Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Visit

    When my son was just two years old my wife and I came to a decision that New York City was too tough of a place to raise a family so we bought a contract on a pre-construction house in Miami and headed south for the land of eternal summer. I was a GM in an upscale place in Manhattan at the time and didn't think I'd have much trouble setting myself up in a good job in South Florida, but I was wrong. The restaurant culture outside of New York is different from any place else and I wasn't connected there the way I was back home so it took me some time to find a job, especially in light of the fact that I was looking during the economic down turn immediately following 911. In fact it took six months to find anything and when I did, it was as an assistant manager for a chain restaurant. At first I was miserable and full of self pity, all I could think of was "How the Mighty Have Fallen", but I gradually got used to it. I mean I had to eat, and I had to pay the mortgage and the GM I worked for, Anthony, was a good guy, hard working and competent, about my age and with a young kid in my son's age group. Our wives got along too and we became friends, and that more than anything else, is why it hit me so hard when the job caught up with him.
    There's this concept they have in chain restaurants which at the time was foreign to me, it's called a "visit". For anyone in the industry slaving away 60-70 hours a week, missing weekends and holidays with their loved ones and grinding it out in the greasy trenches it is truly, a thing of dread. The visit you see is an inspection of the facility, from the quality of the food to the cleanliness of your storage shed, to the accuracy of your bookkeeping, to the performance of your staff, everything is inspected under a microscope and while you can, and better, prepare for it, no one can ever be 100%, there are just too many variables. It is, in fact, beyond a certain level of preparation, merely a popularity contest.
    Now Anthony had been the GM in this location for several years and for most of that time produced good numbers. But in the past year, six restaurants opened in a three mile radius from ours with the inevitable consequence that our sales began to decline and once sales begin to decline in a restaurant everything else starts to go south as well. You see everything is based on a percentage of sales, in particular labor, so when sales go down labor goes up and when that happens you have to cut labor or there's hell to pay. But when you cut labor and you get busy, you don't perform well, it all ends in customer complaints that further reduces sales which in turn snowballs the problem.
    So we were getting a lot of pressure from corporate and I and the other assistants were on a six day work week. Anthony had actually gone five weeks without a day off just trying to pick up the slack. The ob was also becoming an increasingly hostile environment where the employees who were being asked to work harder in fewer hours were becoming ever more resentful. It may have been taking its toll on me, but it was really kicking Anthony's ass. He was so worried about losing his job and his health insurance and his home that he was sleeping only about four hours a night and spending every waking hour in the restaurant working as hard as his body would allow. I watched the poor guy transform over a period of two months from a vibrant, humorous, healthy thirty three year old man into a shadowy, pale, almost spectral shell, he started losing weight and hair. Sometimes I would spy him working in the kitchen and I could see his hands were shaking and every day he was getting angry threatening calls from the area director and rude e-mails from the corporate office.
    One day while we were doing prep in the morning because the guy who was supposed to do it hadn't bothered to show up, he confided in me; "J.R." he said, "I don't know what I'm going to do; I barely ever see my kids anymore and my wife's been talking divorce. John (the area director) wrote me up twice this month for poor performance, and in this economy I don't know where I'm going to find another job when they fire me."
    I shook my head sympathetically about to offer some empty words but the phone rang just in time and he ambled off to answer it. He came back a few minutes later and he looked like he'd seen a ghost. "That was John," he said, "The regional vice president will be here on Friday and John says if anything goes wrong its going to be my ass. That's what he said, my ass! Like I'm some kind of kid instead of a grown man killing myself to give him impossible results."
    Well we spent the next four days scrubbing and cleaning and generally busting our ass until that restaurant shined and sparkled like a diamond. They arrived at two pm in the afternoon Guy, the regional and John the area director and right away they criticized us for having too much staff on. Of course if we'd had any less on they would have criticized us for that too. But that was just their opening salvo, they then they proceeded to toss the place down to the minutest details and they found fault with everything. When they were done they sat poor Anthony down and grilled him like a couple of hard boiled detectives in some dime store novel after which they left, well satisfied with themselves, to hit up a strip club on the company dime.
    I approached Anthony as he was packing his briefcase in the office and asked him how everything went. "Not good." He said, "I'm going to go home, I don't think I can take anymore today. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow and we'll get started on their list."
    I nodded and said good night and as he was walking out the door I noticed him twitch and clutch his side. About twenty minutes later I answered the phone by the host desk and it was Anthony calling from his car, "J.R." her said, "I forgot to tell you; Jane and Ellen switched shifts for......." All of a sudden we were cut off. I stood there holding the lifeless piece of plastic in my hand for a few seconds then dialed his cell back but it went right to voice mail.
   Well I worked my way through an uneventful shift that night occasionally wondering why Anthony hadn't called back because it wasn't like him but not letting it bother me too much because I also understood, if after the day he had, he didn't want to. Then just before closing I got a call, and it was from my wife, who also happened to be a good friend of Anthony's wife. She cleared up the mystery for me; why Anthony hadn't called back, you see, it seems while he was driving home he had a massive heart attack, drove off the road and died. Sometimes I think there should be a warning label on the job postings for restaurant management jobs, just like a pack of cigarettes.