Sunday, February 03, 2008

"do not despair of life. You have force enough to overcome your obstacles..."--Thoreau

When I was ten or eleven years old I did a mightily foolish thing. With money in my pocket and fearsome parents, I stole a pack of trading cards from a convenience store--even worse, they were "Battlestar Galactica" trading cards. I got caught. I wasn't three feet out the door of that store before I heard a fearsome adult's voice summoning me back. I can remember that feeling--that hot, sinking, dark feeling--to this very day, this very moment. I don't remember much else about the experience other than the fake fingerprinting the [obviously amused] clerk put me through and the disgusted look on my father's face, but I remember that feeling. That feeling told me that I was first helpless, and second guilty.

That feeling is now revisiting my adulthood, popping up more and more often.

In a restaurant, from a management point of view, there are bascally three types of employees [surprisingly enough, the breakdown is very similar to former GE CEO Jack Welch's famous human resources theorem].

There are the hopeless-- roughly ten percent of the schedule that are unable and/or unwilling to properly execute the tasks they are charged with. These people are always awaiting termination, their continued employment fully reliant on a shortage of proper employees. Often in this group are one's biggest disappointments [like Miniskirt Elvis] as well as the restaurant's biggest potential problems--walking time-bombs of incompetence.

There are the soldiers--seventy percent of your staff that know their jobs and take care of their responsibilities effectively--for the most part. Many have a touch of laziness, self-importance, or wanderlust that keep them from the summit, but mostly they show up for work on time, follow policy and direction, and almost never melt down or abjectly fail. They can rarely work that extra shift, will usually call out with the sniffles or an achy ankle, and do a little more than their fair share of bitching, but they value their jobs and actually recognize that working in a particular place actually has positive benefits.

There are the angels--this ten percent of the staff are worth their weight in gold. They do their jobs and pick up the extra slack. They know when to talk and when to act. The have skill, knowledge, and self-confidence. Most importantly and most rare, they are able to see not just from their own point of view but with the eyes of others as well--they are the few who actually feel your pain.

Restaurants are portals for the unexpected, they attract emergency like rotting meat attracts flies. Nothing is ever guaranteed when there is a commercial kitchen and dining room involved, but once you have a certain amount of experience and a certain level of tenure in a particular spot, you can play the percentages and at least strive for some level of comfort and "expectability".

For me, January has had almost none of that. We have been very, very busy when usually winter slows things down. I would like to revel in the higher revenues and positive portents that go along with so many new people fighting their way to dine with us, but instead I have been racked by challenge after challenge. New restaurants, almost assuredly doomed to falure from poor concepts and execution, have actively recruited members of my staff--their success has been marginal from a standpoint of quality, but the "hopeless" bodies they have lured away were at least plugs for my leaking schedule. Qualified apllicants have dried up, business continues to build, and individual events, unimportant in and of themsleves, are converging to create a perfect storm of pain and, yes, despair.

One of my angels is pregnant, and can work less and less as I need her more and more. Another angel lives in a badly built house that is not doing well with the winter weather, and her distraction is starting to become evident on the floor. I can't get the cooks to show up for lunch, and when they do they tend to cut their own fingers [nearly] off. I can't get the servers to show up for lunch either, meaning my afternoon office time is now afternoon iced tea and patty melt time--no daytime office means that when I finally lock the doors near [or after] midnight, my normal three hours of waiting work is actually six. This month's bright spot should have been finally removing an incompent assistant in favor of a proven, viable replacement--said replacement immediately fulfilled all my long-frustrated hopes for the position--before needing a week off for a very reasonable and incredibly inconvenient reason. The week he has been away has been, not surprisingly, the busiest in nearly six months. With my rusty ass working the front door wine service has fallen to a new, emerging angel who did not disappoint--she did however fall in the kitchen and can now barely walk, leaving me door and wine on a chilly Thursday evening when nearly 200 people inexplicably decided to come to dinner.

Blood on the asphalt.

Meanwhile, my "hopeless" are worse than ever, but have more job security than at any point in the last few years.

My "soldiers" have been doing their best--except for the one annoying fellow who suddenly came down with a mysterious, "contagious" ear infection [or secret vacation] and can't work for ten days. He's the same fellow whose estranged wife faxes depressing, hand-written melodrama into my office at least once a day, but he shouldn't be confused with either the soldier who just decided to go back to school and down to four shifts, or with the other one that "forgot" to request the five days off she "had to have" for a wedding.

Eight servers this Friday night. Eight. Ocho. Count 'em on two hands. More blood.

On the bright side, I did have twelve servers last night. I also had a new bartender who trained and tested very well before completely collapsing under pressure, taking my whole restaurant with him.

Ah, that feeling...when I see half the bar guests frantically waving at me...when I open my e-mail to the "about our dinner" message...when the wine tickets are hanging halfway to the floor on the printer...when we inexplicably run out of napkins AND hand towels in the MIDDLE of the shift...when I see my wonderful new protege prone on the kitchen floor...when I stare gape-jawed at the busboy first carrying and then [not surprisingly] dropping the full food tray he had been convinced to take out into the dining room by a moron I can't fire because I need the warm body...when I can no longer hide my own despair.

All this crap will pass, and I can roll with it. The vast majority of our guests are leaving delighted, our traffic and sales are breaking records, and all my missing sheep will be back to the flock by tomorrow.

But the feeling still remains. I subsist on the fleeting, superficial, pseudo-personal exchanges I have with our legions of guests because I am not fully-formed personally. I do not crave human interaction, company, friendship, or any of those other things like most people do. As a result, many of the nuances that are apparent between people that spend alot of time together are lost to me. I can very easily and without rancor pass twenty people I work with every day without exchanging a single pleasantry and not think twice about it, bewildered employees left in my wake wondering why I'm such a dick. I work. I am a machine. It is why I am as successful as I am. I wish I was more rounded, I wish I was more collegial, and I regret much of the misunderstood pain I cause. However, I just don't have the awareness, and in all honestly I just don't have the time.

Over the last few weeks, this long-forgotten bad feeling has popped up numerous times when I found myself in the shit. When the crisis passes, so does the feeling. Underlying those spikes though is a more persistent unease, as I worry about losing a few on my staff, "angels" all, who seem fixated on the negative and are obviously connecting me personally with mostly imagined problems. If my "angels" become hopeless, I'm just plain fucked.

Whenever I can, I try to do nice things. I dragged everyone in early a few years ago for a pumpkin carving contest, complete with mounds and mounds of garbage food ranging from wings to fajitas to burthday cake and everything in between. I sent two of my angels to the National Championship game a few years ago--they both left me for a new restaurant about three months afterward. Phoned-in family meals, open bar at the end of particularly challenging evenings. I often show up at staff watering holes where I am otherwise not welcome to pick up tabs. No matter how much I may want to gouge out some imbecile's eyes at the end of he evening, everyone gets a "good night, good job" from me. I have done more extra work for people so that they could leave to do something important to them than anyone could ever imagine.

I give almost everyone credit for their flaws--I don't ask perfection from anyone. I just wish I could get a little credit for mine.