Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Disappointment is a sort of bankruptcy--the bankruptcy of a soul that expended too much in hope and expectation..."--Eric Hoffer

"The price of excellence is discipline. The cost of mediocrity is disappointment..."--William Arthur Ward

A close friend of mine has referred three employees to me over the last year. The first was a part-time bartender for me--a girl who had been an important manager in a very busy casual spot nearby for many years before burning out and going in another direction. At the time I needed one bar shift filled--my fourth Saturday night person--it is always a challenge for me to fill this position without overstaffing the rest of the week or screwing someone on their schedule. I had one night and she wanted one night--perfect. I took her over two other interested parties from neighboring properties hoping to get their feet in the door. I chose her because my friend recommended her, and because she had been a manager before [I cling to this idea that a manager--someone who has shed the same blood in the same mud as I--will be a better employee because of their past experiences. I cling to this notion, apparently, like Don Quixote clung to his imaginary lance]. The first Saturday her feet hurt and she left early, the second she was "a little under the weather" [read: hungover], the third her recently broken ankle was acting up and, "I'm willing to be a champ and come in, but I'm just telling you I'm going to be useless...". When she called on the day before her fourth Saturday to tell me she had "forgotten" about a wedding she "needed" to go to, my assistant told her that her name was off the schedule. She was actually sincerely bewildered over how I could have done such a thing. The other two original candidates for her shift no longer had Saturdays free when I went back to them and it took me three months to recover from my error.

The second guy was a lunch server for me. He has worked in the same very busy fine dining barbecue restaurant [yeah, yeah--laugh it up--they do $4 million a year] for over 8 years, but wanted to supplement his very nice evening income in order to afford a very expensive new car. I hired him on a handshake, again with respect for his resume as well as the referral from my good friend. Two weeks after starting, he hosed one of our regular lunch guests down in red wine and salad dressing. Saying nothing about the incident to anyone, he hid in the bathroom for ten minutes before coming to my office to tell me that he had never been properly trained in our system, felt the teamwork here was substandard, and couldn't deal with the "resulting stress". He "resigned" on the spot and walked out the back door. By the time we figured out what had actually happened, our guest had been marinating in one of our side rooms for nearly twenty minutes--obviously expecting that someone, anyone would be returning to help him clean up and continue his meal. It took three months before this guy, usually a four-times-a-week man, returned to the property. In addition, I personally had to finish the rest of this batshit crazy server's lunch shifts that week as a little icing on the cake of absurdity.

Third referral was another bartender, again part-time. This fellow I put through three interviews and an exhaustive vetting of previous employment. He checked out well and really seemed to want the job--after considerable pondering on my part I went ahead and put him on the schedule. After all, it couldn't happen three times in a row, right? This friend of mine is a restaurant lifer with impeccable credentials and a great eye for people--no way we have another implosion! Well, the guy in all honesty was a little slow. "Sense of urgency" was probably not carved into the ceiling above his bed--but he was friendly and he worked on nights when there was plenty of help to bail him out of the weeds. Success? Well, certainly a qualified one at the very least--until he managed to not recognize the owner of the restaurant at his bar one evening and decided to cock-block him and his date--going so far as to tell my boss when the girl went to the bathroom that he may as well pay the check and, "leave the girl behind because that ass belongs to me". My employer, not the most comedic of fellows but still an intelligent guy with a quick wit, stuck out his hand, introduced himself [for the second time in four days--the retard bartender had already met him once] and asked, "so, how long did you work for me?" The resulting two-hour meeting my employer and I had was not the highlight of my career.

This old friend of mine and I don't talk much anymore. This distance isn't my doing. I don't hold her responsible for this trio of failures--I think she is partly embarrassed at the performance of those she recommended, but more so [and most disappointing] I think she is mostly annoyed at me for not "going easy on them".

My favorite female server has been trying to get pregnant for years. She had a miscarriage about two years ago, but got pregnant again last spring. Now, when I say she is my favorite I mean this chick could rock. Smart, hard-working, down-to-earth, body-of-death. She could team, she could kick ass working alone, she was there when I needed an extra shift filled, and she understood the big picture of fine dining. She worked at a country club back east for fourteen years before moving here, and she worked with me for another ten. This young lady is my age and has only had two jobs her whole life--once you got this chick on your schedule you didn't want to let her go. The day before she took her leave I asked what her plans were, if she had given thought to whether or not she was going to return. She averred strenuously that she would be returning--that she needed to work once the baby was on a regular schedule and she was fully recovered, she said. She was going to try for full-time but might have to go to three or four shifts. She called three times after her beautiful daughter was born to give me updates and adjust the ETA for her return.

Then she left me a voicemail thanking me for my gift [a big old Gapkids gift certificate]--and also announcing that she had decided not to return to us after all. A voicemail. After ten years. After ten years, after I held her spot through the most tortuously busy winter we have ever had, after I paid for her plane ticket back home for a family funeral two years ago, after I had given her a magnum of Phelps Insignia to celebrate the birth of her first child, after ten years of consideration and what I would have been pleased to call friendship.

I don't blame the young lady one iota for deciding to stay home and be a mother to the baby that has been her heart's desire. I do not regret any of the considerations I paid her over the years. I am devastated that she would not tell me in person or at least in a live phone conversation.

For the last few months I have had a bartender problem. My bar manager is a superstar--hard-working, personable, and very popular with the guests. She reminds me alot of myself, which is probably why I date her. My problem lately has stemmed from my other two full-time bartenders--one of whom is moving away and one of whom is a drunken, self-obsessed malcontent who perceives the restaurant as his own personal ATM machine/open bar. Two weeks ago the moving-away bartender got a lead on a half-empty moving truck heading to her new home--she jumped on it, "resigning" with an effective date that left two previously scheduled shifts uncovered [apparently, douchebags LOVE to "resign"]. Four days after moving-away bartender "resigned", superstar bar manager was scheduled to fly home to see her family. I re-arranged the schedule to cover moving-away's shifts just in time for drunken malcontent to quit--on purpose--the night before superstar left for home for five days.

Now, left to themselves, neither of these losses caused any real trouble--in the long run they were actually hugely positive--both positions have already been filled by far more talented, far more valuable people. Even facing five days with no bartenders wasn't the end of the world because I have a back-up--a long-time server of mine who started as a bartender and could be counted on to fill in until superstar got back [aided by my no. 4 part-time bartender]. Or at least, that's what I thought.

It turns out that my server-cum-bartender had some friends in town. Friends. In. Town. She wasn't "available" to help me alleviate a true honest-to-God restaurant staffing emergency because she was entertaining. I was speechless, which is exceedingly rare. I suppose I could have dropped the ultimatum-the "work the bar shifts or work somewhere else" line, but I didn't. As a matter of fact, I don't believe I have ever given anyone such an ultimatum. There have certainly been times when someones refusal to be of service has doomed their employment, but it was never made into a confrontation--they simply found that sometime in the future following their refusal, their shifts disappeared. I am still debating whether or not this is one of those times.

I was speechless because the wind was knocked out of me. I literally felt sick. You see, this server-cum-bartender, in her more than six years of employment here, has received a giant laundry list of aid and favor. She has quit [with notice] twice to move away, only to find her plans scuttled both times [each time because of other peoples' shortcomings]--and even though I had replaced her both times I allowed her to return. The first time she left I actually threw her a going-away dinner with twenty guests at one of the nicest places in town. After a DWI three years ago it was my call to a friend in the police department that got her released without bail, and my referral to a top criminal attorney that got the charges reduced [it was a pretty flimsy case anyway]--she never got a bill. I could literally fill a legal pad with the shit I have done for this girl over the years, but I'm getting ill again just reading my own writing--just suffice it to say that I would feel wholly justified asking this girl to work on her wedding day if it pleased me to do so--and she SHOULD be happy to oblige.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that I'm a score-keeper as far as good deeds are concerned. A long time ago one of my teachers passed along a bit of wisdom to me that I have always taken to heart--"the best measure of a friend is how many favors are owed him when he dies", or in other words, the guy that does the most but asks the least is really the best friend. I have never and will never start a sentence with, "remember when I did [this for you]..." At the same time though, I don't think its unreasonable to expect some normal, simple consideration in extreme situations such as these.

Over the last six to nine months I have been growing more and more disappointed with many of my staff members. The arrogance and short recall of these people, many of whom thought they had wandered into Nirvana when first hired here and exposed to our money and our fair work environment, is simply disgusting to me. It has never taken more effort on my part to come here each day, see to my responsibilities, and treat everyone with equal respect--I'm starting to wonder if I have spent the last decade giving too many people too much credit and being taken for a ride by a bunch of users.

Now, everything is starting to seem negative. One of my assistants, with us about a year, has a shot at the move of a lifetime. I should be delighted for her, but all I can think of is how much money we spent training her, how much time I spent teaching her, and how difficult it will be to make the replacement. Even though I know it isn't true, I even wonder if she knew all along that she would only be here a year.

Servers ask for new aprons and I demand they bring me the old ones that they say are stained or torn. A server comes to me nearly in tears because he forgot to ask for Passover off and the schedule is already written [a huge no-no here], and all I can think of is, "what do you really want the weekend off for?" I get a void for a side of broccoli at the end of the night and I launch a thirty minute investigation to make sure it was really never served.

I am turning into that guy. I am turning into that guy, and God damn it the fault lies elsewhere--I am hard but I am fair and I run through rings of fire to do the right things and help people whenever I can and I have nothing to show for it but scars.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

"they have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly, but bear-like I must fight the course..." Macbeth, William Shakespeare

In the big pile of mostly finished, un-posted entries I alluded to awhile back there is one I cannot decide how to put a finish to. It is about me, not surprisingly, and about how I am starting to wonder why. About everything.

I'm comfortable in the fact that my existence is mostly a solitary one--even more than comfortable I am relieved in that fact. However, once the life-long obligation of family is removed from an individual, where then should focus be placed. In my case that focus is obviously professional, but now I wonder more and more about the "whys" of my work as well. Maybe it is the unusually busy winter we have had, clearly about to be followed by a very busy spring judging from heavy advance reservations--but I think it is more.

Nearly 25 years in this punishing, grueling industry. Well over a decade at this single restaurant as hard-working viceroy to a mostly absent king. This place is stale to me, its rigors seemingly more onerous as each day passes. Its successes commonplace, its failures annoying.

I could never work elsewhere though--I have had near total control of my domain for so long the only feasible answer to staying in this industry would be my own restaurant. Huge money offers from corporate steakhouse chains come to me monthly, as well as less lucrative offers from independents that include, in some cases, world-renowned reputation and prestige. Been there. Done that.

The problems in having my own place are myriad, but center around two central pitfalls. First, I don't cook--meaning the success or failure of any endeavor would be tied to a cooking partner [a famously dicey basket for someone like me to put all his chickens into]. Secondly, it would still be the restaurant business--and I fear I have fallen out of love. Rents ever higher, supplies ever more expensive, guests ever more demanding and unreasonable, government on all levels ever more invasive and hampering. A wine bar? A bar bar? Cooking school [fucking hilarious]?

I'm a successful landlord, a successful gambler, and a success at using my money to make more money--but none of this sparks the adoration in me that restaurants once did.

I feel like a salmon swimming upstream. For so long the constant fight of the journey has been a challenge handled successfully--I have made amazing progress, kept my color, and maintained my body weight so to speak. The drag of the current and the influence of all the weaker fish whispering to "just quit", to stop trying so hard--has never up until now had an effect. What is finally draining the vivacity from me, finally sapping my strength and my will to press on, is the fact that NOTHING ever gets easier. I have fewer competent employees, fewer valued guests, more regulations, more competition, higher prices, higher costs, fewer allies, and more weak sisters needing to be fed by hand seemingly every day.

I am literally sustained by stubbornness and intransigence alone. Recently when Bobby Knight, the incredibly successful, incredibly prickly, and incredibly controversial college basketball coach retired in mid-season, ESPN aired a series of shows in retrospect of his life and career. Through the myriad of anecdotes, stories, and cautionary tales told during those programs a crystal clear portrait of the man emerged. He was a soul who forged an iron-clad creed of right and wrong based on traditional values and never wavered. He knew right, he knew wrong, and that was all he needed to know. AJ Foyt summed it up in a handful of words--"there is no gray in Bobby--there is black, white, and get the fuck [bleeped of course] out out of here, but no gray". He graduated more of his players than almost any other college coach at his level and he improved every program he came on contact with--most he improved exponentially. If someone needs an ass-whipping, he administers it no matter what popular public sensitivity has to say about it. If you deserve a hug and a kiss, you get one--if you deserve a slap in the face, you get one. Who says you deserve those things, who decides? Why, he does, of course--without excuses, without qualifications, without any ifs, ands, or buts. He has many regrets, and most of them regard personal exchanges. He regrets dressing down Jeremy Schaap on national television before walking out of the interview, telling him that he didn't measure up to his recently deceased father the great Dick Schaap [a long-time friend of Knight's]. He regrets throwing that chair, he regrets not keeping his mouth shut probably a thousand times.

I was sitting at our bar with one of my assistants after work one night watching one of these shows, and after about twenty minutes the guy looked at me and said, "you know, if they changed out the people and said "restaurant" instead of "basketball" and "team", they could be talking about you. At first I was a little pissed, but after about five minutes I realized he was right--and it also immediately made me remember an exchange from about two years before. During a staff meeting, an old assistant of mine [who was a dipshit] once compared me to Larry Bowa, the hot-head baseball manager, while trying to make the point that I needed to be more serene and less reactive. My employer's immediate reaction, both as a grateful boss and an absolute sports fanatic was an immediate, "No way! Bowa never won a world series as a manager--this man here you are talking about is a fucking restaurant world champion seven times over--he's Michael Jordan with hair". Now, I'm no Michael Jordan, restaurant or otherwise, but ever since that staff meeting and until that night at the bar a few months ago watching ESPN, I didn't have anyone else to compare myself to. I still don't know if I like it or not, but the parallels are undeniable.

The "Bobby Knight" manager is still with me, the "Larry Bowa" manager is long gone--some players get a hug, some players get a smack in the head...

Maybe its getting time for me to call my press conference.