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.


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