Sunday, November 16, 2008

"You may dispense with the pleasantries commander, I'm here to put you back on schedule..."--Darth Vader

"I find your lack of faith disturbing..."--Darth Vader

"'s treason then..."--Emperor Palpatine

Every once in a while a guest of the restaurant, a friend, or a co-worker is amazed by some little tidbit of inside information that I possess. In response to their surprise, I usually tell them, "I hear everything...I'm like J. Edgar Hoover without the dress or the long-time male companion".

Recently, at a birthday party attended by some current and many past employees of mine, my name apparently surfaced and a debate commenced. Now, I would like to tell you that this debate was a pro/con affair with at least half the attendees defending me and a small group of vile malcontents unfairly impugning my honor.

The debate, in reality, was about whether I was more like Darth Vader or more like Emperor Palpatine.


Now, I have watched all the Star Wars movies and enjoyed them--all of them. I watch movies as entertainment. Because of this fact I rarely watch anything weighty or anything supposedly "socially conscious". By the same token, if a movie, any movie, takes my mind off of the wood chipper that is my every-day life, then its a good movie, period. Don't comment about JarJar Binks or how horrible Episode 2 was, or how Jimmy Smits wasn't right for the part or any of that supercilious bullshit...they are six entertaining movies that made billions of dollars.

But, I digress. I have watched the movies, and I believe I have a decent understanding of the two specific characters to whom I was being compared. The part of me that relishes my notoriety in the local restaurant community thinks I win either way, but that the more accurate comparison would be to the emperor--after all, throughout my entire career I have left those around me wondering, "how did he know that", "how did he figure that out?", and "how is he ALWAYS one step ahead of us/me?" Plans within plans baby, that has been my stock in trade.

The other part of me though--the part of me that hates going to work and is sometimes nearly reduced to tears by the constant barrage of betrayals, both large and small, that I am faced with on a regular basis--that part of me was troubled enough by the debate to ruminate over it for quite a while.

Darth Vader? Really? A character whose enduring persona established in the first three movies is that of an absolutely relentless villain with nary a shred of good or compassion within him--an individual who is only granted the tiniest bit of humanity as he lay dying, and even that humanity framed by hideous physical deformity.?

Emperor Palpatine? The very embodiment of evil, a power-hungry schemer willing to stop at nothing short of total galactic domination--heartless, soulless malice personified?

So I was troubled, and in this current climate when there is so much troubling going on in general I had a hard time shaking the feeling. Then, one night after work I went for a drink or four. Slipping into a favorite bar of mine I approached the bar just as the bartender, a guy I know well, was turning away from his view of the door to ring a check. Not thinking much of it, I walked up to the bar and sat down right in front of the screen he was using with his back to me [a place many in-the-biz people will often sit because it makes it easier to talk to their working friends while they ring and close checks]. When he turned around from closing checks he let out a screech in the lightly populated bar and nearly fell over.

"What the fuck is wrong with--", I started to say before I realized what had happened. My friend had surveyed one entirely empty side of his bar and a closed front door before turning to do some paperwork. As he turned I opened the door quietly [I'm naturally stealthy], walked quickly to the bar [I'm naturally quick], and sat down right behind him. When he turned around, it looked as though I had appeared out of thin air.

Just as I started to laugh at his startled reaction, he said it--"What are you, some sort of a fucking Jedi Knight or something?? Jesus Christ you almost fucking scared me to death!"

And I thought to myself, "Yes. That's exactly what I am. I am a fucking Jedi Knight. Maybe I'm the last one, but that's exactly what I am."

I have attained my position through years of rigorous, exhaustive training. My mentors and teachers were stern, unforgiving, and demanding. I adhere to a code of ethics and conduct that most people consider outdated and anachronistic. I am treated with suspicion and concern by the guilty but sought out by the troubled. No one wants to see me when they are fucking around but everyone wants to see me when they are in trouble. I seemingly appear out of nowhere, and both my actions and judgements are swift.

As a teacher I am stern, unforgiving, and demanding. Many of those who attempt to learn from me do not succeed and are cast away. Those who understood the lessons I was teaching and applied themselves to the tests have gone forth to populate many of the best restaurants in this city, state, and beyond.

I am humble in regard to my successes and aggrieved at my failures--my labors are executed for the sake of themselves nearly as much if not more than for any personally profitable result.

I feel a great dark tide rising and can neither see its specific source nor propose any specific solution--I can only continue working to maintain the sanctity of own little domain.

There is a good chance that I may soon be the last of my kind, and that I will then move to the middle of a great desert to finish my days.

"Try not. Do...or do not. There is no try..."--Master Yoda

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"To lash the vices of a guilty age..."--Charles Churchill

"undeserved merit is satire..."--Samuel Sullivan Cox

So we have this third restaurant that closed about six months ago--originally a casual place, a small group of loyal and vocal local guests pushed the place in a more formal, more expensive direction until finally those people were almost the only ones that wanted to eat there, and it went out of business. It still made a little money, but my boss didn't think the profit was worth the effort and didn't want to wait for the place's heyday to come around again. My employer has vacillated over the last few months about whether or not to re-open the place in some form--he shares my concerns about the sad changes taking place in both the general workforce and general guest base, and has been thinking that maybe now would be a good time to cash out and sail away on a giant barge made of cash.

After much thought, he decided to float one more concept--a classic neighborhood place that would this time be immune to outside criticism and pressure, a place that would either succeed or fail on its own merits. The help I have been giving him over the last couple of months is the main source of my silence--during the busiest time of my year my workload has nearly doubled.

So we are concepted, designed, and ready to roll--now it is time to bring on the staff. Completely opposed to the idea of having anything to do with the operation of this property myself, it has fallen to me to hire the staff, managers, and chef.

Everything was cruising along very nicely with the exception of choosing a chief administrator for this property--although there were many people who applied and interviewed for the job, no one caught my eye. There were a few energetic young guys and one nearly captivating girl, but they just didn't have the experience--they were also all new to the area and so lacked the necessary contact base. Most of the others were old mules--guys and girls that had been worn down and blunted by the industry in general and institutional restaurants in particular. Most of you know the type--no new ideas, no free thinking--just rhetoric and cliches all the way.

This uninspiring pool of prospective managers was kind of to be expected, with one exception. There was incredible pressure on me to interview one particular guy--or to be more specific, to hire one particular guy. Now, in my long career I have been leaned on scores of times to make a hire--somebody's kid would make a great busboy while someone else's girlfriend would be a fantastic bartender and yet another guy's mistress is supposed to be my next superstar hostess. These people can usually be put off, placated or lied to until the issue goes away, though rarely I have had to grind through a sham interview only to later act heartbroken when the job "just doesn't open up" for some reason.

In this case, the pressure was coming from numerous odd sources, and was relentless. Purveyors we don't use, liquor and wine companies with no placements in our restaurants, a terrible exterminator, a restaurant cleaning company famous for liquor disappearing overnight from their clients, four of the seemingly endless number of "chambers of commerce" in our area, a trucking company with no discernible connection to the restaurant industry, and the head of a placement company I had never heard of. All these people seemed at least slightly distasteful for one reason or another, but they were all so jazzed up over this guy that I thought they had to be sincere.

Now normally, I would dismiss this bizarre campaign out of hand, but because of the dearth of other viable options I decided to interview the guy--I mean what the hell...

When the guy showed up I was impressed--good looking young guy, clean-shaven and wearing a suit. He had a nice smile for me and a solid handshake and he looked me right in the eye.

As we sat down in the shining dining room with its trademark details that identify it as being one of my employer's places, I began the interview:

me: What do you think of the place?

him: One day, this will be a great place...far greater than the sick, sad shell we see here today.

me: Ohhh Kay...well, I suppose any empty restaurant seems a little sad, and we are certainly looking for a higher level of success with our new concept, but the last restaurant that was here did pretty well for a long, long time.

him: I see a new entity rising out of this fetid wreckage--a new know, restaurant-wise.

me: yeah...let's see...let's get through the basics first. Your resume doesn't seem to describe much of your experience. There's lots of "organizing" and "observing" listed, but I can't seem to find many details. What are you doing now?

him: I am currently in an advisory position with the state restaurant association.

me: No kidding. That's interesting. The restaurant association has always puzzled me--they are supposed to help us be a stronger industry, but they seem to spend most of the time inventing new license fees and industry fees for us to pay and all they ever seem to do with the money is raise their own salaries. Were you offered that job while you were still working in restaurants, or did you leave the industry and come back to the association later?

him: Yes!!

me: Yes what? Yes the SRA hired you when you were still a restaurant manager, or yes you decided to take the SRA job after leaving our industry for a while?

him: The past isn't important, the future is important! This isn't a job that requires experience, this is a job that requires vision...VISION...and that's what I have.

me: Well, actually it does require experience, and an understanding of our concept front to back--we are going to be pricing low to appeal to everyone in the dining community here, we want to attract a huge number of people and we want to give all those people great value for their investment so that they stay happy and come back over and over. We want to appeal to everyone, and motivate them to return. We want a small, focused, well managed staff that works hard and gets the rewards of their labor--and for all of this to happen we need a leader in here who has experience and an understanding of what has historically made an American restaurant successful.

him: No, sir...what you need is CHANGE. What you described is the past, and the past has failed...FAILED...all that so-called experience you prize has failed everywhere, every time. See, people don't know what they want, they need someone to TELL THEM WHAT THEY WANT. If that person is charismatic enough and good looking enough and can speak really well provided he has time to rehearse and no one asks him any mean questions--that person can then take almost everything from the people who are in this restaurant and they won't know any better. Like, see here, this menu item you have---$12 for a hamburger with a choice of either french fries or onion rings and a choice of three cheeses, THREE cheeses. One burger, one side, no cheese, $32.00--that's what the dining public needs--they just don't know it yet till I make them believe it

me: Are you serious? These people know their own minds and they know value--they aren't going to let someone blow smoke up their ass just 'cuz he has a nice smile and a pleasant voice. Most people can't afford a $32 burger and they aren't going to come here, and the ones that can afford it will go somewhere else because there's no choice, no value.

him: No, no, can't see the beauty of it. You don't tell them its a $32 burger, you tell them its a burger deal, a burger party, a burger give-away, tell them whatever you want--once they're here and they have the burger, you get to work on the check--there will be a health care surcharge because all the staff has to have full health care, a carbon user surcharge because they drove to the restaurant in one of those terrible cars, a landfill surcharge because of the toilet paper and napkins, and a hunger-abatement co-pay because if they are selfish enough to be eating out in a world like this they should have to think about and pay for those who are less fortunate than themselves and can't afford to go to restaurants. See, once you sucker them in, you've got them. The higher the prices, the better--the rich ones have plenty of money, and they should have to pay more than everyone else--and the poorer ones will eventually get jobs here because they'll need the extra money to keep eating here...the more people we hire the bigger we can make our surcharges to support them and their healthcare and their housing and their children--oh, wait, no they shouldn't have children--well, you get the picture. This is how American restaurants should really work--not these old, antiquated ideas of hard work and good ideas and profit--it is time that the rest of us get to make the rules--after all, why should I and those poor souls like me continue to toil and struggle and sweat...

me: Your sweat, good point--let's talk about your sweat. What was your income last year at the SRA?

him: $4.5 million, and a house that some guy gave me...

me: You must have sweat quite a bit to make that much money, what were your responsibilities?

him: well, there were meetings...quite a few actually..and you know, votes on...stuff. You'll have to forgive me, in the six months I was working there I spent most of the time looking for a manager's job.

me: No problem, that sounds like something that happens to everybody[the candidate doesn't notice my exaggerated eye-roll]. What other management jobs have you had?

him: I have had a number of advisory positions, some theoretical executive fellowships, a number of attempts to design Utopian restaurant models...

me: Describe, however briefly, one thing that you have actually any a real-world, real market setting. Please!!

him: I have spent my life working for change...CHANGE...

me: Well, that isn't an answer to my question, but okay. Describe then, however briefly, one thing that you have actually changed. Please!!

him: I can see you're skeptical, but maybe instead of tearing me down you should allow me to lift you up...hire me and I will lift you up.

me: How will you lift me up--by charging me $32 for a suck-ass hamburger in a restaurant that you will be running in a revolutionary and enlightening manner even though you have never, ever run anything before...ever?

him: Well, when you put it that way...HEY!!...did I mention I have a great partner with all sorts of that practical restaurant hospitality running stuff you seem so hung up on? Did I mention it? Because I do, I have a great partner and he has all sorts of that experience stuff you keep trying to make me look bad by pointing out I don't have.

me: Great, get him in here and let's meet him

him: Yeah, well there's just one thing with that...he's not too good with talking to people and not infuriating them.

me: So, let me get this straight after everything else. You have this "great" partner who is supposed to have all the experience you lack and really understand the hospitality and public relations that are so important to what we want to do here, but he makes people angry when he talks?

him: Yeah, he enrages people--he's really very boorish and offensive--but he has a wonderful resume--look I have a copy right here, you can't help but read it and fall in love with him. He's so eloquent, every one of his words is poetry on paper--please just read it, OK? Huh?

So, seeing as I couldn't imagine the interview getting any worse or any stranger and I just wanted it to end, I took the resume and began to read the lengthy cover letter...and sure enough the words were eloquent, the turns of phrase artistic, and the syntax flawless--it was one of the finest cover letters I had ever read, and it didn't differ so much as a single word from when I had first read it fifteen years earlier in the Merriam's Resume Handbook.

me: Your partner's a plagiarist...this is the copied example of an executive cover letter printed in the world's most famous resume how-to guide. Your partner is a liar and a cheat stealing someone else's words and attempting to take credit for them as his own. Plagiarism is a vile, despicable act and if your "great" partner were here in front of me I would slap him across the face, so affronted would I be by his mere, offensive presence. I could never consider a plagiarist for any position of responsibility.

So, after a little more self-aggrandizing bombast from my prospective manager/savior, I sent him on his way along with his disgraced partner's manufactured resume and it was back to the drawing board...because after all I certainly couldn't hire two clowns like that, right? Right? I mean, no one would be foolish enough to make such a vital decision based on someone's smile, or the beauty of their children, or on the endless stream of feckless, nonsensical platitudes spewing from that person's piehole, right?

Yeah, that could never happen...