RESTAURANT INDUSTRY: CIVILIZATION DECLINING THROUGH FINE DINING
“Somewhere along the line the ‘gratuity’ or gift became the ‘tip’. Eventually the ‘tips’ and ‘gratuities’ became taxable income and ‘service charges’. And finally the ‘service charges’ became the employer’s and the ‘income’ became the IRS’s. Pretty slick, huh?”
THE RESTAURANT INDUSTRY AS A CULTURAL AND ECONOMIC INDICATOR
By EJ WickesBefore The Olive Garden, Sizzler Steak House and McDonald’s hit civilization, dining out was a much different experience. It wasn’t until fast food chains and other corporate franchises started changing the course of food production that we started to see drastic changes in the restaurant industry. But for a long time it was well understood that if you wanted to go out to dinner wearing a ball cap, cargo shorts and get your food cheap and fast without tipping, then the Colonel’s was the place to go. Not a restaurant.
Tipping and wages are big concerns these days. Especially for servers. The restaurant business is a reflection of what was once great about the U.S. economy and the work ethic of days gone by. It can be a fairly reliable economic indicator, as people spend a high percentage of their food budget dining out. In previous times it was a good character builder and allowed the individual to take ownership of their own success or failure. With some enterprising spirit, they could build communication and people skills; learn good work ethics and how to think on their feet.
In those days the server was more of a subcontractor rather than a subservient and the law protected their income. Some stylists might be able to relate to that as they’re often employed with the same understanding. No one had the authority to dictate how the server dispensed of his or her tips, because it used to be against the law to do so. The servers are paid a different wage in every state. Rarely are they paid minimum wage or even close. The rest of their income is derived from tips, or “gratuities”. A gratuity is considered a gift, and gifts are non-taxable according to the IRS.
In an article by Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP he explains the differences according to IRS Code and also presents compelling questions challenging the interpretations of that code. If a gratuity is a gift and gifts are not taxed, then why is the gratuity or tip taxed? The interpretation becomes very selective and counter-intuitive to articulation.
Civilization once had numerous occupations and still does, where tipping is expected as a supplement to the low wage offered to tipped employees; coat checks, hair stylists, cab drivers, shoe shine boys, paper boys, etc. There was an unwritten agreement that if you were industrious enough and had developed the proper skill sets you could determine your own success to some degree and earn a decent living. There was a certain amount of pride and self-esteem to that and young people just starting out could develop some integrity and learn what was once a respectable trade. The term “paying your dues” might apply to this scenario.
Reds was the nickname for the fiery red headed Irishman who managed Compton’s Log Cabin in Westmont, NJ. It was one of my first jobs in the business and I was about 16 at the time. Now Reds was a real bastard. He was tough and didn’t take anything from any one. He ruled with an iron fist. But he had a sense of humor. One day Reds holds up a penny and says, “Hey Eric, I’ll bet that you can hide this penny anywhere in the walk-in box and I’ll find it.”
Well, I was up to the challenge so I took that penny and disappeared into the walk-in box. At Compton’s they were famous for their Clams Casino and we had racks of sheet trays with prepped clams on the half-shell. Literally hundreds of clams. So, I slid the penny under one of the clams and forgot about it.
Later that evening as I’m walking into the kitchen Reds is standing there holding up the penny with a wise-ass grin on his face. “Ya’ see ya’ smart-ass? I found the penny! ” Actually a customer did and they were pissed; almost choked, but they couldn’t touch me ‘cause it was all on Reds. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he knew exactly where I was going to hide it. As long as he’s been there, the smart-ass most likely pulled that trick on every rookie who ever worked there. Never try that at home, or under any circumstances.
There was a time when the majority of people wouldn’t consider quibbling about a tip. A time when everyone was working and the middle class had decent paying jobs with enough disposable income left over to spend back into the economy. What came around went around and working class people understood this. The server was a respected trades-person, like any other skilled laborer. Because good waiters and waitresses know their business and earn their tips. And if the floor is staffed properly, everyone makes out.
Generally a person would start young in a restaurant and work their way up from dishwasher, kitchen help or busboy. They would learn what’s up on their way up and become a kick-ass waiter, waitress or cook and maybe move on to being a chef, owner or both. Today they hire floor people with very little experience in any aspect of the restaurant business, and barely touch upon questions pertinent to food service with perspective food servers, whatsoever during an interview, as has been my experience.
Where I see myself in five years will never be in the restaurant business anymore, unless I need a job, so don’t waste either of our time by asking me an irrelevant question like that. Instead, ask me what a Beurre Blanc is, or what spice I’d add to a Hollandaise sauce to make a Béarnaise. Or how I would present and serve a bottle of wine. Things of that nature.
“Staff the floor properly”. By the 90s good bussers were playing less of a crucial role. Most restaurants would rather let the servers clear their own dirty dishes to save a buck. Some even include dish washing as part of their job description now. Since the busser and dishwasher would have to be paid full minimum wage, it’s more cost effective to let the server do both jobs for half the pay. That way you the customer, get to enjoy the residual slime inevitably delivered promptly with your meal off of the dirty dishes from Table 7.
When your server is swamped, they won’t be wasting time washing their hands after every dirty dish they touch or doggy bag they wrap. Servers need to run food and take orders, not waste precious time washing their hands every three minutes. Hence the justification and necessity of the busser. As in “bus” the table, removing the dirty dishes after each course served. That’s why the bussers are supposed to be the first ones on the floor to set the tables and the last to go home after they clear the tables, not the opposite. A principle rarely understood by most restaurateurs today.
One of the most demeaning restaurants I’ve ever worked for was Marrakesh, in San Diego. It was a Moroccan style place and it was fun to dine there, but not so fun to work there. The staff had to wear those baggy knickers, pointy shoes, a baggy shirt and a fez. If you were a white guy, it might take some time to become a waiter there, because most of the people were of course Arab and they had first dibs on table service. After all, you’d expect Chinese people to wait on you in a Chinese restaurant, wouldn’t you? And a white guy played the first Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) and John Wayne played Genghis Khan, go figure.
Some of the guys were very cool. Khalid the chef rocked. His dishes were magnificent. But one thing that would piss him off was when the customers would send back the B’stilla. B’stilla is classic Moroccan fare, and a savory dish with a hint of sweetness, wrapped in a delicate puffed pastry, stuffed with shredded chicken and almonds and lightly dusted with powdered sugar, but the chicken is supposed to be boneless.
Of course you would have someone who would find a tiny bone and send it back. Look, if I’m eating fish, I chew it carefully so I don’t swallow any of the thousand or so bones a fish has that they may have missed during the filleting process. The same with shredded chicken. Anyway, when it would come back with a bone issue, he’d get all pissed and yell, “Of course there’s a bone! Chickens come with bones! What do they expect??!” Le Cordon Bleu graduate.
As I said some of the guys were really nice and I made a couple good friends there. Amid and Bashir were cool guys. Other guys weren’t. Like Faruq. He was the head waiter. He would dog those guys and treat them like slaves. Sometimes he would forget which country he was in and get physical. One day he had a beef with me and as he approached he was raising his arm preparing to give me a backhand across the face. “Whoa!” I said. “If you even get that arm any closer to me I will rip it off and shove it up your ass.” He was shocked that I had the audacity to stand my ground. I told him that this is America and that we don’t treat our working compadres or subordinates like that under any circumstances and if he persisted with this behavior it would not go well for him. He stayed away from me for a while and actually loosened up a bit.
No one had established that dynamic with any of these guys until I did. He’d still be running around smacking people to this day if someone hadn’t laid down the law. The owner who was from Camden, N.J. sure didn’t. You see it’s okay to hire foreigners and treat them like shit, because they’re usually scared or desperate for work. So you use the Nazi approach and put the biggest asshole from their own ranks in charge and look the other way when it gets ugly.
By 1984 the corporate takeover of most industries was well on its way and the IRS started hitting servers hard. They were being delegated more work with less pay. As the middle and working class were being decimated by “Free Trade” and NAFTA, less disposable income was floating around. The golden age of dining was going extinct. Popping up all over were new fast food inventions and “casual” dinner houses.
If you want good, fast and cheap, it’s in every mall district from here to Timbuctoo. Except as anyone should know, if it’s fast and cheap, it’s not going to be very good. But corporate America has made not bad the new good and it sells with million dollar ad campaigns that no family owned dinner house could possibly afford. And now most of them are extinct.
Generally there are two kinds of restaurant people; those who pursue their callings in the business as a career choice because they love the business and those who don’t. The ones who don’t are usually paying for an education, pursuing the arts or both. They could be a single parent or a number of other things. The reason artists and students take restaurant jobs are because they can work fewer hours and make a decent living and single parents can spend more time with their kids – on the way to their other job.
“We love the customers who never leave. They sit and sit long after the kitchen has closed, trying to ‘close the deal’ with their date. Get a room, I got homework to do!”
Fewer hours on the job leaves more hours to work the other job; the one they don’t get paid for; the work they dedicate to their artistic callings or the time needed for their studies. When you’re done work for the day, you might go out to dinner and then go home to watch TV. When your server is done work, most likely after that job, they’ll be leaving to work their other job, or back to their homework and reading requirements until 3 or 4 am.
Tipping has really changed. Since people are struggling more, and the corporations know this; a new paradigm has emerged. Good, fast and cheap. As the economy plummets we have fewer dollars to spend on frivolous enjoyments like dining out, and when we do, we want it good, fast and cheap. And we get it. But there’s a down side to that and usually it’s the restaurant server who feels it the most.
“Painting With Bouillabaisse”
I had just relocated to L.A. on a wing and a prayer and one of my first gigs was at a place called Café de la Paix in Reseda, CA. The owner was a real obstinate Lebanese guy and his chef would derive great joy in berating the servers. From what I understood you didn’t have much of a life expectancy there due to the incredible stress they put on you.
I was fresh meat. One thing that I don’t do well with is someone breathing down my neck when I’m working. I also don’t do very well with wise-ass chefs. So, needless to say I had already gotten off on the wrong foot with him. L.A. was a culture shock. The work ethic and attitude was a whole new paradigm for me. I seriously could not grasp the principles of “be mellow” and float around thinking about rainbows and unicorns when I had food to run and people to serve. I was working on a table, with the owner breathing down my neck and harping on me every friggin’ step of the way. By this time I was so worked up and nervous, I couldn’t have ladled out soup at a homeless shelter without screwing it up.
My order was coming. The Bouillabaisse. So there’s the owner, setting up my tray for me. The chef is ranting something like, “It sure ain’t like workin’ at McDonald’s ain’t it!?” while the owner’s simultaneously harping on me to get the food out. The big oval tray is used for big orders. Not little ones. And swinging French louvered saloon doors on standard residential sized doorways are for closets, not restaurant kitchens.
He grasps the tray by each end with both hands off the pick -up line, after he places the crock of Bouillabaisse all the way to the far end of the tray. As I’m approaching he’s yelling at me to take the tray and as I start to raise my arm for the hand-off, coming in under the far end of the tray to compensate for balance, he plops it down hard before I can get my hand under the right balance point and lets go. He’s chasing me out of the kitchen yelling at me in Lebanese and I can’t understand a damn word he’s saying; as I’m contorting my way through the “tiger trap” doors to get to the dining room, I can feel the Bouillabaisse start to slide. At that moment everything goes Sam Peckinpah and into slow motion.
The hash-slinger enters the dining room through the decorative saloon doors. Almost like a gunslinger making his move, crouching; only I was crouching to keep the big bowel of steaming hot red stew from flying off the tray. As I’m swinging my arm around hoping that the inertia from my force of motion would right the balance, it only increased the force of trajectory. At this point the tray was now perpendicular to the floor and the Bouillabaisse was in flight. I looked up and I was only a few feet from, and facing the velour fabric covered wall. Didn’t really notice the two-top at ground zero. Uh, oh. The Bouillabaisse smashed into the wall and fish, shrimp, clam shells and all the saffron broth’s (and saffron’s not cheap) reddish-yellow stain cascaded down the wall. I still don’t know what the guy sitting under the impact zone was yelling, but it got louder.
“Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. The specialite de la maison tonight is Bouillabaisse, served ‘open face’ in your face!” It’s always nice making that good first impression.
By the 80s we were seeing “service charges”. This was originally conceived as a protection to insure that the waiter would get their minimum tip compensation from the entire party. It was announced as the reservation was made and the customer knew a tip would be part of the check. Some take offense to this practice. As did the waiters. They take offense for working hard on a twelve top all night and getting stiffed when they could have turned four other tables and made real money.
“A compulsory charge for service, for example, 15-18 percent of the bill, is not a tip. Such charges are part of the employer’s gross receipts. Sums distributed to employees from service charges cannot be counted as tips received, but may be used to satisfy the employer’s minimum wage and overtime obligations under the FLSA. If an employee receives tips in addition to the compulsory service charge, those tips may be considered in determining whether the employee is a tipped employee and in the application of the tip credit.”
When the IRS and Big Business changed the rules, many of the protections were stripped away and the servers were among the first to be up on the economic chopping block. Convolution and chaos ensued. Servers now had to claim a percentage of their sales as tips, and whether they actually got those tips was never a consideration. To avoid paying taxes some houses would claim totally inaccurate percentages on their W-2s and leave the servers holding the house’s tax burden. I never grossed anything close to some of those statements. Getting your $3.42 paycheck every other week was a joke. The government would take its share out of your pay to compensate for the tips you were estimated to have already received.
“Great restaurants are, of course, nothing but mouth-brothels. There is no point in going to them if one intends to keep one’s belt buckled.” – Frederic Raphael
A server might be called to work a large party or banquet. Yahoo! In any legitimate operation that means big tab, big tip. The crew who worked the party would split the gratuity accordingly and you’d walk with maybe a couple hundred bucks give or take if you took good care of them. Your labor, your tip. Or so it used to be. My personal experience had me volunteering to work a large party. A couple of days later I asked about the tip. “What tip?” was the reply. “The 18% gratuity or service charge that was tacked on to ensure compensation to the crew” was my reply. It was policy for this restaurant to keep the service charge and pay their servers $10 an hour for the entire gig. The laws in effect now allow restaurants to claim their servers’ and bussers’ tips, under the new designation as “service charges” and recycle them back into their accounts as payroll and still pay out a less than adequate hourly wage. I’d rather make less than minimum wage and get my 18% tip, but the codes have been changed to allow new definitions that the house now takes advantage of at the server’s expense.
“Tip Pools” have become common practice over the years. The trouble is that it used to be against the law, unless the majority of the staff agreed to the practice. Now the law favors the employer. The tip pool allows the poor servers to make more money and the good servers to make less, as all the tips from everyone’s shift goes into the “pool’ and is divided equally out among the staff. Who thought of that and how did this happen? You have to wait another day to collect your cash and maybe not even make your percentage in sales. Some tip pools may even include compensating the kitchen and or managers. This is in violation of Federal Law.
“Tip sharing is legal under the Fair Labor Standards Act, as long as employees are not required to share tips with employees who do not engage in customer service, such as kitchen or janitorial staff. The employer may provide oral or written notice to its tipped employees informing them of items 1-5 (as per code). An employer who fails to provide the required information cannot use the tip credit provisions and therefore must pay the tipped employee at least $7.25 per hour (or the current established minimum wage) in wages and allow the tipped employee to keep all tips received. Employers electing to use the tip credit provision must be able to show that tipped employees receive at least the minimum wage when direct (or cash) wages and the tip credit amount are combined. If an employee’s tips combined with the employer’s direct (or cash) wages of at least $2.13 per hour do not equal the minimum hourly wage of $7.25 per hour, the employer must make up the difference.”
Josephina’s of Scottsdale was one of two or three restaurants from a chain that started in Scottsdale AZ, and I worked at the one in Sherman Oaks, CA. Many good times there. I once had a Peruvian party of about a dozen or more people who would come in almost every week and request my station. It was the 80s and thanks to Ollie North and Iran, Contra you couldn’t walk out the door in most cities without slipping on a pile of blow. Every time these guys would come in, they’d leave me at least a gram of pure Peruvian flake with the tip. Like I learned in history class; “With the meeting of cultures comes the exchange of ideas”. And in the 80s, blow. Days of glory passed. But that’s not the tale.
There was a big birthday party and I got stuck with it. Generally the L.A. nouveau riche, acted like entitled; spoiled little brats and maintained little or no couth when it came to etiquette and good manners. Every time I tried to get an order from the birthday boy, a grown man, he would cover his mouth and mumble. There was usually live music and it was always hard to hear the customers. The customers knew this and made the effort to be as articulate as possible. Except for the birthday boy. After about the fourth time of not being able to hear him, he must have gotten irritated with me and he stood up and leaned into me and said, “This is my birthday asshole and I’m not going to take any more of your shit. Got it? Now bring my goddam wine!” I was a little put off to say the least after I had tried so hard to communicate with him.
They had ordered carafes, the first sign of the big spender. I brought his wine. I placed the glass, stared him straight in the eye and proceeded to pour the wine. The glass is almost full; still pouring…staring him down…the glass is now full; still pouring, still staring…the glass is now overflowing onto the table…still pouring…still staring and…still….pouring. As the puddle of wine started cascading off of the table and into his lap, he jumped up ready to come over the table and simultaneously as I was releasing the wine I shouted “Bring it, asshole!”
And again nothing. Another loud mouth. They had to take me off the floor and someone else had to finish the table. But that’s okay, because later we team up with an unruly drunk and demolish a drum set.
When I’m hit with a “service charge” I will politely ask the establishment to explain exactly how it will be distributed among the help. If I haven’t received the courtesy of being informed of a “service charge” in advance when I make my reservation or before I’m sat, all bets are off. Unless that “service charge” is counted as a tip going straight to the staff. If not, I will refuse the service charge and I will hand a cash tip to my servers and bussers to make sure they get what they’ve worked for. I will not pay a fee over the cost of my food or beverages unless I know it’s a tip, period. I find this to be one of the most deceitful and underhanded practices in the business today.
“Side-work” is the term defining the opening and closing duties of the servers and bussers. Here’s how it works. The opening server would come in and get the coffee going, construct whatever embellishments were needed for the tables and just make sure everything is set up for the rest of the servers. The bussers would come in ahead of the servers and their duties were to set up the floor, arrange the tables, linens and table settings. Prep bread baskets, water pictures and whatever else was on their list for that shift. At one time the side-work did not include mopping the kitchen’s floor, scrubbing toilets or any other part of the job requirement that did not pertain to food service or the restaurant floor.
Once upon a time restaurants would hire cleaning crews. They were paid to clean toilets, mop floors and dust and do windows, not the wait staff. Now the waiters are cleaning toilets, mopping kitchen floors for the kitchen help and anything else that a restaurant can require them to do for their $2.13 plus $5.12 an hour. Since minimum wage has increased, the ratio must also be adjusted.
The opening is the only time that the Host or Hostess would not rotate and stagger the seating, as there is only one section open at this time and the opener needs to turn whatever tables they can before getting cut loose. I always liked the opening shift. “One section opened at this time”. I have never been able to pinpoint the precise moment when all control of the establishment got handed over to the customer. One waiter, one section. Not one waiter, five sections. Why is it so difficult to explain to the customer that there is only one section open at this time? Why do the Hosts or Hostesses feel compelled to seat every early customer from one end of the house to the other? The server now has to cover four times as much ground, not even in their own section.
This is logistically unsound, and creates an overlap of service and inconvenience that is totally unnecessary. Plus, now there’s a table in the mid-shifter’s section that someone else is getting dirty and making money on that they can’t utilize, until the table gets cleared and re-sat. The mid-shifter just lost money out of his or her own section; now has another server in his way; and since they’re sitting in your section, the customers think you’re waiting on them to only add more confusion into the mix.
I discovered that my days were numbered in this business due to my withering tolerance for ignorant and classless people, while working at a place called Pike’s Verdugo Oaks in Glendale, CA. We wore tuxedos and did tableside cooking and it was a pretty nice place, but as I’ve said the classy dinner houses were already on their way out.
I had a kick-ass busboy. We had teams of those. One for every two or three servers. They would be your support and they would help you make money. In return you compensated them well. We had a lot of Hispanic men and women working there and nicknames abounded. “Flaco”, (means skinny) was my guy. And Flaco and the boys nicknamed me “El Vato Loco”. We were a tight crew. He was always on it. Except this one time. I needed an ashtray on a table. That’s right, that long ago. I was swamped so I delegated it to him and forgot about it, because like I said, he was consistent and always on it and he had acknowledged my request.
The night went on, and I noticed the guys at the table with the ashtray needs had left. As I was collecting their dirty dishes, yes, the server is never above taking initiative and never too good to clear their own tables. It was always a team effort. But I noticed on a bread plate about thirty six cents in change with cigarette butts smashed into it. Evidently Flaco was swamped too and never got the ashtray to the table. Things happen.
From my experience as a customer, when something’s taking longer than I think is reasonable, I’ll try to politely communicate with someone on the floor to pass my request on if I see that my server’s busy, and that usually brings results. Evidently the gentlemen in question had elected to choose the path of insult and disrespect. I quickly snatched up the plate, with the cigarette butts and change still on it and hastily walked outside to the parking lot. I waited for valet to open the truck door for my customer and as he closed it I walked up to the driver’s side window, said, “Here, I think this belongs to you”, and dumped the plate in his lap.
As I’m walking away he starts shouting about how I just lost my job; and how he’s gonna kick my ass. I stopped, turned and “Frisbeed” the plate so it smashed on the pavement right in front of his truck. He exploded out of the truck and I stopped and waited for him (in my tuxedo) to come and live up to his threat, but he just stood there. Getting bored with his inaction I turned and walked back to the restaurant to finish my other tables and he followed me. As I passed by Dave, the maître d’, one of my best friends and roommates at the time, I said, “This guy’s probably gonna want to talk to you”, and kept walking.
Of course David assured the customer that I would be severely dealt with and all became well with the world. I never heard a word about it from that moment on. End of story. Now that’s loyalty. That’s finesse and that’s backing your people when a customer acts the fool and disrespects you like a dog.”
Unfortunately some houses have omitted the busboy or girl altogether. Because as I’ve pointed out, the business was a little like apprenticing. The bussers usually wanted to become waiters, so they would be eager to carry trays and help with serving duties and through that a system of cooperation and teamwork was established. The busboys became acclimated to the system in house and could move up the ladder as server positions opened up. And this is also where the industry has totally disregarded the “dues paying “aspect of the profession and the customer/professional relationship.
If I was a bus-boy and wanted to be a server, I would feel somewhat insulted and betrayed to see the house hire a new server off the street. But they do it all the time. “Is it because I’m a Mexican and only Mexicans can bus tables and do the dirty work?” Sorry Amigo, but it sure looks that way doesn’t it?
The laws pertaining to tips were quite clear, but not anymore, because it dictated that any table you deliver food to, regardless of where it was located, became your tip. Technically any food or entrée that a server brought to any table, regardless, that tip would be theirs according to strict and well-articulated labor standards and codes hence the sections and “What are you doing on my table?” This did not preclude a spirit of cooperation between servers as they would have the common sense to know the difference and exceptions were always made and compensation was always received.
When you’re out of work you’ll take just about anything to get back on your feet. Mine was a stint at Bob’s Big Boy. I had the pleasure of working the counter wearing a paper “piss-cutter” as we used to call them. I took heat from every truck-driver who was expecting a cute chick to be bringing his coffee.
Keeping cool with those guys was a challenge. If you think I have a chip on my shoulder today, please realize that I used to be much worse and I’ve mellowed out quite a bit over the years.
I love America. Some Freedom Fries please and super-size me!
RESTAURANT INDUSTRY: CIVILIZATION DECLINING THROUGH FINE DINING PART II
“In all my years in the restaurant business I have never stooped so low as to spit in anyone’s soup or violate their food in any way, no matter how upset I’ve gotten with a customer.”
By EJ Wickes
Image from independent.co.uk
Double standards with gender and dress codes are another issue in today’s civilization. Things have loosened up a bit but my experiences were a little different. I stopped cutting my hair after I got out of the service. A week later I got my ear pierced. It was 1979. I never thought anything of it until I started looking for work in the restaurant business again. By 1982 I was in L.A., freak-central and I couldn’t believe the grief I was getting.
The history of men wearing earrings dates back almost to pre-civilization. The legends and customs are many and varied. I had a philosophical reason for piercing mine. It wasn’t a total fashion statement. A little earring lore for those who came late: In the seventies and early eighties if you were straight you’d pierce your left ear. If you were gay the right. Not a requirement, but as a point of social or sexual dynamics, it was an identifier.
There’s an ancient Chinese belief that wearing a gold or silver earring in the left ear symbolizes your life has been put in danger. To prevent a re-occurrence an earring is worn for good luck. Sailors and Pirates wore them because they thought inserting precious metals into their ears would improve their eyesight. In certain cases similar reflexes have been observed through acupuncture. Archaeologists and cultural historians have men wearing earrings even before women. Enough on that.
“The Bombay Bicycle Club”
Corporate institutions have this inane need to do collectivist things to alter the systems of civilization and create their own version of institutionalized team spirit. The Bombay Bicycle Club in Burbank, CA. was one such establishment. One bad decision was the two for one happy hour special, sending customers into the welcoming hands of the Burbank Police at an alarming rate; the cops would just drive around the place in circles waiting for the drunks to leave and stop them as soon as they left the parking lot.
They also altered some of the universal terminology of the business. “G” Bread stood for garlic bread at The Bombay Bicycle Club; a standard accoutrement with their plates. But there was a catch. If the server wished no garlic bread or extra garlic bread, you had to call it “G” bread. I don’t know how many times I never got my garlic bread after ordering it because I had unfortunately relied on my past decades of experience and my muscle memory always went to the “standard”, when I was busy. Hence I would call out, “I need an order of garlic bread, please” and the kitchen would totally ignore me to prove a point. I hadn’t gotten with the program. So this little time waster really irritated me.
What does, “Could you please break down this twenty for me so I can make change?” really mean to a bartender? Most bartenders would instinctively take your twenty and give you a ten, a five, four ones and a buck in change any way they could spare it. Not rocket science. And not so at the Bombay Bicycle Club.
I went up to the bar to get change. I ask the bartender if he could break a twenty. I wasn’t even particular about the denomination – seriously, why am I wasting time on something so frivolous? Because it never needed to be this difficult! He asked me how I wanted it. Fair enough. I said just break it down with what you have, I can do the rest; I just needed something other than a twenty dollar bill and didn’t think it would be that difficult. Meanwhile the customers are waiting for their change./em>
A cute little waitress came up to the bar and asked, “Could I have change for a five? I need four one dollar bills, three quarters, a dime, two nickels and five pennies.” (What – the – Fuck!?) The bartender had the gall to ask her, “Would you mind repeating that for Eric’s sake so he knows how to properly ask for change?” (Once again, “what – the – fuck?!” is all that’s going through my mind.) I said, “Look, you’re a professional, surely you know what anyone asking for change for a twenty wants, right? So why are you wasting our time with this? It’s pretty SOP, breaking down a twenty”.
I honestly tried to conform by saying, “Alright, can you give me a ten, a five, four ones and a buck in change any way you can spare it?” He proceeds to hand me a ten, a five, four ones and a roll of pennies. That was it. That was the one that broke the camel’s back. I grabbed that roll of pennies and threw it has high into the air as the ceiling allowed and it came crashing down behind the bar and exploded all over the place. Pennies all over the floor behind the bar. I told him I didn’t have time to teach him how to change a twenty when I had customers depending on me to bring back their change, so now he could play “fuck-fuck” with himself .
He turned beet red. The steam was blowing out of his ears and he said, “I think you and I need to go out to the parking lot so we can settle this and I can teach you some respect”. “Oh?” I said, “Well my shift ends in a little while so we’ll see who teaches who; but do you really want to go there with me?” I then walked into the general manager’s office and told him that I didn’t have time to deal with rookie bartenders playing games with my time and his attitude was less than appropriate or professional. The manager proceeded to tell me, “Well, you know when we hired you with all your experience, we warned you that this was not your typical dinner house and that you may be a little overqualified for our system.” I still had an old school work ethic. It doesn’t fit in with the new micro-managed version. Needless to say, that was my last day at the Bombay Bicycle Club.
Throughout the seventies and early eighties a person could usually walk into a restaurant or café and if the place was hiring, they’d get their shot. There were no multiple interviews or pages and pages of applications, sometimes it would be a matter of just writing down your name and phone number. They would do that for real and you’d actually get a call. When you started you’d fill out your tax form and a one page application for the record. Today you may have to go online before you even get to talk to a real person.
Someone would call and bring you in to meet whomever was in charge of hiring. “Okay, give the kid a shot. Black pants white shirt, tomorrow at 4.” The first thing you do is grab a menu on your way out. By tomorrow you’ll have half of it memorized. You’re there at 4. “Yo, Kathy, why don’t you show the kid the set up?” And Kathy does and now you know where the coffee cups and teapots are.
Halfway through the night you’re running stuff out to the tables and making everyone’s life easier. Then you eat dinner on the house, unless they fed you when you first came in. The house always used to feed the staff as a matter of principle; one reason the business is so rife with artists. We could eat and cut our food costs. Fewer restaurants feed their help on the house and some will charge the staff for their food. Even though you’re making minimum wage for training, Kathy says, “Thanks for the help, good job” and slips you a twenty on the way out. Where’s the love?
The next day you get a table. It’s yours. Make it or break it. Sometimes you fake it ’til you make it but the first day jitters get worked out. If your trainer is a little busy you may get another table or two and you ease into the system through a baptism by fire. By the end of the week your kickin’ ass. That’s “training”.
David, the maître d’ from Pike’s, and I used to work at an Italian dinner house called Via Veneto’s in Encino, CA. It was run by an old retired mob guy from New York and his son. Why they relocated was never known. It was the second restaurant we both had worked where they told us “This is your last night boys, we’re closing up.” The first place was Pike’s Verdugo Oaks, the last place we had worked. No notice, no nuthin’. Boom you’re out of job and tough beans. In LA. Where work at the time was not easy to find. Thanks for the warning.
So it’s our last night, we’re done with our shift and Dave and I aren’t leaving until we drink the place into the ground; as we had claimed it to be our right under the circumstances. Also in attendance were other members of the “family”.
Dave and I were minding our own business probably bitching and getting worked up about losing a pretty good job, when some burly dude comes towering over us and says, “Okay guys, time to leave.” Well we hadn’t finished our drinks yet and we were just getting started. As we’re continuing with our conversation and drinks, the guy gets a little pushy and persists in telling us to leave again. We look up at the guy and Dave says, “We’ll leave when we finish our drinks.” Then the guy says, “Hey! You don’t know who the fuck you’re talkin’ too!” and a couple other guys start approaching our table.
Instantly Dave and I jump to our feet. I adjusted my position for one of the oncoming guys. Just then Dave looks right into the first guy’s face and says, “No! You don’t know who the fuck YOU’RE talkin’ too! We just lost our jobs and after workin’ our asses off for this place we’re not going anywhere until we finish our fuckin’ drinks-got it?” Well, it was on. But before it got real ugly the old man jumped in and quelled the brawl before it got too far off the ground. Respect was established and peace was made.
In the “corporate” environment, a server in training may have to go as long as two weeks without getting to wait on a single table or receiving a single tip. But they are entitled to a training wage; at least the minimum wage. Quite often a server will get to wait on tables during their training but won’t be allowed to keep any of the tips. And chances are the one training you won’t be sliding you a twenty on the way out for your efforts.
Enter the Server Training Manual. “Congratulations on being selected to perform one of the most important, challenging and rewarding jobs at (insert name here) Restaurants! As a Server, you will set the stage and have a direct impact on each guests experience… won’t bore you with the rest of the corporate cheer-leading.
Page 20. Don’t start out by giving them your name, unless your guests already know you, they don’t really care what your name is at this point. Communication is like so two weeks ago to our civilization. Okay, so I’m a cog with no identity: I, Robot…go on….and if they want to get my attention do they throw a crumpled up napkin at my head? Needless to say there are pages and pages of information that you should already have under your belt, such as, how to have or not have, a conversation with your customer and the appropriate behavior for that situation. Civilization already comes with certain unwritten rules. So you can burn the first twenty pages. And please, if by some chance I have the pleasure of your service, feel free to introduce yourself, right off the bat. I don’t like conversing with non-entities and I would like an opportunity to treat you with dignity.
“We offer daily specials for three reasons…” Who cares? Just let the Chef show us, we’ll taste them, and then we’ll sell them out, okay? And the page goes on to tell you which adjectives to use when you describe the dish. Look, if you’re in sales and you didn’t impress me with your narrative skills during our interview, you wouldn’t be here to begin with.
“After presenting the check, take a few steps back and glance back at the table. If they already have their cash or credit card ready, it may mean they are in a hurry to leave.” Really. Thanks for taking the time to explain the human condition; that when someone looks like they want to pay, it might mean that they want to pay; which means that my next natural reflex will be to promptly take their money. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re in a hurry, once they pay they can leave whenever they want.
“The Sweet Sixteen”
David also has a brother, Stephan. David is a very accomplished guitarist, Stephan, a visual artist now, was a writer back then and I was the visual artist. Three starving artists sharing a dump in Van Nuys. We all used work at a place called La Grange aux Crepes in Sherman Oaks, CA.
Their crepes were horrible, but everyone thought they were the rage. We used to call it the Garage of Crepes. If they would have gone a couple of blocks further down Ventura Blvd. they could have gotten good crepes at La Rive Gauche. I know because I used to work there too.
One day after our shift Stephan and I stopped by Nick’s Seafood in the Galleria Mall on Sepulveda. The Hostess was really cool and they took great care of us. To the extent of about nine shots of Cuervo and four Foster’s Lager chasers apiece.
Back then we didn’t give a shit about anything. Life was tough and our rebellious spirit made it even tougher. But that’s the way we liked it, ‘cause we were bad-ass artists and the world was our oyster, and we were shit-faced drunk.
On the walk home some of that angst came out and for some reason we thought it appropriate to beat the shit out of each other all the way back to the pad. By the time we got home we looked like a couple of Marines who just barely escaped from a bar fight with their lives. A sweet sixteen party was booked for the next day and Stephan and I were the assigned waiters. Imagine all the mothers and daughters showing up dressed to the hilt; the young ladies all excited about their elegant grown-up lunch at the fancy French restaurant, ooh la-la!
You don’t always realize it, but cuts and bruises look much worse the next day. Enter your waiters, Stephan and Eric. We looked like Hell. There may even have been a blood stain or two on our shirts, but hey, we came to work didn’t we? Jaws dropped. Jacques the head waiter was speechless as were the ladies. They were terrified. All we could say was, “You should see the other guys” and went about our business.
“A smile is part of your uniform.” Turn that frown upside down with Barney and Friends!
“Make sure you have: At least two pens. A Lighter. A Wine Opener. A Bank and a Smile.” That’s like telling a sky diver to make sure they’ve got a parachute on before jumping out of the plane. If you’re not already coming to work with those items and have to be reminded, get the hell off my floor.
“You Must Be Able to Serve Many Different Types of Guests”
The Timid Guest; followed by description.
The Aggressive Guest; followed by description.
The Fussy Guest; ditto
The Over-familiar Guest; ditto.
The Guest Who is Alone; ditto
The Noisy Trouble Maker; ditto
The Blind Guest: ditto.
The Guest with Hand or Arm Disability; and ditto.
So, what you’re saying is…that we’ll be interacting with…human beings; in a restaurant? Have we been living in a bomb shelter?
“Five Basics of Service Excellence: 1. Look at Me. 2. Smile at me. 3. Talk to Me. 4. Listen to me. 5. Thank me.” I don’t even know what that means. See me, feel me, touch me, heal me? There are fifty pages of this bullshit. Read it, know it, live it and burn it.
There used to be some qualifiers for the professional food server in modern civilization. The method they use to cork a bottle or their interpretation of “left to right” service for example. There is a grave misconception in the U.S that we are always to serve food from the left and take from the right. This evolved out of a time when the food was prepared or dished up at table side from large trays so that the waiters, the majority being right handed, could place the dish with their right hand which keeps the tray hand farther away from the table. For more detailed information on the proper etiquette for food service, Chef Albrich: Where Art Meets Fine Dining is a good source.
Eye contact. Much too little of this in the restaurant industry. Know what’s happening and be alert. Guests are left standing in your abandoned echo chambers for too long. If you can’t immediately tend to their needs, then by all means let them know you’re on it and their table will be ready ASAP. Take control of the table. Do not let them control you. I don’t need to have my server in plain sight all night. A fly by once in a while will do. If I’m part of a large party, I’ll let the server call the shots with ordering and coordination – not the other way around. If you want consistency and prompt service then take their lead. They’re professionals; that’s why they’re there; to give you the most efficient, relaxed, convenient and non-invasive dining experience possible.
“The Ghost of Server’s Past”
My first restaurant job ever was down at the Jersey Shore. That experience was a life plateau and new stimuli and cerebral epiphanies were exploding all around me. The story begins long before then in Collingswood, N.J. with the Rev. Carl McIntire. McIntire was a right wing fascist warmongering hater who lead a church near my hometown. He was a McCarthy supporter who helped rat out suspected communists in the church and a Viet Nam war enthusiast who thought that we should put all the gays on Monster Island and nuke the Soviet Union without hesitation.
His following helped him attain the wealth he needed to buy a hotel in Cape May, New Jersey called the Admiral Hotel which he changed to the Christian Admiral. The hotel was originally built in 1909 by steal magnate Peter Shields and was the biggest hotel in the world at the time. My first restaurant job was at that hotel. McIntire also bought another location called Preservation Hall where he held Bible meetings. If you worked there you were expected to be at the Bible meetings on Sundays. The only time you had off the entire week. I was a bus-boy. They hired young people and we worked three shifts a day, six days a week except for a half day on Sunday. Like Hell I was going to waste my half a day off at Bible study; except for once. The one that discouraged them from ever requiring me to come back. I must have asked all the “wrong” or “right” questions.
McIntire was ostracized from the community due to his extreme opinions about civilization, but had a popular following over the radio. He founded what he called “Radio Free America” and tried to broadcast his message from a pirate radio set-up on board a boat several miles off the Jersey Coast. Eventually the Coast Guard deployed and shut him down. This was my employer.
The staff was housed in old, dilapidated, run-down buildings that were moved from another hotel property. Since the buildings were of some historical value they managed to escape their own demolition and that was our home for the time we worked there. Students and hotel workers were housed there. We had a curfew so if we wanted to go out past ten we’d have to climb out the windows after the dorm supervisor crashed or left.
Since then the buildings were refurbished and became The Angel of the Sea, one of the most popular bed and breakfasts in America. But the story gets interesting because The Angel of the Sea is haunted. Guests are always leaving reports of mysterious anomalies taking place. But who is it? The story goes that during the time the buildings were being used as dorms for hotel labor and students, there was a female employee housed there who had forgotten her key. Not wanting to get into trouble for breaking curfew she tried to climb into the second story window from the fire escape, the screen popped off too quickly, hit her in the head and she lost her balance and fell to her death.
Ironic since I would sneak out the same way to meet a girl I had met working there, sometimes late at night but luckily the same fate never befell me. No one knows exactly when she roomed there to my knowledge, but this happened around the sixties or seventies. I was housed there in the early seventies and quite possibly could have crossed paths with this unfortunate girl, or maybe even her ghost.
IN THE CUSTOMER’S DEFENSE
There is also the down side of the business where the customer is concerned. Sometimes it has more to do with the house breathing down their servers’ necks to constantly up-sell the client and this may become irritating to the customer. Or perhaps a server lacking discretion or tact; how many times have you been approached by your server at the precise moment of intimacy with your date? Or the server expects you to pick up your own dirty dish and hand it to them because they are not skilled enough to bus the table in one or two moves on their own. The server’s panache and flair will always embellish the tip as it should, because style is part of the show and the dining experience is as much visual as it is gastronomical. Observe how the server presents and opens your wine. If they’re clumsy it won’t reflect well on their professionalism.
As you can see modern civilization provides a cross section of food servers every bit as diverse as the customers they serve. And as this video shows, some have very good work ethics and others do not; and equally, some customers know their etiquette and protocols and others do not. In all my years in the restaurant business I have never stooped so low as to spit in anyone’s soup or violate their food in any way, no matter how upset I’ve gotten with a customer. This is reprehensible behavior and an insult to our civilization and the profession.
When one sits back to reflect on the human condition the realization of our imperfections cannot be ignored. We all have our good days and our bad days and servers are human too. These folks represent the last remnants of a golden age in America, when we were producers as well as consumers. In an era when, if you could walk, talk, read, write, count and tell time, there were plenty of alternatives out there for making good money without a college education. You just had to be willing to work hard and pay your dues.
“Tired Waitress” by Megan Mitchell