Saturday, March 24, 2007

A manager's verson of an excellent restaurant blogger's take on what makes a bad restaurant--two sides to every coin.

Ten signs that you might be an asshole waiter/bartender/busboy/etc.
1. Your uniform looks like you slept in it, and that you fell asleep in a pile of food
2. You take home $50,000.00/yr but are 15 minutes late every day because you won't pay for parking
3. You refuse to ever change your "set" schedule when the restaurant needs your help, but scream like a stuck pig when you lose shifts because the frustrated manager had to hire more help to cover his shortfalls.
4. You never fuck up, the guests are always just shitty tippers
5. You spend twenty minutes trying to figure out how to slide out of ten minutes of sidework
6. You don't understand why "too hung over to work" is not a valid excuse.
7. Your guest's water glasses are always empty, but their wine glasses are so full they can hardly lift them
8. Your grandmothers have died three times
9. You don't understand why you can't use your cellphone during the shift--after all, "these fucking people aren't spending any money anyway!"
10.Your too stupid to drink on the job without getting caught, and forget to wipe the coke off your face before coming out of the bathroom.

Monday, March 12, 2007

"friendship is the only choice you have in can't choose your family, goddamnit I've had to face that..." Raul Julia as "Carlos" in Tequila Sunrise

I have always loved this quote, as well as the movie it came from and the late, great actor who delivered it. In the context of the movie it is a comment on both the betrayal of family and the loyalty of friends.

In the context of restaurant life the quote teaches a valuable lesson even though it doesn't really apply--you see in a restaurant the staff itself is a chosen family. Maybe not in a monster like a Cheesecake Factory or the Ebbitt Grill or Tavern on the Green, but in most restaurants and bars that stand the test of time, the staff itself becomes much more than the sum of its parts, and much more than a harried brigade of co-workers.

I have chosen the individuals that make up my restaurant family--Many of these people have been with me coming on a decade, and most of them I will not forget as long as I live. Most of them are good, strong, intelligent, and principled people just like the members of any other family. Like any other family as well there is also a full measure of screwballs, kooks, thieves, ball-breakers, loners, liars, and weaklings. Just like any other family to a certain extent you take the good with the bad.

The difference between a regular biological family and a restaurant family is that there is a probationary period in the restaurant that a normal family doesn't have--whatever pops out of Mom is automatically part of the club whereas in the restaurant it takes awhile before arms are opened and hands outstretched. Even though I do as little hiring as possible, every year at w-2 time I am astonished at all the people that have come and gone in just twelve months, and a little embarrassed when some of the names don't even jog my memory. Most of these people however, though employees, were not at the restaurant long enough to become family.

The loss of a restaurant family member is always hard, no matter what the reason. People graduate, move, retire, or mature beyond our unique industry. More rarely someone has a flame-out and basically disappears, and once in a blue moon someone blows an engine and commits a cardinal sin that results in termination.

With all my fearsome reputation, I hate to fire people--even people that I personally dislike or know to be purposely ignoring their responsibilities. I can comfortably say it is the worst part of my job. What makes this onerous responsibilty even more troubling is when a family member slowly goes bad and has to be let go--in such a case emotions on my side run high, because not only have I been professionally let down by the employee but I have also been personally injured. Counsel given, favors granted, Christmas gifts, references, contacts, loans [sometimes bail money], confidences shared, and loyalties exchanged are but a small listing of what my family of employees can expect from me. I demand the best, and I give the best, and when I am betrayed I tend to bleed from deep wounds.

Monday, March 05, 2007

An old colleague of mine long since moved to another industry recently asked me what group of diners I dislike the most. As this is a question that begs steroetyping, he was fully expecting that my answer would be based on race, religion, or possibly even sexual orientation. He also expected a good deal of hemming, hawing, and qualifying. What he did not expect was the immediate, fierce response nearly spit from between my lips--"corkage people!".

I despise no group of diners more than those that attempt to bring their own wine to dinner with them. The act itself is rooted in arrogance, pomposity, condescension, and cheapness. Somehow these people have convinced themselves that they are the very apex of the dining public and that their patronage is to be sought after and cherished. The reality is that these self-important asswipes are the last people any respectful and successful restaurant wants to see.

First, the bare economics. In my restaurant, which I am proud to say does not accept corkage, bottled wine sales account for nearly 23% of total sales, with wine-by-the-glass adding another 7%. On any given night nearly 80% of our seated guests will have wine at their table. Replacing a table of these normal, valued guests with someone carting in their own alcohol robs us of those important sales. I suppose things may be different in a failing property, but luckily that is not my point of view. This restaurant carries nearly $250,000.00 in wine inventory at any given time for its very extensive [and reasonably priced] wine list totalling more than 400 selections. There is plenty of excellent wine to drink in our restaurant, with prices ranging from $20/btl to more than $1000/btl.

Secondly, the people just suck. There was a time many years ago when I would sometimes bring wine with me to dinner--I own nearly 3,000 bottles, and with my schedule I am often challenged by how to get it all drunk in a reasonable amount of time [reasonable meaning before I/the wine/or both of us die]. I followed the established rules of corkage. Call the restaurant ahead of time and ask first if they accept corkage and secondly what their policies are, and then make sure the restaurant does not carry the wine that I was planning to bring. Upon arriving ask the restaurant the best way for the wine to be delivered to the table, and always understand that I was being shown a GREAT courtesy. Buy wine from the restaurant as well--even if the party is small I would get a couple of glasses of something. Accept all aspects of the restaurant's wine service as perfect, again I was being shown a GREAT courtesy and was in no position to dictate or find fault. Offer those serving the wine/waiting on the table some wine.

As time progressed I stopped the practice because so many other people had ruined the original concept of corkage--I simply did not want to be associated with them. These scumbags rarely call the restaurant ahead of time to ascertain allowance or policy. They generally attempt to dictate what will be done with the wine, usually buy nothing to drink from the restaurant, and often complain about the corkage fee no matter how reasonable. Very often the restaurant's stemware and wine service will be criticized, and unless the party is very small there is usually such a proliferation of bottles that service throughout an entire busy restaurant can be damaged as staff struggles with endless decanting, course after course of clean glassware and difficult special orders for food. At the end of the meal the check is usually markedly below the normal check average in the restaurant, the tip is average, and the server is exhausted--oh, and the offers to try the wine if forthcoming at all are usually offered in the most condescending tones imaginable.

At some point this legion of douche bags convinced themselves that restaurants should feel priveleged to be able to serve them--several of these creatures, upon being told that we do not accept corkage, have told me that we should be honored to have their wonderful wines brought to our restaurant, and in the dark days before I put an end to this hideous practice my queries regarding the prospective wines to be brought often met with the response--"Oh, I'm sure your restaurant would never be able to offer any of the wines I am planning to bring,"--the implication being that Ira Cocksucker's cellar was so vast and superior to the restaurant's that he had no choice but to travel with his own bottles. Breaking these people down, many of whom are breathing testament to the saying, "a little knowledge is dangerous", has always been a beloved hobby of mine.

And the garbage these people bring--oh my God I often don't know how they can even choke it down.

I am being joined each passing day by more and more operators who have had enough of these people and are halting acceptance of the practice--many other brilliantly sadistic restaurateurs like Charlie Trotter have raised their restrictions about the policy to near artform [$50/btl fee, one bottle minimum, and the wine brought cannot be from a producer represented on the restaurant's massive wine list].

Like with any other prejudice, there are of course exceptions, and it is the very heart of hospitality to honor them. Recently a couple called ahead of time and asked to be able to bring a bottle of wine for their 30th anniversary--the bottle was bought on their wedding day [part of a 5-case purchase] and every year they open a bottle at dinner. When they open the 6oth one, it will be on the grounds of the winery while they renew their vows, and I only hope they get to see that day. The wine is a 1974 Jekel Cabernet from Monterey in California. While not meant to be a 30-year wine, this bottle still had life--it was my honor to decant and pour the wine for our guests and I would never have thought to charge a cent for it. That is the very definition of special occassion. Another regular guest of ours has a specific taste for American petite syrah as well as the connections to buy large quantities of cult-wine bottlings--I have no comparable wine to offer him on our list--even if I did though it wouldn't matter. This guest is an icon of common courtesy and respectfulness and it is once again our honor to welcome him to the restaurant with his wine.

That's the difference. More than the lost revenue or the extra work, it is the vile manners and raw arrogance of most corkage fans that has led to their exile from ours and many other restaurants. The list will only get longer while these people, devoid of any and all social grace, continue to get worse.