I will be offline until later in the week. As I hit the highway south, enjoy this post from someone to whom I am most beholden, and who is almost ready to admit he is as addicted to the restaurant biz as I am–if he would only give up that pesky day job!
My thanks to you, my friend.
A Walk in Their Shoes
Picture yourself thrust into someone else’s job—one you’ve seen others do hundreds of times before. It looks easy enough. In fact, you think that anyone could do that job. Until it is unexpectedly thrust upon you, and you quickly realize that job is more like the “highly skilled” professions with which you are familiar—requiring finley honed skills, plenty of training and thinking-on-your-feet experience.
For reference, I am a baby-boomer professional who has never garnered one paycheck from the hospitality industry. I got my teenage pay toting golf bags over hill and across dale. I have a dear friend, however, who is a highly successful restaurateur in my city, and he has infected me with a bit of his passion for the business.
Several years ago, the promoters of a regional festival approached him about providing food service. I am convinced they were thinking of a kiosk of some kind. My friend, however, submitted a proposal for a full-service, sit-down restaurant. A restaurant to be open for just two weeks, with 150 seats, a bar, and a temporary kitchen with no running water. The promoters loved it.
So, every year for the past few years, a team of designers, architects, contractors, investors, restaurant managers and my restaurateur build a restaurant from scratch, serve 500 or so three-course lunches each day for a couple of weeks, and tear it all down.
This year happened to be the first year that I could be in town for this “Brigadoon” restaurant’s opening, and I stopped by to wish my friend well. The back of the house staff seemed relatively calm, but the front of the house clearly was on edge. The restaurant, on the other hand, was stunning; there was no way you could tell construction had been completed only hours before, at 2:00 a.m. No soft openings for his place; not even any chance for staff training beyond a 10-minute pre-service meeting. In racing parlance, this was a Formula One standing start – zero to 300 kph in just a few seconds.
At 10:45 a.m., the entrance to the restaurant was packed with guests. At 11:00 a.m., the maitre d’ began seating guests. At 11:02 a.m., I saw that no one was taking care of bread service. I told the kitchen manager working the pass that I would take care of it.
Tray of bread in the oven, check. More ready to go in; check. Butter ready, check. Cutting board and bread knife, check. Baskets, um….
“Anyone know what he wants to serve bread in?”
“Yeah, there are baskets here somewhere.”
Several frantic moments later, I found the stash of baskets. Bread tongs, check. Remove UPC code stickers from tongs, check. For the next several minutes, I was happily doing simple work. Slice bread, line basket with napkin, load basket, cover, give to servers, fire more bread, repeat.
At 11:15 a.m., every restaurant seat was taken — by 150 hungry guests with high expectations. The front of the house was already so far in the weeds they could not see where the thicket stopped and the rest of the service began. Absolutely no one knew how to use the POS system. Sure, tickets were printing in the kitchen as fast as the printer would run, but that wasn’t a good thing. Appetizers and main courses were being fired all on the same ticket. Two, three or four tickets were printing out for the same table. Sometimes it was multiple copies of the same ticket; sometimes it was one guest per ticket.
Each server somehow figured out his or her individual way to make the POS accept an order. The trouble was, not one of those ways was consistent, or was presented in a way the kitchen could deal with the order.
And the kitchen manager wants to scream, “STOP!”
But he can’t. Because this suddenly-sprouted restaurant is open, filled to capacity, and guests need to served. So, my restaurateur friend and the manager from his permanent restaurant ventured forth to conduct one-on-one, on-the-job, real-time POS training. Timing is everything.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, sense was starting to be made of the first crush of tickets; some awere discarded, some were taped together, others were torn in two. It was creative, anyway you look at it.
Food began hitting the pass but there were no servers to be found in the kitchen. They were all hacking away at the weeds and simply could not find the kitchen door. The kitchen manager working the pass looked a look at me. Me? So I shrugged and slipped on an apron.
And I was suddenly terrified.
I am very comfortable in kitchens, even restaurant kitchens, even one as crazy as this one. But I have never, not once, ever, served food to a guest in a restaurant setting. Oh, I know how to be a guest, and I know what I expect of a server down to the smallest detail, but I have no real idea how to DO any of those things.
So, appetizers, table 5, party of three. Do I know how to carry three plates without getting my fingerprints all over them? Maybe. But can I? Without dropping one or more of them? Without bumping into another server? Without sloshing the sauce all over the plate–or a guest?
And just where the heck is table 5? This ticket is rung with seat numbers, but where is seat 1? A little voice tells me that I won’t find seat 1 until after I have managed to find table 5. Off I went, through the swinging door, into a world I have experienced only from the other side.
“Psst, where is table 5?” I asked one of the other servers. He was clueless. “What do you mean you don’t know?” I asked him. “ It’s your table; your name is on the ticket.” Never mind.
But then I realized something else — the table numbers have been camouflaged to look like part of the beautiful centerpieces. Brilliant! They are so beautiful, in fact, that the guests love them. They love them so much, they have been passing them around between the tables. Some of the centerpieces have lost one or more table-number digits. Most have been turned so you cannot see the hidden numbers from the aisle. As for seat numbers? What seat numbers?
I now know there is a special place in heaven for those guests who cleared tables while I cleaned golf balls, who remembered enough from those days to realize what was hidden in the centerpieces. “Table 5,” whispered one such guest, as I stopped and stared at his table’s decoration.
Oh, Table 5! Hey, I found it!
I smiled at the guests, and they smiled in return. I tried not to auction the food; really I did. But when the big man with the red wine has the cold soup, and the lady with the white wine has the salad with meat, and the diners are not seated in seat 1, 2, 3 order, it is almost impossible to get the food down correctly. And I didn’t.
On the way back to the kitchen, I noticed diners at two tables who had eaten their bread. I made a quick trip to a basket and served them. Back in the kitchen, there was ever more food to be run. Over on a makeshift prep table, my restaurateur friend was hand drawing a table map.
And so it went for three hours (for me at least). Run plates, serve bread, buss tables, smile, engage guests, smile some more. Service got smoother, eventually. One server needed further POS training because he somehow sent a fire ticket for main courses to the kitchen each time he attempted to close a check. And so it went, on and on.
The weather was glorious that day. The guests were all in festive moods. The food met everyone’s expectations. A few people waited a bit longer than they should have, but they didn’t care. They were in a fantasy land, after all, just few minutes from home.
Of course, not one guest had a clue of the sweat and tears that went into his or her lunch that day–or how close that quick-start restaurant skated to the edge those opening few hours.
I left with renewed respect for my friend and his team of professionals. And I conquered two fears that day–one, working the front of the house, and two, that the nightmare will recur.
Not on this server’s watch!