Sunday, August 19, 2007

"Necessary? Is it necessary for me to drink my own urine? No!! But I do it anyway--because its sterile, and because I like the taste!"--Patches O' Houlihan, seven-time ADAA all-star

Sometimes, no matter how much you want to interact with a guest rationally and cordially, you have to eventually come to the conclusion that they are bat-shit crazy and react accordingly.

Last evening a guest demanded the contact information for my employer, which I was happy to supply. She wanted this information, she announced, so that she could use it to "hurt me". She and her party of equally insane diners were at least lucid enough to realize that their first plan, stiffing their server, wouldn't actually hurt me, but would only hurt said server. My transgression, you wonder? I refused to agree with them that a cocktail server had lost their credit card, when in actuality she had given the card back to its owner in front of witnesses.

A few days previous to last Father's Day a lovely family of six came to dinner to celebrate the holiday early. Two fine, strapping grown sons and their wives along with the charming father and mom. Dinner was great, everyone was beaming, and at the conclusion of the dinner, as often happens, the detritus of the celebration was left for us to contend with--in this case three "World's Best Dad" balloons and three Father's Day cards left in their brightly colored, opened envelopes. Many years ago I attempted to return birthday cards and part of a cake that had been left in the restaurant after a celebration--my attempted good will caused a huge family fight when the card-givers realized their dime store sentimentality had been left behind, discarded by the guest of honor. That was the last time I attempted to return anything other than obvious gifts and/or belongings.

In this case, we were left with three Father's Day cards and three cheesy balloons and we acted accordingly--after waiting twenty or thirty minutes they went into a garbage can. By the time Dad called the restaurant three hours later looking for the two $100 Menard gift cards that he had left in the envelopes, the garbage can had long been emptied into a dumpster and the dumpster compacted. His tone with me on the phone went from embarrassed to alarmed to angry to profane to hung up on. The next day my employer recieved the requisite e-mail full of falsehoods and I received a fed-exed letter basically accusing me of being the mastermind of a huge home improvement store gift card theft ring [notable here is the fact that the letter had to have been at a fedex drop before 5am for me to have received it when I did]. The saga didn't culminate till nearly a week later when Crazy Dad called the police, and the police told him, after a few minutes, that he was at fault for abandoning innocuous property and that furthermore his conduct toward me as he had described it to the officer appeared to border on harrassment. The officer told me this during a courtesy call, as I had been the brief subject of a complaint--he ended his conciliatory closing by telling me that, "shit like this is why I took a desk job--people are just freaking nuts".

We, like many restaurants in this anachronistic part of the world, have a dress policy--not "jackets required" or anything so severe, but more restrictive than the average eatery. One evening an extremely dressed-down party of four entered the restaurant literally demanding to be seated and brought, "the nice champagne". When informed of our dress policy and told we would be unable to seat them, the ringleader of this traveling band of drunken douchebags proudly announced himself as Larry Ellison and, "now get me my fucking table I'm a billionaire".

Larry Ellison? That's who you pick? I understand that you don't want to try your bullshit using a front-page regular like Bill Gates, George Lucas, or Warren Buffet--but Larry Ellison? Not only did the moron in question pick one of the most obscure [outside of tech circles] rich guys in the world, but a prick at that--someone who I am sure has trouble getting tables even though he IS Larry Ellison. The guy was probably just a deranged [and drunk] computer repair man.

The Imperial Wizard of Crazy, the absolute Grand Master of Insanity however will always be for me a fellow I clashed with about fifteen years ago. Known to me and two of my friends who I worked with at the time simply as "Fight Me Guy", this was a 50-something gentleman who came to dinner with his significant other and proceeded to get not drunk, but something close to it--though whether facilitated by pills or simple insanity I will never know.

"Fight Me Guy" came to dinner for his anniversary on a very busy night in a very busy restaurant. I was a waiter at the time, but not his waiter. When the thin guise of FMG's sanity began to slip, he commenced calling the anniversary girl by many colorful and strikingly profane terms, all at the top of his lungs. Included in the nicknames were both a brutal noun and compound word, each starting with the letter "c". After about five minutes of this spectacle, which brought the dining room to a screeching halt, anniversary girl left the table and the restaurant--I barely noticed at the time that she was not crying or even visibly upset, which in retrospect was the first indication that this was more than just a boorish drunken husband, and more than just an isolated, unfortunate event.

After a few more minutes I was struck by the fact that neither the manager nor FMG's server were making any move to stop the show, while this guy was still spouting off like a champion hog caller with Turret's Syndrome. I walked over to the two and they were frozen like a pair of deer caught in the headlights--as I asked about the plan, they just mentioned something about not knowing how to handle it, and the manager said something about, "maybe if we get a chair..."

Not knowing what good a chair would do for Mr. Screaming Profanity, I decided to use my considerable size to force the issue and get the guy out in the street, by means of a headlock if necessary. I approached his booth from behind, and as I turned to come face to face with the offender I noticed a number of things in quick, terrible succession. First, I noticed that McCrazy was literally foaming at the mouth. Secondly, as I quickly cleared the remaining pieces of silverware from the table [ though I was much younger at this point in my life I had already seen a fork stuck through someone's cheek and a butter knife thrust to the handle through the back of someone's hand], I noticed that FMG was wearing gloves of the type favored by bicycle enthusiasts. Thirdly and most arrestingly I then realized that this gentleman's legs ended about eight inches below his waist in neatly cuffed trousers--just as I made this observation, he hit me with a water glass. As I stumbled back from this surprise attack [the glass had been on the booth bench next to him], General Thumb came flying out of the booth toward me moving mostly on his gloved hands, propelled forward by a well-developed upper body, and screaming, you guessed it, "FIGHT ME!!!", over and over again at the top of his lungs. As I continued to back up down the aisle looking about in vain for both Alan Funt and Rod Serling, my two fantastic Salvadoran busboys, who undoubtedly had seen scores of things stranger than this little altercation, snuck up behind FMG and grabbed him on either side by the upper arms. Our food runner grabbed the wheel chair out of the coat room, took it outside, and the busboys deposited FMG there. When the police arrived a few minutes later FMG was still trying to get back into the restaurant through the locked front door.

To this day, I can't watch the scene from "Trading Places" where Eddie Murphy pretends to be a legless veteran without breaking out in a cold sweat.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Nothing happens by all will come your way once you understand that you have to make it come your way, by your own exertions"--The incomparable Ben Stein

There is a server on my staff who is a "dead man walking"--he remains employed only because his replacement, a previously-employed server making a return, will not be starting for another week.

This server's terminal condition is the hopeless mixture of hubris and incompetence that I see all too often. He is not skilled enough to work at this restaurant--he can't prioritize, he can't get his timing down, he only sees one table at a time rather than viewing the whole station, and he can only do one thing at a time--slowly. Making these fatal flaws worse is the fact that in his mind he is the best and smartest waiter in the county--obviously unappreciated, he spends so much time complaining about his poor guests and his bad station and the fact that the manager has it "in" for him that he is even slower and less effective than he would be otherwise.

Everyone working in a restaurant likes to complain, and to a great extent everyone working in a restaurant likes to hear others complain. Complaining yourself is a stress-reliever, not to mention a time-passer. Hearing others complain is a diversion--it allows you to either commiserate with a comrade's ill fortune or bask in a coworker's misery depending on your mood and/or attitude toward the complainer. This fellow has railed for so long and about so much that even the other complainers are telling him to shut up.

I have run out of ways to attempt improvement and motivation--you can't really look at someone and yell, "BE BETTER!!"--his best, such as it is, just isn't good enough.

The most telling sign is that the other servers won't cover for him. Usually, when one of the staff is getting crushed, making mistakes, or having a bad night, others will come to their rescue. They will take an order, clear some tables, deliver coffee, etc.--often without asking. In the case of a hopeless one, however, the others seem to know. They are like buffalo in a herd that smell death on one of their own. They move away, isolating the sick one, not wanting to be in the way when the predator arrives for his meal.

Now when I fire this guy, he will be incredulous. In years past I would have explained his dismissal by listing his myriad weakpoints and giving specific instances of failure. However, experience has taught me that anyone of this fellow's ilk will have no recollection of any previous conversations regarding performance or execution. All their guests love them, all their co-workers idolize them, and I am clearly making this decision for personal reasons. In one previous firing, the hapless soul was even transparent enough to lament the fact that, "this "always happens to me wherever I work--how come all you managers are so unfair"?

Instead of the above-described melodrama, I will take a different tack that has served me well in such situations for the last year or so. I simply tell whatever pain-in-the-ass is being shown the door that they and the restaurant are not suited to each other--in this case I will tell Mr. Sucks that he will be much more comfortable in a restaurant that can offer him a full service busperson and food runner, cocktail waitress, expeditor, and three-table station--an atmosphere more ordered in which he can thrive. In other words, you can't carry your end of the log in this particular logging camp--hit the road.

I really do hate to fire people, but I admit this one will be a tad easier than most--the guy really just won't shut up.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

"Religion is what an individual does with his solitariness"--Alfred North Whitehead

"Solitude is as needful to the imagination as society is wholesome for the character"--James Lowell

Few people understand the surreal experience of being alone in a big restaurant, especially when that solitude follows eight to twelve hours of absolute chaos. No cooks, no waiters, no asst. managers. Porters gone, dishwashers finished, valets packed up, and cleaners not due in for another two hours. By yourself-- perched at the bar, sprawled in a booth, or lazing in the lounge.

The aromas linger and some of the machinery still hums--the furniture and even the walls themselves still pulse with the residual energy of so many recently departed guests, but the vibe itself is utterly unique.

Very often I spend this real "down time" in my hovel of an office, On rare occasion however, like this past Sunday, I take a pad and move from the back of the restaurant toward the front door. First, I silence the roar of the exhaust hoods [most restaurants turn their hoods off at the end of service each night, but in older properties like ours elderly pilots and gas nozzles pose too much of a threat to be left unventilated and our hoods almost never get shut off]. As I move forward in the guest areas I make notes on repairs, dusting needs, dark bulbs, stains, smudges, etc. Once in the front room I double check the locks, take off my jacket, loosen my tie, pour myself a drink, and settle into one of our very comfortable lounge chairs.

I'm looking in the direction of one of the bar TV's but not really watching it--my attention is actually transfixed on my cocktail as I note for the first time [though not with surprise] that vodka and ice have a true, albeit subdued, beauty. The tension of my week slowly subsides in time with the level of my beveragel. I notice that I can hear the bar coolers, and recognize that one of them is too loud--the door is ajar. As this is a perfect excuse to freshen my drink I quickly rise to remedy the problem.

I see that a spotlight above the door has been knocked askew, probably the last time the bulb was changed, and I notice that the flowers behind the piano are starting to wilt. I see tiny handprints low on our front door [Sunday is family night in the restaurant] and am disappointed but not shocked as I also spy the dirty plate that once carried a crabcake appetizer partially hidden on a side station shelf--the waiter who was in that station that evening is not particularly good.

In the empty restaurant I do not see the performance, I see only the stage--during service I am both the director and a cast member--but right now I am simply the production manager, thankful for the dark and quiet and glad to have another weeks' receipts in the books.

This show has run for more than a decade in the same playhouse. I know the nooks and the crannies, the attic and the basement. I can tell you from air flow if a front or a back door is open, and can identify any individual piece of machinery by the sound it makes while running. This building and I are partners, at the same time we are old friends and long-time foes.

I want another drink, but realize that I forgot to eat dinner and that vodka #3 would be filling an empty stomach. After briefly considering having the drink anyway and bedding down in the restaurant [I have done it before on numerous occasions--some planned, some not], I decide to let maturity rear its ugly head for a change and head for my car.

As I start to think about my day off tomorrow I realize that today was my day off, and that I have another six nights ahead of me [at least] before the opportunity will present itself again. I think fleetingly again about that third drink, but the aches and pains awoken simply by walking to my car convince me that I need the rest more than I need the vodka--restaurants and drinking are both young men's games, and while I am a durable man I am certainly no longer a young man.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

"the ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage"--Peter Senge

NOTE: USDA Prime beef is the highest of the eight graded levels of inspected beef--in good years less than 2.5% of all graded beef rates USDA Prime. For the last few years, this available percentage has dropped by as much as half, while new steakhouses have cropped up at a record pace fighting for what little supply does exist. Prices have skyrocketed, and many restaurants that once served only USDA Prime have had to adjust their concepts, either secretly or officially.

For the first time in about 100 years, the menu at Peter Luger's Steakhouse in Brooklyn has changed in an appreciable way. Long the undisputed champion of the porterhouse steak, this venerable USDA Prime cafeteria has been having a unique version of the same supply problem affecting almost all USDA Prime-only restaurants. During this current record-long shortage of USDA Prime beef [supplies have been tight for the last five years--sometimes shockingly so], Luger's has often limited reservations and sometimes closed early, occasionally placing a hand-lettered sign in the door that simply says "out of steak" once their nightly limit was served.

Peter Luger's Steakhouse is the most venerable and successful one-trick pony in the entire world of restaurants. Over a century old [nearly as old as some of the waiters working there], it is plainly furnished, briskly [or brusquely, depending on point of view] run, and curtly staffed. There is no wine list to speak of, no real wine glasses to serve the stuff in even if a bottle might be found, no payment option other than cash [or house account], and for all intents and purposes only one item on the menu--porterhouse steak. If you don't like the "concept", most of the waiters will be happy to suggest one of the many Manhattan steakhouses that "might be better for a fella like you". These are the same waiters who could also tell you from personal experience what it felt like to vote for Franklin Roosevelt five times [once for governor and four times for President], but they won't, because they really don't want to talk to you.

Outside the Luger's world, other USDA Prime steakhouses are likewise strugging to maintain meat supplies even as prices skyrocket, but the fact that they serve more than one item gives them more options. Many chains no longer serve USDA Prime filet mignon, as it is the most expensive to buy and usually the most popular seller--while the other steaks listed on their menu will clearly sport the "Prime" badge, their filet mignon will often carry a separate description, something like "corn-fed midwestern beef" or "our tenderest cut". We ourselves continue to serve only USDA Prime beef sourced from only one supplier, one of the oldest packing houses in the United States--but what USDA Prime we serve has gone through more than a change or two over the last few years. We first offered smaller steaks, then added lesser-known cuts like the deckel. We added more veal, more seafood, and a wider array of daily changing specials.

Other restaurants have tried to diversify the style of meat they serve, adding wagyu [Kobe-style] beef, Argentinian grass-fed steaks, or even game. Some that serve USDA Choice, like The Capital Grille chain and most independents, are relatively unaffected.

What Peter Luger's finally decided to do, after getting crushed for their rationing and after starting to hear long-time guests sometimes [GASP!!]question the quality of the Holy Luger's Porterhouse itself--what they finally decided to do was kick me in the balls.

Yes, from half a continent away, Peter Luger's Steakhouse just reached out a gigantic foot and planted one squarely on my nads. Peter Luger's has decided to add a USDA Prime bone-in rib eye steak to their menu--the same steak that is our trademark. If it catches on, the demand generated from such a machine as Luger's could make it triply hard for us to secure our supply.

When Joe's Stone Crab decided to open two restaurants in Chicago and another in Las Vegas in additon to their $20+ million flagship in Miami, they crushed the market for jumbo and collossal stone crab claws. The 90 or 100 pounds flown in to me each day during the season simply disappeared, swept into the massive cauldron that was their $40 million in new stone crab sales. I certainly wasn't happy about it--but seeing as the words "stone crab" aren't to be found in the name of our restaurant, I recovered rather quickly. This market shift could be a much greater headache for me.

So, to the residents of New York City and surrounding environs I offer three words of sage advice for your next visit to Williamsburg to be abused by mean old men, I mean have dinner--"try the salmon!"

"When ambition ends, happiness begins"--Hugarian proverb

"I had no ambition to make a fortune. Mere money-making has never been my goal--I had an ambition to build"--John D Rockefeller

I have often wondered what my professional ambition really is. It isn't about the money anymore, though I still like the cash very much. I am already the longest-tenured restaurant manager in my city, so that means the endurance record is already on the shelf. It is true that I definitely feel a responsibility to my employer, but that is more about allegiance than ambition.

I get job offers every week--literally. From nearby competitors, from national fine dining chains, from far-flung independents, and most intriguingly [and sometimes most laughingly] from regular guests of the restaurant. Most of these offers simply don't appeal to me, and warrant my classic, "incredibly flattered but not interested in a change at this time" response.

More troubling are the interesting proposals that just don't carry the green--I have earned myself into a corner here making more than many upscale-chain regional managers and my annual earnings are just too high for most people to compete with. In these cases I have to let my potential suitors know that their offer really does interest me, but that before we go any further they should know that my current annual earnings are [insert dollar amount somewhere between the salaries of the Vice-President and President of the United States], much of it in cash. After a period of dead silence, there are usually some congratulatory good wishes and a quick good-bye.

Just lately however, a bear of a different color has walked into my little forest. One of our best guests is an individual who owns roughly half the land in our city in addition to being one of the finest attorneys in the country. This fellow is understandably disappointed with the quality of our fair metropolis' lodgings, and has decided to take a big chunk of his riverfront land and build a proper hotel. He has decided that within this hotel should sprout one of the finest restaurants in the city, and has further decided that I should be the general partner of this proposed utopia of fine food and drink. When I hit him with my poison pill figure he simply shrugged and said, "that's as good a starting-point as any". As an added bonus, commencement of this project is nearly a year away--I would literally have years to design an elegant exit from my current position. Talks are of course in an incredibly preliminary stage right now, but I must admit that it is refreshing to once again be thinking beyond the next inventory, next quarter, next crisis, next convention, etc.

What is that old caveat? Oh yeah, "be careful what you wish for..."