unreal, unnatural first impression.  You never see what’s underneath the suit, tie, shined shoes, and firm handshake until several months in.  That’s when you discover the real person, after you’ve moved in together and spent some time getting “comfortable” with each other.  Truthfully though, would there be even the slightest chance of getting laid if you showed up for a first date in your boxers and wife-beater, holding a can of Bud and the remote, and then went to the bathroom to pee and left the door open?  Same with the job thing.  How many people would get hired if they showed up 15 to 20 minutes late for the interview, forgot their tie, and needed to borrow a pen to fill out the application?  Or couldn’t come to the interview because there was a concert they needed to go to; or asked to leave the meeting 10 minutes early because they needed to relieve the babysitter? All things that come out later.

I’ve been on a lot of interviews, some for great jobs, some not so great.  I’ve had one-on-one interviews, which sometimes turn into a mini-series event, getting passed along and up (sometimes down) the food chain.  I’ve had casual style interviews; and I’ve had very serious “Running the Gauntlet” panel-style interviews where I was seated in a conference room with several people from different departments, all peppering me with questions.  But ultimately, they all ask mostly the same ones, or variations on a theme.  Some make sense, others are strictly “HR-Speak”.  You know the type:  “If you were a tree, what kind would you be, and why?”  “What do you see yourself doing in five years?”  (My pat answer for this one, and it always lightens the mood in the room is, “Sitting on a beach in Mexico, drinking Margaritas…”)  And the classic, “What is your greatest strength?” which is, of course, followed by the corollary, “And what is your greatest weakness?”  These last two always puzzle me just a bit.  Not so much the “strength” one, but does anyone really expect you to answer the “weakness” question honestly?  “Well, my penchant for surfing porn on the Internet does tend to slow me down a bit…” or, “I’m not sure which is a greater weakness for me, but it would be a toss up between the heroin addiction and the alcohol…”  Anyone with half a brain is going to turn this one around and say something like, “Well, I guess I’m just too meticulous and thorough in my work…” or, “I’m always early for things, and that tends to cut into my time once in a while…”  I’d like to see more of the “Bob Barker” type of questions, some that would really shed some light on the candidate’s personality like, “Interviewee Number One, if I was a potato, would you bake me, fry me, or mash me?”

One question I got, though, that set me to thinking a bit was, “How do you handle stress?”  This particular question was asked in an interview for a job that was not in the restaurant field, so I really had to ponder it.  Why?  Because we in the restaurant business have nothing but stress, all day, every day.  I never had to think about how I “handled” it, I just did.  The occasional Waiter Nightmare was really the only psychological side effect I had.

And that’s the difference, really, between a restaurant job and “a real job”.  In a restaurant, a crew works together to do their One Big Thing every day, serve the guests that come through the door.  There is a build-up to The One Big Thing, when you are setting up the dining room, your mis en place in the kitchen, or choreographing how you will seat all the reservations on the book.  Then there’s The One Big Thing itself, service.  You deal with all the Type A personalities that are requesting hot water with lemon; that want you to seat them at that table over there, not this one; that want their steak well done, but still pink in the middle, and want you to do it all while standing on one foot.    People come in hungry and thirsty, you give them something great to eat and fill their glass.  They want a break from doing all the stuff that they do for other people all day and, instead want someone to do stuff for them, like give them the satisfying experience of a great meal.  And even though you get guests that act like they’re going to, no one dies or loses an eye if the skin on their chicken isn’t crispy and it has to go back to be recooked.  You do service, deal with all the usual challenges one by one as they arise, and then you’re done.  They order; you cook and bring; they pay, sometimes even say “thank you”, and leave.  Closure.

In most “real jobs”, closure is a much more elusive thing.  The “In-Box” on the desk is never empty, the boss is never satisfied, there is always more to do.  You are never really “done” with anything.  The closest I ever got to closure in any of the handful of Nine to Five’s I’ve had in my life was when I was in wine sales.  We had a number we had to make by month’s end, placements to make in By The Glass programs, on wine lists, etc.  There would be a big build up the last week of the month as sales people scurried around, madly trying to make up for all the time they had wasted by dicking around for the previous three and a half weeks, so they could make their numbers by month’s end.  But guess what?  After the Month-End flurry is over, the next day is a new month and everything re-sets to zero.  Closure, but it lasts for less than 24 hours, unless the last day of the month falls on a Friday.  Then the stress starts to build again as you enter another 30 day period.  And even if you make three By The Glass placements and place four other items on the wine list at one of the highest profile accounts on your list, your boss would be all “What about the well vodka?” or, “How many back bar items do we have there?”  Always more, always on-going, never finished.

So, to answer the stress question, I guess I would have to say that we in the restaurant biz have a great way to deal with our stress and get closure.  Every day, at the end of the day, we finish up and close.

"but let's do it again real soon..."

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