After seven years at the Dead Animal Steakhouse, I finished graduate school and begun a career as a public school teacher. I did not, however, leave the industry completely. I worked part time on the weekends. The money I made there was still very important to me, my wife, and my twins who were born four months earlier. Working Friday nights helped pay for the SUV I had to buy to cart my babies around. I also left the “front of the house” for the kitchen. I had, in my opinion, the greatest job in the restaurant. I was the Friday night expeditor. On a busy Friday, Saturday, or Sunday in a restaurant a lot of food leaves the kitchen. In the Dead Animal’s case, it could be as many as 500 meals on an extremely busy shift. That’s a lot of food. From a business perspective it’s worth paying someone to baby-sit the servers, the cooks, and make sure the food looks “like the picture” when it leaves the kitchen. On Friday nights, that was my job. I “expoed” all the food that left the kitchen to make sure it met menu specifications. On Friday nights I was basically the kitchen manager. I kept the "front of the house" managers informed about the “ticket times” in the kitchen and made sure the servers brought attractive and presentable food to the tables. The best part was that I was making $12.00 an hour and never had to stay later than 10:00 p.m. I made about fifty to sixty dollars every Friday and that was fine with me. It was a perfect situation for me at that point in my life.
This particular Friday night was unremarkable except for a few oddities. First, the corporate regional manager was in town and was visiting our store. The regional manager, who was named Dave, was a tall, balding fellow with a weak handshake. Dave was the fifth, at least, regional manager this particular restaurant had known in my seven years as an employee. Something you should know about the corporate restaurant world is that the turnover in the managerial sector is unbelievably high. During my time with the Dead Animal Steakhouse, I worked for at least five regional managers, four general managers, eight shift managers (that I can remember), countless manager assistants, and at least five kitchen managers. The corporation which owned the Dead Animal Steakhouse had three different CEO's. All this in a seven year period. Can you think of many other professions with that type of volatility in their upper management? This places the hourly employees, some of whom have been with the company for years, in a very awkward situation. In any chain restaurant you eat in, I guarantee the most knowledgeable and well trained member of staff is not the management. For the most part it’s the servers, cooks, and other restaurant employees who have been with the corporation for years longer than, in many cases, the general manager, regional managers and the CEO of the company.
Regional Manager Dave had called a meeting of all staff for the next day, Saturday, at 8:00 a.m. to discuss the new food that would appear on the menu in a few weeks. While it was not unusual to have meetings about new food roll outs, it was very uncommon to have them so early in the morning on a Saturday with such extremely short notice. For those of us with childcare issues, it was a major inconvenience. With this in mind, I asked Leroy, the General Manager, if I could skip the meeting. He told me how he would “really like me there”.
Also, one of my good friends in the restaurant, Barbara, had a digital camera with her at the start of this shift. Barbara and I had always gotten along very well. We never really socialized outside of the restaurant but we both came from the same community and went to high school a few miles apart. I thought I knew her pretty well. When I came to work that night, Barbara was constantly taking pictures of her friends in the restaurant. The kind of pictures you take when you’re on vacation and don’t want to forget what a great time you had. She was posing people, telling us to smile, and generally acting like a wedding photographer. In hindsight I should have known something was up right then and there.
The several months prior to this particular Friday night, Barbara became very close with the general manager, Leroy, and inherited the server scheduling responsibilities. Making the schedule in the restaurant was looked upon as a fairly prestigious position. Whomever who makes the schedule makes their own hours and schedules themselves for the best shifts. It was one of the perks of a generally thankless job.
Speculation was rampant in the restaurant about her relationship with the general manager. Some of the more cynical among the servers believed there was a romantic relationship between Barbara and the general manager. Such is the nature of the business. I never found out if the rumors were true but there was no question that Barbara suddenly had a lot more pull around the restaurant then she previously had. Barbara used her new pseudo managerial role in the restaurant to hire her sister, Ellen, as a host. Ellen was quickly promoted to server. To many of us this was an unbelievable mistake because her sister was, without a doubt, was the worst server I have ever seen and an awful person to boot. She was young (barely 18), immature, and inconsiderate. I know that I have spent many syllables of this blog talking about how most servers aren’t to blame for poor service. This girl was the exception. I remember on one particular night she ended up with eight tables, at the same time, by applying pressure to the hosts to seat her. I feel like, over my seven years in the business, I was became a good server. If I had more than four tables for the dinner shift I was very busy. Eight tables at one time is simply unheard of in the Dead Animal Steakhouse. As you can imagine, Ellen, who was a marginal server at best, crashed and burned. She was an absolute train wreck. The manager on duty went to several of her tables to apologize for the service. When other servers in the restaurant heard that Ellen had eight tables they were outraged. Later in the evening, Ellen told anyone who would listen that she did just fine and could handle eight tables. The rest of us were simply “jealous” of the money she made. She was repulsive.
Another clue occurred as the night wore on. I noticed how many servers were just standing around. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal. The restaurant was slow and there really wasn’t much to do in all fairness. However, when a regional manger is visiting the store, the last thing you want to do, as an hourly employee, is look expendable. Lazy servers + regional manger = heat for the general manager. This is an equation for an unpleasant conversation at the end of the shift and a miserable schedule the following week. When I went to Leroy about this issue he seemed uninterested. Additionally, the work schedule was not available. To not have the work schedule created by Friday evening was an unthinkable screw up. The schedule started on Monday. To not know Friday night if you are working Monday morning is a rough place to put your employees in. I asked Barbara about it. She said it would be finished at the end of the shift.
At about eight o’clock a good friend of mine, Bob, asked to speak to me in private. Bob was a good hearted guy who did the best he could for his family. That is something I will always respect about Bob. Bob also loved the Dallas Cowboys, which is something I can not respect as a Giants fan. Bob and I had worked together at the restaurant for seven years and he had been with the company for over thirteen. Bob had a little boy who was about three years old that meant the world to him. He had worked in the restaurant full time and was one of the most efficient people I have ever met. The Dead Animal Steakhouse was how he made his money. All of it. It was his career. He was the only person in the restaurant who actually could handle eight tables at one time if he had too. Bob and I occasionally argued over the years about stupid things, but I respect Bob as worker and a father. What he was about to tell me would change the way I looked at some of the people I thought were my friends in the restaurant.
Bob and I walked into one of the dry food storage rooms.
“What I’m about to tell you can’t go beyond you and I” he said.
I told him it wouldn’t.
“Charlie just called me. He told me that the meeting we are having tomorrow is to tell us that we were closing. It has nothing to do with food or a menu roll out” he said.
Charlie was a former employee of the Dead Animal Steakhouse. Charlie moved a few years earlier and transferred to the branch in that area. He heard the news from his general manager. Bob said he was telling me this because I had worked in the restaurant for so long, I had kids, and he couldn’t keep it from me in good conscious. Bob didn’t owe me anything and at this point what did he have to lose? He was losing his job in the morning anyway.
Suddenly everything made sense. The pictures, the general apathy from management, and the regional manger visit. After thirteen years, corporate was going to close the restaurant with absolutely no notice whatsoever.
I thanked Bob and, amazingly, went back to work.
I will always wonder why I went back to work that night. What did I have to lose? Why didn’t I clock out and leave? Why clock out at all? I have a beautiful wife and two adorable daughters. Wouldn’t the two or three hours remaining in my shift be been better spent with them? I’ll never get those hours back.
Ultimately, I stayed because I made a commitment to the restaurant and the people I worked with. I honor the commitments I make. There were still guests in the restaurant and they ordered dinner. Someone needed to get their food out of the kitchen and onto their tables. At this moment I realize the sad irony in “two week notice”. Employers demand two weeks of notice if you are leaving a position. However, when the shoe is on the other foot, rarely is the same courtesy extended.
So I went back to work, but my head was spinning. The first thing that came to my mind was that I was losing my job. A job I needed to pay bills. Was it the end of the world for me? Not really. I had a full time job teaching but it certainly didn’t help that I had no notice whatsoever. After seven years, it was all over in a heartbeat.
The second thing that came to my mind was that my wife was also losing her job. Although Bob told me not to tell anyone, I left the kitchen and called my wife to tell her the news. Obviously, telling my wife was more important than keeping this secret for Bob.
My wife was home watching our twins and when I called. She was not pleased (to say the least). She actually worked in the restaurant before I did. Her good reputation was the reason I initially got a job in the Dead Animal Steakhouse seven years earlier. My wife decided to supplement our income while on maternity leave from teaching in the evenings. She had (4 months earlier) given birth to our twin baby girls. Years prior, when she had begun her teaching carer, she stopped working full time in the restaurant. Now that she was on maternity leave she had returned to the restaurant and was re-hired in her old capacity as a server. This rehiring had transpired about a week before this particular Friday night by Barbara.
Barbara asked my wife to go through the retraining process. As part of this process, new hires follow, or “shadow” as they call it, a trained server who theoretically knows a lot about the restaurant. It’s standard procedure really so she didn’t have a problem with it. The restaurant management asked a guy named John to re-train her. I had worked with John for about six months before this. He was an athletic guy with a shaved head. The previous summer he had badly injured his knee playing a pickup game of football and had to take some time off. All in all, he seemed like a fairly decent guy. We liked a lot of the same movies and television shows including “The Office”. When my wife began retraining, it became abundantly clear to John that she knew as much, or more, about the restaurant as he did. John gave her a few of his tables to wait on. As the night progressed, John essentially had my wife wait on his tables including a large party near the end of the night. My wife has a very sweet personality and she’s one of the best servers I’ve ever worked with. When she was working full time as a server she consistently made twenty to twenty five percent per table. Her first night back was no exception. When it was all said and done, John made about $75. When I say John, I really mean my wife since she waited on all his tables for him. Unfortunately for my wife, John kept every dollar that she had made for him. Turns out John wasn’t such a decent guy after all. Such is life in the restaurant business. My wife worked all shift and made money off tables who tipped her because of her personality, serving abilities, and their general satisfaction with the meal they had. John, having nothing to do with this process, took all this money for himself. On one hand I understand John’s situation. John depends, as we all do, on his job and the money he was going to make on that shift to pay his bills, buy beer, whatever. Bottom line, my wife, who has just spend a week retraining for a job she had done for years, was losing her job before her first shift. She deserved better. Why did Barbara hire her in the first place when she knew the restaurant was closing in a week?
The third thing that came to my mind was how shitty all my "friends" at the Steakhouse were. It was obvious that something was up all night. Only Bob had the respect and decency to tell me the truth. I had worked with some of these people for seven years. In this moment, that meant nothing to any of them. It hurt.
I finished my shift and punched out. It was all so routine which is unbelievable considering that it was my last shift ever at the Dead Animal Steakhouse. As I was leaving the restaurant, Barbara approached me.
"I'll see you tomorrow morning at the roll out?" she said.
I said I would be there. Then she did something totally out of character. She reached out to hug me. Something in my mind splintered at that point. I just couldn't take it. Barbara knew what tomorrow's meeting was about. It wasn't a roll out. It was a mass firing. I just couldn't understand why she insisted on this charade. I had been her friend for years. I had helped train her when she first started working at the restaurant. She repeatedly asked me for personal advice about a variety of problems she had. We both grew up in the same community and had mutual friends. I felt that I deserved better. I recoiled from her embrace and said "Barbara, what are you doing?"
"Trying to hug you." she said.
"I know tomorrow's meeting isn't about a food roll out." I replied.
"I don't know what you are talking about." she said.
That was when I really got angry. She was lying to me, pure and simple. It was one thing to be deceptive (as she was) earlier in the shift when we still had food to cook, plate, and serve. But now, after the restaurant was closed, there was no reason to keep this up. To this day I do not understood what her motive was. Maybe the general or regional manager promised her a good reference if she played along. Maybe the rumors were true about her and the general manager. At that moment, I didn't care.
"Why are you lying to me? What have I done to deserve that?" I said a little louder than I meant to.
"I'm not lying to you..." was the best she could do.
"Whatever Barbara. How stupid do you think I am? The camera? No schedule? An 8:00 am roll out? Friends of mine from other restaurants are calling me and asking if I'm ok. We are closing Barbara. It's painfully obvious." I said.
"Keep your voice down!" she said, a little louder than she meant to.
"Barbara, I honestly thought we were friends..."
She interrupted me. "We are friends!"
"This is not how friends treat each other. You are lying to me. You lied to my wife when you asked her to train for a week. Why make her train? She can never have that time back. You lied to me tonight when I asked you about all the weird things you were doing...".
The conversation, if you want to call it that, went on like this for several more minutes. It gradually escalated. She continued denying the reality of the situation. I got increasingly agitated. Obviously I was angry and taking out my frustrations on her. In hindsight, it wasn't her fault. She obviously had her reasons for lying to me. She was not closing the restaurant. She didn't control the decision making process at the corporate offices. She was an easy target. At that moment, none of me cared. She lied to me and, more importantly, my wife.
"Barbara, you are either on their side or our side. You obviously don't give a fuck about me or the people you are lying to tonight. You chose to be a good little puppet for corporate. I don't want anything to do with a bitch liar."
Her mouth opened and closed a few times. She started to cry. She spun around and disappeared into the restaurant. I never spoke to her again. There is a duality to my memories of that night. I greatly miss some of the people I worked with at the restaurant over my seven years. However, the events of that night were so miserable it taints all the good time and good people I met at the Dead Animal Steakhouse. I regret hurting Barbara but I do not regret what I said to her. It had to be said. Actions have consequences.
The next morning I was one of the last to arrive to the "roll out" meeting. I knew the axe was about to fall. Why be in a hurry? There was a ridiculous spread of pastries and donuts laid out on a large table near the bar. It was seriously over the top. I suspect one of the managers felt insanely guilty about what was about to happen and was overcompensating. Some people were still under the impression that this was a new menu roll out and were happily chomping away. By this point my "conversation" with Barbara from the previous evening had become public knowledge. Word travels fast in the restaurant business. A few servers shook my hand and thanked me for what I said. One even said "I wish I had the balls to be like you". To some of the other servers I was persona non grata, as dead to them as Barbara was to me. Some of those people were friends. Some of them attended my wedding. They had made their choice as well. Actions have consequences.
The corporate regional manager started the meeting. He explained that the restaurant, while profitable, was paying too much in rent for the building they leased. After 13 years, it was time to move on. No new restaurant was opening in the area but if any of us wanted to move hundreds of miles, we could have jobs in other restaurants the corporation owned, after retraining of course. The regional manager told us that, in countless other restaurant closings he’s either been a part of or heard about, employees don’t get the “courtesy” of a meeting explaining why the business was closing. Instead, the restaurant would have been padlocked when we arrived for our next shift and we would have to call a posted phone number for an explanation. This fact was verified less than two months later when a restaurant across the street from the Dead Animal Steakhouse (completely unrelated to the corporation I worked for) closed in exactly this way. No meeting. No “heads up”. Just a note with a number to call if you had any questions as to why you just lost your job and a padlock on the door. At any rate, I think the regional manager wanted us to respect him for providing the “courtesy” of a 8:00 am meeting with donuts and pastries. Honestly I believe the reason the meeting was called was so some corporate middle-man wouldn’t be forced to explain why the restaurant closed to the sixty some employees individually over the phone. This way they could tie up all the loose ends in a few quick minutes.
As the meeting neared its conclusion, the regional manager and the store’s management team handed out our last paychecks, a “severance” package as they called it. This consisted of two week's pay or, in my case, $91.68. Again, the regional manager acted like this was some great favor. The irony is that servers make the majority of their income in cash tips. It is the best part of the business. Hourly wages are typically less than $4 dollars per hour. The average weekly check, after taxes, was typically in the $10 to $20 dollar range. Bob, the man who told me the restaurant was closing the previous evening, walked out of the meeting with a check for $25 dollars. He had worked for the restaurant for 13 years. That's what a "severance" package is to a corporate restaurant chain.
The people in that meeting were an asset to the corporate until the decision had been made to close the restaurant. Now we had become a liability that need to be handled. Donuts, severance packages, promises of good references, etc. All were attempts to "handle us" and avoid a scene. As it turns out, to the corporation, the real assets were the ovens, grills, plates, dishes, silverware, tables, bottles of alcohol, and other cooking implements that were to be sold to the highest bidder. During this meeting they didn’t want us going into the kitchen or walking around the restaurant. It was very clear they were concerned that some of us might break or steal the most important members of the Dead Animal Steakhouse team: the inanimate decorum.
A few of the managers sought me out and thanked me for my seven good years. They did this with most of the employees. I wasn't anything special to them. They had been through this before. The general manager promised me a good reference if I needed it. Barbara shot me a few dirty looks but said nothing. Before I left, I walked up the regional manager, shook his hand, and gave him a photo of my twin four month old daughters. "These are my daughters. You just took food out of their mouths." He said nothing. I said goodbye to a few people and left the meeting with my $91.68 and a donut for the road. It was 8:45 am. It was the last time I stepped foot in a restaurant as an employee.
I'm one of the lucky ones. My teaching job was just enough to get me through without a second income. Virtually all of the employees at the Dead Animal Steakhouse had to find work in the restaurant business. Some of them went to another local restaurant that closed a month later. There are millions of other people in this country who work in the restaurant industry. They are dehumanized and degraded for your convenience. They bear nonsensical corporate policies, hiring practices, and expectations. They see the worst of you on a nightly basis. They clean up after your children. They tolerate your abuse with a smile. They don't have health insurance. They may have more education than you do. They rely on your good graces to pay their bills. They don't spit in your food, even through they would like too. Remember that the next time you go out to eat. Your good time is someone else's livelihood.
The Today Show - On Wednesday, March 22nd, I will be on The Today Show somewhere between 9:00 – 9:30 AM. We’ll be discussing how you can get good service in a restaurant,...