Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"This life of ours. This is a wonderful life. If you can get through life like this and get away with it, hey, that's great. But its very, very unpredictable. There's so many ways you can screw it up"--"Big" Paul Castellano

I appreciate the irony of sourcing my opening quote from a mobster who was shot to death outside one of the most famous steakhouses in Manhattan--his clockwork attendance at Spark's made him an easy target for John Gotti.

Most restaurant blogs are written from the point of view of the staff, and naturally those anecdotes and reports are often shaded by the "us versus them [or him]" mentality found anytime restaurant staff and management are portrayed interacting.

The simple fact is that there are lots of terribly run restaurants with dictatorial, sometimes criminal owners and sadistic, often moronic management. I suppose it is debatable as to whether operations like that constitute the majority of our industry, but they certainly do exist.

Less regularly described, but nearly as prevalent as these poor operations and operators are the millions of undesirable restaurant workers--the thieves, slackers, losers, sociopaths, degenerates, con artists, pathological liars, alcoholics, drug addicts, and simple all-around wastes of organic tissue that tend to gravitate toward the comparatively free employment structure found in most restaurants and bars.

About this sea of human detritus I could wax frustrated and enraged for hours, and at some point after a particularly trying night, week, or month I probably will. Tonight I am more concerned with the decent people that work with these scumbags, and why they find themselves doing so night after night.

I just want to give a little glimpse into our unique world, to lay the groundwork for showing why most of the stuff many restaurant bloggers are always bitching about just isn't part of the playbook. Soon I'll describe how nearly impossible it is take all but the most corporately governed restaurants into the "real world", but here I hope to explain a little bit about why, leaving out the above-described bad apple owners and operators, our industry still has enough going for it to out-draw [for some of us] the time-share companies, shoe stores, brokerage houses, research labs, law offices, and auto parts stores.

The simple fact of the matter is that our industry is nearly totally unlike any other business, industry, or economic engine in the history of the world. Restaurants whether big or small, fine dining or carry-out, independent or corporate are stunningly and wholly unique when compared to any other business model. We are the duck-billed platypus of commerce.

The kitchen is our "warehouse" and "factory". Our raw materials are perishable, and these materials' "assembly" into finished product is subject not only to a myriad of possible human error but also to the subjective whim of the consumer. The "factory floor" temperature averages about 100 degrees Fahrenheit--the workers are in constant motion and stand throughout the entirety of their shift. If there is product to be made, this shift can last ten hours or more without cessation, but if there are few or no orders for product "factory" workers will be briefly idle while management attempts to foretell the future, and then most will be sent home early and unceremoniously if business doesn't quickly materialize. If the restaurant is a busy one, many of these people will work fifty or more hours, if the place slows down they will be lucky to get thirty. In good restaurants when it is busy, the chef and kitchen managers will be working stations to get through the rush and cover short-handed stations. In good restaurants when it is slow, the kitchen managers and chef will be working stations because they are on salary and the hourly line cooks have been sent home to save on labor.

I will be completely honest--for many of my twenty-three years of working in and running restaurants I never understood why so many people decide that working in a restaurant kitchen is the job for them. I used to think that they all aspired to get a chef's position--to be top dog in their own kitchen one day. Over time I came to realize that there is also the immigrant aspect--entry-level kitchen work eventually leads to a cook's position and a job that lets them support their family and stay in America.

Would-be chefs and new Americans are certainly a large part of the kitchen force, but for many others it is simply the nature of the job, with all its drawbacks, that attracts them. There is no way I can explain this as well as Anthony Bourdain because I haven't lived it as he has [not to mention the fact that he is a far more entertaining and proficient writerthan I], but there is a real gunslinger aspect to the high-pressure line cook position in any busy restaurant. Surrounded by contemporaries, you are alone--if you regularly succeed you can swagger and talk shit all you want--if you regularly fail you will find yourself moved farther away from the heart of the action until suddenly you aren't even on the schedule any more. There is a real, visceral satisfaction and sense of accomplishment in getting through each and every night--emotional, traumatic, dangerous, and risky. Most kitchen guys never see the inside of a college campus unless they cook there, but almost all of them know the same feeling of success and confidence that the Apollo 13 astronauts experienced after making life-saving CO2 scrubbers out of spare parts and duct tape--busy line cooks face the restaurant version of this situation more nights than not.

In my current restaurant I have placed a brass plate [idea admittedly stolen from The French Laundry] over the door leading to the dining room that says simply "sense of urgency". Our first chef with whom I worked for nearly six years had his own brass plate at the entrance to our hot line, reading "Kobayashi Maru" [for the unindoctrinated, this is the name of a fictional ship in a simulation exercise used to test prospective commanders' reaction to the no-win situation in one of the Star Trek movies]. My point--don't get lazy. His point--get ready to do the impossible.

In the front of the restaurant, the "showroom floor" so to speak, the incongruities between regular and restaurant businesses grow even more noticeable. The vast majority of the people working where you can see them in any restaurant or bar are there for one or both of two reasons--they can't get a "real job" and/or they are in love with the lifestyle [90% of which is the money].

Whether professional server, power bartender, retard in a diner, Honduran busboy, or bitter old steakhouse manager, most are seduced by the nightly pay-off. In addition to the green is also the flexible scheduling, short hours, and convivial atmosphere. Many come to the industry because they are doing something else--family, school, day job in its infancy--and require a little extra income to make ends meet. Most of these people think they will be short-time--a few semesters, a year or two, a few good seasons, etc. In reality, most will stay connected in one way or another for the rest of their lives. If there is the business, it means on your feet and on the go for as many as twelve hours at a stretch. If it is slow, you may be cut and sent home with nothing to show for it but a few free sodas and [maybe] a family meal.

For these people the potential always exists for unlimited income. Our office friends know what they are making before they leave the house, and with that figure guaranteed will spend most of their energy trying to dodge their workload. Our salesmen neighbors live and die by the commission, all or nothing. For us, a decent minimum is always guaranteed unless business dries up completely, but the home run is always just one table or drunk billionaire away. When the IHOP waitress gets a $10,000 tip it makes CNN, when the steakhouse wiater gets a $10,000 tip he had a great Thursday night. "Regular" people have their budgets, and at some point may have to adjust their lifestyle if money gets tight or things slow down. When we get to the bottom of the wallet, a few extra shifts or a couple late tables can solve the shortfall almost before it occurs. For us, a little extra work and a good fake smile can change the world.

Many also gravitate to restaurants or bars because they lack expert skills or higher education and need to make a living. Entry level restaurants are temples of on-the-job training, and few prospective emplyees will be turned away from any diner, wing joint, burger stand, or barbecue place that is doing good business. I know that some people feel sorry for or are contemptuous of those bawdy old ladies that seem to populate every truck stop, country restaurant, and deli in America--but take a moment to consider that they started waitressing at a time when there weren't many jobs for women outside of eateries that didn't entail too much make-up, a red bedspread, and a bottle of penicillin.

On a fine dining restaurant floor, as I've mentioned before, can be found all strata of society running the gamut from ex-convict to PHD. There are failed real estate brokers [an army of these], disillusioned attorneys, burnt out salesmen, eternal collegians, and even some of us who fairly early on decided that restaurants would be it full time and forever. The servers are in fine dining for the money--$40,000 to $100,000 a year for about 38 hours work each week, the bartenders for the money and the girls [or guys], ans sometimes for the liquor as well, though this type usually doesn't last too long with me. These jobs are demanding and high-stress, but short on hours, long on cash, and highly-placed in the society of our business. They need knowledge, comportment, patience, and a general understanding of what is in the best interests of the restaurant--the successful ones understand that every action has repercussions, and that they hold a job that is hard to find and even harder to replace if lost.

No matter what the style of restaurant, most of the same rules apply in the front of the house. When there is work to be done, you do it. The work is fast-paced, labor-intensive, and on the clock. A busy restaurant is a double time warp--the clock that tells you when the night is finally over never seems to move while the clock that tells you how much time you have before you have to do the next step in someone's service seems to move double-speed. There are two breaks--one is called "before service" and the other is called "when my guests are gone"--in between it is survival of the fittest. Do a great job, and generally speaking the reward is noticeable and immediate, do a poor or disinterested job and the penalty is likewise readily apparent. There is no procrastinating in our "store", no leaving it for the next shift--if you don't do it, it doesn't get done, and if you don't do it right or in time it is often like you didn't do it at all.

The highs and lows in our business are higher and lower and more numerous than almost every other "regular" industry. At the end of unqualified successes like last Saturday night, I feel bigger, prouder, and more successful than any Oscar-winner, world-record holder, or Super Bowl champion. The morning after a beat-down night like I had two Saturdays ago, I know I feel just like Captain Joseph Hazleton of the Exxon Valdez must have felt the morning after dumping his load of crude oil, complete with a similar hang-over.

We as a labor force are some of the most entitled employees in the world. While we work hard and face many challenges on a daily basis, those of us who find success have lives that many of our office and [real] factory and showroom-dwelling counterparts would kill for. The people, the places, the schedules, and the cash--the free days, the paper-thin rule book, the immediate gratification, and the freedom from endless layers of oversight.

There are plenty of bad restaurants and bars. There are armies of bad owners, managers, and employees to staff them. Bad family meals, no family meals, tons of side work, bad tippers, crazy guests, non-existent benefits, a slim shot at extended commercial success, and uniforms that are often designed well away from the great fashion houses of Europe.

In the end though, this thing we have, it is our thing. In spite of ourselves, many of us cherish it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

"Life is neither a spectacle nor a feast, it is predicament"--Santayana

"Have no fear of perfection, you'll never reach it"--Salvador Dali

"I have not failed, I've found 10,000 ways that won't work"--Thomas Edison

If you should ask my staff what my greatest flaw is, the answers you receive would surely be myriad, detailed, and colorful. Ask me the same question, however, and even though I am famously hard on myself, the answer is much more banal. I work so much and have spent so long in one place that my objectivity and sense of perspective is failing me.

My mighty restaurant has just made what we call "the turn", the end of the first half of our fiscal year. For the first time in seven years, we reached this benchmark with lower total sales than those accrued during the same period last year--yes, we are down a whopping 1.8%.

Our local hospitality industry has been in a freefall over the last nine months, and the recent biblical rains aren't doing us any good now. Most of our contemporaries, corporate and independent alike, are down anywhere from 8% to over 30%. As I wring my hands and pace grooves in the floor pining over my lost 1.8%, guests pour through our front doors every night to tell us we are the only place in town that looks full. still, I can't help but wonder if our nearly imperceptible sign of weakness is the start of a larger failure.

Half-formed thoughts of doom and collapse have danced around the back of my mind for the last two weeks and they have been troubling. However, they were not troubling enough to stop me from making my annual six day escape from the restaurant, this time to the Caribbean--where it is supposed to be 100 degrees every day.

Who would have guessed that I would find my long lost perspective in the Bahamas? It is no secret among my close friends that I have had a three-year-long love affair with the Atlantis Resort and Casino. I originally traveled there in 2004 for a job interview--the people were great, the owner of the resort is one of the most remarkable and amazing men I have ever met, and the opportunity was intriguing to say the least. Unfortunately, as the interviews wore on it became clear that my management style would probably not be compatible with their Human Resources department, [especially since my not being Bahamian would have kept me on an unusually short leash] but my fondness for the place never diminished.

With the opening of the new Cove Atlantis facility, I was invited by my enabler I mean casino host to return to the resort as their guest. After searching the calendar I found my days, the annual fiscal black hole that is the week after Independence Day [when our entire city is apparently evacuated via some secret signal], and made my arrangements.

Without going into some self-indulgent blow-by-blow of this fantastic trip, lets just suffice to say that I returned home feeling almost like a regular human being--a near impossible feat in and of itself.

In addition to restored peace of mind, body, and spirit however was the equally valuable resource of perspective, as I mentioned. I spent nearly a full week as a guest at a great hotel that is also a gigantic resort, casino, waterpark, and shopping destination. We ate in twelve different restaurants covering the entire dining spectrum and drank at an equal number of different bars. I was able to anonymously observe guests, staff, management, physical plant, and product.

I thoroughly enjoyed everything, but noticed that in some ways 1,000 miles is a world away and in other ways it is just next store. I noticed that the brass in their steakhouse is shinier than the brass in mine, but that we tend to open our doors for guests more often than they do. I was called "mon" much more often than "sir" and I observed way too much personal interaction between members of the staff, but I was also treated to far more genuine smiles and a great deal more real concern for my welfare than our guests may see in a typical evening. One bartender showed my guest to the rest room personally one day and then stood, unconcerned, three feet away from our thirsty, hopeful faces on the next without so much as an acknowledging glance [and yes, we tipped him very well the day before]. Dinner service was perfect a great deal of the time, but sometimes we were on a rail and other times I half-thought the restaurant had closed with us in it. The room was larger than my first house and beautifully, richly decorated, but the air conditioner leaked into the closet the whole time. The limo drivers to and from the airport were courteous to a fault, but the resort's people at the airport itself were dismissive and rude. Most of our fellow guests were just as satisfied and satiated as we were, but a handful were vocal and unhappy--just as determined to make themselves miserable in paradise as they would be during dinner at a big city steakhouse.

I'm heading back tomorrow to polish our brass, add a few excellent new drinks to our cocktail list, make appointments to talk attitude with a few of our more abrupt team members, and tack some very soothing, inspirational pictures up to the bulletin board.

I have seen how good and bad can go hand and hand, how little things can frame one's view of a much larger experience, and how personal attitude can rule the day. I am re-energized and re-focused toward our success, and I am looking forward to getting back to work.

Now, I just wish I could stop peeling.