Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"The right way and the easy way are rarely the same way"--my father

I was born in 1969 to a 29 year old woman and her 49 year old husband--my father not only fought in World War II, but actually left home for China before Pearl Harbor and fought for the Chinese against the Japanese as a mercenary--the term badass does not nearly do him justice.

I was raised by a member of what Tom Brokaw rightly called"the greatest generation". It wasn't the best scenario for the "father-son" part of growing up, as my father was in his 60's when I hit the age for sports, mechanics, and all the rest of the stuff boys usually learn about with their dads. However, his presence was clearly and without dispute the cornerstone of what has become my work ethic, resolve, and life-view--I wouldn't trade those lessons and that example for anything. I love the memories of my father, and I love talking about him and telling the fantastic stories that pepper the incredibly rich tapestry of his life.

Unfortunately, our similarly rigid natures have forced us apart over the last decade, and while logic tells me to find away to reconnect with him before his mighty constitution begins to fail, I know in practice that such a thing is highly unlikely. As I listened to the voicemail from his assistant today wishing me a Happy Birthday from him, I flashed back to my fondest birthday memory from childhood.

When I was probably 12, I had a real birthday party on a Sunday afternoon. Because my parents traveled a great deal and were older, I was generally surrounded by adults as I grew up--even my siblings were much older than I was. However, one year for various reasons there were friends and associates of my parents around that had a fair number of children near my age, and I had a regular kid's party--except that there was a full staff on hand, gourmet kid's food, private security, and a camel for some reason, as well as about 50 different party games.

Well, at one point a good old fashioned "Lucy and Ethel", "Laverne and Shirley", "Three Stooges" food fight broke out. It started with pickle slice and ended up with the period-style ketchup and mustard bottles being used like flame throwers. The mess was monumental [I would find out much later at a holiday dinner during college that there was actually about $5000 in damage done], and I remember looking up in the midst of it to see my father standing in the doorway watching the scene silently, until my mother walked in and absolutely lost her shit--as soon as she started screaming my father turned without a word and left the room. Guests went home--I went to my room. Later that night, as my parents was getting ready to go out for the evening, my father himself snuck me a piece of my otherwise ruined cake, and the next day came and got me from school and we went fishing. That he did both of these things himself was amazing to me then, and still is today.

Now my father didn't fish, but he wanted to make sure there would be no witnesses to tell my mother. Surreptitiously deep-sea fishing with your grounded 12 year-old son may sound like an odd choice for a secret birthday trip, but it is literally one of the happiest memories I have. It took my mother a week to calm down, but my father's assistant later told me that my dad ran to his home office after he left the fight and collapsed laughing, and literally laughed until he cried.

I miss my mother, and she has been dead for fifteen years. I miss my father even more, and he is only a day's flight away.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

"The worst wheel of a cart makes the most noise"--Benjamin Franklin

In between the drinking and the whoring, Franklin could definitely bust out with the memorable verbage.

No one is perfect, just as no organization or business is perfect. The key in overcoming one's own shortcomings rests in identifiying mistakes as they occur and quickly addressing and/or repairing them--in the case of a restaurant, this means while the guests are still at the table.

Back in the glorious old days of my youth spent as a bartender and waiter living a dissolute life, I worked in a number of establishments, both large and small, that had file cabinets full of complaint letters--so many at one landmark restaurant that they were filed by month. Whenever my concentration wandered away from money, women, and liquor I would pay attention to the way these properties were run. As I continued to observe the management, I identified what I considered to be a major flaw that led to most of this guest dissatisfaction, not to mention the avalanche of free giveaways that this unhappiness prompted as response from the management.

The problem was managment involvement--there was very little. While things have changed somewhat in the intervening years, restaurant managers have generally not been at the top of the executive pay scale, often making far less than the floor staff they direct. As a result, many managers have traditionally been less than wholly competent, and less than wholly focused. To become King of the Mountain was to be the GM of a large independent or corporate restaurant, a day job with decent salary and bonuses--hell, some of the larger chains throw in BMW's and stock options just like real businesses. For the rest of the managers it was the "spoils system"--all you can eat, all you can drink, comps for your friends, and either jobs for your girlfriends or good times with your hostesses [or both if you were particularly adventurous]. Almost no one was paying attention to the guests, no one double-checking and keeping a handle on execution, and as a result hoards of people were leaving unhappy. Simple miscues that could have been fixed with desserts, drinks, re-fires, or small comps at the time ended up being appeased after the fact with big gift certificates, expensive steak knives, and logo-ed memorabilia.

20% of my time spent working is spent checking on guests, troubleshooting, and putting out fires. After I am finished with the "day job" part of my responsibilities I roll right into floor service. Almost nothing makes my heart sink faster than seeing a letter hand-addressed to "manager" sitting on my desk or an email entitled "our dining experience" in my in-box. The funny thing is, our policies are so comprehensive and successful that most of these actually turn out to be complimentary--it is when they don't that the fun begins.

Again, we make our share of mistakes and people can slip through the net--two or three times a year I receive a letter or email from someone who did not receive proper treatment from us, and my response is always generous and apologetic. After all, two or three guests out of 85,000 isn't a bad average. The "worst wheels", to reference old Ben's quote, are the con-artists and the opportunists that make up the rest of the correspondence, and that is where my extra time in the restaurant pays off.

For the cons, they are banking that the GM is not in the restaurant during service, that our volume is too high to track individual guests, or that I am so busy that the easiest response is to send compensation for their wholly-fictitional misery. Armed only with polite questions, I have driven scores of these scumbags into fits of the most profane histrionics imaginable. The M.O. is always the same--we come all the time, you would know us if you saw us. We did not have a reservation that evening, we paid cash, we do not have a copy of the check, and we do not remember our server's name. In many cases we cannot remember exactly what we had [i.e my steak was horribly overdone and no one ever checked on me, but I can't remember the size and type of steak I ordered last night]. After three or four rounds of repeated sincere apologies and nothing else, these cut-rate grifters get the hint that no offer of compensation is forthcoming, and will ask outright, "so that's it, you're not going to offer anything to encourage me to return?" The best part is telling this unfortunate guest that while I am sure, personally, that this would never apply to THEM, the fact that some awful people actually make up similar stories for personal gain leaves us unable to offer anything unless we can PROVE that they were actually in the restaurant--that is usually when the bad words start and I can't hold back my laughter any more.

The opportunists are even worse. Why these people have decided to slog through life without a vestige of self-respect, grubbing and scraping for every scrap and alms they can unearth, I have no idea. What I do know is that when they realize that I interacted with them during their visit they tend to lose a little of their indignation--not all of it by any means, but a little. Most complaints are mailed, emailed, or left on my voicemail, as it is somewhat difficult to get right to me by phone. As a result, I usually have the background info on the ready when I make contact with them, and ask nicely for them to "tell me what happened". Invariably this is a tale of being slighted, ignored, and subject to the most perfunctory and incompetent treatment imaginable--in many cases it sounds as if they have been walked through a prison lunch-line rather than served in a $2 million meat palace. The story is always nearly seamless, until I ask why they didn't tell me at the time. "Well, I'm telling you now", they say. "No no, I mean, why didn't you tell me when I checked back on the dinners, or when I opened your second bottle of wine?" "Is this is sommelier?", they ask, because "I wanted to talk to the manager about my experience." Then the dagger-- "But I am the manager as well, sir [or madam, many of these are actually sourced from the fairer sex], I like to open as much of the wine as I can because it let's me keep in contact with our wonderful guests." On occasion, I may credit the cost of the "offending" item, or refund a tip for the "terrible" service--in a rare case or two I have even sent a personal check for the amount of the meal with suggestions that the guests enjoy dinner at another restuarant to make up for their experience here, sadly lamenting that "not every restaurant is for everyone..." Never a gift certificate though--these are not people that anyone wants in their restaurant. These tools can hit the road and be a pain in someone else's ass.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

"A spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar"--Benjamin Franklin

I never cease to be amazed at the number of guests that seek to achieve their goal, whatever that may be, through intimidation. Leave out the fact that we are talking about dinner here--not tickets to the Superbowl, not a sheet of paper with the cure for cancer written on it, not the map to the Templar Treasure--just dinner. Prime beef, fresh fish, great wine, and an elegant atmosphere--valuable yes, but hardly worth descending into the realm of absolute cocksuckery over.

Maybe these people are used to abusing the $18,000/yr assistant managers at Friday's, fresh out of hotel school and addicted to the "situation response" pamphlet tucked into the back pocket of their Dockers. Maybe they spend all of their time in dead slow restaurants where the staff has to take their shit just to make a little money. Maybe, or most likely, they are just poorly formed social rejects who are only able to define themselves through petty oneupsmanship.

Almost nothing in the world is more important to me than common courtesy. I will use every tool and power at my disposal to serve a guest who behaves properly and politely. We ask alot of our guests--it is very hard to gain access to our restaurant without a reservation, we ask guests to dress a certain way and will not admit them otherwise, our prices are high, and as with most successful steakhouses, our offerings are simple and straightforward, meaning we will not appeal to everyone. We have been in business for a long time, much longer than most restaurants, and I suppose that with our measure of success has come a certain level of security that allows us to tell the worst segment of humanity to go fuck themselves--nicely of course.

I am not talking about demanding guests, challenging guests, particular guests, or guests who find themselves out of their element or overwhelmed by a restaurant that brings in more in revenue in one busy evening than the average American household makes in a year. I am talking about the following:

1. One cannot be admitted to our restaurant wearing shorts--long pants only and preferably not jeans. One evening as I am standing at the front doors looking out and wishing I was elsewhere, an H2 [bad sign] pulls up at the valet and out hop two little muscle-heads, both guys about 5'6" with 50" chests and 18" biceps. Little Ferrigno is in a Sergio Tacchini warm-up suit [purple], and Little Arnold is in Hooter's shorts and one of those underarmour bodices that looks more like a wetsuit than an article of clothing. I watch the valet manager walk over and nicely let them know that Little A can't be seated in shorts, to which Little A responds by flipping him the bird and telling him to go fuck himself. As they approach the front doors I tell my maitre d' to get ready, and I take up my "disinterested nameless guy" pose about five feet behind the front desk. In come "A" and "F"--"A" quickly announces their reservation name and demands to be seated immediately, even though their reservation is for 4 people. While maitre d' begins his apologetic spiel about not being able to seat anyone in shorts, a hostess brings up the reservation on our computer--in the notes the reservationist has gone to the unusual step of remarking that these guests were informed of the dress policy and were argumentative about it on the phone--following the note is the computer abbreviation used to indicate a dickhead.

"A" doesn't want to deal with maitre d', but after having his demands of "forget your policy" and "just seat me and him before I get pissed" ignored, he demands a summit meeting--"you're an idiot, there's no way you run this place, gimme your boss".

Now, maitre d' is small and out of shape--he gets picked on all the time. I on the other hand am not small, and while not in the best of shape make what a female friend of mine calls "an imposing impression". I also enjoy violence, and can bring a look to my eyes and a particular smile to my face that almost all men instinctively recognize as dangerous. Ignoring "A", I speak only to the heretofore silent "F", apologizing for the situation and re-iterating our policy all the while staying behind the desk, the maitre d', and the hostesses. "F" asks what they need to do to get seated, because they have friends on the way--I tell him that "A" needs long pants. At this point "A" interrupts with the always tactful "how about a twenty to change the policy for tonight", to which I reply apologetically that I cannot unfortunately change the policy. Still being professional, I do not tell him that even though it is barely 6:30pm and the evening is just starting, I already have $300 in my pocket and would not use his $20 to wipe my ass. Like few people in my industry, I long ago conquered my greed--mainly by making myself rich.

Here is where the situation, still on life support, goes flatline. "A" asks me, pointing to "F" in all his S. Tacchini glory, "what about him, is he ok?" To which I reply, nicely, "warm-up suits aren't really what we are looking for, but it is long pants and in this situation it is fine." Well, apparently my insolence is the last straw, and "A" loses control, "who the fuck are you to tell us what to wear [growl/flex], some fucking mook in a diner [growl/flex] hourly employee fucking manager piece of shit [growl/flex]..." Yes, "A" during his tirade was, probably unconsciously, growling at me like a dog and flexing his mutated upper torso while spitting his outrage. While he was letting his faculties slip, I very quickly moved up in front of my staff and next to the desk, directly in front of him. As "A" continued to sputter and growl, "F" took note of the fact that I was as wide through the shoulders as they were, six inches taller, and unbenownst to me now had eight waiters standing behind me. "F" looked right at me, said "sorry about him, its the juice" and then grabbed "A" and pulled him out of the restaurant--then "F" stuck his head back in the door and said "not for nothin', but this warm-up goes for $200..."

Some things you should not do:

1. If you are told that you cannot wear something, or cannot be admitted somewhere because of what you are wearing, DO NOT proceed to announce how much the offending item costs--ex.-- "Sir, I am afraid I cannot seat you wearing shorts". response--"But these shorts cost $500.00". If we do not put a dollar value into our statement, it means dollar value is of no consequence--all you have done is tell us that you are 1. an idiot for spending $500 on shorts or more likely 2. a liar, and a bad one at that [note: for some reason, the amount in this case is always $500--$500 hat, $500 shorts, $500 sandals, except of course for the $200 Tacchini.

2. Your purported wealth does not matter. The magic words to solve your steakhouse dilemma are not, "Do you know how much money I am worth?" No I do not know how much money you are worth, and no I do not care. We regularly serve many of the richest people in the world [according to Forbes magazine] and they are almost invariably the nicest, most polite and considerate guests we welcome. Their personal staffs are usually arrogant and toolish beyond measure, but the principals themselves are delightful. When the contents of my four nicest booths add up to over $30 billion in combined wealth, I am pretty sure I am not bending the rules for Mr. Mystery Rude Might Be Rich Guy.

3. Do not ask ME if I am in the restaurant, as in "I can't waste my time with you, is ME here tonight? ME and I play golf [I do not play golf] all the time and he'll straighten this out." I swear to God, at least once a month someone gives me the dismissive sneer and asks to speak to me. Do some frigging homework, my picture is right on the website.

4. Your vehicle is not a magic wand. "I'm sorry sir but without a reservation I wouldn't be able to seat your party for nearly two hours." The answer to this quandary is not "But that's my Ferrari outside." Congratulations Magnum, grab TC and head on over to the Club and have dinner there. See if Higgins wants to join you.

5. Don't try to convince me that YOU are the one on charge. "And what's your name? How come I haven't seen you here before? I eat here in shorts all the time! Where's [insert name of my employer"s former business partner who has never even stepped foot in this restaurant and has nothing to do with it]. Are you new? You must be new, because you don't recognize me! Keep on going like this and you won't be here for long. When did you start here? Where is [name of original maitre d' who left the restaurant in 1998] tonight?"

6. Don't just drop ANY name. Invariably, most idiots who start to realize they are spinning their wheels will cast back in the memory banks for an "in", someone they know who has "pull" with me--what they don't realize is that the name they invoke is usually far less influential than even their own--good guys usually hang with good guys and tools usually find themselves in a box full of other tools--its the way of the world.

DO make a reservation, DO tell us about any special requests ahead of time, DO listen to us tell you our dress policy, DO show up on time or call to tell us you are running late, and if you want to tip the manager/maitre d' DO make it a thank you and not a bribe, delivered respectfully rather than handed over like a bone to a dog.

Here ended the lesson...for now

Thursday, September 07, 2006

"I want you to listen to me...I DID NOT...HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS...WITH THAT WOMAN...MISS LEWINSKY"--William Douchebag Clinton

I keep praying that he will somehow go away--move to Dubai, succumb to gonnorhea, buy a KFC franchise in Mongolia, fall into his wife's gaping maw of a past-middle-aged vagina and not be able to climb out--something. Of course he will not go away, but every time his shrunken spray-on-tanned head rears up spewing nonsense and self-serving blather, I do have to smile at one little secret I know is true.

Former President Asscrack's entire life's philosophy is a rip-off of an Eddie Murphy comedy bit. I can't remember which album it's on, but Clinton heard it. He was in some trailer somewhere, or maybe in a whorehouse or a VD Clinic or at a peace rally or possibly at some bar where all the Arkansas WT fat girls hung out at the time [later called the Arkansas governor's mansion] and that's where he heard it. It's a short bit, the one where Eddie Murphy is talking about the philandering husband who gets caught cheating red-handed and sticks to his guns with bald-faced simple denial, "wa'n't me..." No matter what the wife says--she saw his car, saw him, had the credit card receipt, whatever--all the guy says is "wa'n't me..." In the bit, eventually the wife just gives up and apologizes, much like the witless American people did over and over again.

Now of course he and his accomplices are all twisted up over an ABC mini-series that dares to dramatize real events starting with the 1993 WTC bombing and ending with 9/11--he and the rest of his co-defendants don't want everyday Americans to FINALLY see that throughout the Douchebag's presidency, nothing was done about Osama bin Laden and Al Quada. Not when our embassies were attacked, not when the Cole was bombed, not when the Kobar Towers were targeted, and not any of the numerous times Sudan and others offered Bin Laden to us on a silver platter.

"It's's's based on hearsay...we're given no chance to defend ourselves...the mini-series tapes are too big for Sandy Berger to shove down his pants and steal..and worse of all--only WE are supposed to be allowed to tell America what to think".

What a bunch of soul-less cocksuckers--I'm often shocked that Clinton and Reid and Pelosi and Boxer and Feinstein and Schumer and Dean and all the rest don't just burst into flames or get claimed by demons from hell while they are in the midst of their press conferences.
"I have been very fortunate to earn a living through my true passion"--Chef Michael Mina

The above is a very modest quote from one of the best chef/restaurateurs in the world, and I often marvel at the fact that the same can be said of me. The restaurant business has been my vocation for all of my 22 working years, from that first day I walked into a small, dingy hotel dining room as a busboy. It has made me rich, successful, respected, and mildly renowned, but it may also have absorbed some of the best years of my life in the process. As I approach a birthday that will be my last to be properly described as "mid-30's" I have started to ruminate on the past, and have become shocked at how much of it is simply a blur of work.

For the last year or so I have found great diversion and comfort in reading many of the excellent "hospitality blogs", most notably "waiterant" and "clublife"--many of their stories and observations are so familiar it is scary. After a few false starts and alot of thinking I have finally decided to dive in myself--a little self-reflection certainly can't hurt.

I don't expect anyone to read this, but if anyone did they would find a [hopefully] entertaining mix of restaurant minutae, guest tales, political commentary, and generic ranting. God hates a coward...