Chapter 8: Putting the “School” Back in Restaurants

Sitting down in room 208A of the Los Angeles Convention Center, I could tell this was going to be different than the last Restaurant I worked at.

I had been a waiter at one joint for over five years.  Crazy, right?  I survived two owners, seventeen managers, and countless co-workers as I watched the place more or less fall apart.  I had the luxury of time in crafting my complaints about how the place was run.  At no point was my input ever called upon for how to improve the place, and my unsolicited advice was simply ignored.

As I have mentioned earlier, all I was looking for in a place of employment was flexibility for my Acting pursuits.  So perhaps the flaws of the Restaurant were actually it’s saving grace.  Things were so poorly run that it was hard for me to look bad.  I’d show up one day and tell them I was leaving on Tuesday for two months, expecting them to be furious.  But given the fact that our employee attrition rate could rival The Apprentice, that was not particularly startling news for management.  And upon my return, I could expect immediate full-time employment.  Sure, it may take a few days, but eventually someone would either get canned or walk out the door and I would take over their shifts.

I lasted as long as I did for one simple reason: the phone.

Now I’m not talking about sneaking out to the back to talk on my mobile.  I’m talking about the phones in the front of the restaurant.  There was an actual position that was devoted to this piece of equipment: the Hostess.  I know it’s sexist to assume that the position would be filled by a female, but my choice of word reflects the actual hiring tendencies of the owner, George.  Not a hostess would be hired without a sit-down interview with him.

Requirements for the job?  Hmm.  Most would guess personable, good communication skills, ability to multitask.  However the skills that I found to be consistently present in our hostesses were: foreign, suggestively dressed, copious amounts of makeup.

The day came when George turned this hiring policy into a mockery.  Her name was Natasha and she didn’t speak a single word of English.  NO.  No.  That’s not fair, I’m being a jerk.  She in fact did know several words.

“Hi!”

That jovial greeting that people got upon walking in the door seemed customer-friendly, but something was off.  The mirth seemed to be derived from her own amazement that she knew a word in English, and not from the thrill of an incoming Table of Four.

As of late I had been getting roped into delivery and take out orders on the phone because the English of most of our hostesses was so bad.  Even if English is your native language it can be difficult, as the people ordering delivery don’t tend to be trained in the art of rhetoric (or speech for that matter).  To top that off the restaurant is usually pretty noisy, and our delivery menus didn’t even match our dining room menus (this was not in any way on purpose).

Usually at the very least we could count on hostesses to be able to seat people.  But with the new addition of Natasha, I was actually being told by the manager to seat people so she wouldn’t scare people away.  The final straw came when the owner told me to get the phone.  I was pretty used to having orders barked at me, but this time George was sitting at a nearby table, hitting on the very hostess whose job description included “answering the phones”. 

It was this moment that I channeled Bucci.  I dropped the “go fuck ya’self” portion of it, and simply said “this is not my job George” as I picked up the receiver.  I took the order, placed it in the computer, and went about my business.  I waited until George was no longer with Natasha (or any other attractive female…challenging his authority in such company was grounds for termination).  I told him that after months of helping out I would no longer be answering phones or seating customers unless the hostess and manager were both busy.  I assured him that I was a team player, but I could no longer let my customers suffer because we had hired people that were not able to do their job.  This wasn’t fair.  I wasn’t sure how he would react to this, but it went over pretty well.  George knows the restaurant business very well, and any missteps generally come from his love of women and/or love of yelling at people.  But he could see that I was trying to put my customers first.

The “hostess problem” was never actually solved, but precedent was set that I would not be answering the phone anymore.  This really paved the way for my being treated like a human being.  I started to understand why Bucci sat me down all those years before.  No one was going to give me my (state required) break, so I was going to have to demand it.  Every time.  Had I not put my foot down, I could have eventually been managing the place but only receiving a waiter’s salary, which is about half of minimum wage.  I saw it happen to other people.  But Bucci taught me well, and I drew a line in the sand.  As Walter Sobczak from The Big Lebowski would say, “across this line, you do not…also dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature, Asian-American, please.”  Wait.  That didn’t really make sense.

The hardest thing about putting my foot down was seeing everyone else get walked all over.  I tried to have my Bucci-talks with people, but I guess I’m just not as effective.  It’s for this reason that I had always been pro-Union.  Rather than me having to fight for a break every time I worked, I could be a part of an organization that would make sure the management was prioritizing my (state required) break.  How nice is that?  I would be treated like a human being without having to break out my Bronx accent.

But until I walked into Room 208A of the Los Angeles Convention Center I had never considered the “Corporate” factor.

Corporate.

What a word that is.  College students hate it.  Mom and Pop shops fear it.  But on this November day, Jesse was embracing it.

With each click of the Power Point Slide Show I fell more and more in love with Corporate America.  It was as though they read the handbook I wrote on how to create a healthy work environment.  Let’s start off with a simple one: Gossip.  Written in plain legal terms on Power Point Slide 62 was the no-nonsense policy.  You don’t gossip about each other.  You don’t gossip about customers.  It’s not appropriate for anyone to do.  Even if two people think it’s fine, it’s not acceptable as other people may be in earshot.

I had a flashback of something George said to me while furiously munching on a mouthful of Scallops drenched in Hollandaise sauce.  “This girl at the table over there, she is Lesbian.”

What place does that have in the work environment?!  Now I’m not complaining, in fact my favorite part of work was the crazy things that would come out of the mouths of the kooky cast of characters working or eating at the restaurant.  But ultimately that’s not helping things when it comes to the overall morale of the staff.

Click.  Slide 63.

As each equally anal policy appeared on the screen, I started to fantasize about the life I could be living in the Corporate World.  Sure it’s not some sort of magical place filled with Rainbows or Unicorns, but a policy exists should a Rainbow or Unicorn appear.  The organization of it all was too much to bear; I was about to explode with delight.  I didn’t mind that I was in a painfully banal conference room.  The fact that we all had to stand up and say what our favorite food was did not bother me like it should.  I said “pancakes”, and had a difficult time pushing my chair back along the carpet so I could stand up just like everyone else.  We were all awkward and uncomfortable together, and we all gave each other the forced chuckle we hoped we would receive for our own favorite food (haha, Shrimp Scampi, it sure is delicious, Todd).  We had nametags on.  And we had to wait in line to get the nametags.  Asking each other’s names would be too ambiguous, so the nametag policy was instated.  Oh this wonderful world!

Who needs Unions when you have Corporations?  Sure, they may screw you in the end with face-less layoffs, but at least you have Kelli in HR to call in the mean time.

The phone rang while I was on the lunch break I didn’t have to ask for.  As I answered it, I experienced my first earthquake upon moving to California.

Metaphorically.

I then checked my messages and had a new voicemail.  Just then, another earthquake occurred, equal on the Richter Scale.

Metaphorically.

I called the next morning and told the manager Geoff that I wouldn’t be reporting for training.  It was a painless call, given their “at will” employment policy that didn’t require me to explain why I was quitting.

What was the siren that led me astray?  In fact it was not one, but two part-time corporate jobs.  Perhaps I just wanted to be involved in as many Corporations as possible.  One job was tutoring.  The other is hard to describe without a real life example:

A customer approaches me with a twenty dollar bill.

They hand it to me.

I take it.

I look at them.

They look at me.

I say:

“Regular Unleaded, Middle Grade, or Premium?”

They respond. 

I fill ‘em up.

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