Saturday, July 28, 2012

Addition by Subtraction

You know how they say the customer's always right? Well I'm here to tell you that sometimes your "best customer" can be the kiss of death for your business. So it's not an absolute truth that the best policy in business is pander to the customer's every whim. Sometimes, in fact, you have to discourage a little business to make a little money.
Back in the mid-nineties, down in the Times Square area of Manhattan I worked a bar in a French Bistro on 43rd Street. Prosperous business district teaming with office workers, tourists and theater goers. Every bar in the neighborhood was packed every night, but not Le Mark. Now that's not to say the bar at Le Mark was empty, no most of the seats were full, full of regulars; freaky regulars, cheap regulars, special regulars, loud regulars, creepy regulars. They all knew each other and felt that they somehow, collectively owned the place; They decided the music, the menu, the drink prices, how much alcohol went into which kind of glass and the buy back policy. They were special creatures, God's special creatures, and because they were there every night, they dictated how much money the bar would make and by extension the bartender. Oh, and here's the other thing, the thing I'm driving at; you see, they were creating the scene and because they were creating the scene, if you didn't fit in, you didn't stay long and you didn't come back. Come on, let me introduce you to some of them, the special creatures of God in Times Square as Shakedown Street approached the New Millennium.
I'm changing the names but I'm going to be as accurate as I can in my descriptions. This first one I'm going to call Brenda; Brenda was a big woman, I'd say she must have been in her early forties, but it's hard to be sure, she worked for the ACLU which had their headquarters near by, and she had very particular purchasing habits. Let me explain; these days I live in Florida and work in the corporate world where the customs are different from the free booting ways of Old New York back in the day. In the here and now I see Happy Hour chips, two for one drink specials, Ladies night and this and that, all very explicitly stated, all very official, incontrovertible. In my opinion it takes the art out of bartending, but whatever. Back then, in jolly old Manhattan we didn't have much of that bull shit, what we had was the custom of buy backs, unofficial and up to the bartender's discretion, within reason. These buy backs would generally occur on the third or fourth round, you'd just drop the drink on the bar and knock on the wood and the customer would know it was on the house. Now like I said, these buy backs were optional, to be used as a sales building tool, but this woman, this Brenda, she had the annoying habit of keeping a most careful track of what she called, in her annoying voice; her "freebies" as if they were her God given right and if she thought you were holding out; God help you! Of course this wasn't the real reason she had to go, this was just an annoying habit and sense of entitlement, and would become the mechanism of her leaving. Brenda would come in at 5:30 every afternoon and take the same spot near the service bar and there she would sit till closing consuming six to nine drinks, of which she expected 2-3 for free, torturing me and the waitstaff and pair bonding with another over weight, middle aged woman I'll call Gladys, and Gladys would drink even more and tip even less. Still none of this would justify the 86, but here's the thing; at 5:30 when they arrived they would start out at a reasonable volume but by the time 8pm rolled around and straight through to closing they would be howling at the moon, cackling and shouting at the top of their lungs and some of the stuff that would come out of their mouths for the whole Bistro to hear were offensive, for example, Brenda would erupt from her seat and shout out; "Who do ya gotta blow around here to get a drink?" every time she needed a round. And the whole carnival freak show playing out for couples and families sitting down to pre-theater, prix-fixe $45 menus.
Then there was George Lockhart the 3rd, who was the publisher of a group of trade journals and was the nicest guy in the world until the precise moment that he finished his third scotch and water at which point he would turn into an obnoxious, uninhibited pervert who would zero in on any vaguely attractive woman in the joint and pursue her in the most offensively inappropriate mean at his disposal. Needless to say, these women would leave and never return.
Steve DiAngelo would show up just about every other night, always impeccable in a tailor made suit and Italian made silk tie with a matching pocket square. He'd pay for his Tom Collins with a crisp, new C-note laying down a fresh one for each round. Then he'd start in on his conversation much to the merriment of Gladys and Brenda. It was what a psychologist would call word salad, a classic symptom of schizophrenia. It was okay, annoying but okay. That is until he began to pound the bar and exhibit other violent behaviour patterns. And so I would have to escort him out and he would always turn to me at the front door and admonish me, placing one thick finger to a blubbery lip; "Don't tell nobody!"
Well there were a lot of other pathetic creeps and freaks infesting the place than these, but this should give you an idea as to why the bar, and indeed the restaurant were not as busy as they should have been. You see, the customer isn't always right, sometimes the customer is killing your business. So after a meeting with the manager and the owner, a decision was made; It was time to cut off the freaks.
11:30 and Brenda was blind drunk, loud but only drooling a little bit and still functional.  She lifted her tab off the wood, her reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She stared at it for just a bit longer than normal before calling me over a look of friendly confusion on her boozy face.
"I think you made a mistake here, J.R.," she said, handing the tab over for my inspection.
I glanced at it very quickly and pushed it back towards her, "No mistake," I replied.
She pushed her glasses up the ridge of her nose, squinting myopically at me from behind the lenses, "No, you forgot two freebies, plus my freebie carryover from yesterday."
"No," I said, flinging my rag over my shoulder and focusing on her, "it's just that there are no freebies today."
She slammed her hand, palm down on the bar, "We'll see about that," she shouted, "I want to talk to Jean!" (Jean was the owner).
"He went home two hours ago."
"Give me his number!"
"I'm not giving you the guys home number, you can call him during business hours tomorrow."
"Well I'm not paying that bill until I speak with him."
"That's fine with me."
10 Pm the following night and George Lockhart the 3rd finished his third scotch and fixed his bleary eye on a fourtyishJuno sipping a kir royale down the end of the bar. I watched as he stood and stumbled down to her, stuck his hand rudely into the bowl of nuts just inside of her personal space and whispered something in her ear. Immediately she pulled away like she'd been stung, picked up her purse and stormed out. George Lockhart the 3rd snapped his fingers at me and pointed arrogantly at his empty glass. I dropped my bar rag and walked down to where he was seated. I placed my hands, palm down on the bar top and leaned in to his personal space.
George leaned back, surprised, "Can I get another drink?" He asked.
I shook my head, "George, you're cut off."
He looked at me as if I'd farted, "The money I spend here-" he began.
"Sorry," I said, "that's just the way it is."
"You do this," he said, "I'm not coming back."
"That's fine with me."
Steve DiAngelo I just intercepted at the front door on the way in. He seemed to know the drill because he didn't give me a hard time at all. And by the end of the month sales had doubled. Addition by subtraction or the customer's not always right.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Tambourine Man

The joint was all Bermuda shorts and surfboards, margaritas and cold brew, cheeseburger in paradise, even though it was really suburban Florida and the customers weren't coming in in flip flops off the sand, but after work or when the kids were in school or on their lunch break or on the weekends. But we did try hard to maintain the illusion and it was a busy place where we'd have a character lunch for toddlers during the day, a busy office happy hour party during cocktail hour, all the best Westonites waiting for up to an hour for a table at dinner only to top it all off with a live band starting at mid-night and rocking till 4am. You get the point, it was a rowdy place and we worked hard at being all things to all people. But the Tambourine Man? That's where I drew the line.
The first time I met the Tambourine Man it was on a busy Friday night, I was working by myself and we were on track to sell 18K and without a back up in the middle of rush, I was more or less pinned to the expo line hollering my way through the night, working like an animal to get the food out of the window and onto the tables. Of course any night can throw a curve and in my business they usually come when some angry customer feels they have to yell at the manager; "RIGHT NOW" and there's nothing to be done for it but heave a heavy sigh, realize while you're off getting screamed at by some ass hole for some petty reason, four or five other tables are going to get fucked up because you're not where you're supposed to be which means four or five other ass holes are going to want a piece out of you. You might as well kiss the night up to heaven cause its all turned to shit because some guy wants to lecture you about the fact that the eighteen year old waitress trying her best to wait on twenty five people at once hasn't had the chance to take away his appetizer plates yet and for some reason he deserves finer things out of life. But I digress, we were going to talk about the Tambourine Man, well he was sitting on table 33 a tall, thin well dressed, middle aged guy with a white pony tail and an educated accent sitting with two matronly ladies and a silver fox guy in a blazer with gold chains. Very good, he wanted to compliment the waiter so in this instance I have to take back what I said in the above paragraph, even though the guy was still a pretentious waste of time which needed to be spent cajoling cooks and bullying waiters in the kitchen to; "GET THE FOOD OUT"
Anyway, this was my first contact with the Tambourine Man which, had it ended there, would have been unremarkable. Now remember I told you that we had live music starting at mid-night with a big bar and a small dance floor? Well I was in the kitchen supervising the deconstruction of the grill for a deep cleaning when the bar-back came and advised me of a disturbance at the bar. I washed some of the grease off my hands and followed him up to where one of my bartenders was following The Tambourine man around the lounge. Let me explain; up on the small stage a lone guitar player was singing Cecilia by Simon & Garfunkel, wailing his heart out on an acoustic guitar while the Tambourine Man slammed a tambourine high in the air in a chaotic manner. The guitar player continued to sing while casting mute appeals with his eyes at the bartender who was unsuccessfully attempting to get the Tambourine Man's attention and other customers looked on like they were witnessing a car wreck, rubber necking on the highway.
Well I looked around for the people he'd been with at the table earlier in the evening but they were no where in sight so next I assessed the man himself from a little distance, he had that thick, glazed and determined look of the truly nuts, probably a lot of booze on board too, but also the type with whom booze serves to focus minor insanity, not sloppy drunk, just intense, nuts.....Only one thing to be done, I walked quickly up to the Tambourine Man and after a single, unsuccessful attempt to get his attention politely, I ripped the Tambourine from his hand and tossed it to the floor, he reacted in the manner of an intense drunk and went for me, but I'm a big guy and I know about these things so I sort of let him fly by me and when he was off balance I grabbed him from one side and my bartender, taking his cue from me, grabbed his other and together we gave him a gentle Bum's Rush out the front door. He didn't come back and I thought I'd seen the last of him, but it was not to be.
The Tambourine Man returned the very next afternoon and in the sober light of day explained himself, he was sorry and there was something about medication. The long and the short of it was; he promised to be good and could he return? What can I say? He seemed like a great guy, prosperous free spending well behaved, he even had a great fund of interesting stories from his life (He was a retired Airline Pilot). It went on this way for a while, a few weeks, everything was fine, then he started to act up, just a little bit at first then it became the whole Jeckle & Hyde thing and always with the Tambourine. He'd come in and be normal, by the time he left he'd be a raving lunatic and we'd have to throw him out then he'd come back the next day to make amends and he'd be so sorry and I'd feel bad and let him back in until one day I'd just had enough and I threw him out and told him 86, never again and he seemed to understand and months went by and I didn't see the guy and thought I was rid of him.
Now at this place the managers always wore khaki pants and a polo shirt with a logo of the place over the left breast and these we also had for sale along with a lot of other stuff at our little gift counter by the host stand. We also, like most restaurants had a secret shopper program where people would come in and eat and then write a report about their experience. Well about a month after we threw the Tambourine man out for the last time I got one of these reports which described the odd behaviour of the manager during table visits and it named the manager as me, as I didn't recognize the events described I denied them and upon researching the report found that it referenced events which occurred on one of my days off, so I kind of wrote it off in my mind and moved on that is until one night I was working, cooking behind the line because I was short staffed and one of the waitresses came to me.
"J.R.," she said, "You better come up front right away."
I looked up from the seafood stew I was cooking, "Why?"
"You just better come up front." She said.
Well I got up front and right away I saw a man in khaki pants, wearing one of our company manager polo's leaning in close, talking to a table, as approached I overheard him say; "If you don't like our hamburgers you can go someplace fucking else." He was saying it in an easy, conversational tone.
I spun the guy around and it was the Tambourine Man, dressed exactly like me, he even had his hair cut like mine. Creepy.......

Friday, July 6, 2012

If you can't beat em, join em

I've worked for many different types of restaurants in many different places but it's only over the past several years that I've found myself working for a large corporate chain and they certainly have a distinctive managerial culture. It is a culture of smoke and mirrors, of sucking up and covering your own ass at the expense of anyone and anything including the welfare of the business with which you are entrusted. Of course this infrastructure exists for a reason and that is to sell unhealthy products at the highest volume possible while delivering a minimum of service and doing it at the lowest cost possible. If you become an expert at this and are able to hide the unpleasant by products of this process successfully from those above you (They know all about it anyway)  then you will do well managing a chain restaurant. Of course I'm sugar coating it.
The food, in order to make it deliberately addictive, is processed with so much fat, grease and sodium that its going to make you unhealthy, contribute to childhood obesity and keep you coming back for more. The alcohol, well we are very careful to train our team members in responsible alcohol service and then we run happy hour specials and signature drink sales contests intended to increase the bottom line and make our staff forget all about responsible alcohol service. So, who do we pump full of our cheap booze before casting them out on the high ways? Parents with small children, office workers, unemployed workers drowning the sorrows on the day the government check comes in, habitual alcoholics who we call regulars and just about anyone else who bellies up to the bar and calls for a 2 for 1 drink. We have ladies night where the ladies are enticed to drink all night long and shot specials and dollar beers which no amount of 25c chicken wings are going to absorb on time to make you safe driving home and every twenty minutes we're checking sales. So there's a lot fundamentally wrong with what we sell and how we sell it, that's one thing and it's endemic so if you can't beat em join em.
Then there's the shocking way we treat our workers. I remember in college reading about time and motion studies which management did on workers in the manufacturing process during the industrial revolution prior to the rise of trade unionism and labor law, back when workers had no rights. I read about the terrible ways in which the migrant farm workers are treated. No days off, 18 hour shifts, not being payed fair wages, cutting workers when they're not needed as dictated by business and the quest for higher profits regardless of the workers own need to pay their bills and receive a living wage. Well all of these practices are alive and well in the restaurant industry and not just for the workers for management as too, at least on the store level. It's pretty standard for a restaurant management recruiter to gush to a candidate; 'The company has a great quality of life; no more than 60-65 hours a week and a weekend day off every month, they might even schedule you two consecutive days off every once in a while!'
Well I'm here to tell you, we hire em when its busy, lay em off when its slow, fire em on a whim and exploit every dumb kid who's willing to buy in to our bull shit and volunteer for anything. We fatten em up, get em drunk and spit em back into the world fat drunk and in trouble. But hey, 'it is what it is.' If you can't beat em, join em.
I wonder if all industries are this bad and I wonder how I live with myself.