Sunday, December 30, 2012

March of the Pens

The Elves Get Stabby

     The six-pack of wine rested on the mats at my feet. This half-sized wine case, so petite and easy to lift, had become a hurdle. It was over-zealously taped together, as though whoever had shipped it was a chronic tape-waster or simply took delight in envisioning a box monkey somewhere trying to wrestle this package free. Normally I would mount an efficient assault on such a mess, but this day was different.
     Somehow I hurt my lower back this week. This is in spite of a mellow schedule this holiday season, where I haven't had to do any doubles or banquet events, only a few extra shifts. Yet Wednesday I was lifting plates and felt an uncomfortable pressure in my back; By Friday the same motion produced a "Holy hot Chihuahua, that hurts!" Bending down was the worst, feeling like half a dozen miniature pitchfork-wielding elves were stabbing my lower back. Fortunately walking around was only minimally painful.

     Naturally, however, everything I had to get to in the wine room was low to the ground. At the end of the month, and end of the year in particular, the wine room is a ghost of itself, with the remaining cases lingering in bottom cubbies. It seemed like these survivors were either hiding or taunting me, like the mummy-taped six-pack of wine. Every time I reached down toward the small case to swipe at its wrappings with a butter knife, the pain shot back. Once I'd finally maneuvered it open, I had to try and get the bottles out. I lifted one bottle, ok, then the second, hmm, but by the third it was, oh hell no! I got down on my knees and set the bottles on a low shelf, then transported those bottles to their home cubby. A one-armed kangaroo could have handled this process about as quickly and efficiently.

     The boss man came in to help for a second, ripping open a couple cases of wine and throwing them into a cubby in no time. Meanwhile, I was dinking around, stuck with my one bottle, two bottle shuffle. Doh.

Loose Pens

     Every server knows the pen game. By the end of the day, half of those tawdry buggers will be in someone else's apron or purse; If not, it must have been a slow night. It is fully possible to walk in to work with ten black Bics, only to have them all vanish or curiously be replaced by some glittery clickers or others that are sporting some off-the-wall company logo.

     Last night, instead of a slow dwindle, my pens took more drastic measures to escape. My work apron has developed a giant hole in one of the pockets, so I had my kit and server book all stuffed into one side. Every other time I pulled out my server book, a pen came flipping out. I started feeling like I was pooping pens everywhere. They dropped in front of my tables, in the kitchen, in the bus station... I would gaze at them forlornly, knowing that the stabby elves awaited me if I tried to bend over to pick them up. So low, I admonished my writing implements. Running away while you know you can...

     A pen popped out onto the server station's floor, and I stared. It was one of my last pens left. I said to a coworker, "If you want to pick that up, it's yours." I would never ask them to get it for me. It was the way of the pen game- If they went to the effort of picking it up, it belonged to them. Nevertheless, I had the tiniest hope that this person might take pity and offer it back. But alas, the server picked it up and threw it in his pocket without hesitation and walked away. I sighed, thinking, Don't hate the player, hate the game. I would have done the same thing.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ghosts of Kitchens Past

     We are rapidly approaching the point of declaring our restaurant a disaster zone‒ At lunch, booze-fueled Christmas parties wreak havoc on eardrums, the bartenders (Another bloody mary?? I just made five!) and our carpets, strewn with the crumbs of bread-devouring hordes, and littered with scraps of wrapping paper and forgotten gift bags; Dinners are filled with awkward family reunions and staring out-of-towners who don't "dine" much. Soon I expect to find my fellow servers (or myself) hiding in a corner somewhere rocking gently and murmuring: "No we don't have white zin! No white zin!"
     I have a few things to be incredibly thankful for this season: We are NOT open Christmas eve or Christmas day this year (yay, doing a dance in my seat as I type); I haven't as yet had to work a double; And the fact we have the most awesome, efficient kitchen staff.

     Seriously, our cooks are restaurant ninjas. Night after night they crank out dishes that so rarely get sent back, I almost forget what it was like to work in a place where I had to cringe in fear every time I did my "two bites, two minutes" check back with tables. We are constantly complimented on Yelp and OT about our speedy service, which is largely thanks to them.

     Even better, we have little of the drama usually associated with FOH/BOH relations: No yelling, no insults, no imminent threats of thrown, sharp objects. Instead I get songs (reliving our inglorious past attempts at karaoke), smiles, and a maybe a grumpy-but-funny "What the fuck, how are you?" from the sous chef.

     In previous jobs I was not so fortunate. Here are some of my least favorite ghosts of kitchens past:


     Kitchen workers are not always happy with their lot in life, understandably, and with their relative level of income in particular. I used to work with a prep cook who was handsome and smart enough that, with better opportunities, he could have been in the movies, or cutting high-stakes business deals somewhere, not baking brownies and making whipped cream for minimum wage.

     This cook's anger was regularly visible in his glinting eyes, his huge biceps flexed and threatening. Any question was met with an immediate "no" in spite of it being our policy to agree to special requests. To one of the girls, sensitive about her looks, he would pull out his ears and make loud donkey noises. Dread and tears became the typical result of having to ask for a simple side of salad dressing.

     Once, I was chatting with the cooks about how I'd visited Palo Alto earlier that day. "Palo Alto?" Mr. Raging Testosterone asked me. In Spanish this translates to "tall stick"; He grabbed a huge meat mallet and slammed it with all his roid-enhanced strength on a countertop a foot away from me. I spent the rest of the night with my ears ringing (I never let him make me cry though. Asshole.)

     His aggressive use of stimulants ended up being his downfall. The cops busted him driving drunk and in possession of cocaine, and that was the last I saw of him. I felt the smallest twinge of sadness for him, as he did have a more charming side, evident when he was out dancing; But this sentiment didn't last long, as our kitchen was blissfully peaceful after his departure.


     I am still haunted to this day by the memory of a salad cook with large, empty eyes, and her broken record-like refrain: QUUUEEE? QUUUEEE?

     Peppers, a large corporate chain, had one constant frustration: the salad, fry and grill sides operated independently of one another, forcing servers to do a hokey-pokey juggle between them. On busy nights, getting all of a table's food to appear at the same time was a miracle.

     It was never sizzling fajitas or burgers that were our usual hang-ups however, but salads, a station worked at a turtle's pace by a resentful cook with big, frozen brown eyes. Simple questions or condiment requests were met with one response: "QUUEEE?" One time I was stiffed by a 6-top, who was livid that it took ten minutes to receive a side of guacamole for their fajitas. Management got tired of having to comp salad items for tables, and one day she disappeared.

Toast Wars

     At a mom-and-pop breakfast place, my first serving job, the unassuming side window where the toast came out became a battle ground every Sunday. I knew that the myriad of toast options was confusing and annoying to a kitchen much more concerned with omelet preparation; Unfortunately to our customers, toast wasn't nearly so unimportant, and they would loudly remind us of this at every opportunity. We would in turn, pressured by our tables, sit at the toast window begging for our damn English muffins and rye. A very meek, polite server was surprised once when a plate and its buttered, crunchy contents came flying at her, hitting her in the chest.

     One table of regulars showed me what they thought of the situation. Their five orders of toast came out as they were finishing their meal, in spite of me pleading with the kitchen and risking having plates thrown in my direction. As a reward they left a few pennies and dimes on the table, and a dollar bill stuffed into a syrup ramekin.

     All of these lovely experiences make me *heart* my current kitchen staff and their smiling faces so much.

     Have a wonderful holiday everyone!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

True American Horror Story

Yesterday's events have waylaid my usual tales of restaurant mayhem. I'll be back soon with your regularly scheduled programming.

     I was a happy kid. The misfit business would come later, but during grade school I was sociable and bright. I practically bobbed to school each day, excited for another story, recess, game of tetherball , or even spelling bee (I was competitive like that); another lunch time, where my friends and I would gross each other out by putting Cheetos in our milk, or potato chips in our PB&J. I couldn't think of a place I liked being at more, and felt safer.

     The news of what happened Friday in Connecticut leaves me with a huge, empty feeling of what the fuck? WTF would compel a suburbanite brat to rain a hail of bullets down on a bunch of five-year-olds? There is no level of trauma that could occur in a normal, middle class life to inspire this behavior. What, did his mommy tell him he had to find a job? Pull up his pants? Boo-motherfucking-hoo. And yet, whatever the motives were, this one person, one failed life, was able to rob an entire country of their sense of sanctuary.

     I remember the way my mom and my grade school teachers seemed like angels to me. I damn well was a teacher's pet, doing anything to receive a smile and exclamation of encouragement from them. Someone in an interview last night described Sandy Hook's principal as just such an angel; She went above and beyond for the kids, even on one school spirit day renting a full princess costume to welcome the kids to school. It's hard to conceive that the life of someone who gave a shit could be so easily taken by someone who clearly did not.

     In the midst of Friday night dinner service, the news of the tragedy was at the margins of my mind. My main recurring thought was "Ack! Another complicated coffee/tea order! Grr..."  Then I caught sight of my boss leading a little girl, no more than five, around the restaurant. Boss man, a Sylvester Stallone look-alike, was bent over, holding her hand, telling the people standing around, Make way for Kylie! as she carefully picked her way down a couple steps. I couldn't help but think that there was an extra tenderness in his voice, a heightened awareness of his role as protector. I felt myself blinking, fighting back tears, before I went back to preparing my tenth hot tea for the evening.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hope at the Host Stand, Plus More Reasons to Hate Yelp

      A glimmer of hope has appeared in the trouble surrounding the host stand of late. This week, for a change, the boss entrusted hosting duties to his teenaged kids. They calmly took all the business that streamed in, even those "pesky" walk-ins at. The mood of the staff was blissfully peaceful while we rocked the front-of-house.

     Yesterday's inventory was even less torturous than usual, in my newly perky mood. It helped that a couple of crotchety lunch regulars were seated outside the wine room door while I was finishing my counts; Their old man grumblings had me stifling giggles more than once.

     And there's the cheer of another kind bouncing around, of the more usual holiday variety. Last night the Christmas party season was kicked off right by the Lundershags, our most infamous of late-night regulars. Every year a group of our staff faithfully treks to their house for live music, a buffet of nibbles, an open bar, and a look at some over-the-top Christmas decorating that would put an OCD elf to shame. Ironically, we usually get stuck with late tables and don't make it to the party before midnight, only in time to hoover the buffet clean of some lukewarm fried things.

     I even won a prize! A shiny bag with a Santa Claus on it, with tissue paper poofing from the top, making me a giddy like a second grader. A bit of funny accompanied this present: We arrived late and snagged tickets for the drawing at the last second, not hearing any info about this year's prizes. A woman approached me afterwards and excitedly asked me what I got. I hadn't checked yet, knowing from previous years it was either an ornament or piece of Christmas-themed houseware, and I was more interested in procuring a bloody mary from the bartender first. No, she told me, she'd heard they were giving away a couple trips to Reno this year. What the waa? I passed my coat to my BF and immediately got to work digging through the tissue paper. There was a flat box inside. I unwrapped the box, a small crowd people standing around the bar watching with interest... it was a porcelain Santa dish and cheese knife. 

Yup, Yelp Definitely Sucks

     Have you heard the stories about Yelp manipulating reviews? Well, they are true. We chose not to advertise with Yelp, and my boss discovered the other day that we had more than 60 reviews, all five stars, filtered from our Yelp rating. We still have a four-star average, so this isn't particularly hurtful. Other businesses aren't so lucky.

     Yelp has its own Yelp- It's mostly elite Yelpers patting themselves on the back for being awesome uber-foodies, bringing the light of their singular experiences to the world. But there are also a few haunting stories like this:

Rhiannon M., Vancouver, BC
Yelp has ruined my life. Six months ago I had about 15 reviews, a couple were filtered, and most of them were 5 star reviews. In the middle of March this year, all of my positive reviews and one negative one were suddenly filtered. All that is left for the public to see is one negative review. Yelp erroneously states that this reviewer was the first to review me. This isn't true. There are filtered reviews from 18 months prior to that.
I have lost 50% of my clients. I am on the verge of bankruptcy and losing my home and my business. I have tried to contact Yelp and they don't respond. I've tried to delete my account, but Yelp seems to have taken control of my own right to do this. The are holding my domain name hostage. I can't change, or delete my address.
I have no idea what I am supposed to do to survive this economic cataclysm.
I bet this one will be filtered!

     For those of you who say, "Well, a business must suck to receive one star reviews;" I say, have you spent much time with the general public lately? You know those people who cut you off on the road, blab on their cellphones in the middle of a restaurant or let their dogs poop on your lawn? These are the same entitled asses who leave unwarranted Yelps.

     Mr. Everton is making good fodder of Yelp nozzle heads over at Yelpers Who Suck. There's a good video about Yelp extortion, a few funny retorts from business owners, a "Guide to Useless Yelpers," and, of course, reviews of the reviewers. One of my favorites is about a young woman who gave a place one star because they wouldn't let her eat ChexMix at her table. I recommend taking a look around the site, and passing along any ludicrous reviews you happen to find.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

An Unexpected Defense of a Big D

     I once had a boss whose personality was so over-the-top he seemed destined for Food Network stardom. He was a caricature of a Nor-Cal bro: Spiky bleach-blond hair, goatee, Dickies attire, gruff voice and flushed cheeks. I rarely saw him in the restaurant, but when he was there he made an impression. He'd pull up in his jeep, which was painted with flames, give an animated pep talk to the staff at line-up, then cruise the floor, wowing customers with his jovial antics. His cooking style was similarly flashy, comfort-food done with California flavor, with such eye-catching menu items as "Volcano Chicken," and the "Hunter's Creations," which featured exotic game meats like ostrich and alligator.

     When I saw him years later, slightly plumper and even more flushed, appear on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, I had to palm myself in the forehead. What had my hometown unleashed upon the world? 

     I've always been quick to roll my eyes when people ask me about my experience working at Johnny Garlic's, and the BF and I routinely refer to the Food Network gig as "Triple Douche." Yet recently I've had an odd change of heart. You've probably heard about the recent scathing reviews of the newly opened New York Times Square spot, Guy Fieri's American Kitchen and Grill, and the ensuing bashing that has occurred on blogs, opinion articles and social media. I should be gleeful but I'm more WTF? I'm finding the level of beat down to be unwarranted.

     As you can imagine with such a big personality at the helm, the server culture at Johnny Garlic's was one of peacocks; The website even today says "Now Hiring Super Stars." I'm not sure why the fuck they hired me, because I was extremely timid back then. I was wide-eyed with terror when, on one of my first nights of training, a star server began hooting and hollering, getting the whole restaurant's attention to announce a birthday; he cracked a few jokes and then led a loud sing-along. The manager nodded approvingly at all this: "[Rockstar] is the best. The customers love him." The circus act was the gold standard.

     Ironically, in spite of the emphasis on personality, the training was the strictest I've encountered in the business. Even at the truly fancy-pants restaurant that I recently subbed at, my training was only fractionally as arduous. Johnny Garlic's required two weeks training on the floor, with an additional week for me since I was such a newbie  (this was 12 years ago), and a three-hour long menu test. I was hovered over so closely that I began to feel like I would be graded on stepping two inches in the wrong direction. Considering my huge insecurities at the time, being constantly made to feel inferior never gave me the confidence to fly.

     I quit when I was told I had to give up brunch shifts at my other job to attend JG's staff meetings. I'd already lost so much money going through the training process that this was the last straw. I was tired of not fitting in and feeling like a crap server every time I stepped through the door.

     So, while Guy Fieri appears to the world as a cartoon character, I had the opportunity to see what a stone-cold perfectionist he truly is. Harsh as it was at the time, I've come to appreciate the training I went through, and even the tough love. Was it stupid I got sent home once for wearing white socks? Maybe, but I've never not worn a black pair to work since. Guy expected absolutely everyone around him to give 120% effort.

     I know, New York foodies, that the "Bro Kitchen" style offends you. And I know too, that some of his fanciful creations don't always work‒ I remember one line-up where we sampled the alligator sausage Hunter's special; All of us save one, in unison, spit it out into the trash (fishy AND gamey, shudder). But on the whole, the creative twist on meat-and-potatoes worked with our customers, as the continuing popularity of JG attests. When this style of food became the focus of Food Network's programming, I wasn't surprised to see someone like Guy Fieri chosen to be its mascot.

     By the morose, melodramatic tone of the NY Times review, you'd think that Guy Fieri was the harbinger of the End of Days. I also read another review where the writer went on a long diatribe about the obesity epidemic, America's poor food choices and blah blah blah. I hate to tell you guys, but cutting the head off this beast will not stop it. Also, it's not like Guy opened this Hard Rock Cafe-style concept in a trendy neighborhood‒He is keeping it contained to Times Square, to be trafficked by the tourist masses. Taking this place seriously is like trying to review Sponge Bob Squarepants as an art house drama.

     I yawn at you, New York Times, for missing the point. I'm annoyed at 'Merica too sometimes, and I enjoy a cheap shot in its general direction like any college-educated liberal foodie, but Guy Fieri is not the root of all evil that you claim. Unfortunately, I know that underneath all those obnoxious layers of bro, Guy is a hard-working and crafty business person who has earned his success.

Washington Post review: "It's not that bad, actually"

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Beautiful Myth

     "Oh Natasha," breathes a male customer wistfully from time to time. "Do you remember her?"

     With a twinkle in their eye, the old geezer will reminisce about how years ago, our bar was ruled by an Amazonian princess.

     I've only caught glimpses of Natasha myself, as whenever she comes in she's usually surrounded by her model friends‒ all freakishly tall, their stick-like figures draped in odd clothing. Natasha, the star of the show, does the rounds, saying her hellos to former coworkers. Sometimes her group will stay to eat, ordering just water and salads, of course, and maybe a little wine.

     Our customers' occasional longing comments are harmless enough, rolling off my back, in spite of the fact that I know none of them will ever speak of me in such hallowed terms. Not until last Saturday did I hear something that made my ears burn.

     I was already having a not-fun evening. I'd been passed up for the first six-top to come in and wasn't sat with a table for more than an hour. The boss' son was at the host stand with the hostess and came to the back to ask me: "Why won't she let me seat you?" I just shook my head at him, morose, biding my time, thinking about how to set a trap for someone traversing the kitchen in heels.

     Later, when I finally had some tables and my feelings of frustrations were starting to ebb, a customer asked me:  "Is Natasha working tonight?"

     This guy was the head of a six-top and was two-cocktails chatty. I was pouring wine for his table, and said that no, she wasn't working, and hadn't for many years (like, seven or eight). His friend on the opposite end of the table leaned in, "Oh, she left a long time ago, got married and everything. She does commercials and modeling now for a cosmetics company."

     "Is that right?" first guy said.

     "Yeah, it's so strange," the friend continued to gush with his privileged information. "I don't even know why she ever worked here. Why would she need to? Maybe she was a friend of [boss man]"

     Soooo, let me get this straight, I thought to myself. The reason why a gorgeous girl would ever work a job "beneath her" would be as a favor to the owner of a restaurant?

     ....Not for money, or because bartending can be a fun job for outgoing people?

     I'm standing right here!

     I came close to saying something about how our restaurant is a great place to work, but chose to disappear instead.

     Incidentally the guy who made this statement had previously ordered a drink at the bar, while waiting for his party to arrive, by jamming his finger in the bartender's face. The gesture had been rude enough for my bartender to forewarn me about him.

     I guess not everyone appreciates having to pay bills. Serving and bartending jobs in my area pay about three times as much hourly as entry-level college positions do, which is why I got stuck back in restaurant work to begin with. It's about paying bills, yo. Even beautiful people have to pay rent.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


     I didn't think this election would matter much to me, as I've become disenfranchised by our two-party system. Blah, blah, corporate interests A vs. corporate interests B, now choose the lesser of two evils. Woot. I haven't, as a result, done much research on the issues this election season.

     Yet all these bloggers with their logic and passion, the sight of lines outside of polling stations, the memory of when I was a Polysci student who gave a shit and worked the polls (not those kind, sickos)... Today I'm feeling pretty damn guilty- Past all the presidential drama exists a simple, important issue: the act of voting. We can't take for granted that we have the right to vote in this country. If more people voted things could possibly change. And if people actually followed politics and researched issues, well, things really could change. I can't give up because things have gotten so dumbed down.

     I promise to do my homework next election, I swear. No more whining.

Not-so-secretly a monster

If you dislike Ann Coulter as much as I do, and if you watch the show Grimm, you might enjoy this comic I made for Ramble:
Beware the Ann Coulterbiest

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Menu Reading for Dummies

   A quick guide from your not-so-helpful server

     Avoiding problems is my number one priority. In no way do I enjoy seeing a customer's hand suddenly thrust in the air, their behind hovering over their seat in their impatience, like the classroom teacher's pet during quiz time. Nor do I appreciate approaching a table while I'm carrying a heavy stack of plates, a drizzle of olive oil slowly running down my forearm, and having to listen to a "my night is now ruined!" story.

     When a dish arrives incorrectly because of a kitchen or service error, well, that's our bad: "Let me just stick these plates on my head and I'll get your dish fixed." But a more sinister possibility exists The customer didn't bother to read their menu. In these instances of blatant negligence, I may be tempted to drop my stack of plates on the customer's head.
     Tip #1:  A menu will typically have large words in bold, followed by smaller type. Those are titles, used to denote categories of food. "Pasta," for example, will mean the dishes listed will contain glutinous, flour-based concoctions. This is important to remember in an Italian restaurant; If lamb shank is listed as an ingredient for an item in the pasta section, it will be pasta with lamb, and not the other way around.

     Tip #2:  If it seems too good to be true it probably is. If something costs half the going rate of other items on the menu, it's likely to be a smaller plate (this is assuming the guest has ignored the "appetizer" heading). Or, when the lamb pasta costs 10 bucks less than the lamb entree, it is again another clue that the dish is more pasta than meat (I can't begin to count how many people order that damn pasta thinking they've just gotten the best deal on the menu.)

     Tip #3:  Know restaurant "types." Is the place down-home style, with a bunch of fluffy, middle-aged people chugging diet cokes and eating fries? Or a trendy spot with suits and designer dresses slurping down oysters? This gives huge insight to the menu when a customer decides to skip reading the ingredients. In the first scenario, a burger will likely come dressed the old-fashioned way, with lettuce, tomato, mayo, etc. In the second case, one can expect the cow patty to be topped with something sautéed, a stinky cheese, and possibly served on brioche with an herb-spiked aioli.

     Tip #4:  Have a sense of adventure. Dining out is not an Indian Jones' movie; No poison darts will fly from the wall, or trapdoors suddenly open beneath anyone's chair if they order wrong. If the restaurant is busy, chances are the unexpected item will be good. Trying something new is fun, and the reason many people go out to begin with.

     Tip #5:  Don't ask the server, "What do you like?" Nine times out of ten the answer is disingenuous because a) all the food started tasting the same to server years ago b) the server spent the afternoon doing Yoga and making pumpkin granola and not eating ravioli in cream sauce  c) the server has heard that question too many times to make more than a standard effort. A better question, is "between these two dishes, what would you recommend?"  

     Tip #6:  If a customer is allergic to anything commonly used in restaurant food (onions, garlic, wine, citrus) they need to stay home tell the server! This is important, because most of our sauces contain at least trace amounts of these ingredients.  On the flip side of this, the fastest way to piss off the server is to cry wolf about an allergy. For example: a customer doesn't want garlic because they are avoiding scaring away their date with dragon breath, or they are on the gluten-free diet bandwagon because a friend told them they "might" have an allergy to gluten. When the term allergy is used falsely, the multi-step procedures we have in place hand-typed instructions, a conversation with the kitchen, separate sauce preparations and panshas been an exercise in futility. Customers who pull this kind of garbage on a busy Friday night are self-centered asshats.

     Tip #7:  Finally, don't forget to have fun! This is a bit of a repeat of tip 4, but I can't emphasize it enough. Customers who ask good questions and are open to new experiences have more fun and make the server's job more enjoyable too!