"All That And A FREE Bag of Chips…"

April 25, 2011

We had a large group (20 people, on two tables of 10) the other night, and their servers did an admirable job of taking care of all their demands.  And they were demanding, rearranging every dish on the menu with more substitutions than a hockey game.

When it came time for entrees to be served (we were all shocked they actually ordered some, and didn’t make a meal out of salads and appetizers) the server at one of the tables made the unfortunate mistake of forgetting to order the Veal Chop for one particularly pretentious woman (we had already nicknamed her “Divalicious”);  and of course it was ordered Medium Well.  You got it: 15 minute fire time, at a minimum, to get her another one.  She has refused to accept my server’s apology and her offer of anything else on the menu.  She is now in full-on Righteous Indignation Mode, and basking in the attention she is getting from her table-mates.  She waves her server away, refusing to even speak to her.  So, my number is called, and I had to go over and try to make things right.

I apologized profusely for her server’s honest mistake, and gave her the bad news about how long her Chop would take.  Miss Thang rolls her eyes, big time, and asks to see the menu.  She orders the Trout.  I thank her for her “patience”, tell her it will be on the house, and we get it out and on the table in under 3 minutes.  I go back after a bit, apologize again, and make sure she is happy with her dish.  She is wolfing it down and nods her approval, without even looking up.   She is nowhere near the last person eating when the table is cleared, and her plate is literally licked clean.

When it comes time for the bill (separate checks, of course) my waitress comes over and says that the woman is now refusing to pay for her one drink (which she nursed for the entire 90 minutes they were at the table after sending back her first choice because it “wasn’t pretty enough”) AND she’s refusing to pay the service charge, saying “The Manager said it was on him…”  So, a free entreé wasn’t enough?  Whatever.  I comp out the rest of her check, and my server is just laughing because this woman is being such a ridiculous caricature.

So, as they are leaving, Chef and I are at the podium chatting; and as the group is heading out the door,  I start doing my “Thank yous and Good Nights” to the rest of the party who, truthfully, weren’t all that much trouble after we got past the ordering phase.  Miss Thang stops by, and I was so irritated with her I didn’t even make eye contact.  She reaches into the dish of Jolly Ranchers we have at the podium, and starts fishing through them, searching for the Sour Cherry ones that were apparently the only ones “pretty” enough for her.  She drops one, two, three, four, five of them into her knockoff Louis Vitton bag.  She finally notices me standing there and looks up.  I look her dead in the eyes and say “Haven’t you had enough free stuff for one night?”  Chef bursts out laughing so hard he almost choked.  I spin on my heels and leave her standing there, in mid jaw-drop.

At what point in their lives do these women suddenly become such self-absorbed pains in the ass?  You know that quite possibly they were once very sweet little girls, with pigtails and all that crap.  So, do they just wake up one morning and say to themselves, “Okay.  Time to start acting like a bitch”?  Or is it a long apprenticeship, watching Mom and aunts and sisters put on the Bitch Coat and wear it?  “Don’t worry baby, some day you’ll get to be a bitch too…”  Reality shows on MTV and E Network serve as their training videos; and then they test out their skills on Dad and probably their teachers.  Building on these minor successes, they soon become the full-fledged real deal; and now no one is safe, from cab drivers to store clerks to the counter guy at BK.  Well, check that shit at the door, girlfriend.  I ain’t playin’…


"Night Sweats In Broad Daylight…"

April 4, 2011

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been contemplating making yet another career change, or if it was the spicy BBQ pork sammy for lunch today, but I have just woken from the Mother of All Waiter Nightmares.  Those of you that have had them will know what I’m talking about when I say they come from out of nowhere.  I know I’m still in the restaurant business and, granted, I have some waiters at work who ARE nightmares; but I haven’t worked a shift as a waiter in almost five years.  Waiter Nightmares?  After five years?

I’ve written about Waiter Nightmares before (click and read), and about how I had learned a kind of “Directed Dreaming” technique, ala “Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Warriors”; so I can usually pretty much just sit back and enjoy the comic relief that comes with the absolute futility in most Waiter Nightmares, somehow knowing that this stuff could never really happen. But today’s was scarily different.

This one started at Chops in Atlanta, except that it wasn’t Chops.  In my dream I knew it was Chops, but the dining room had absolutely no resemblance.  Some of the waiters were guys that I worked with at Chops, as was the Manager, and the room was that kind of Boys Club Steak Housey kind of place with button-tuck booths, men in suits, cocktails clinking, etc.  I am back to work there, and it’s my first night back.  I don’t think I’d gone through any re-training, I think they just threw me out there.  I do remember being strangely happy to be back to work there.  Most therapists at this point would say, “Maybe you should look at that…”

I had just arrived at work, and was saying hello to some of “the guys”.  Everyone is shaking my hand and welcoming me back when The Manager tells me I’m working solo (Chops was team service with a partner, although I had some living Nightmare nights there when somebody no-showed and I DID work solo) but I will have a smaller station, over by the bar.  No prob, it’s my first night back and I’m feeling pretty bulletproof.

So, I’ve got my waiter jacket on, and my little metal badge with a number on it; I’ve got my notepad, my Cross Pens, corkscrew, crumber and all that crap.  I’m feeling good, cocky, ready to take some tables.  I had found my station in the gigantic restaurant (they’re usually gigantic in my nightmares), four deuces and one four top all in a neat little cluster near the end of this horseshoe shaped bar, and it all seems pretty manageable; after all, I’ve worked here before and know the drill.   Then I notice that the Host is walking away from seating a single diner at one of my tables, a professional looking woman in a business suit with briefcase.  I know what you’re thinking:  what kind of useless Shoe Clerk am I, to be having a Waiter Nightmare over a SINGLE!!??

Anyway, I greet madame, and get her a cocktail, a Manhattan or something I think.  She orders:  Spinach Salad to be followed by an 8oz. Filet, medium.  I don’t remeber ordering the salad, but after a couple of minutes I notice it’s on the table and, yikes, she’s almost done with it and I haven’t fired her steak yet.

I’m mildly panicked about the fire time on her Filet but, hey, it’s Chops.  They have about a billion 8oz. filets in the broiler at any one time on busy nights, and maybe I can use my one “New Guy Get Out Of Jail Free Card” to get them to rob another table so Milady won’t have too long of a wait.  But first I have to get to the POS and fire her order before I can go throw myself on the mercy (Ha!) of the Sous Chef.  And, as they say in the Circus, this is where the fun begins…

My cockiness and confidence is beginning to waver a little as I realize I don’t know where the POS is.  I walk out of the bar, into another gigantic dining room that is almost completely empty, and over against one wall is a POS touchscreen about the size of a 52″ plasma TV.  I make my way over to it and, of course, it’s a system I’ve never seen or used before.  I manage to log in, find a screen that looks like a table map, and double tap the icon for my single diner’s table (#63).  But instead of neat rows of buttons, or screens that have actual menu items, the screen looks more like a website; one of those really hard to read websites that was designed by some genius who thought red letters on a black background would be a good idea.  Almost all of the screen is taken up by pictures and advertisements for cars and other stuff.  Way down at the bottom are lines of uber-tiny type, hyperlinks to click on for menu stuff; but the type is the REALLY tiny stuff you get at the bottom of a company’s website where they put stuff like “Privacy Notice.  Site Map.  Contact Us.  Careers.”  And it’s a touchscreen, so every time I try to double tap a tiny link I get the wrong one, and some other gigantic window opens with more pictures and ads.

Now I’m really starting to freak because I know that spinach salad has been cleared and my single is sitting there, tapping her fingers, waiting for that Filet, and wondering where the hell her idiot waiter has gotten to.  In my panic state, and willing to try anything I can think of to navigate this behemoth screen, I decide that there’s not enough light in the room to see it properly, so I take it down off the wall and carry it over to another corner where some sconces are beaming spotlights down on the carpet, creating circles of light in the murky room.  Strangely, there are no wires; and, strangely, this doesn’t even factor into my thinking as I pick up this unusually light, strangely wireless, and utterly useless Piece Of Shit.  Under the glow of the spotlights on the other side of the room the screen is no more readable than it had been on the wall.  And I still haven’t fired her steak.  And, even with the panic really starting to set in, I’m thinking, “Shit, all these steaks are ala carte.  I didn’t ask her about sides!”  I figure I’ll deal with that after I get this DAMN STEAK FIRED!

Still tapping at links, still getting the wrong screens, I try turning the screen around, rotating it, thinking if I can get a closer look at these damn tiny hyperlinks, I would actually be able to read them.  I’m trying to hold it out in front of me, like some massive artist’s sketch pad, and the screen is rotating with the movements, like on my wife’s Droid; so every time I turn it to make the links closer, the screen changes and they move back to where they were before.  Now I’m totally sweating, full blown dread is setting, yet all Mr. Sensitve To The Needs Of Others here, can think about is “I wonder if someone else needs to use this terminal…”  This turns out to be an non-issue, as I look back across the room to see that the screen I have taken down has been replaced by an even LARGER one, about the size of a small billboard, a veritable  JumboTron of a POS.  In my panic I’m willing to try just about anything to get this one stupid, stinking steak fired, and I consider going over to the giant screen, thinking the type must surely be larger on that one, right?  Just as I’m putting my screen down I see the link for “Fire” at the bottom and hit it.  I set the screen down on the floor, and start sprinting back to my station.

As I approach my tables, I am mildly relieved to see that no one else has been seated in my section during my adventure in the Gigantic Room with the Gigantic POS Screen.  The only catch is that my station is now somehow outside, and it’s starting to rain.  Guests at other tables are being moved inside by their waiters, but my single is standing up and looking around.  She starts picking up all her stuff, briefcase, purse, and is grabbing the silverware and napkin off the table and walking off toward the inside area.  I catch her and relieve her of her burdens, and tell her I will usher her into one of my “Inside Tables”.  I don’t know why or how I knew I actually had inside tables, but I did.  Except I don’t know the table numbers, so I don’t know if I’m seating her at one of my tables or someone else’s.  It doesn’t seem to matter, and I’ve still got to get to the kitchen to tell them to hurry that 8oz. Filet which, despite my being out of my station for what seemed like an eternity, has not arrived.  And shit!  What about those side dishes?  I forgot to ask her.

I get my single diner situated at an inside table in a dining room that is now a gigantic white event tent, like they set up at wine auctions.  I know I still have to get to the kitchen, but I can’t stop myself from helping the Manager.  He’s trying desperately to get tables set up for all the people coming in from the rain.  The tables are all 72″ banquet rounds, with one flipped upside down on top of another, so I take my place on one side of the two tables to help him flip the inverted one off.  I’m waiting for him to flip the legs up and lock them into place when I notice a stack of 6 B&B plates sitting on table we are about to flip over.  The Manager has not seen the plates, has locked the legs on his side into place and flips the unusually light table off the other one, sending the stack of B&B’s flying.  Oddly, they all stay together in one stack and fly out onto a road that is outside an open flap of this massive circus tent of a dining room.  I’m waiting for the sickening crash of shattering china, but instead hear a metallic clang; and I realize the plates must have been sitting inside of one of those metal plate covers.  Huh.  Didn’t see that one coming.

Anyway, I still need to get to the kitchen, get that Filet on the fly, and then get back to my section where I still didn’t know what the fuck the table numbers are.  Shit!  And I need to ask her about those sides!  I contemplate just ordering her a baked potato.  I mean everybody likes those, right?  But that would entail a return to the JumboTron POS again.  It’s at this point I see a guy that I used to work with about 10 years ago at another restaurant, who is apparently now working here.  Nothing about this strikes me as the least bit strange, and I stop him to say hi; but he doesn’t know me from Adam.  He does know enough to remind me I’m covering his lunch shift tomorrow, though.   Even though I haven’t been back to check on my one and only guest, I somehow know with all certainty that 8oz. Filet is NOT on the table yet, and I am a total loser.  This is when I wake up to my cell phone buzzing on the nightstand and thank God for text messages!

"More Thanksgiving Stuff of Legends…"

November 25, 2010

Back in The Day, when I was a fledgling line cook on his way up the culinary food chain of Napa Valley, Thanksgiving had sort of become a Holiday of Accommodation for me.  With a new-found disdain born of my recent experiences working with “the real thing”, my thinking went that if it wasn’t straight out of Ecoffier, my wanna-be French nose was in the air immediately.  How could I possibly sit by and subject myself to overcooked green beans and dry Turkey after I had spent all week making Sauce Écrivisse, trimming bones for Carré D’Agneau En Croûte, and slicing beautiful loins of milk-fed Veal?  Would I, yet again, have to suffer through another meal of those “time-tested recipes” used by my Mom and Aunts for years?  I had become such an ass, as Thanksgiving up to then had been a perfectly fine dinner we all enjoyed together, over-cooked turkey notwithstanding.

One year, I decided to take the reins, and took the pompous ass thing to new levels.  I called my Mom to inform her that I would be preparing the most vital portion of the Thanksgiving meal: the bird, the stuffing and sauce.

“This year, we are having Red Wine and Cognac Marinated Turkey with Wild Rice, Sausage and Chestnut Stuffing, and Wild Mushroom Sauce, and I’m doing the cooking.”

“No, Mom, not gravy.  Sauce.”

“No, really I want to.  Mom, it’ll be great.  I can do it.  Mom…”

Mom grudgingly agreed; the grudging part came mostly from her being forced to relinquish the all-important control factor of the dinner.   But also, if I pulled off the coup I was attempting, she would finally have to admit my career choice was actually valid.  For years now, she had been patiently waiting for the day when I would put down the knives and pans, go back to school, and get “a real job”.

The recipe called for a 48-hour marinade of the massive 21-pound bird I had purchased.  At the time I was a true bachelor who worked in a restaurant kitchen, which meant that at home I had one or two old frying pans, a motley assortment of  utensils, and nothing in the fridge except Dijon mustard, beer, and a bottle of Old Crow in the freezer.  I ate at work.  So preparing the meal I was attempting, and doing so at home, meant borrowing pans of suitable sizes and a vessel to marinate a bird the size of a Dodo, from the Chef.  We were closed at the restaurant for Thanksgiving, and I assured him all equipment would be returned unscathed on Friday. 

Home, at the time, was up in Angwin, a sleepy little conclave of hippies and Seventh Day Adventist college students in the hills, nine miles up from the restaurant in St. Helena.  My parents’ house, where the clan would gather, was in Napa, twenty miles or so down-valley.  Without realizing it, I had become what every self-respecting Chef Di Partie dreads:  I was a Caterer.  Restaurant cooks have a saying, paraphrasing Nancy Reagan:  “Just say No To Catering”.  Catering is always fraught with the potential for disaster and the need to be constantly “stomping out fires” when the main course for the event goes sliding across the floor of a van en route to the site; or some essential ingredient is left back at the prep kitchen, thirty minutes away.  My Thanksgiving adventure would prove no different. I loaded the groceries, my frozen Pterodactyl, and all the equipment into the back seat my 1971 Chevy Vega (one of a series of $250 cars I had back then) and headed for home around 10:30pm in a driving rainstorm.

The Chevy Vega, even in showroom condition, was a poor excuse for a vehicle; and mine could never be confused with anything remotely resembling dependable.  It had transmission issues, bad suspension, and a passenger-side window that was stuck either halfway up or halfway down, depending on your philosophy and that day’s weather.  Of course I had no insurance, no valid driver’s license, and about three cups of gas in the tank.  I told you I was a true bachelor restaurant cook, didn’t I?  But pride and reckless youth were powering this adventure and so A-Catering I will go…

About halfway up the hill to Angwin, the Vega decided to live up (or down) to its reputation.  The rear axle of this 70’s Detroit P.O.S. is held together by a small horseshoe-shaped pin, which secured the right rear wheel to the axle rod and left rear wheel.  As I rounded one of several hairpin turns on the road up the mountain, with my little car Loaded For Bear with pots and pans, the World’s Largest Turkey, as well as 5 or 6 bags of groceries, this pin decided that a rainy night in November on a dark mountain road would be an optimal time to let go. It disintegrated, detaching the right rear wheel from the axle assembly and turning my car into a three-legged Billy Goat. The Vega’s right rear side dropped with a sickening thud and some disconcerting grinding noises. It’s a particularly odd sensation, to be looking out the driver’s side window and see your right rear wheel passing you on the left, and disappear over the cliff on the other side of the road.  I managed to limp the Vega off onto the narrow shoulder, and began to assess.

I was at least two miles from home; and it was 10:30pm, and pouring rain.  Of course, this was back when Cell Phones were still the size of a shoe box, and pretty much a novelty item for people like Gordon Gecko, so I had no one to call and no way to call them anyway.  A triage of the situation called for leaving the Chef’s equipment locked in the dead car and hoping for the best.  I hoisted the bags of groceries onto my back, and started walking the last leg of the journey.  To add insult to injury, the last mile of the drive was up and over a 7% grade and down into town.

You never realize just how friggin’ heavy a 20-pound turkey is until it needs to be carried uphill, in the rain, in a plastic grocery bag while getting soaked to the bone.   Stumbling along a pitch-dark mountain road with six bags of groceries can cause one to ponder one’s career choices; and the drive and determination to not let Mom be right, yet again, and pull off my first Thanksgiving Dinner despite the obstacles, was fading fast. Just as I was seriously considering spinning the bag with the Turkey over my head and letting it fly for the first time in its life, headlights appeared behind me.  My next-door neighbor, a contractor, was on his way up the hill, returning home from tarping over an exposed construction site down in the Valley.  He zoomed up in his massive Ford F-250.  I loaded my stuff in the back and, after doubling back to the corpse of my Vega for the borrowed kitchen equipment, we arrived home and off-loaded.

The Thanksgiving meal was a roaring success, with the red-wine marinade turning out a bird that was juicy and magnificently bronzed.  The Wild Rice Stuffing and Mushroom Sauce were big hits too, even with my uncle, Big Mike, a staunch traditionalist when it comes to Holiday meals.  Friday was spent retrieving a used 1971 Vega rear end from the junk yard and I came away from that Thanksgiving with a new-found appreciation for the complexities of gray green beans, Durkee Fried Onions, and Sweet Potatoes topped with tiny marshmallows.

I suppose it could have been worse…

"Be All You Can Be, Even If You're Not…"

September 9, 2010

I’ve been using “Writer’s Block” as an excuse for not posting anything these past few days, but I just haven’t felt like I’ve had any material.  My blog topics always hover in or around food, wine and the restaurant business; and while I have certainly had no shortage of food (as my scale can attest) or drink, I haven’t been “in” the restaurant business for over three months now.  Ninety-eighty days and counting, that I’ve been an unwilling part of our country’s unemployment statistics.  I guess I’d have to reduce that total by 6 if I was to count the week-long tryout up in New England with a restaurant group looking to open an outpost here in Atlanta.  I mean, they did pay me, as well as cover all my expenses.

It’s not that I haven’t been looking, or even had an offer or two.  If you counted them all up (which I have, since I’ve had the time) I’ve been on 22 interviews for 11 different positions.   I hope I’m not putting the curse on things by saying so (like I do by washing the car to make it rain), but I may be nearing the end of my long drought.  I have had five interviews now with a very high-quality company that’s in an expansion mode, even in this economy.   It is run by real pros that have their act together, and they can actually afford me.  This could be The One that could actually turns into a bona fide career move.  I’ll know more after an excursion up North again (different state this time) to meet the big bosses.  My fingers are almost disjointed, they are crossed so tight.

This last one has so far included three hour-long phone conversations, as well as two in-person meetings.  They also had me go undercover to their place here in town and have dinner.  All they asked was that I write up a synopsis of my experience and submit it, along with a receipt, and they’d take care of everything.  Well, the dining experience was less than stellar, which is good news for me as they obviously need some help there; but bad news for them as things are a tad bit worse than they had thought.

After over 25 years in “the biz”, no matter where I dine I can’t help but notice service faux pas and over analyze the food and beverage.   I always notice the busboy that puts his elbow in my face when clearing, or the server that needs to stand closer to his razor and maybe go out and buy a steam iron.  Friends that dine with me know that if I suddenly drop out of the dinner table conversation and start looking around, I’m “seeing” the place through the restaurant version of what John Madden called “Linebacker Eyes”:  always on the lookout for a problem, taking everything in, always seeing the big picture.  My wife or our friends will stop in mid-sentence, and say stuff like “Uh-oh, what’s wrong?” or “Oh no, he’s not happy…” I can’t help myself. I turn into Dexter, and my Dark Passenger just takes over, until all I can see are the cobwebs in the corners and the complete lack of ice in that Iced Tea refill; and it’s not even my Iced Tea!  It can be truly maddening.

So, it was no real struggle to commit my insights on this covert dinner to paper (keyboard), and my review was no less than five pages and 2500 words.  I told the whole truth and nothing but, God help me, hoping that doing so wouldn’t kick me out of the running.  I mean, don’t ask if you don’t want to know, right?  Well, shit-howdy if the exact opposite didn’t happen.   I submitted the receipt and my laundry list of their defects and screw-ups, along with just enough insights and suggestions on how to correct some of them.  I held back on the rest.  You don’t get to drink this milk until you buy the cow, baby.  The next day, I got a call back to meet with the Director of Operations, in person this time.  When he arrived for the interview, he pulled out a hard copy of my review notes and went through it point by point.  He had shared it with the other Mucky-Mucks, and they loved it.  He even commented very favorably on my writing skills.

I’ve always had a nagging bit of a self-esteem problem when it comes to job hunting, especially when it involves a step up the ladder.  No matter how many successes I can count in my professional life, and there have been many, whenever I am interviewing and trying to sell myself to prospective employers, I always seem to mentally fall back to the Groucho Marx philosophy of “I will belong to no club that would have me as a member.” Even though I’ve always gotten every job I’ve ever really wanted, I find myself wondering why the hell would someone hire me to run a business.  Then I look at people who have positions and careers I want to have (and could easily do), compare their skills and experience to mine, and wonder who in the hell it was that they had to blow to get their jobs.

I can’t speak to “real job” situations (outside of the hospitality and restaurant industry), but looking for work and interviewing in my business is all smoke and mirrors.  You are never closer to perfection than when you are filling out a job application.  Most restaurant mangers know that, with all the drunks, dope fiends, and sex addicts in line for a job in our industry, going strictly by the resume can get you in a heap of trouble.  Anyone can write, or pay someone else to write, a resume that will make them look like Mother Theresa. No matter how many times they got drunk, stole, or sexually harassed an employee, and got their ass fired, they can still manage to look good on paper.  And I can’t believe that HR people are surprised when they call references and get nothing but glowing reviews; you’d have to be a moron to put anyone on your references that wouldn’t recommend you as Citizen of The Year or want you to marry their daughter.  The best and surest method in our business is to bring someone in for a tryout.

Since most tryouts are not paid, and prospective employees are not covered by Worker’s Comp if they get injured, having people tryout is not in the strictest sense, legal. For that reason, and the fact that they’ve probably had a labor lawsuit or two to lighten their pockets, corporations mostly eschew the tryout.  Not being able to take advantage of this much more accurate barometer of someone’s abilities, corporate restaurant companies rely heavily on their resumes, interviews, pumped-up references, and the recommendations of their favorite Resume Pimp, the recruiter.  And so they may end up hiring someone who looked good on paper; but then they wake up the next day with their picture-perfect first date lying next to them under the covers, Prom Dress thrown over the nightstand, with hair looking like Albert Einstein and make-up that looks like a tropical fish with a hangover.

This is where my crisis of confidence can get a little confusing, and starts to do a sort of “Studio Fade”.  At first glance, seeing the title of Chief Operating Officer after a name on a business card can be intimidating.   But I buoy my confidence with the idea that this person may have ever only done one or two impressive things in their entire professional lives to get that acronym of C.O.O.; and one of them may have been writing a resume.  I can tell myself that, in all probability, the only real difference between them and me is the fact that they have the job and I don’t.

So my ability with words to clean and gut a restaurant like it was a large trout, may end up separating the wool (me) from the chaff (the rest of the field), and actually land me the job.  That, and the fact that I’ve got more semi-colons and animal analogies at my disposal.  Shit, John Starks made an NBA career off of one dunk over Jordan and Scottie Pippen, a feat he never came close to repeating; so I am really OK with getting a job I really want, just because I wrote an essay.

"Red Carpet For A Green Can…"

August 4, 2010

I’ve been busy, alright?  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Just got back from a week up North in New England, working for a restaurant group that’s about to open an outpost here in Atlanta.  They flew me up there and had me in as a Celebrity Guest Manager for a week at two of their restaurants.  Their Director of Operations said we needed to date a little before moving in together in Atlanta.

It was a little different running a place with much higher cover counts, lower check averages, and a much more causal style of dining than I was used to in my most recent jobs.   But after running some very serious dining rooms, running a place where you have to drop a check because your waiter is Salsa dancing with the guests is kind of refreshing.  Great food; needless to say, a lively atmosphere, and excellent wine and beverage programs.  A fun bunch of people and a very competent and well run company.  Can you tell I’m sucking up in hopeful anticipation of the GM job at the new place?

So I arrived back home on Monday night to the nice surprise of my wife and daughter meeting me at the gate.  It was so great to see their happy faces in the crowd, until they told me about the failure of the AC unit at the house (again) on the brink of what is supposed to be the hottest week of an already very hot summer.  Got home to a house that was like a sauna; but as the old saying goes, “Home is where the humidity is…”

My next “surprise” was not really a surprise at all: a bill waiting for me from AT&T.  Many of you might already have read about my trials and tribulations involving our relocation to Atlanta and the subsequent struggles with establishing utility service.  Short version is that we tried to go with AT&T, decided to switch to Comcast for our phone, internet, and TV, and canceled AT&T back in June.  Three phone calls and two bills later we were finally credited for charges on a service that was never connected, installed, and for equipment we returned having never removed from the box.  Each time we got a bill, I had to call and explain the whole situation to people in two different departments, one for internet and one for home phone; I had to wait on hold in two different cues listening to two different yet equally cheesy elevator musak recordings.  I had to listen to them each ask me how they could make me a “very satisfied AT&T  customer?”  Well, you’ve fucked up so bad that you can’t make me either satisfied or a customer.  At this point, you couldn’t get me to use an AT&T payphone if my house was on fire.

It had really become comical after the string of encounters I’d had over the last few weeks, and the continuing ineptitude of every person I spoke with, all of whom had promised me that my account had been credited and there would be no more nonsense.  And then I’d get another bill in the mail with no credit on the account and more charges for a phone that had never been used and an internet connection I don’t have.  The truly maddening, yet humorous thing here is that each time I explained the situation to a new person who promised to take care of my problem, they were increasingly incensed and apologetic at the incompetence of the one previous, yet they proceeded to fuck things up even worse than the last guy.  This last woman told me I would receive one final bill on the 25th of this month that she promised would show a zero balance and effectively end the romance.  I just know that, come the 27th or so, I will receive that bill, and there will be new charges, probably billing me for the Space Shuttle disaster in 1986 and for plugging the spill in The Gulf of Mexico.

And lastly, on a note of not-so-small-triumph over mindless bureaucracies, we finally received our garbage can this past week.  While this may not send you into rapturous celebration as it did us, it is still a big deal.  We have been in our house since mid-June and have gone back and forth between smuggling our bags of garbage into our neighbor’s cans after nightfall, and putting the tied-up bags of trash at the curb where they needed to be vigilantly guarded from marauding animals lest they be torn open in pursuit of tasty rib bones and fish skin from our dinners that week.  I can now retire my ski mask and gloves, as the night missions of sneaking into other driveways on the block are now behind me.  The three of us were debating who would get the great honor of rolling our shiny new green bin out to the curb in the morning, probably having to run the gauntlet of paparazzi along the Red Carpet asking us “How does it feel to finally get your can?” or “Were you surprised at how long it took?”

Actually, I was so used to depending on the tender mercies of our neighbors that I forgot to even roll the damn thing out until I was coming back from walking the dog and saw the truck coming up the street.  Maya and I raced them home, I rolled the can out past Joan Rivers sticking a mike in my face and asking “Who are you wearing?” to get it to the curb just before they arrived at the house.  It was a madhouse, and the scene looked something like this:

Can't wait to see who'll show up for Recyling Day...

A New Link, and A "New" Redux

June 2, 2010

Trolling the links on other restaurant business blogs, I recently came upon “Tips For Tips”, an excellent site by a server who’s obviously been around the block a time or two.  The author has a fairly magnanimous philosophy when it comes to dealing with guests and doing our jobs; also, some truly useful facts and advice, which is rare in a lot of posts about hospitality.  Click here, or on the links section in my sidebar, to check it out…

The most recent post from TFT, “The Rules For Serving: Rule Four:  Guests Don’t Care How Much You Know, Until They Know How Much You Care” might sound a little “Mr. Rogers” at first glance, but it has some very true and pertinent advice on establishing a rapport with people on a personal, caring level before trying to establish yourself as Super Waiter.  Guests truly do respond to sincerity, and it’s something that cannot be faked.

A genuine attitude of caring for guests’ welfare and their experience at the table was the inspiration for my own diatribe, back in October of ’09.  So if you haven’t already seen it (or even if you have), I give you a Wednesday Redux:

“I’m Rubber, You’re Glue…”

Some lessons in life we learn immediately, from a single experience; catching your penis in your zipper comes to mind. Others take a little more of the trial and error method, like loaning money to your Crankster buddy from High School; or trying, yet again, to make a go of a relationship with that “free spirit” Hippie chick you met at Reggae on the River back in ’87. Being able to learn and grow from mistakes, and developing the wisdom to avoid them once learned is a real barometer of maturity.

One of the life lessons I have learned very well is how to deal with the bitter, cranky people that cross my path as guests in restaurants. We had a classic example on Table 34 last night: a couple of people who would not be completely satisfied with their day until they had sufficiently ruined someone else’s. Married so long they ran out of things to talk about years ago, they most likely have enough money to make divorce impractical, each of them unwilling to part with, or even risk slightly diminishing, their lifestyle. So, in order to keep the His and Hers E-Class Benzs in the driveway, they have settled for tolerating each other’s presence. These were seriously old, cranky people and they were not afraid to demonstrate it to their waiter. Their server last night, however, was a seasoned pro who wouldn’t let them get over on him. Right off they challenged his knowledge of our menu, our wine list, and his career choice in such a way as to justify dismemberment and burial in a shallow grave; and no sane judge would have convicted. But the waiter didn’t take the bait. He used a technique I employed many times when I was waiting tables: he “niced them to death”.

This exercise in psychology was possible only because their waiter had ridden to Church on tougher mounts than them. He had enough life/restaurant experience to know that leaving this type alone until he could get some food and wine into them in order to raise their blood sugar and alcohol levels until they transformed into some semblance of an actual human being was the only way to go. He turned them around to the point where he could actually have a civil conversation with them, and they left happy. Well, as happy as possible.

When I waited tables I used to consider people like this a personal challenge. I was not going to let them defeat me. When they left my station, they might still be unhappy with each other, maybe complain about a dish or their wine but, God damn it, they were going to like me. I turned into a mirror of pure accommodation, reflecting their shitty attitudes and bitterness back at them until they either:

A) Came around and started being civil for the first time that day, perhaps in years


B) Clammed up when they realized I wasn’t playing and gave up on their Holy Quest to piss me off.

“A” was always preferable to “B” in these cases, but either way I won the battle.

Except in the most extreme of cases (and I’ve had one or two), this technique is more than effective on a deuce; but having one stubbed toe on a large party requires a different approach.

Most people that act like assholes when dining with a group have most likely done so before; and chances are that someone at tonight’s table has seen their Dog and Pony Show already, and will empathize with the waiter who’s on the receiving end this time. My method with the “one loudmouth on the 6-top” scenario is, again, “nice-ing” the offender to death. Then, at some point in the exchange, I will look around the table and find that person or persons who have tolerated the behavior before, make eye contact with them, and usually get the look that says “She does this every time. We are so sorry it’s you that has to get it tonight.” And more often than not they will be the one paying the check. Game over. I win.

The Young Gun Server, cocky and secure in his wine and food knowledge, but without the twin six-shooters of patience and experience tucked into his belt, will take to this challenge in a different way. He will get all puffed up with the “I’m not going to take shit from this bitch” attitude, and decide right off that it is not worth his time or effort. He is “better than that” and “no one is going to talk to me that way.” He will challenge the guests, further alienating the rude; and more importantly, he will lose his possible alliance with the sensible and polite people at the table by being a dick right back. This attitude only makes recovery more difficult and unlikely; and as the alcohol flows and attitudes get more strained on both sides, the situation escalates.

I used to be a fairly decent basketball player and I learned early if you don’t celebrate the three-pointers too much, you won’t get so pissed at the occasional air-ball. My philosophy on service and difficult guests is the same. Don’t crow so loudly about selling the $300 bottles of Bordeaux and getting the 25% tips and you won’t get as upset at the 10-percenter and rude people. And don’t feel you deserve better when you get occasionally get them. A server’s job is just that: to serve; and if you remember it’s not who you are, it’s only what you do, you will be able to rise above even the most difficult situation.

Despite what the Navy recruiting ads used to say, “It’s not an adventure, it’s just a job.”

"Thank you! We'll be here all week…"

May 25, 2010

The old comedian’s standard about “I’ve got a million of ’em…” is just not true in our business.   There are really only a few, but we’ve heard them a million times.    So in the interest of letting you know that as servers, bartenders, hosts, and busboys, we really have heard it all; and the laugh track is definitely turned off:

  • During a menu presentation, you do your due diligence by telling a table the kitchen has run out of a certain menu item, and your guests say, of course, “Oh that’s just what I was going to order, “ and then, “well, let’s go…” as they snap their menus shut and look around the table for the congratulatory smiles or laughs.  Yes, that’s certainly well thought out and most original, sir…
  • Presenting the check to a group of businessmen, or any men for that matter, and one of them, gesturing to the gentleman across the table who may or may not look older than him, says: “And give the check to my father, over there…” Well, you all look old enough to be MY father, so could you be a little more specific?
  • Ordering the Halibut, just for the “Hellubit…” is just plain dumb.
  • Cautioning me to “make sure it’s de-caf, because I’m going to call you at 2:00am when I can’t sleep, heh-heh-heh…” is a surefire way to guarantee that you will most certainly NOT get decaf when I refill your cup.  Besides, I’m a waiter.  I don’t go to bed until 3am, so here’s my number.  Have a ball with that answering machine.  And, incidentally, if you are the last table in the restaurant, I am most assuredly WILL be pouring you decaf when I refill your coup for the nineteenth time, even if you ordered regular; because the coffee station has been cleaned, and all the regular coffee dumped hours ago so the rest of the staff could go home.  Warm-up?
  • “Tell the Chef I hated it…” as your empty plate is being cleared.  I must admit, though, that I have a standard reply to this one:  “Well we certainly appreciate your struggling through to the end like you have.  It helps save the fragile egos in the kitchen when I can take the plates back empty…”
  • “Well, you don’t look any older…” when I come up to the table to take your order after the exorbitantly long period of three minutes since the last time I was there when you couldn’t break off your conversation with “your father, over there…” long enough to look at the menu or order a drink.
  • Ordering an expensive bottle of wine and when presented with a taste for approval before pouring for the table, doing a fake gag-and-choke, and saying something like “It’s awful.  Take it back….
  • Or when I open the twelve-dollar bottle of Chateau Schwag that you bought at Safeway on the way to the restaurant and, after I offer you a taste not for your approval, you moron, but to make sure I don’t pour a corked bottle for the table and then have to change all the glasses when it’s discovered,  you say the extremely  clever, “Well, I hope it’s good because it’ll be a long walk to send it back….”
  • And the funniest one of them all, when you complain about an eighteen percent serice charge on your party of six, telling me “I usually tip 25% percent, but since it’s already been added…”