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.